JVP, JQY, and the Weaponization of Vulnerability

This was originally posted on Jewschool.

Five years ago, I wrote a piece about the striking contrast of my childhood friend, Mordechai Levovitz, participating with JQY in the NY Celebrate Israel parade, while I was leading a JVP-sponsored BDS education event in LA. This year, like everything else political, our dispute of noble motivation seems to have been turned up.

On the Occasion of the 2017 Celebrate Israel parade, JVP organized half a dozen protest actions, but the one that has generated the most controversy was the action that targeted the LGBT cluster that Mordechai and JQY were marching with this year. This action led to a series of increasingly vociferous statements that culminated in a cacophony of progressive in-fighting. Over the past few days, I’ve been talking to a number of the players in this saga to get a clearer idea of what happened. What I’m going to do here is lay out the chronology of events and then offer some reflection and analysis.

The story begins with an open Facebook invitation:

"Come out and celebrate Israel with JQY, Eshel, and Keshet Teens at Mosaic of Westchester on June 4th!"

Five JVP members responded to this call and marched undercover with the LGBT cluster for about an hour until it reached 73rd St. At this point, the JVP members took off their cluster-provided T-shirts to reveal red protest T-shirts, disconnected the sound system, held up signs, linked arms across the street, and blocked the progression of the parade. Craig Willse, was one of the protestors: “We were a group of queer and trans activists. Because LGBT issues have been used by Israel to distract from its daily violations of the human rights of Palestinians, we felt it was essential that we voice a message of queer and trans solidarity with the struggle for justice in Palestine. Our goal was to bring the entire parade to a halt, because occupation and apartheid are nothing to celebrate.”

According to Hannah Simpson, a JQY volunteer who was marching with the cluster and in charge of the sound system, the protest started “peaceful if threatening”. When I asked her to clarify what she meant by threatening, Hannah said “If they had moved away as asked it would have been one thing…” Craig and the other protestors didn’t move and some of the LGBT cluster decided to march through them as Hannah called the police over. In Craig’s words: “When we initiated our protest, we were able to take advantage of a gap between contingents and bring the parade to a halt with a safe distance between the marchers and ourselves. Unfortunately, the contingent organizers decided to rush us and push their way through.” Craig and the other protestors sat down as NYPD officers poured into the street and arrested them. The event itself according to everyone I spoke to lasted no more than a couple of minutes.

That evening, Mordechai reached out to JVP. He sent an email to Elena Stein who was one of the local JVP organizers in charge of the protest. Here is what the email said:

"Hi Elena,

Today our lgbtq Jewish Teen Drop-In program was targeted for an action. While I am a fan of non violent resistance and protest, targeting the most vulnerable group in the parade (lgbtq teens marching in a predominantly orthodox crowd) is unreasonable and cruel. It took so much courage for these kids to raise a rainbow flag and be themselves in front of their community. They were already scared, add to that the vigilance from last night’s Terror in London…and then to feel infiltrated, our speakers attacked, blocked , shocked and yelled at, in front of the very people that they were looking for acceptance from. This is a cruelty that is beyond resistance. Actions should never be targeted against vulnerable populations…it’s cowardice and wrong. Please connect me with someone from JVP. I share a lot of your political points of view, but can not understand for the life of me why you would target lgbtq people in this context. Dossapointed[sic], confused, and frankly…still a little shaken.

Mordechai Levovitz LMSW
Executive Director, JQY"

When I contacted Elena, she confirmed that she had received the email, but explained that she had been “working on jail-support Sunday overnight and saw the email Monday afternoon.”

Shortly after Mordechai sent this email, he reached out to another JVP member by the name of Seth Morrison on Facebook. Seth is a JVP board member who lives in Las Vegas. The Facebook conversation moved to a phone call the details of which are in dispute. Mordechai claims that he approached Seth with an offer to craft a joint JQY-JVP statement about the incident. When I contacted Seth he didn’t remember the conversation that way. “I don’t think he was requesting that. I did not understand that from what he asked. He was asking for an apology on behalf of JVP. I told him I would check with the leadership.” Seth called Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, but according to Vilkomerson, he didn’t mention anything about Mordechai, or his organization. “I heard [from Seth] that people were expressing concerns, but nothing about anyone reaching out about an org.” Seth called Mordechai back to tell him that the answer was no. The conversation apparently got heated at this point. This is how Mordechai described it to me: “I have spoken to so many people that I have disagreed with, including members of Hamas and former violent terrorists, homophobic rabbis, and neo-Nazis. I have NEVER felt as dehumanized as I felt in that phone call. It was chilling.” I asked Seth whether he had dressed Mordechai down. “You mean did I yell at him? No. Not at all. I could tell that he was upset, but that never happened.”

On Monday, the Jewish press pounced on JVP. Two pieces came out that day. Tablet ran a piece by Rachel Delia Benaim which quoted Rebecca Vilkomerson as having said that the LGBT cluster was a “carefully chosen target.” Mordechai was quoted in the article calling the action by JVP “a hate crime”. The Vilkomerson quote was repeated in a piece by Simone Somekh that ran in the Forward. Mordechai was quoted in the latter piece as saying “This was a planned action against the LGBT participants. That’s homophobia…If any right wing organization admitted to targeting LGBTQ people, we would call them a hate group.”

Shortly after these pieces came out, Elena Stein read the email that Mordechai had written Sunday night. “I was surprised and saddened by it, and needed to think about it before immediately responding. By Tuesday morning, I was seeing his quotes about JVP in press pieces so it seemed his desire for private conversation had passed. In retrospect, I should have forwarded that email to JVP leadership right away so they could have been in touch with one another.” That, of course, never happened and the rhetoric only got hotter.

On Tuesday, the Forward ran an OpEd by Jay Michaelson in which he accused JVP of three specific harms: Delegitimizing queer people in the eyes of their religious and ethnic communities, creating an unsafe space for first-time marchers, and homophobia, because JVP is not officially a queer organization and they targeted queer people. This was quickly followed up by Mordechai’s JQY statement which claimed that the JVP action was violent, censorious, cowardly, antisemitic, and homophobic.

On Wednesday, The Forward ran an OpEd by Rabbi Alissa Wise, the deputy director of JVP. At the time she wrote this OpEd, neither Wise nor anyone at JVP other than Seth Morrison and Elena Stein were aware of Mordechai’s attempts to reach out. She called the rhetoric “hyperbolic” and focused on debunking the charge that the action intentionally targeted JQY. Shortly thereafter, Truthout ran an OpEd by Craig Willse in which he gave an elaborate defense of the action.  On Thursday,  IfNotNow who had engaged in their own JVP-supported direct action at a different spot in the parade released a statement which, while roundly rejecting the rhetoric employed by Michaelson and Levovitz, did include some explicit words of empathy for JQY. Finally, on Friday, the Forward published Mordechai’s own OpEd in the Forward, in which he asked for the Jewish community to protect JQY from JVP.

I think it’s clear that mistakes were made on both sides, but we need to cut through some of the rhetoric to get to the crux of what went wrong here. JVP is perhaps the most hated organization in the American Jewish community. If you watch their video of the parade disruptions (linked below), you can see this. Attendees of the parade were encouraging the police to pepper spray the protestors after the arrests and the tone both on social media and in the Jewish press positively dripped with politically-motivated animus.

Michaelson’s op-ed was a case in point. The objection that this action delegitimized gay Jews to the Jewish community and that it therefore constitutes a harm is poor ethical reasoning. If the Jewish community can’t comprehend both that some queer Jews have JVP-aligned politics and that all queer Jews need to be treated with respect, that’s a problem with the Jewish community, not vocal JVP-aligned queer Jews. As for his claim that this action was an “act of violence against the most vulnerable in our queer community” — I’ve spoken to half a dozen people who were there on both sides and I have yet to hear or see any evidence that this was anything other than a non-violent direct action. It seems to have gotten a little physical for a few seconds when the cluster participants chose to march through the protestors, but that’s it. His third claim that JVP is not a queer organization and so the action constituted an attack of a straight organization against queer people is belied by the fact that the action was both designed and carried out by queer Jews.

Mordechai’s statements were even more inaccurate and hyperbolic. In the wake of his remarkable yet failed attempts to reach out to JVP, he went nuclear. JVP’s direct action was not a hate crime and it was not homophobic, let alone antisemitic. Not by any normal definition of the words that I’m familiar with. Moreover, the idea that participating in the Celebrate Israel parade doesn’t signal support for the State of Israel is disingenuous. It is true that Mordechai is not a Zionist and that for him, JQY’s participation in the celebrate Israel parade is not about supporting the State of Israel. It is further true that participation in the celebrate Israel parade means a lot more than just support for the State of Israel, especially for JQY. But it’s equally true that the Celebrate Israel parade has an objective political meaning in the world. One that was reflected in the language of the original Facebook invitation: “Come out and celebrate Israel…” The Israel in that sentence is not the religious concept of Zion that Mordechai celebrates. It’s the State of Israel that was founded in 1948 at the expense of the Palestinian people.

But Mordechai was hurt. He felt triggered by what he interpreted as bullying tactics and a refusal to communicate. And he lashed out using rhetoric that he knew would land with the JVP people whom he thought were ignoring him. And while the insults did indeed land, they also pushed JVP, who now felt under attack, to harden their position and dismiss his criticism.

Having said all this, I still believe that this direct action, while not homophobic, antisemitic, violent, or a hate crime, was indeed unethical. JQY is a place where some of the most vulnerable people in the Jewish community come for safe harbor. These are Orthodox Jewish teens and young adults who are ostracized from their communities and families. This fact and the experiences that come with it increases the ethical burden on anyone seeking to protest something that JQY participates in. The deceptive tactics that the protestors chose were scary and had a chilling effect on the JQY volunteers. When I asked how the disruption made Hannah Simpson feel, she told me: “I had a lot of feelings all at once. But the scariest thing was that going forward, I would always be looking twice at a new face. We now have to be more cognizant of who is present and that’s terrifying.”

I further believe that JVP should have been able to see past the attacks and hyperbole to the ethical heart of the matter and spared a few words of empathy. When I asked Rebecca Vilkomerson whether there was any merit to the torrent of criticism, she said “The only merit I feel is we’ve learned about a community we didn’t know much about. I feel eager to have conversations with them going forward.”

Well, I wish you could have met under better circumstances, but Rebecca, meet my friend Mordechai. Mordechai, meet my friend Rebecca. I suspect you guys have a lot to talk about.

The Fallacy of Limited Compassion

This was originally posted at Jewschool.

When news hit that three Israeli teenagers had gone missing in the West Bank, the response from the Jewish world was immediate and intense. The assumption that Eyal Yiftach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel were kidnapped by Palestinians seems now to have been confirmed, but the details are sparse and the story is still developing. The abduction of children is an inexcusable offense. There is no moral justification for such an act. I am not writing to give excuses for this crime and I sincerely hope that these boys are found and returned to their families safely. But I do think that it’s instructive and important to take a step back and examine our responses to such tragedies.

A few short weeks ago, we learned that two Palestinian teenagers, Nadem Syam Nawara and Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh were shot and killed by the IDF during a protest. Despite the fact that there were three angles of video footage, independent eyewitness testimony, and hospital reports, my Facebook Wall filled with comments from Jewish friends insisting that we don’t know what really happened. For all we know, they argued, Nawara and Odeh might have been killed by Palestinians in an effort to make the IDF look bad. Some went as far as to claim that the boys might still be alive. Why is it that with far less information, none of my Jewish friends are spinning fantastic theories around the kidnapping of Yiftach, Shaar, and Frenkel? 

The reason, I think, is that we are burdened with ethnic blinders that impose artificial limits on our capacity for compassion. But isn’t it normal to care more about our own? Isn’t that just human? Of course it’s normal. There’s nothing unusual about caring more for our own. But when caring for those closest to us is twisted into an active neglect of the suffering of others, we lose some of our humanity in the process. Compassion is not a zero-sum game. It’s not a limited resource. Caring deeply about our family, co-religionists, and compatriots doesn’t have to mean ignoring the suffering of people from other families, religions, and nationalities. This, in a nutshell, is the bedrock conceptual error of political Zionism. Contrary to what Ari Shavit might have you believe, there is no logical reason why the establishment of a homeland for Jews in historic Palestine had to involve the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. To be sure, the Zionists in power at the time believed that it did, but this came from an ethnonationalist, settler-colonial ideology, not from logical or empirical necessity. And the legacy of this ideology is the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So how do we fix it? How do we interrupt the cycle of violence and suffering? As the old civil rights adage goes, the opposite of slavery is not freedom, but community. To end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to build a new kind of community. A community where the suffering of the Odeh and Nawara families are not met with knee-jerk suspicion and hostility, but with compassion. A community where we hear the blood of our Palestinian brothers and sisters screaming out to us from the ground. A community where the kidnapping of any child, whether by the IDF or by Palestinian militias, is unacceptable. A community that works together across the ethnic divide to fight oppression and sees in tragedy an opportunity not for further ethnic entrenchment, but for solidarity. A community where team Israel and team Palestine are united under the flag of team Humanity. Sound utopian? If you will it, it is no dream.

The Top 5 Reasons Why BDS Is Winning

This was originally posted at Jewschool.

In many ways, 2013 was a breakthrough year for the BDS movement. High-profile individuals like Stephen Hawking heeded the call, efforts to shut down a BDS event in Brooklyn College backfired in a dramatic and public fashion, and the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to join the academic boycott. Here are the top five reasons why the BDS movement is winning.

1) BDS is a non-violent way that ordinary people who care about Israel-Palestine can make a difference.

The spectacular twenty year failure of the so-called peace process has created an enormous amount of frustration in people who care about Israel/Palestine. The ineptitude of the United States, the silence of the EU, the impotence of the UN and the impunity with which Israel continues to make life worse for the Palestinians have all contributed to this frustration. The BDS movement is a morally sound way for ordinary people to do something. By putting non-violent but effective pressure on the State of Israel, BDS offers people of conscience a way to participate in a moral struggle to restore Palestinian rights.

2) The BDS call marks a shift away from a discourse of nationalism towards a discourse of human rights.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of the BDS call is its refusal to endorse any particular political solution. By remaining agnostic on the one-state/two-state debate, the BDS movement is able to both create alliances and maintain a laser-like focus on the rights of the Palestinian people. Tactically, this means that people who think there should be two-states can participate in the movement alongside their one-state fellows. Ideologically, when liberal-minded people compare the rights-based first principles of the BDS movement to the ethnonationalist first principles of Israel and its defenders, the former are much more appealing.

3) Israel and its supporters think that they have a PR problem, when in reality they have a human rights problem.

The stratagems employed by the Israeli government and its supporters against the BDS movement can be summed up as follows: Delegitimize the critics and change the subject. The tactic of delegitimizing the critics yields a mantra-like repetition of the double-standard argument: “Why are you singling out Israel? There are so many other countries in the world with worse human rights records!” This criticism only makes sense as an interpretation of motive, the obvious implication being an unstated and pernicious prejudice on the part of BDS supporters. The problem, of course, is that this rhetoric amounts to little more than a thinly-veiled ad-hominem attack. People have all sorts of motivations for caring about, or advocating for one cause over others. Some of these motivations are rational and some of them are irrational. What none of us do is sort through all of the possible causes in the world, come up with a scale for which is most morally pressing, and work on them in order. Human beings are simply not built that way. Now if one of the irrational motivations behind BDS support in a particular instance is prejudice against Jews, that’s a problem and it must be brought to light. But absent any evidence of such prejudice, the double-standard argument falls flat.

The tactic of changing the subject has yielded the ham-handed efforts we have seen over the past few years to re-brand Israel as a gay-friendly, environmentally-friendly, incubator of hi-tech innovation. This too is not particularly persuasive. Israel could invent a renewable energy source to replace fossil fuels and people of conscience would still have a problem with the fact that the state denies Palestinians their basic rights.

4) The leaders of the BDS movement are vigilant and disciplined when it comes to the matter of antisemitism.

Whenever the leaders of the movement get a whiff of antisemitism, whether at a rally, or with would-be solidarity activists, they are quick to call it out and condemn it. This both makes the job of delegitimizing their advocacy more difficult and it also creates a stark contrast with their pro-Israel attackers some of whom have made alliances with racist Islamaphobes.

5) Despite being a regional superpower, the State of Israel and its citizens are incredibly susceptible to pressure from the United States and Europe.

As an embattled settler-colonialist society, Israel is subject to two opposing forces. The first is a deeply pathological siege mentality. This manifests as the belief that no matter how they behave towards the Palestinians, the whole world will always and irrationally be against them. But more powerful than the siege mentality is a deep desire to be a part of the world. In this way, Israel likes to think of itself as existing socially and culturally somewhere in-between Europe and the United States.

It’s true that BDS operates on both of these forces. That is, it does in a way feed Israel’s siege mentality in so far as many Israelis believe that they are being unfairly targeted. But it also plays against Israel’s desire to be a normal citizen of the world. If I am correct in asserting that Israel’s desire for inclusion is stronger than its siege mentality, then the net effect of BDS pressure will be that Israelis start to feel isolated from the world and this isolation will in turn force them to reconsider their policies towards the Palestinians. I believe we are already seeing signs of this pressure begin to take effect.

While 2013 marked an important year for the BDS movement, the subject is still toxic in many Jewish circles. My hope for the new year is that Jews around the world will decide to have a substantive conversation about Israel-Palestine in general and about BDS in particular. After all, it is our moral responsibility as human beings to do everything we can to bring an end to the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Scale For Racism

As a result of the fact that racism is a subject that is poorly understood and seldom discussed openly, it can be hard to identify when a statement is racist and even more difficult to know whether it is the sort of statement we ought to condemn in the strongest of terms. Here is a scale of antisemitic/racist statements about Jews:

1) False Belief: “Jews have horns.”

2) Light Prejudice: “Jews are cheap.”

3) Strong prejudice: “The Jews control the banks.”

4) Demonizing Prejudice: “The Jews caused the global recession.”

5) Eliminationist Prejudice: “The Jews are dangerous and must be killed.”

It is my belief that the first two categories, while certainly racist are not cause for severe condemnation. I would therefore draw a line between the second and third categories. Of course a statement that falls into categories 1 or 2 might indicate stronger underlying prejudices, but this is not necessarily the case and without further evidence of strong prejudice, I think it is inappropriate to react harshly to such statements.

For a more extensive discussion of the problem of racism and antisemitism, check out episodes one and two of my new podcast Four Cubits.

Seeing Past The Wall

This piece was originally posted on Jewschool

For almost two decades, my relationship with the Western Wall, or Kotel as it’s known in Hebrew, has been deeply fraught. Having been raised in a religious Zionist family, I was taught as a child to revere “these stones that have the hearts of men” as sacred. But one year, when I was 15 years old, I had an experience at the Wall that changed all that.

It was the holiday of Shavuot and the custom in my hometown of Jerusalem, was for people to stay up all night studying Torah and then walk to the Kotel to pray at dawn. Having participated in an early prayer, I was on my way out of the plaza when I spotted a few dozen non-Orthodox men and women gathered in the parking lot. Before they were able to get very far into their egalitarian service, the group was surrounded by a jeering mob of ultra-Orthodox thugs who yelled insults and threw garbage and dirty diapers at them. I remember standing with the non-Orthodox group in solidarity until the police arrived and forced us to leave.

Today, I am no longer a religious Zionist. For the past four years I’ve been working on a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has upended the way I think about Israel, Zionism, and my own Jewish identity. Indeed, I now know that the Western Wall plaza is actually the site of a disturbing crime. A mere two days after capturing the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli military approached the residents of the Moroccan quarter, which ended just meters from the Western Wall, and asked them to leave. When they refused, their houses were demolished and they were expelled. More than one hundred Palestinian families were made homeless that day and at least one woman was killed during the demolitions. They were not the first Palestinians to be treated by the State of Israel in this manner and they would not be the last.

In a way, the internal Jewish dispute over who gets to pray at the Kotel is analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The logical and just solution is for everyone to be able to share the space equally. But one group claims exclusive rights and uses the violence of the state as a vehicle to maintain its privilege there. The difficulties in achieving a just solution are not practical so much as they are psychological and emotional. Moreover, the problem is not the presence of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshippers in the same space. The problem is the inequitable orientation of the police toward the two groups.

I’m hopeful that the latest proposal by Natan Sharansky to solve the problem of non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel will work. After all, most Israelis do recognize that Jews of different stripes have an equal right to pray at the Western Wall. And what a small step it would be to go from that to seeing the other half of the population living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, along with their brothers and sisters in exile, as having an equal right to share the land. Perhaps it’s time to shift our focus from “the stones with hearts of men,” to “the men with hearts of stone."

Antisemitism By Any Other Name

A lifetime ago, when I was still in medical school, a fellow student reassured me that I wouldn’t have any problem finding a residency, because I’m Jewish and Jews run the medical establishment. My friend was not Jewish and the comment was actually delivered with a tinge of admiration and even envy, but it sent a chill up my spine. Positive racism is still racism and I did my best to explain why the preponderance of Jewish doctors didn’t mean that I would have some sort of leg up on the competition.

As it happens, I dropped out of medical school three years into the MD to pursue a career in film. My work has to date dealt mainly with the controversial issues of male circumcision and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the most part, the activists that I’ve encountered around these issues have been good people who are not racist and have a deep commitment to human rights. Nevertheless, on occasion I do run into antisemites. Imagine my shock when I clicked on a link to a Times of Israel article with the provocative title “Jews DO Control the Media”.

Published in the Ops&Blogs section under the pseudonym of “Manny Friedman,” this article was ostensibly written by a Jewish person, but whether this individual is Jewish or not matters little when we judge the content of what they are saying.

“The truth is, the anti-Semites got it right. We Jews have something planted in each one of us that makes us completely different from every group in the world. We’re talking about a group of people that just got put in death camps, endured pogroms, their whole families decimated. And then they came to America, the one place that ever really let them have as much power as they wanted, and suddenly they’re taking over. Please don’t tell me that any other group in the world has ever done that. Only the Jews. And we’ve done it before. That’s why the Jews were enslaved in Egypt. We were too successful. Go look at the Torah — it’s right there. And we did it in Germany too.”

And right there, just like my friend from medical school, The Times of Israel is allowing a contributor to affirm antisemitic canards. The essentialist notion that a particular people group has an inborn advantage over other people groups is as racist as the notion that they have an inborn disadvantage. Moreover, the idea that there is some sort of coordinated Jewish effort to obtain power and “take over” resonates with the worst lies that people have told about us for millennia. It is shocking to me that The Times of Israel agreed to publish this article.

To put things into perspective, a few months ago I was shopping around a book review that I wrote of Gilad Atzmon’s “The Wandering Who?”. Atzmon, for those unfamiliar, is a controversial expat Israeli Jazz musician who has publicly made borderline antisemitic statements. My purpose in reviewing his book was to foreclose the easy riposte that none of his critics were actually responding to his ideas. In any event, my review was rejected by the Electronic Intifada, because they didn’t want to give any kind of air to a person who espoused antisemitic views (it was eventually published here). Think about that for a second. The Electronic Intifada is more sensitive to antisemitism than The Times of Israel.

The Times has come a long way in a short time. They have attracted some serious talent to contribute to their pages and are becoming an important destination for quality journalism on Israel-related issues. But if they want to continue to attract writers and readers, they will need to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to this kind of content.

A Tale of Two Friends: BDS, Pinkwashing, and Pride

Last Sunday, while I was helping to lead a Young Jewish and Proud event designed to educate the Jewish community about the Palestinian call for BDS in Los Angeles, my oldest friend in the world, Mordechai Levovitz, was celebrating the inclusion of his Jewish Queer Youth group in the New York Celebrate Israel parade. While we respect each other deeply, Mordechai and I clearly have some interesting differences of opinion when it comes to Israel.

We grew up together in the leafy suburb of Brookline Massachusetts and as we were born in the same month, our very first debate was over who was older (I lost that one-counterintuitive as it seemed, the fact that my birth date was numerically higher actually made me younger). We spent countless hours playing together as children and I was devastated when his family moved to New York. A few years later, my family moved to Israel. We managed somehow to stay in touch over the years, always finding the time to debate topics that were important to us. I didn’t know that Mordechai was gay when we were growing up. He was always just Mordechai. But as it turns out, we were both fish out of water in the Orthodox Jewish world of our parents. As my parents shuffled me around from Yeshiva to Yeshiva in Israel, I was starting to identify as a rebellious heretic. And I now know that underneath his black hat, Mordechai was negotiating the difficulties of being a closeted gay Orthodox Jew.

As our divergent biographies might suggest, our respective relationships with the State of Israel were different from an early age, although not as different as they might have been. Mordechai was never an ardent Zionist. This may sound strange, but growing up Orthodox in a way meant that Israel was never a lynch pin his Jewish identity. By contrast, I was forced from a young age to confront the realities of the Jewish State in which I lived, and on a high school trip to the Nazi death camps, my opposition to the Zionist narrative started to become an important part of my identity.

In addition to its military adventures, Israel has for the past decade been the battleground of an intensive PR war. On one side is the State of Israel and its apologists who are trying to brand the Jewish state as a progressive, liberal democracy. And on the other side are the Palestinians and their supporters who are trying to brand Israel as an Apartheid, human rights-abusing ethnocracy. Over the last few years, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has taken to touting Israel’s record on gay rights as a way of promoting their branding. This strategy has created great dissonance on the Left. On the one hand, Israel undeniably has a better record on gay rights than many other countries in the Middle East, but on the other hand, Israel denies millions of Palestinians their basic rights and has made their existence a living nightmare. What is the appropriate response? Is it possible to support gay rights without supporting Israel? Is it possible to oppose Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians without having to pretend that Egypt and Lebanon are on par with Israel when it comes to gay rights?

As with everything that touches the Israel/Palestine issue, the responses to this dilemma have been deeply polarized. On team Israel, there are people like Stuart Applebaum and Benjamin Weinthal who argue that:

Western LGBT activists and intellectuals should be devoting our energies to combating movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, and reject the absurd obsession that some members of our community have with bashing Israel, the Middle East’s only LGBT oasis.

And on team Palestine, people like Sarah Schulman argue that:

In Israel, gay soldiers and the relative openness of Tel Aviv are incomplete indicators of human rights — just as in America, the expansion of gay rights in some states does not offset human rights violations like mass incarceration. The long-sought realization of some rights for some gays should not blind us to the struggles against racism in Europe and the United States, or to the Palestinians’ insistence on a land to call home.” 

When Schulman’s OpEd was published in the New York Times in November, Mordechai and I went at it on Facebook. While I think that we both had more nuanced positions than the above-quoted activists, our disagreement was substantial. Mordechai argued passionately that as a matter of objective fact, LGBT people are treated better in Israel than they are in the Palestinian territories and that Israel should be rewarded for this. I argued that human rights struggles ought not occur in isolation from one another and that LGBT activists should be fighting side-by-side with the Palestinians and against Israel.

In his Huff Post recounting of JQY’s participation in the Celebrate Israel Parade, Mordechai had this to say about his encounter with a group of Queer anti-Zionist protestors:  

Disappointingly, instead of supporting our inclusion, the Anti-Israel Queer group joined in the booing. It seemed that they'd rather join in on LGBT hate than understand our right to celebrate our Jewish culture. These left wing groups accuse any LGBT celebration of Israel as "Pink Washing" Israel in an attempt to divert attention from the suffering of the Palestinian people. I can only speak for myself in saying that loving Israel in no way impinges on my concern for human rights. It is exactly this love of Israel that makes me hope and pray for peace, prosperity and fairness for all people in the region. Celebrating a homeland says nothing about agreeing with specific foreign policies of the government. Certainly, I can celebrate July 4 without believing in every U.S. policy. We celebrate Israel as proud LGBT Jews without washing away the suffering of others. Celebration and concern often exist in dialectic, and it would be simplistic to say that we can't experience both. We take pride in that Israel has a thriving LGBT community and hope that one day its surrounding countries will similarly treat their LGBT citizens better. Opening doors of inclusion in every culture can only help in the long term struggle for universal human rights.

Before I jump in to my problems with this passage, I want to state for the record that I think it was distasteful of this group to show up and boo at JQY. Indeed, as strongly as I disagree with Mordechai on this issue, I think that JQY’s inclusion in the parade was a watershed moment for gay rights in the Jewish community and I am really proud of Mordechai for making it happen. It takes a special kind of courage to stay within the Orthodox Jewish world and fight for gay rights and a rarer kind of skill to actually be effective at it. Having said that, there are a number of statements here that I think are problematic.

First, while I do think that the booing was distasteful, I think it’s an overstatement to characterize it as “joining in on the LGBT hate”. I wasn’t there, but short of these people holding hands with anti-gay bigots, this sounds like editorializing to me.

Second, I don’t think that Mordechai really “loves” Israel. Why would he say that he does? Because for a while now, there’s been an unspoken and insipid litmus test imposed on Liberal Zionists that requires them to precede any criticism of Israel with a statement of love. I believe that Mordechai is playing along with this unspoken rule here and it’s totally unnecessary.

Third, showing support for Israel in its current state is very much contrary to a concern for human rights. Israel perpetrates human rights violations against the Palestinians on a daily basis. Moreover, Palestinian civil society has called for a worldwide boycott, divestment and sanctions program against Israel. The extent to which individuals choose to adhere to this call as consumers is a matter of personal conscience, but publicly participating in a parade that celebrates Israel seems to me to be a slap in the face of the Palestinian people and would seem to demonstrate a lack of regard for their human rights.

Fourth, the backhanded way in which Mordechai mentions the fact that the surrounding countries don’t treat their gay citizens as well as Israel does is unattractive. He knows that the purpose of this comparison is to appeal to a problematic binary worldview, but he wants to score rhetorical points with it all the same.

Finally, I think that Israel is proof-positive that selectively opening the “doors of inclusion” DOES NOT necessarily help in the struggle for universal human rights. In Israel, it doesn’t matter whether you are L,G,B, or T-if you’re born to Palestinian parents, you have fewer rights than those born to Jewish parents.

And with all of this, I can’t think of a more stirring affirmation for Mordechai and JQY than marching in this parade. The place that Israel occupies in the American Jewish experience is something that deeply disturbs me, but it is a reality. And as much as I actively work against this reality, I also acknowledge that the inclusion of JQY in this event is cause for celebration.

I have some deep philosophical differences with my old friend about how solidarity work ought to be conducted. But I hope that we will continue our makhloket leshem shamayim, our dispute of noble motivation, for many years to come. Happy Birthday, Mordechai!   

The Wandering Who? Gilad Atzmon and Jewish Identity

This piece was first published on Jewschool.

When Gilad Atzmon blew through Los Angeles to promote his latest book “The Wandering Who?,” I knew nothing about him. As I sat down to hear him speak I was handed a flyer by a nervous looking young woman. The flyer declared: “LEVANTINE CENTER HOSTS ANTI-SEMITE” and it furnished a series of Atzmon quotes to support its aspersion. The young woman and knit yarmulka-clad man who were handing these flyers out were politely asked to leave and they did so without protest. As I listened to Atzmon first speak and then perform a few musical numbers on his saxophone, it occurred to me that antisemite or not, I was genuinely interested in what this man had to say. 

The Wandering Who? seeks to answer the seemingly simple question: “What do people mean when they call themselves Jews?” Near the beginning of the book, Atzmon makes a foundational tripartite distinction between three kinds of Jews. In the first category are people who follow the Jewish religion. The second contain those who were accidentally born to Jewish parents, but see themselves as human beings. And the third category is “Those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all of their other traits.”  

The obvious problem with these categories is that real Jewish people seldom fall into only one of them. I know as many religious Jews who fall into categories 1 and 2 as I do secular Jews who fall into categories 2 and 3. Do their identities contain logical contradictions? Surely they do. But these contradictions do not emerge as a consequence of their Jewish-ness, rather they come from the nature of identity itself. To his credit, Atzmon points out that similar contradictions emerge within feminist and gay identity politics and it could be argued that his categorical distinctions are there for conceptual clarity. Nevertheless, Atzmon includes both ardent Zionists and self-identified Jewish Leftists in his third category, arguing that they belong to the same identity continuum:

“If we redefine Zionism as a modern form of Jewish activism that aims to halt assimilation, we can then reassess all Jewish tribal activity as an internal debate within a diverse Zionist political movement...The Israel lobby and the Alan Dershowitzes of the world are the voices of Zionism; the third-category socialists are there to stop proud, self-hating Jews from blowing the whistle.”

There’s a sense in which he’s on to something here. It is true that many Jewish Zionists and Jewish Leftists place their identity at the center of their activism. And in so far as no one has yet articulated a coherent and substantive post-religious Jewish identity, this emphasis contains contradictions for secular Jews. But accepting this premise is a far cry from accepting that Leftist Jews put their Jewishness above all of their other traits. Predictably, this part of Atzmon’s argument attracted vehement attacks from prominent Liberal Jews. What was not so predictable, was that the US Palestinian Community Network would write a letter condemning Atzmon as an antisemite. In their statement, which was signed by a who’s who list of Palestinian activists, the USPCN stated:

“Zionism, to Atzmon, is not a settler-colonial project, but a trans-historical “Jewish” one, part and parcel of defining one’s self as a Jew. Therefore, he claims, one cannot self-describe as a Jew and also do work in solidarity with Palestine, because to identify as a Jew is to be a Zionist. We could not disagree more. Indeed, we believe Atzmon’s argument is itself Zionist because it agrees with the ideology of Zionism and Israel that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist.”

This statement is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrates a level of discipline among the Palestinian Solidarity Movement that is encouraging. Second, it demonstrates that signatories like Ali Abunimah and Omar Barghouti, are not the antisemites that their opponents claim them to be. But the letter also proffers an interpretation of Atzmon’s position. And as much as I appreciate the motivation behind the statement, I think that the USPCN misinterprets Atzmon on this point. He doesn’t argue that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist. This is an oversimplification of his position. Atzmon argues that neither the Jewish Zionists, nor the Jewish anti-Zionists, have solved the “Jewish problem”. And until the Jewish problem is solved, they are all essentially playing the same Jewish identity game. The issue is not that Atzmon conflates Zionism with Judaism. The issue is Atzmon’s understanding of “the Jewish problem.”

The Jewish problem for Atzmon is that of Athens vs. Jerusalem and Gilad Atzmon is on Team Athens. In this worldview, there are only two legitimate ways to be Jewish: You can either be a religious Jew and a Jerusalemite, or you can be an accidental Jew and a whistle-blowing Athenian. The problem is that this is a caricature of both Jewish history and Jewish identity. The Jewish tradition is full of conflicting voices on the issue of universalism vs. particularism and Jewish history can, from a certain perspective, be seen as a tug of war between these two poles.

I sympathize with Gilad Atzmon. I really do. We both come from an oppressive and nationalistic culture in which particularism always seems to trump universalism. We also both found refuge in art. But here we part ways. One of the key lessons that I learned from immersing myself in the world of art was that the only way to really achieve universal expression is to speak boldly from your own particular experience. In a way, I believe that this book is Atzmon’s attempt to do just that. In what is perhaps the most insightful passage, he resurrects the long forgotten Otto Weininger to shed light on his own identity issues. Weininger was a 19th century German-Jewish thinker who wrote a controversial bestselling book called “Sex and Character”. He hated both women and Jews, but one of the key concepts in his book is that we can only understand in the other that which exists in ourselves. Armed with this insight, Atzmon writes: 

“I am not looking at the Jews, or at Jewish identity, I am looking at Israelis. I am actually looking in the mirror. With contempt, I am actually elaborating on the Jew in me.” 

Unfortunately, Atzmon’s inner Jew is little more than a Jewish supremacist. He was not raised on the complexities of the Talmud or the Midrash and nothing makes this clearer than his uninformed use of Biblical stories to support his superficial critique of the Jewish religion. Like many secular Israelis, Atzmon seems totally ignorant of the dynamic interplay between the Oral and Written traditions and completely unaware of the sophistication of Rabbinic hermeneutics. In contrast to Atzmon, my own early exposure to the Jewish Tradition, has allowed me to forge a space between Athens and Jerusalem that defies Atzmon’s categories. As it happens, I feel most Jewish when I place my humanity above my Jewish identity leshem shamayim, or for the right reasons.

Is Gilad Atzmon an antisemite? There are passages in this book which definitely qualify in my mind as antisemitic, but this is not cause for hysteria. I understand and appreciate why the USPCN distanced themselves from Atzmon, but in general, I’m not a big fan of policing discourse. This is a conversation that Jews desperately need to have and while I strongly disagree with Atzmon’s ideas, I think his questions are valid. As a suspiciously Athenian sounding Rabbi once said: “Who is wise? He who learns from all men.”

The Moral Case for the One State Solution

This piece was originally posted on Jewschool

For the past three years, my wife/producer Pennie and I have been working on a film about the moral and practical failings of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We believe that not only is the one-state solution inevitable at this point, but that it has the potential to yield a much more just and moral resolution to the conflict than the two-state solution. Objections to our vision usually come in two flavors: The theoretical and the practical. On the theoretical side, people argue that the one-state solution would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. They argue that demographic realities make it inevitable that very shortly after the creation of a single state, Jews would find themselves in the minority. The phrases that often pop up alongside these observations are: “Israel has a right to exist” and “Jews have a right to self-determination.”On the practical side, people usually argue that there is too much hatred for these peoples to coexist peacefully in a single state. The corollary to this argument is that a single state would quickly devolve into civil war, as was seen in Lebanon, or in the best case scenario end up as a failed state like Belgium.

It is true that the one-state solution would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Indeed, when the Zionists came to Palestine they were a minority and the only way that they were able to achieve their coveted majority status was by ethnically cleansing the land of most of its inhabitants. But the new state could still be a homeland for the Jews. Ali Abunimah famously argued in his book “One Country” for the maintenance of the Law of Return, which grants Jews automatic citizenship, alongside the implementation of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. Whether or not this concept is actualized in the new state, any one-state solution would obviously have to guarantee the rights of its sizable Jewish minority. But the key here is that Jews would be equals, not privileged ethnocratic masters. Israel doesn’t have a “right to exist as a Jewish state.” States are political constructions and as such they don’t have rights. Individuals, however, do have rights and when a state infringes on those rights, its legitimacy is correctly brought into question. Moreover, even if we accept that Jews have the right to self-determination as a nation (a somewhat controversial claim), this right does not entitle them to deny the self-determination of another people group. 

As in any ethnic conflict, an enormous amount of animosity has built up between the two sides and suspicions run deep. On the Palestinian side, 64 years of dispossession and oppression, along with two decades of insincere peace negotiations, have led to a total mistrust of Israeli intentions. On the Israeli side, a culture of Siege Mentality co-opts the history of Jewish suffering to perpetuate an unjust and immoral ethnocracy. But were we to look at Apartheid South Africa in the late 1980’s, we would also see deep mistrust and hatred between Blacks and Whites. Moreover, Germany in the 1940’s didn’t exactly look like a good place for Jews to live but today, it is one of the best countries in the world for Jews. Political realities change. And sometimes, when people of good will get together and work at it, political realities can change for the better. 

We need to move away from the discourse of partition and ethno-nationalism and towards a discourse of integration and human rights. The two-state solution is immoral, because it denies millions of Palestinians their right of return and it legitimizes the second-class citizenship of Palestinian-Israelis. Now it is possible to conceive of a two-state solution that respects the right of return and transforms Israel from an ethnocracy into a full democracy, but such a solution is not on anyone’s agenda. Indeed, an examination of the motivations behind the two-state solution reveals why such a conception was never in the cards. On the Israeli side, the motivation for partition comes from the will to maintain a Jewish-majority state in as much of historic Palestine as possible. On the Palestinian side, partition was only accepted by those who live in the West Bank and Gaza under the boot of the IDF, because they were so desperate to end the Occupation. And in their desperation, the Palestinian leadership came close to negotiating away the right of return which is and always has been the central issue of concern for a majority of Palestinians.

The only way to really solve the conflict is to respect all of the human beings involved as equals. The one-state solution, therefore, is the most logical and practical way to achieve a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Much work still needs to be done on what the precise contours of the new state will look like. But in the meantime, we are trying to articulate and facilitate a paradigm shift that will help set the groundwork for a peaceful political transformation of Israel/Palestine.

The Great False Equivalence

I've noticed a disturbing trend emerge lately in the op-ed pages of some of my favorite I-P news sites. A number of prominent Left-leaning journalists are feeling the need to criticize their own for privileging Palestinian suffering over that of their fellow Jews. In the immediate aftermath of the Itamar murders, Dimi Reider of +972 Magazine wrote:

"The activist Left’s confused and muted response reveals a shameful double standard – one that is not necessarily thought-out and intentioned, but one that needs to be urgently confronted and weeded out. It demonstrates that despite political awareness and commitment to human rights and international law, our community has yielded to one of the most common afflictions of a conflict area, and dehumanized an entire community, consciously or subconsciously rendering it second-class, semi-legitimate target for brutal violence." 

And in the wake of the recent escalation with Gaza, Bradley Burston of Ha'aretz wrote:"Somewhere, we have lost perspective. In war without end, in inhumanity without boundaries, we have lost some of our own humanity. In a kind of affirmative action, driven by the one-sidedness, the chauvinism, and the exclusionism of the pro-Israel establishment, it has been the fate and the practice of some progressive American Jews to support, identify with and help Palestinian victims of the conflict, while relating to Israeli victims with a cold shoulder, or worse, with victim-blaming."

I'm disturbed by this trend for two reasons. First, this sort of self-critical analysis is only possible on the Left where the concept of human rights is actually taken seriously. But more importantly, it's a straw-man argument. Why do I as a person who cares deeply about human rights need to be reminded that it's wrong to kill Israeli civilians? How insulting! Unfortunately, there are many Israelis and Jews who *do* need to be reminded that Palestinians are people with rights. Furthermore, the sheer volume of human rights violations against Palestinians dwarfs the violations against Israelis. So if it seems like those of us who care about human rights devote a disproportionate amount of our efforts to talking about violations of Palestinian rights, it's because they happen more often and a large percentage of the Israeli public and their Zionist supporters have been culturally programmed to ignore them. It's not that we don't care about Israelis. On the contrary, we care so much about Israelis that we are willing to stand up to the inevitable opprobrium of our own community to secure their safety. Let's put the hand-wringing behind us and get back to finding a solution that is based on justice and equality for all.

Interrupting a Sacred Israeli Ritual

An old friend from high school recently posted an article on Facebook in Hebrew which claims that the murders in the Jewish settlement of Itamar prove that "the Arabs" are far more savage than the Israelis and that any comparison between the violence on the two sides is a false equivalence. I commented on this post that the article was an irresponsible piece of hate-mongering. Below is some of the invective that was flung my way for daring to suggest that it is wrong to tar all Palestinians with the actions of the Itamar murderer:

"One would think you would have some humility and keep your disgusting hate-filled fanaticism to yourself when all Israelis are mourning such a barbaric and animalistic act. The fact that you have chosen to rear your ugly head (rhetorically, not literally having never met you) speaks volumes about your psychological state and your need to hate and be divisive. I pity you deeply!!!"

"Boo hoo Eliyahu, you simply dont respond to my posts because you cant. If you ever want to be a serious documentarian, rather than the failed anonymous hack that you are currently, you have to engage in truth. Only someone with credibility and above all, intellectual honesty, can respond to charges. Looks like you failed on both counts. You simply cant take it when you are proven wrong. Dont worry we will spend[sic] the word that you are not interested in the truth."

"Do you not understand what is blindingly obvious to everyone? That bcause you had to leave Israel your reaction could be one of two: Either you would feel guilt fo running away or you would attack all that you left behind to assuage your guilt. You attack everything to do with Israel and Judaism, the very basis of the ientity that you are running away from. It is very transparent and you will never be taken seriously as a documentarian until you deal with those demons. Just let them out Eliyahu and then you will be better"

"Eliyahu, I feel bad for you cause your emotional issues run so deep. You must be so angry and sad inside, but I guess this must be a great outlet for you to feel better about yourself. Personally, I don't know why people like ______ and _______ give you the satisfaction. I suppose it's because they really are good people that have a lot of hope and care. I guess I don't have that much care inside of me, so I don't care for your crap. So when you're ready to deal with your real issues, which are clearly emotional, then we can have a chat. Till then, piss off!"

The first three comments came from the same person, who I unfriended many months ago, because he was constantly engaging in ad hominem attacks (I'm perfectly happy to have political discussions with people who disagree with me, but I draw the line at the ad hominem). The last excerpt is from someone who has never spoken to me like this before. Both commenters live in Israel. This is not the first and I dare say not the last time I will be subjected to such rhetoric, but it has gotten me thinking about what's going on here. Part of it is that the structure of Facebook rewards the back-and-forth that occurs in an argument. But I think there's something else going on as well. By posting what I did, I was interrupting the sacred Israeli rite of converting pain into hatred. By insisting that most Palestinians oppose such heinous crimes, I was suggesting that the pain be redirected from its normal pathway. In retrospect, I don't think that Facebook is a good place to interrupt this flow. It's too easy to descend into what you see above and it's too impersonal to really have the desired effect. It is my hope that in the darkness of a cinema, the film that I've been laboring over for the past two years will have a better chance of interrupting that flow and redirecting the pain towards something more constructive than hatred. This is the challenge. Because the people who are levying these comments at me are actually good people. They're just caught up in a cultural ritual that distorts their humanity. I believe that in my lifetime, both these rituals and the events that feed them will be a thing of the past. It will be the sort of thing that we will have trouble explaining to our grandchildren. Until that day, I will continue my work to interrupt this destructive Israeli ritual.