Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Korach 5781

I came across a post on Facebook this week that I sat with for a long time and then hesitantly re-posted. It’s by a woman named Leah Solomon who lives in Jerusalem. I don’t know her, I’m not even her Facebook friend. But we have friends in common and she works for Encounter, an organization that brings Jews and Palestinians together to listen to one another. I read her words and I want to share them with you in their entirety.

She said:

“I met last week with a dear Palestinian friend who lives in the Old City, near Damascus Gate – a center of much “unrest” over the past couple months. I asked him how he and his family have been. What he shared has been weighing so heavily on me that it took me a few days to feel like I could share. This is a close friend who I trust completely. There is no question in my mind that everything he shared fully reflects reality. That I feel the need to state that is important to note and circle back to.
But first, my friend’s story:

He lives in the Muslim Quarter with his wife and three boys under the age of ten. Recently, Israeli Jews moved into a building on his street as part of what Ateret Cohanim calls the “Jerusalem Reclamation Project.” As is standard in such cases, there is now a permanent Israeli border police presence stationed along his street, ostensibly to protect the Jewish residents from Palestinian residents.

Recently, he shared, the police have been much more aggressive than usual. He tries to stay out of their way, especially when with his kids, but now that they are permanently stationed on his street he can’t avoid them. On several occasions they have shoved him and hit him, including next to his children. “Did you do something? Do you know why they hit you?”, I ask. Because no matter how many such stories I hear, I still cannot process a scenario in which police shove people who are simply walking to their homes – especially my friend, who is incredibly gentle. “Leah, I promise you, I never do anything. They’re just looking for trouble.” I don’t know how to understand this — those kids in uniform are “our boys”, they could be my own boys in a few years — but I know my friend and I know he wouldn’t exaggerate this, let alone lie. His kids ask him, “why do the Jews hit you, Daddy?” He doesn’t know how to answer. He can’t stand that they see this.

One day a few weeks ago he dropped his wife and boys outside Damascus Gate since cars can’t enter the Old City, and watched them walk in before going to park the car. The area was quiet. Then he heard a massive explosion. He jumped out of the car and ran to his family. He realized then that it was “just” a stun grenade – one of the theoretically harmless “riot dispersal measures” the police use frequently in East Jerusalem. These days I often fall asleep to the sound of stun grenades, in my bed over two kilometers away. It exploded right next to his kids. They were utterly terrified. An old woman nearby fell down but he didn’t go to her because he was too worried about his kids and his wife.
“Why did they throw a stun grenade?” I ask. “There must have been a reason!”

“Leah, I swear, it was very quiet,” he says. “There was nothing happening. They just throw them randomly every once in a while. They want to make their presence known. It keeps things quiet.” His kids have been much more scared ever since.

My friend is one of the least “political” people I know. And he has close connections with many Jews. His kids keep asking “why do the Jews hate us?” He has been trying very hard to differentiate for them between Jews and Israelis and army/police but it’s getting harder and harder to explain.

He didn’t send his kids to school all month. He was too worried about them having a run-in with the police. He has built a home in a suburb of Bethlehem, and his family now mostly lives there, where things are quieter. He pulled his kids out of their school in the Old City because he is too scared to have them there, and put them in school in a less sensitive neighborhood. He stays in his home in the Old City once a week because if the Israeli authorities find out that they’ve left Jerusalem, he and his whole family could have their Jerusalem residency revoked – and thereby lose the freedom of movement and other minimal rights that Jerusalem residents have which West Bank residents lack. He feels exhausted and I’ve never heard him sound so despairing.
As I write this I find myself imagining what you, my reader, are thinking. I am assuming you are a Jew who cares about Israel and the Jewish people, because that’s most of who reads what I write. And I imagine that, like me, your first instinct is to second-guess everything I’ve written here, to assume that he MUST have done something, or his kids must have done something, or the police must have had some inside information that meant they NEEDED to set off that stun grenade — there must have been a justification. Because “we” don’t do things like this just because. I remember this from 2018, when Israeli soldiers killed many people marching near the Gaza border: the logic I heard over and over was inverted. Not “they were terrorists so the army shot them,” but instead “the army shot them so they must have been terrorists.” The very fact of being injured or killed by the army was in itself a testament to their guilt, because our boys would never shoot someone innocent. And so too here: even I could not avoid skepticism and suspicion seeping into my reception of his story. How much more so you, who did not look in his eyes as he told this story?

But that is entirely faulty logic. People are not guilty by virtue of being abused and oppressed. We need to start listening and hearing the truth and realities of their experience, and asking ourselves what this means about us, about who we are and what we are building in this land.

One more note: I almost didn’t share this because I was, and am, afraid that stories like this will be used as fodder by those who simply hate Israel, Israelis, and even all Jews. But I decided to share anyway. In part because of two similar stories I heard this week, directly from the Palestinians who lived through them, one even worse than I’ve described here. Because we need to know. The solution to people using these stories against us can’t be hiding them. It needs to be taking responsibility for doing whatever we can to ensure they don’t happen in the first place. We need to look this in the face for what it is, and hold ourselves and our people and our government accountable. There are no quick fixes. But nothing will change unless we see and acknowledge the reality – that much I know.”

This story was hard for me to read and even harder for me to post. I, too, was worried that it would be used against Israel’s very existence. And I knew that it would raise the question, perhaps one you’re asking now, about why I didn’t instead tell a story of an Israeli family living in the South near the Gaza border, whose fields have been burned by incendiary balloons, who have lived months of their lives in bomb shelters, who startle in the night from the slightest sound, living as they do with the nightmare of the Hamas tunnels, fearing as they do that Hamas militants might pop up in their backyard. Those stories also need to be heard.

I opened a recent sermon on Shabbat morning telling the story of Jared Dougall, a 19-year old CBE member living in Tel Aviv, who texted me from a bomb shelter about his terrifying experiences rushing to safety in the middle of the night. Jared, who’s a progressive Park Slope kids and one my son Benji’s best friends, wanted to know how Americans kids on Insta can sit back and judge Israel with no compassion for what it’s like to be a Jew in the world surrounded by enemies, hated on all sides, rushing to shelter from rockets aimed specifically to kill civilians.

I do think that whatever we say about Israel and about Palestine should be grounded in the real lives of the real people who live right at the seam between these two nations, two aspirations, two hatreds, two longings.
Leah Solomon ended her story with the question: Do we share stories like this? Can we? Or will they all be used by one side to delegitimize the other? Are they just fodder in a war of words?
Because beyond the war of stun grenades and incendiary balloons, rockets and bombs, tunnels and home seizures, there is a war of words. That war is about: Who is deserving and who is not? Who is at fault and who is not? Who is responsible? Who started it? Who was here first? Who is the oppressed? Who is in danger? Who is hateful? Who is the victim? Who is the oppressor? Whose needs matter? Whose lives are valued? Whose history counts? Whose future must be secured?

In this country, the United States, we’ve been decrying the use of language in domestic affairs that aims to deceive, to obscure, to relativize facts, and to make truth irrelevant. The last five years are not, of course, the first time that oft-repeated lies were believed, such that then it didn’t matter anymore what was true. But the last five years have seen an acceleration and normalization of lying, a departure from any tethering of language to truth, any attempt at accountability in argumentation. The goal is victory, not truth.

Last Thursday we gathered CBE’s teens at their request and the request of their parents, as they face a war of words about Israel and Palestine in their classrooms and on social media. This is a war laced with antisemitism, a war that they feel entirely unequipped for. Many of the words and slogans they are facing are more about victory than truth. Here are some of the slogans and statements they are trying to sort through:
Zionism = Racism.
Israel is a Nazi state.
Free Palestine from the River to the Sea.
Hamas is a terrorist organization.
The Israeli Defense Forces is the most moral army in the world.
The Palestinians do not want peace.
Criticizing Israel is antisemitism.
Israel is a settler-colonialist project.
Israel is an apartheid state.
Boycott Divestment Sanctions against Israel is antisemitic.
Israel is engaging in ethnic cleansing.
Anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people.
We are the people Israel, who believe in Tzedek/justice and Tikkun Olam/repair of the world.
Jews are just white people who need to own their white privilege.
You can’t support Black Lives Matter and the State of Israel at the same time.
Which of these statements are true? Which of these statements are partially or sometimes true? Which of these statements are entirely false? What do these words mean? Who decides?

This week in Torah, we are in the wilderness. We have just learned that we’re all going to die there. Korach, a Levite, gathers 250 leaders of the community in a coup attempt against Aaron and Moses, framing the revolt in populist language: “You have gone too far!” he says to Moses. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” Korach’s claim is confusing, because on its face it’s true. Gd calls us a goi kadosh, a holy people — all of us are holy. Gd tells us that if we build the mishkan, Gd will dwell in our midst and then Gd’s cloud does dwell in our midst. It sounds like Korach is speaking for the people and telling the truth. But it turns out that Korach’s seemingly egalitarian grievance was cover for his own ambitions. He wanted to be elevated to the priesthood over Aaron. He was using words and engaging in argument not to seek truth but to win. This is what I see happening in the war of words on Israel/Palestine, and it has me deeply troubled.
Our first priority at CBE is to create a space where we can be in courageous dialogue with one another across our differences on the questions of Israel/Palestine. It is rare to find a place in the Jewish world where all voices are welcome, where we listen to one another with compassion, where criticism of Israel is allowed, where we’re open to hearing a story from a perspective that challenges us and expands our own understanding. We are such a place and will remain such a place. And we will always look for opportunities to listen first to the people who are directly affected, the people who live there. In the way that I started my words tonight with a real life story about real life people, I always want us to return to what’s actually happening on the ground, because great suffering is taking place while we argue.

What I’m about to say is not meant to shut that conversation down or narrow it. But tonight I’d like to take on just a few of the words and arguments being used about Israel, because I think they are largely clouding and not clarifying, harming more than helping, designed to win the argument instead of deepening the understanding.

First, the idea that Zionism equals racism. This slogan, I believe, was first introduced to the world by the Palestinian delegation to the UN Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. It has gained traction over the last 20 years and is now assumed to be a tautology by many. This slogan has made it almost impossible for progressive people to identify as Zionists.
As we recall, though, Zionism was the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It came from a recognition that Jews faced ongoing antisemitism in diaspora, especially in Europe, antisemitism that was not improving with time. Despite the Enlightenment, Jewish emancipation from the ghettos, and the assimilation of Jews in Western Europe, we were perennially seen as dangerous foreign elements and subject to violence and oppression across the continent. Zionists felt that Europe would never be a safe place for Jews, that the only long-term solution was to form our own nation-state, ideally by return to Eretz Yisrael, to live together and govern ourselves. Zionism was not a theory or attitude about the Palestinian people or Arabs. To the degree that it was about anyone other than Jews, it was about giving up on the idea that white, Christian European societies would ever embrace the Ashkenazi Jews in their midst. This was not racism — it was prescience.

However, when waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine, was Zionism sometimes applied in racist ways against Palestinians? Absolutely. For example, the slogan “a people without a land for a land without a people” — referring to Jews and the land of Israel — made invisible the existence and history of the Palestinian people. That’s racism. Has the Israeli government acted in racist ways against the Palestinians since 1948? No question. Is Israeli culture racist against Mizrachi and Ethiopian Jews as well as Arabs? Definitely. But Zionism is not racism. It is our national liberation movement, and though it started in Europe it is most fervently championed by Jews who were expelled from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and Ethiopia — people who would be considered people of color in the United States are many of the most fervently Zionist Israeli Jews. Finally, Zionism is simply the dream that the Jewish people could live in safety, freedom, and peace. It does not by definition deny anyone else’s right to self-determination and freedom. In fact, it holds a vision of respecting and living in peace with our Palestinian and Arab neighbors. I would like to retain and reclaim the word Zionism.

Next slogan: “The Israeli army is the most moral army in the world.” The IDF has a remarkable ethics code, and many examples can be given about exemplary moral acts during the War of Independence, the Six Day War, and the Yom Kippur war. But Israeli revisionist historians have documented and proven that this is only one side of the story, and the reality is much more complex. There were massacres in Lod, in Deir Yassin, and elsewhere. Dehumanization of Palestinian people became normalized. And 54 years of grinding, suffocating occupation not only destroyed generations of Palestinian lives and futures, but also distorted the Israeli soul, causing Jewish young people in the army to abuse Palestinians, to torment them, to terrify them, to humilitate them, to be cruel, and to harden into that cruelty. This truth must be faced, owned, and ended.

What about the slogan that “Israel is a settler-colonialist project”? This claim is widely asserted on social media and in progressive coalitions, and some of our students are being taught it in their schools. If it was true, it would morally delegitimize the State of Israel. But it’s not based in reality.
There are three main problems with this claim. The first is that it assumes that the Palestinian people are a real people indigenous to the land (which they are), but that the Jewish people are not a real people indigenous to the land. Some come to this by arguing that Jews are only a religion, not a people like the Palestinians are a people. We know that unlike Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus, the Jewish people are not just a religion but a specific people, with several languages unique to us and at least a 3,000 year history in the land. A second problem with this claim is that it denies the Jewish people’s history, not only in the land but also in the world. Colonialists are external actors who invade and conquer a land from a different land that is their home. Most of the Jews who live in Israel have no other home to go to, because they were expelled, massacred, oppressed, or nearly annihilated in the countries they came from. And the reason we had to come from other countries in the 19th and 20th centuries is because we, the Jewish people were colonized and then expelled from Israel by the Roman army in the year 70. A third problem with the claim is that it assumes that Jews are settlers acting on behalf of the colonial interests of the United States or Europe. This reinforces old antisemitic ideas that Jews are secret agents sneakily operating for other hidden powers. It also denies our own real need for our home as an independent people. It is true that America and Europe benefit from Israel’s presence in the Middle East and fund Israel, but the Jewish people are our own people acting on our own behalf.

And this brings us to the final argument I want to counter tonight, the idea that criticism of Israel, in particular disproportionate criticism of Israel, is antisemitism. It is actually entirely appropriate for Jews to focus our human rights protests on Israel, because Israel represents us, the Jewish people. Israel is not a puppet of the United States or Europe. It is an independent Jewish country and we have some measure of responsibility for how it represents Judaism and Jews, even though those of us who do not live in Israel have limited power and influence from here.

In addition, non-Jewish Americans have a particular responsibility to criticize Israel’s human rights abuses because Israel is one of America’s closest allies and by far the largest recipient of US aid. The United Nations, however, does not have a legitimate reason to target disproportionate condemnation at Israel, as it is responsible for addressing human rights abuses worldwide. But the UN General Assembly issued 17 resolutions against Israel in 2020, and 6 against all other countries in the world combined. That is egregious antisemitism. But for Americans and Jews, it is appropriate to focus more closely on Israel than any other human rights violator in the world, except for our own country, the United States. If we are attending to human rights abuses in this country as much as we attend to those of Israel, it is not antisemitic for Americans and American Jews to criticize Israel’s human rights abuses more harshly than we do any other country in the world besides our own.

Finally, I want to say that the current situation in Israel/Palestine is untenable, immoral, and must change; and solutions are hard to see. Conditions in Gaza are obscene, and Hamas’s charter declares the death of Jews and Israel as a primary goal. Israeli society has become inured to the suffering of the Palestinians and has largely given up on peace, and the ascendancy of Israel’s right wing, with its extensive settlement construction in the West Bank, makes a two state solution appear impossible by design. However, I continue to hold on to the vision of a two state solution, because both peoples deserve to self-govern. I do not know how to get there from here, except to listen to the people on the ground who are working for coexistence. I acknowledge that the left in this country is increasingly imagining a one state solution, or a binational state. In order to do so responsibly and without antisemitism, one must care as much about Jewish lives as one cares about Palestinian lives; one must acknowledge as legitimate both the Jewish claim to the land and the Palestinian claim to the land. One must be realistic about the dangers posed to the Jewish minority in any such imagined future.

For now, I suggest for us a three-fold plan. First, let’s build a rapid response team of Jews and Muslims to respond together to antisemitic and Islamophobic hate acts in New York City. I have some interested leaders in the Muslim community. If you want to co-lead or join this team, let me know. Second, let’s get back into conversation with one another about Israel/Palestine. I am aware that we have people with perspectives from the far left to the far right in this community. We held a dialogue series three years ago, but didn’t have much far left presence. We need all of the voices, particularly those who feel marginalized or not represented by my own views. If that’s you, please let me know so I can include you in this next wave of dialogues which will happen in the coming year. Finally, I would like to bring the teen learning session I did last Thursday to the adults of our community. David Kasakove, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, Tehilah Eisenstadt, and Rabbi Kolin were key partners in developing a document that articulates a progressive Zionist response to this moment in a way that I think will be useful to many of you.

From my perspective, the bottom line answer to many of the questions is Both. Both Israelis and Palestinians are deserving. Both were there first. Both are at fault. Both sides have a right and a need for safety, self-determination, and freedom. Because both are oppressed—differently, but truly, and here’s how. Israel has a dramatic, unjust power advantage over the Palestinians that is oppressive, deadly, and devastating. It must be undone. Bothsideism would deny this power differential and the resulting injustice, and that’s not what I’m doing. At the same time, however, the world hates Jews with a unique and persistent hatred that not only endangers us wherever we’ve lived, but since the 20th century continually holds out the threat of our total annihilation.

In response to the Torah portion this week, the Rabbis contrast Korach’s use of populist rhetoric aimed for victory with the arguments of the houses of Hillel and Shammai, who disagreed for generations but were aiming at truth. About their arguments, the Talmud tells us that a heavenly voice went forth saying, “Eilu v’eilu devarim Elohim chaim. Both these and these are words of the living Gd.”

We can disagree and still stay in the conversation with one another. We can have conversations based in listening that bring us closer to truth. We can tell the stories of the real lives of Palestinians and Israelis. We can protest injustice and power differentials while still believing in Zionism. We can have compassion for the experience of Israelis while standing up for Palestinian human rights.

These and these are the words of the living God.

These and these deserve to be safe and deserve to be free.