Monthly Archives: October 2009

Israeli Physicians for Human Rights doctor muzzled in UK, talks cancelled

Sadly, neither the story itself, nor the primitive thinking behind the cancellations, is unusual. But the title of the article below by Robyn Rosen is rather new: “Zionists stop medical talk after campaign.” Why? Because it’s the headline in the UK-based Jewish Chronicle. Typically, the language of othering someone as Zionist, certainly in the context of criticism, is deployed by critics of Zionism. “Real” Jews are naturally Zionist (whatever that means) –so goes institutional Jewish thinking — so it need not be made explicit. It would be redundant.

This headline and the piece below seem to make room for the possibility that Zionists and Jews and even Israelis are not one and the same. Some say that the word Zionism is a dead brand. With behavior like this representing groups with the word Zionist in their name, it’s certainly understandable why. October 29, 2009:

Two lectures by Israeli-based charity Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) were cancelled after a Zionist organisation told hospitals holding the talks that they were “anti-Israel”.

A consultant at Fairfield Hospital in Bury, where the lecture went ahead, said: “The whole idea that PHR-I is antisemitic or even anti-Israel is ludicrous given that the organisation is overwhelmingly comprised of Jewish Israelis, of whom Miri is one.”

Miri Weingarten from PHR-I was due to give a lecture, entitled The Right to Health in a Conflict Zone, to three hospitals in Manchester, Liverpool and Bury last week.

But just hours before the lecture, the Manchester Royal Infirmary and Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool cancelled the event.

Karen Solomon, director of the Zionist Central Council in Manchester, sent more than 200 emails to members urging them to contact the hospitals. Continue reading

The Anathema is now the Mainstream

In another, more tolerant world, Muzzlewatch bloggers would have had a space on the J Street panel titled Shifting the Conversation: Jewish Community Dynamics and Israel, which was really a discussion of the muzzling phenomenon in Jewish institutions. In our absence, it was instead “insiders” sharing their experience of being on the receiving end of right-wing attacks for allowing any semblance of debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This was fascinating, and led to some of the most truthful moments of the J Street conference.

The moderator Hannah Rosenthal seemed to come down firmly in favor of “multitasking” a domestic and international agenda, drawing on her experience working at the Jewish Public Affairs Council. She had the funniest muzzling anecdote: being asked to cancel her own birthday party by the Jewish Federation because it featured an introduction to J Street. Her reaction: “You’re not invited!” She then raised a question that J Street would do well to take to heart, how Jewish organizations could have better spent the hours discussing who not to invite or include to their events.

Rabbi Peter Knobel was the first speaker, a pulpit rabbi just down the road in Evanston, IL from Muzzlewatch hero Rabbi Brant Rosen. He was also past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He made the correct connections, from McCarthyism to the treatment of early peace group Breira, to clergy who lost their jobs for supporting the civil rights movement. It was so powerful to me to hear causes now beloved by liberal Jews in the same sentence as critical stands on Israel. He also uttered the title quote (the anathema is now mainstream), capturing what is exciting about the present moment, and what gives me hope for the future. Rabbi Knobel also reminded me how history can turn by pointing out that his congregation was founded by a rabbi fired for espousing Zionism, when that was a taboo belief in Jewish communities. This legacy led him to basically have tenure, indeed when he was “outed” (his word) by a congregant for going to J Street. The conservative group who discussed “what was to be done” found that indeed the answer was nothing. He concluded by reminding us that the rule on Jewish rebuke, or “tochecha” is for you to frame things in a way that they can be heard.

Daniel Sokatch lamented not being able to cancel people’s birthdays now that he was no longer a Federation president. He quoted the slogan “Think Yiddish, Dress British” as a lesson for clothing one’s authentic thoughts in acceptable garb. His first experience with muzzling came as founder of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, when he wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times calling for recognition of the Armenian genocide, contrary to the lobbying position of the Jewish community leaders seeking to curry favor with Israel’s ally Turkey. He was told by the leader of one such organization “We are the foreign ministry of the Jewish people.” Sokatch’s response: “I didn’t vote for you.” Sokatch then added that the Jewish community is even less hospitable to dissent now, attributing this to the economic collapse and Madoff, as well as the strains placed on the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israelis because of their differing takes on Obama. He pointed out a split in Israeli politics as well, with Ambassador Oren only sending an observer to J Street, while Israel’s president and opposition leader send approving letters. These tensions have allowed a “terrified minority” of conservatives to dominate a moderate majority. He retold a meeting with a group of rabbis who all felt powerless to speak about Israel’s actions because of this minority, whom Sokatch appropriately compared to people who believe Saddam caused 9/11. He listed other examples of muzzling, Kesher Enoshi students at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, though he didn’t mention the cause of that. He concluded with his own invitation to J Street, when he still headed the San Franicisco Jewish Federation. Apparently he was the only federation head to accept. It seemed commonsense to him; he had attended AIPAC dinners even though it was not his cup of tea, why wouldn’t he come to J Street? He lost a million-dollar donor, though two million-dollar donors threatened to withdraw funds if he didn’t go! He finally heard from another federation head who was willing to write a supportive op-ed, but not to attend J Street with him, and then as he put it, the New Israel Fund — his current employer — called. It is interesting that Sokatch chose to highlight the reaction over his decision to go to J Street over the intense backlash around the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which many months after the last film was shown still has the Jewish Bay Area community reeling. Then again, the panel seemed to emphasized stories with a happy ending, where muzzling was overcome: Sokatch and Knobel did come to J STreet.

A more conservative speaker, Shula Bahat, concluded the program by mostly using her time to give her opinions about how no one should put pressure on Israel because look what happened when the US made them allow Hamas take part in elections. She didn’t seem to have any actual experiences of muzzling, and was probably just included for added credibility as a former American Jewish Committee Executive Director. Oddly enough, she did say she allowed young people in her organization freedom to say whatever they wanted, regardless of messaging guidelines. Was this a reaction to the Jerusalem Post article claiming that J Street University had dropped the pro-Israel slogan? The point was later clarified by J Street:

The student groups don’t need to say they are explicitly pro-Israel so long as their programming and outreach operate from the premise that the Jewish state has a right to exist as a Jewish state,” says Jessica Rosenblum, a J Street spokesperson.

While the examples of muzzling were extremely illuminating and candid, it was left to friend of JVP, rabbinical student Alana Alpert to call the speakers out on the implications of their statements. She asked why when J Street was trying to encourage open discussion, they insisted that everyone preface their statements with: “My grandfather planted orange groves, I speak fluent Hebrew, etc.” She could play that game, but why should she have to? In a sign of how much her question exposed the contradictions of the conference, the moderator could only respond that “you have to choose your battles.” Apparently encouraging real debate is not a battle worth fighting. But I am optimistic that Alana Alpert represents the real future of the movement, whether or not J Street is able to “shift” in response.

– Jesse Bacon

Doing the math at J Street: Nine is more than four

The most difficult moment for me at the J Street came this morning. I was listening to a panel called Messaging Pro-Israel Pro-Peace.

Jim Gerstein, the first panelist presented good polling data about the attitude of American Jews towards Israel and the US role in the region. Lots of good numbers here, the kind of numbers that AIPAC prefers to ignore.

The survey shows that 7 out of 10 American Jews support US policies that help Israelis and Palestinians resolve their conflict–and this includes the US publicly disagreeing with both sides as well as exerting pressure on both sides (in other words, disagreeing also with Israel and exerting pressure also on Israel).

You can find all the survey info here:
http://www.jstreet.org/page/media-advisory-new-survey-american-jewish-community

Matt Dorf, the next panelist talked about communications and messaging: what we say matters a lot, he said.

Keep this in mind as we move to the third panelist, Dr. Calvin Goldscheider. Here comes demography to help us say what we need to say about being pro-Israel pro-peace.

Dr. Goldscheider did a rapid survey in no more than a few minutes about the changing ratio of Jews to Arabs in what is now Israel. In a few seconds, we heard about the role of Jewish immigration, the Russians (not all of them are Jewish), the temporary workers from Asia (now numbering a quarter of a million) so and so forth. Not a word about the Nakba, isn’t that a bit odd?

But let’s focus on the present. The question on the table, Is there a demographic threat?

The good news, says Dr. Goldscheider, is that in the context of the State of Israel, Arab minorities present no demographic threat unless we include the occupied territories and give the inhabitants there equal rights. Inclusion without equal rights leads to the end of democracy. Inclusion with equal rights leads to the end of the Jewish majority in the state. And that is why a two-state solution is a must: to preserve Jewish democracy.

The Palestinians are of course non-players in this Jewish democratic drama. At most, they are a threat just for being there. At best, they are a minority that we must keep under demographic control.

Oh, but the Palestinians are playing their part well. You see, in the 1960′s Palestinians had an average of nine children per family. Now they only have four. (Phew).

Four children is a lot, but nine is a lot more, explains the kind demographer in case we cold not do the math. Audience laughs.

Now, I am Jewish and I am also a Latino man living in California–a state where we have a pluralistic demographic composition: not one group, not even non-Latino whites, amount to 50% of the population. If I were to hear white people bemoaning the demographic threat that the rise of people of color in the state represents, I would call it like it is, and that is racism, pure and simple. I have no use for the phrase demographic threat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth and a sharp pain in my gut.

What we say matters a lot; that’s what we were told in this workshop. If we need to use racism to message ourselves as Pro-Israel pro-peace, there is something very wrong here.

Is this the best J Street can come up with?

To be clear, I am not talking now about one-state, two-states, or three. I am talking about saying dayenu to this demographic threat mentality. I am talking about understanding fully and completely that you cannot save Israel’s democracy one bit when you celebrate the fact that 20% of its citizens has an increasingly lower birth rate (yeay!) so that their proportion in the population will not grow (double yeay!). If this is what you believe, don’t waste your time on avoiding the threat; you’ve lost the democratic values a long time ago.

My only consolation is that at least I can bring these issues to the public’s attention — even to the attention of the J Street conference participants.

Were I to be in Israel this very week, I would be furiously fighting against a bill advancing in the Knesset that would bar the Israeli government from providing funding to activities that deny Israel’s definition as a Jewish or democratic state.

– Sydney Levy

Bridging the gap with honesty and transparency

In an earlier post, I referred to a J Street workshop that sought to bridge the gap between Jewish social justice work and Israel/Palestine advocacy.

The gap is real. Take Jacob Feinspan, of Jews United for Justice. His organization works on a range of important local issues, including the challenges facing day laborers. He asked whether there was a litmus test for Jewish organizations: Does Israel have to be at the top of our agenda? He did not think so. He further asked a question that remained unanswered, why don’t we have a reverse panel?, a panel about why J Street is not engaged in domestic social justice work.

Elissa Barrett, of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, drew inspiration from the prophetic tradition to make others uncomfortable and make ourselves uncomfortable. At the same time, she said that during the Gaza attack, the PJA issued a statement that was the source of much debate internally: how far do we go?. Two thirds of the conversation is about whether to have the conversation.

Alana Alpert, a rabbinical student, talked about the moral crisis that we face, and asked,
Is there any issue more important for American Jews to engage in than Israel/Palestine?
Her answer to her fellow panelists: To evade responsibility by claiming a domestic agenda–that’s a false dichotomy.

Alana urged Jewish organizations to be more honest and transparent: If you are not doing Israel/Palestine work, why not? Is it really because you are solely focusing on domestic issues or is it because of funding concerns?

Elissa acknowledged that PJA has lost funders because of its positions on Israel. She added,

“We are afraid to be attacked because we are attacked. A line in the sand is there, and if you step across it, you will be crushed.”

Susan Adelman, a founding member of PJA, drew an analogy to the ACLU’s defense of the Nazi march in Skokie, IL. The ACLU lost thousands of members because of its position, and yet they stuck to its principles. She then asked, How can we not speak about human rights violations in the occupied territories?

A member of the audience talked about the current and possibly growing backlash against anti-occupation activism, and then she asked, Which side will the progressive Jews be on?

The next made-up controversy or orchestrated smear campaign will surely be reported in Muzzlewatch. And when things will get heated, I hope that we will be able to report that the majority of progressive Jews stood with us.

– Sydney Levy

Will J Street be the new gateway drug?

Will J Street be the new gateway drug? The thought has been running through my head ever since I heard Alana Alpert talking at a panel in the J Street conference examining the divide between the Jewish social justice activism and Israel/Palestine work. The panel dealt with the difficulties that organizations such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jews United for Justice have in moving beyond a domestic social justice agenda and addressing the Israeli occupation. Facing the gap between Jewish activism on domestic issues versus Israel/Palestine, Alana asked whether Jewish social justice organizing was the gateway drug to deal with the Middle East.

The thought has been dancing in my head throughout the whole day, only now taking it one step forward: Will J Street be the new gateway drug that will move liberal Jewish activists who are pro-Israel pro-peace into being progressive Jewish activists fully pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian?

This is not just an academic play of words. We are talking about having an agenda that focuses on what’s good for both sides, not just for the love of Israel.

I confess that the J Street’s conference urgency to reach a two-state solution — although I am yet to hear the word viable attached to the Palestinian state — seems to be motivated more by the upcoming facts on the ground (demographic changes that put in peril the concept of a Jewish majority) than by the current facts on the ground (settlements and the rest of the occupation infrastructure).

Will J Street be the gateway drug that moves activists from the demographic head-count into the field of universal justice and human rights? Only time will tell. But the conference certainly offered some signs for hope. Every item that was not in the agenda — BDS, Zionism, Jewish state — came up for discussion one way or another because it was brought up from the floor. These questions have no easy answers, but time and again they will pop up until they are considered with the seriousness they deserve.

– Sydney Levy

Not to be taken literally

I attended what turned out to be the replacement for J street’s disinvited poet panel. Ari Roth from Theater J — who supported the poets by coming out to their reading yesterday at BusBoys & Poets — used the beginning of his time to alert people to the panel that was and delivered a passionate defense of poets from a literary perspective.

Ari urged not taking the words literally and pointed out that one “doesn’t look to poets for rational discourse.” He defended the “right to conjoin symbols,” and asked if “a wonky convention like J Street is comfortable with metaphor.” He dismissed any suggestion that anyone was calling for a boycott of J Street, creating a “truly J Street dialectic: pro-conference and pro-poetry (a play of words on J Street’s tag line, pro-Israel, pro-peace), which led to applause.

He posed two possibilities: we are either entering a “new age of censoriousness” or an “excitement moment,” and noted what great plays have been performed at Theater J, including “Seven Jewish Children,” and a play featuring both Rachel Corrie and Daniel Pearl. All in all, it was a hopeful moment for both art and the conference, whatever the larger moment we live in.

– Jesse Bacon

J Street welcomes you

(Follow JVP’s Twitter feed at the J Street conference at http://twitter.com/jvplive )

The J Street Conference opened yesterday, with over 1,000 people at the table.

The first plenary session was hosted by Jeremy Ben-Ami (J Street) and Daniel Sokatch (New Israel Fund). Jeremy started by reading letters of support from Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli opposition leader, Tsipi Livni — a tacit response to the Israeli Ambassador to the US, who had decided to boycott the conference; apparently the Ambassador only goes to AIPAC dinners and the like.

Jeremy and Daniel have both been the target of attacks from the right: Jeremy at J Street and Daniel at his previous post at the San Francisco Federation. In Daniel’s case:

Sokatch found himself smack in the middle of a melee over San Francisco’s Jewish film festival when its organizers decided to screen a film about Rachel Corrie, the pro-Palestinian activist who was killed when she lay down in front of an Israeli bulldozer about to raze Palestinian homes, and invite Corrie’s mother to speak at the event without presenting other viewpoints. That was not Sokatch’s doing and he publicly criticized the decision to invite only Corrie’s mother to speak (a pro-Israel speaker was added later). But the backlash fell squarely on his shoulders.

More recently, Sokatch irked some leaders of the San Francisco community when he agreed to speak at the annual conference of J Street, a new organization that has lobbied for U.S pressure on Israel (and the Palestinians) and criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

It should come as no surprise then, that when they both spoke publicly yesterday, they seemed to have been borrowing a page from Muzzlewatch. Jeremy talked about widening the tent, about respect and tolerance for others. He welcomed everyone to the conference.

(Everyone, except for disinvited poets Josh Healey and Kevin Coval)

Daniel looked at the audience and added, We are not the margins of our community, we are the mainstream… Nobody has a monopoly of what it means to be pro-Israel.

Jeremy affirmed that the creation of a Palestinian state is a core pro-Israel position.

It was a good opening night. The question remains whether those that are both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian will fit into this wider tent.

– Sydney Levy

We will not be silent

Speaking at Busboys and Poets in front of huge comic portraits of Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, the disinvited poets Josh Healey and Kevin Coval, together with moderator Laila Al-Arian, showed why it was J Street’s loss that they did not appear at their originally scheduled panel. The duo clearly embodied the “emergent” Jewish identities that J Street desperately hopes to capture, with poems about their families in Israel, why Kevin quit going to shul, and yes, the Holocaust. It was Josh’s invoking of the Holocaust in the same line as the modern American horror that is Guantanamo Bay that occasioned the disinvitation from the J Street conference. As Kevin said, any time a prospective host asks for the full text of your poems, muzzling is usually about to happen. And muzzle J Street did, if regretfully. The feeling seemed to be that J Street didn’t really know what it was getting into, wanting the poets to add a bit of edginess and much-needed “dope outfits” to the proceedings without realizing the force of their honesty.

Sitting in the audience facing these three nonviolent icons, it was hard to feel any threat posed by these poets, even as I was moved by their work. It was certainly true not every line of their poetry exuded the love of Israel so repeatedly invoked later that evening at the J Street conference. But the love of Jews was palpable, and it was nonetheless a real conversation, with the audience actively participating. Josh stressed he and Kevin didn’t always agree. The most critical comment of the night came from a Palestinian, who felt that the Palestine in the poems was a block that didn’t adequately reflect her individual humanity. But this comment from a fellow poet reflected the nature of artistic critique and cross-pollination, worlds away from the smears of right wing blogs. Attendees who identified themselves as J Street were cheered for their presence. One participant in J Street’s student conference said this was the first time he was moved to tears this weekend, a powerful validation of why poetry is different than even the prettiest of speeches. Josh’s mother spoke up in the Q&A to urge people not to boycott J Street, which no one has called for. But I was reminded by her words to see J Street as a work in progress, learning and feeling its way. As Josh posed the question, will it be a two-way street? Later at the opening plenary, I was impressed by the force of J Street’s numbers and resources and real desire to open up the conversation on Israel in Jewish communities. If they are at all successful in that, it will be impossible to keep voices like Josh’s and Kevin’s out.

– Jesse Bacon

How South African Jews ‘protected’ their youth from the Shministim

It is not surprising that the same quarrels among Jews that we see here in the US are also at play in other parts of the world. Take for example South Africa, the land that gave us the word Apartheid.

Check out this cartoon, that appeared in the Mail and Guardian last week…Zapiro cartoon at South Africa\

Before anyone goes running to the hills, shouting ‘Anti-Semitism,’ let’s clarify… the cartoon was drawn by South African leading cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (aka “Zapiro”), who is Jewish and whose kids go to the Herzliah school depicted in the cartoon.

What’s going on here?

Artistic freedom? J Street boycotts and sanctions poet Josh Healey

Yesterday, we reported that J Street canceled the poetry session at their upcoming conference because a right-wing blogger discovered that poet Josh Healey had invoked the Holocaust to write about Palestinians and the war on terror. (Healey was invited to present by J Street staff, and not Theater J as we incorrectly reported).

This cancellation is interesting in part because it follows J Street’s vigorous defense of Israeli artistic expression as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv. (J Street, like numerous other groups, mistakenly used the term boycott to describe the Toronto Declaration protest. The Declaration opposed the focus on Tel Aviv as part of the Brand Israel campaign but explicitly did not call for a boycott. On the other hand, it might be technically accurate to call the booting of Healey an actual form of boycott.)

Healey doesn’t hold back in this interview today, Poet booted from J Street meet for comparing Guantanamo to Auschwitz, in Haaretz :

“I had a conversation with ‘J Street’ staff, and they explained that they are playing the game – Washington politics, and seeking legitimacy. And they are not willing to fight this battle. I was born in Washington, so I’m not surprised to become Van Jones of J Street,” (U.S. President Barack Obama’s “green jobs czar” who resigned over the controversy about his past political associations).

“So Van Jones resigned, but did the right wing stop attacking Obama? On one level, I understand them – it’s easier to get rid of the poet, who cares? But as an artist and a Jewish activist, it’s a matter of principle. If you’re trying to be an alternative to AIPAC – don’t behave like AIPAC.”

“I told them I don’t think it’s the legitimacy they want, because it’s not the legitimacy that makes change. When you’re trying to make change, you must expect that some people will push back. But they kick out their allies – and I still consider myself an ally. I’m not personally offended – I’m politically disappointed. It’s ironic that we were invited to perform and be a part of the dialogue at the track ‘The culture as a tool for change.’ But we can’t even have this dialogue. The Jewish community acts like children, with smear campaigns and name-calling. I am not surprised by the right wing attacks – but that J-Street went along with it and accommodated it.”

Referring to the specific line which stirred the negative emotions, Healey said: “It was taken of context. Judged by themselves, these lines don’t even make sense. Just before this line, I wrote: ‘I remember when the German soldiers put yellow stars on my family coats and they put pink ones on my friends.’ I was talking about de-humanization. And yes, I have family that was killed in the Holocaust. There were Jewish people killed and gay people and Gypsies, and many others, and as a Jew, my solidarity is with my people – and with all people. And my solidarity is with the people of Israel – but also with the people of Palestine. And I believe in two state solution and peace and justice for all people. And if J-Street are not willing to have debate with people who believe in solidarity and humanity, I don’t know what legitimacy they want, because it’s not a moral legitimacy.”

“I love my people, the Jewish people, and that’s why I’m critical – because it’s my people, my family that are silencing people the same way we were silenced and suppressed for centuries,” Healey concluded.

And here as a longer statement from Healey and fellow banned poet Kevin Coval, who wrote, “The reason J Street put us out to dry is because they feel more accountable to the Right-wing than to us. Let’s change that, and open up the debate.”

Searching for a Minyan:
Israel, McCarthyism, & the Struggle for Real Dialogue

by Kevin Coval and Josh Healey

This weekend, J Street, a new Jewish “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” PAC and Washington-based organization is holding its first national conference. The two of us, along with another artist, were to perform and read poems at several sessions during the conference. Specifically, we were invited to lead a workshop on how culture and spoken word create democratic spaces that sift through difficult issues and ensure a multiplicity of voices are heard: and how that can be used to open up the Israel/Palestine debate. Instead, we have been censored and pushed out of that very debate.

This week, some right-wing blogs and pseudo-news organizations latched on to various lines of poems Josh wrote and churned the alarmist rumor mill saying that hateful anti-Israeli poets are keynote speakers at the J Street conference. This is not surprising. The radical right-wing, including the growing Jewish right-wing of this country and abroad, hates complex discourse, especially when it brings to light truths they seek to systematically deny. The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and their AIPAC-influenced brethren have been attacking J Street for weeks, scared that the conference will bring together the majority of American Jews who do favor a more rigorous peace process. When they found Josh’s poems and took lines out of context, they had the perfect straw man: the Van Jones to J Street’s Obama. Again, this is not surprising.

What is disappointing, and troubling, is J Street’s response in caving to this sort of McCarthyism. The executive director of J Street called us to say  “I know what I’m doing is wrong…but there are some battles we choose not to fight,” before canceling our program, and disinviting us from the conference. This accommodates their red-baiting and is the wrong response. Rather than give in, which only emboldens the right and legitimizes their attacks, we need to stand up for our principles and engage on that front. Van Jones is another perfect example: after the Fox News venom became too much and he resigned last month, the radical Right hasn’t stopped attacking Obama, or more accurately, the alternative, progressive voice they fear he represents. The Right stands by its politics, and practices solidarity with their allies. Too often the Left doesn’t. And that’s why we often lose – on health care, on global warming, and on Israel/Palestine.

For the second time in two months Kevin, who is Jewish, has been told not to come to a Jewish conference because of what he will say about Palestine and Israel. This past August, the evening before the International Hillel Conference, conference planners said if he were to read poems about Palestine, they’d rather not have him. Today, Josh, who is Jewish, has had his name thrown into a mudslide of blogs and hate emails. All this  because we are practicing the Jewish maxim of the refusal to be silent in the face of oppression, anyone’s oppression.

One of the key teachings of Judaism is the insistence on wrestling with and debating ideas. There are a thousand years of codified arguing, recorded in the Talmud and Midrash, over the meaning of the stories in the five books of Torah. Jews debate everything. There is the old adage, “when you have two Jews in the room, you have three opinions”. Our families cannot come to agreement about what constitutes a deli as opposed to a diner. (A deli must have pickles on the table with poppy seed rolls, etc….)

But when you try to talk about Palestine there is silence. When you talk about the role the United States plays in supporting Israel and its military coffers, there is no room for discourse. If you bring up Palestinians’ right to return to land they were forced out of, or mention that this past January over 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilian, were killed in Gaza, there is no room to speak in Jewish-centric spaces in this country.

There are many reasons why this trend of censorship is disturbing. We believe in democracy, in the right to speak and be heard and in the right be disagreed with. We are disheartened and outraged by the lack of democratic discourse in the American Jewish community and within the country as a whole.

Why are we scared of what will come from an honest conversation? What do we have to lose, or discover, or admit to if we question the policies of Israel or America’s support of its government and military? It can be unsettling for one’s worldview to unravel, the intricate web of white lies and half-truths pulled apart. This can be disconcerting for generations of Jews who have accepted the propaganda of a chosen people and the acting out of geostrategic nightmares via military might.

Kevin works at a Hillel for Hashem’s sake! He is charged with the task of addressing why so many young Jews are distancing themselves from the religious and cultural practice of Judaism.  This is one of those reasons! American Jews are told at shul to repent for our sins, but silenced if we bring up the sins of the country that acts in our name. We need authentic, honest discourse in the American Jewish community. It must start today and it must be about Palestine and Israel.

So, we are searching for a minyan—a crew of progressives and progressive Jews to build and connect with. We want to have a conversation. Not wait for the conversation to be dictated and have borders and walls built around acceptable topics,  but to have a conversation determined by us, Jews That Are Left, that are on the Left. A conversation that is honest and open and genuinely reclaims and considers our progressive past as well as forges the future world. A conversation engaged in the work of tikkun olam for real, the work of repair and healing and wholeness.

Progressive American Jews where you at? Holla at us! For real: jewsthatareleft@gmail.com. Let’s reshape the conversation. Let’s build a minyan, a coalition of progressive Jews and gentiles who want what is just and right for ALL people and all people in Israel and Palestine.

Editor’s note: the space that Kevin and Josh imagine for progressive Jews and allies “who want what is just and right for ALL people and all people in Israel and Palestine” already exists and it’s called Jewish Voice for Peace.

-Cecilie Surasky