Dear TEMV community:

Below is a letter written by Rabbi Toba Spitzer, a brilliant and thoughtful writer, human rights activist, congregational rabbi, and respected colleague and fellow member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Rabbi Spitzer’s words beautifully sum up all I’ve been thinking and feeling (and more), and her links provide greater insight for those who would read further. Let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and for all peoples, everywhere.

—Rabbi Robin Sparr

It has been an extremely difficult few days for those of us who care about the people living in Jerusalem, in Gaza, in Israel and the West Bank. I cannot, in an email, summarize all that I’ve been thinking about; it’s hard to even put into words the grief I feel. Our president’s truly reckless actions in recent days – pulling the U.S. out of the accord to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities; the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem – have destabilized an already unstable region, while bolstering, in very different ways, the most extreme and violent voices in that region. The opening of the embassy yesterday defied the wisdom that guided every U.S. administration of the past 70 years – Democrat and Republican – that understood the powerful attachment that both Jewish Israelis and the Palestinian people have to the city, and its enormous symbolic power for Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the world. The president has appeased his extreme rightwing Christian base – a group that cares little for Jews or Muslims as it celebrates one more step towards fulfilling a catastrophic end-time prophecy that will harken the second coming of Jesus Christ – and in doing so has, to my mind, actively endangered Israel, further disempowered the Palestinians, and rendered impossible any concrete movement towards a two-state solution.

At the same time, the death and maiming of so many people at the Gaza border is truly heartbreaking. I know that there are very different narratives about what is happening there: many Israelis who feel they are actively threatened by militants using the demonstrations to try to infiltrate and harm Israel; Palestinians and many others around the world who are shocked and dismayed at the level of force being used by Israeli soldiers against the demonstrators. What is true is that these clashes began as a nonviolent demonstration by people living in intolerable conditions, trying to raise awareness about their situation and to exert a new kind of leadership. It is profoundly troubling that many innocent people – including children, and journalists, and those not near the fence – have been killed and wounded in recent days. I found helpful this editorial from Ha’aretz, the progressive Israeli newspaper, and share it here for those who are interested in a thoughtful Israeli critique. And I also recommend the website of the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, which has worked in Gaza since the Israeli disengagement in 2005, and offers context for the current situation here.

All of these events come in the context of the contested narratives of Israeli and Palestinian realities.  Today, May 15, is the secular anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.  It is also known as “Nakba – Catastrophe – Day” among the Palestinian people.  This recent op-ed by Ayman Odeh, an Israeli Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, explains the meaning of this day to Palestinians, and his hopes as both an Israeli and a Palestinian for how to transform the current reality into something more hopeful for all of Israel’s citizens.

At moments that feel as demoralizing and hopeless as this, I try to make it my practice to remind myself of those doing the hard work on the ground of building relationships, rather than destroying them; those working to transform hatred and grief.  There is Kehillat Zion, a progressive Israeli community in Jerusalem dedicated to interfaith relations and social action, which organized an interfaith Jerusalem Day commemoration this past Saturday night, lifting up the varied communities of Jerusalem, Jewish and Palestinian.

There are the Jews and Palestinians directly touched by the violence of the conflict – as fighters (Combatants for Peace) and as bereaved family members (Parents Circle – Family Forum) – working together in deeply transformative ways. There is the Jerusalem Hand in Hand school  and Kids for Peace Jerusalem, bridging the deep divides between Jewish and Palestinian youth and families in a city marked by profound division and oppression. There are over one hundred organizations on the ground – in Israel, in the West Bank – working to transform the conflict, empower those most affected by the occupation, and foster the relationships that will be necessary to build any kind of alternative future for both Israelis and Palestinians. You can learn about all of these organizations through the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

At the Mother’s Day Walk this past Sunday, I was moved to hear the chant, “Pain Into Power.” This was the call of those most directly affected by gun violence in Boston to transform their personal pain into the power to effect change. May the profound pain of this moment in Gaza, in Jerusalem, throughout the Middle East, be transformed into the power of love, the power of justice, the power of people to bring about the change that our leaders cannot.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

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