Open Letter to Judea Reform Rabbinical and Lay Leaders
January 5, 2023
Dear Rabbi Soffer and Congregants:
With due respect, there is a rot in this house.
Judea Reform is set to host a panel discussion, “How do we talk to our school-aged kids about antisemitism?” One of your panelists is infamous for spearheading a historic boycott against Israel while mayor of this city.
Steve Schewel’s boycott of an acclaimed Israeli police training program remains on Durham’s municipal books. The resolution is trumpeted on the website of the Israel-hate group, Jewish Voice for Peace. It widened the Overton window, allowing regular Americans to talk about Israel as a bloodthirsty oppressor of Palestinians and black Americans alike since both libels drove the boycott. Schewel said into his mic the night the city council unanimously passed his boycott: “I know the terrible traumas visited on us as a people we are now visiting on others in Gaza and on the West Bank,” casting Israelis as Nazis, a Holocaust inversion.
This, Rabbi, is the man you put forth to school us on antisemitism?
I am stunned we have arrived at this point. But I am not surprised.
Not after the numerous times this temple ignored or rejected my polite yet urgent pleas to tackle the new antisemitism that Schewel helped unleash here—hatred of Israel and its supporters.
Or the times this temple has hosted talks by people who espoused calumnies that Israel is an “apartheid” state and supports gay rights to “pink-wash” supposed atrocities.
Or the time this temple was set to hold a discussion on “disturbing parallels between Nazi concentration camps and US detention centers,” featuring a panelist who Tweeted that since the centers were “run by private corporations” they were “worse” than concentration camps, and that Hillary Clinton was beholden to “wealthy #jewish donors,” until enough outcry forced a cancellation.
Or the time this temple featured a talk by a congressman known for his combative stance against Israel while denying my request for a talk by Zionist Organization of America’s Director of Government Relations, Dan Pollak.
Or the time this temple’s Israel Discourse Advisory Committee in its Report to Board of Trustees took aim at unnamed congregants for unspecified “bad behavior” in relation to the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and pondered how it might “hold the behavior in question up to public scrutiny” and “as a collective entity might assert its moral force” to intimidate and silence the last few outspoken Zionists here through baseless accusations.
Or the time this temple invited Jewish teens to discuss their “white privilege,” an ahistorical, offensive and dangerous proposition that I might expect only from someone who had never met a Jew.
Or the time this temple gave Schewel a “Volunteer of the Year” award, even after his abhorrent boycott.
And yet, by holding up Schewel as a model for fighting antisemitism rather than normalizing it, we seem to have smashed a new window.
This is no argument for the sake of heaven. Do black churches ask racists to lecture churchgoers? Do Catholics honor those who want to dissolve the Vatican? We invite arsonists into our so-called big tent.
The anti-Zionism in here is jaw-dropping. Out there, it’s bone-chilling. Our kids are now uncomfortable identifying as Jews and terrified of being identified as Zionists, and for good reason.
Antisemites in white sheets or brown shirts have always been at our backs. But it's the anti-Zionist hoards yelling “Free Palestine!” who are breathing down our necks.
You pointed out recently that the Reform tradition has since its founding wrestled with its relationship with Israel, as though that somehow justifies what goes on in here.
We might do well also to recall how Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century father of Reform Judaism no less, had nine grandchildren with but a single Jew among them.
I keep in my desk a Life magazine clipping from June 28, 1943, titled “Reply to Zionism.” Even at the hellish height of the Holocaust, Reform leader Lessing J. Rosenwald was arguing against the establishment of a Jewish state, writing “Jewish citizens of other nations would be embarrassed either by its decisions or by its neutrality.”
As Rosenwald wrote those repugnant words, he had the luxury of an ocean between himself and the marked Jews of Europe. That luxury has evaporated. We’re the marked Jews now. Many are asking how many years we have left in this country. Maybe we’re not history’s exception. Zion may be important after all.
And what has the Reform tradition of disdain for Israel wrought, if not bitter fruit?
Parents who regularly sat around the family dinner table, oh-so-honestly parsing whatever crime du jour Israelis were accused of, have come to find they’ve raised youths who—surprise!—want little to do with Israel. Nor are they too keen on being Jewish, period. Many are headed the way of Mendelssohn’s descendants.
Others won’t go so quietly. Banging on about their Jewish bona fides in front of every campus “Israel Apartheid Wall,” they lock arms with non-Jewish anti-Zionist bullies, giving them cover.
So many of us don’t seem to understand that Zionism is our worldwide liberation movement. That Israel is not one prayer in the Mishkan T'filah but the bedrock of our entire religion. And that thousands of years of our being colonized has led so many of us to internalize the lie that we are not entitled to the same dignity, security and self-determination as everyone else on this planet—when indeed we are.
But you, Rabbi, want to both-sides it. “I don’t agree with anti-Zionism personally,” you’ve said. “I find it hurtful.” At the same time you are a member of the rabbinic council of J Street, an organization that filed an amicus brief in support of companies that want to boycott our kin.
This temple’s social action committee looks behind every door for a group to uplift. Yesterday we were buying gift cards to persuade people to get Covid shots. Tomorrow we may take to the streets because smoking pot is a human right.
Reform Judaism is tikkun olam-ing us to death.
Our gorgeous particularism—the very things that make us Jews—has been put in service to some generalized, sanitized “greater good.” We are disappearing ourselves into the great blob of universalism.
But I can think of no greater good than insisting Jews have a place in this world. So I recently urged our social action committee to uplift an altogether new group: Us.
I wanted to raise money for victims of antisemitic violence, teach parents about toxic anti-Israel instruction in schools, and put boots on the ground whenever Jew-hatred emerges around here.
That proposal was a bridge too far. The response from temple brass: “providing a platform for a conversation around antisemitism and anti-Zionism will only serve to divide our sacred community.”
We are at a tipping point. American Jews will hunker down, set boundaries, and emerge stronger if leaner. Or we will fizzle into one more instance of exceptional nothingness.
When you hitch your love for Israel to an apology, you hand ammunition to Jew-haters. When you try to force Israelis to bend to your will, you ratchet up American arrogance. When you soft-pedal anti-Zionism, you engender moral confusion. When you feature anti-Zionists, you amplify Jew-hatred. When you cancel outspoken Zionists, you undermine our defenders.
In a recent sermon, you mused whether “calling all anti-Zionist Jews antisemitic is not, in a twisted away, yet another form of antisemitism.” No wonder so many vocal Zionists have quit this place.
So let me be clear. My Zionism comes with no caveat, no mea culpa, none.
I need Zionism. My children need Zionism. My People need Zionism.
Anti-Zionists oppose the deepest part of me, as a Jew. And that, Rabbi, is wholly unacceptable. Unacceptable in our city government. Unacceptable in our classrooms. And, most of all, unacceptable in our last safe space, our shuls.
The hour is here. The threat is existential.
I urge you, Rabbi: Draw a line. Clean house. Anything less is to be complicit in our undoing.
Am Yisrael Chai.
Member, Judea Reform Congregation