I am not averse to slogans and clichés in general. Complex ideas and humanistic visions often can be boiled down to an aphoristic core that can deliver an intended message succinctly to a broad audience. “Don’t just sit there, do something,” for example, will always snap me out of my lethargy and get me going where I need to go without overthinking. “Question Authority” reminds me that I value challenging the status quo and gets me to “do the right thing.”
As a rabbi who identifies as an anti-Zionist, meaning I reject the idea that Israel must continue to be an ethnonationalist state, the difficult conversations I’ve had about prominent slogans heard at protests and shared online have not been with Palestinians but with those who still believe that statehood is a prerequisite for Jewish life to be sustained in Israel/Palestine. The current campaign to destroy Gaza and expel all its inhabitants has made conversations across that divide much harder and at the same time more urgent. The difficulty in talking across differences has been exacerbated by the fact these slogans and clichés are misunderstood and misrepresented. Two examples come to mind.
The first took place over email a few weeks ago, when I learned that a local synagogue was being used as a site for a fundraiser for Friends of the IDF, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting the Israeli military. I forwarded an essay written by a member of the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) that was critical of the synagogue for renting space to this group to a friend at the synagogue in the hope that she might intervene. She, in turn, forwarded it to her rabbi, who sent a thoughtful note about the reasons the synagogue had made that decision. But the rabbi also made it clear that JVP was beyond the pale because they did not support “Israel’s Right to Exist,” a slogan the rabbi repeated three times in the course of their response.
To me, this claim is baffling, because, legally speaking, the issue of Israel’s current existence is a given. Palestinians do not deny that the state of Israel exists, and all neighboring Arab states have acknowledged and accepted UN resolution 242, passed by the Security Council in 1967, which states clearly:
Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.
But I have to assume that to the rabbi, the slogan describes the fear that Israel will someday not exist as a Jewish-majority, exclusivist and ethnonationalist state. At the very least, I imagine the rabbi fears that Palestinians and other Arab states, despite UN Res. 242, do not want to share the land with Jews, but want to make the land Judenrein, free of Jews — raising the specter of the Holocaust and all other expulsions the Jews have experienced over the centuries.
Similarly, when Zionist Jews hear the words “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” they do not think, as I do, that this slogan means the desire for a secular democratic state in which Palestinians and Israelis are both free “from the river to the sea.”
Their first thoughts tend to turn to the possibility that Palestinians, led by Hamas, will assume unilateral control and treat Jewish Israelis as Israel has treated Palestinians from the Nakba to today. Under this fictional interpretation the Palestinian goal would be to bring an end to Israel’s “right to exist.” Zionists tend to react to the slogan with fear and anger and claim the phrase itself is antisemitic.
Given all these assumptions and predispositions, I can understand why some people might feel fear when they hear “from the river to the sea.” But I would like them also to understand that most of the people chanting it — including Rep. Rashida Tlaib — are simply asking to live without domination, and that in most usages that we hear today, the slogan implies freedom for all.
Misunderstandings and deliberately false framing of these slogans and clichés have been used as conversational weapons to keep us from finding common ground. There has never been a time when the stakes were as high or the vitriol as poisonous as now. We have gone from misunderstood slogans to a full-scale word war, as the urgency to stop the violence and destruction of Gaza increases with every day. About this, my liberal Zionist friends and I agree.
However, while we both want to stop the destruction and ensure peace and security for everyone, a new “fighting slogan” has emerged: Ceasefire Now. As a member of Rabbis for Ceasefire, I and a group of rabbinic colleagues (over 230 at last count) have adopted that slogan because we think it holds an answer to this intractable dilemma. We believe that the ongoing violence cannot possibly create a better future, and, based on historical experience, we know that the devastation being wreaked on Palestinians won’t lead to peace or justice.
We have spent many hours these past few weeks encouraging our liberal Zionist rabbinic colleagues to sign on to our statement, and some have. The statement mourns deeply the loss of life of Israelis and Palestinians, is critical of Hamas’s attacks on civilians, and calls out Israel’s horrifyingly disproportionate attacks in Gaza (and the West Bank) that have murdered many thousands of civilians, including over 8,000 children.
The call for Ceasefire Now that has been building around the world is predicated on the assumption that there is no military solution, and there has never been. Israel should have learned that lesson already. War against the PLO in 1973 or 1982, Hezbollah in 2006, or Hamas in 2008 did not bring peace, and it won’t now.
We argue that permanent ceasefire means no more bombing, no more ground war, and releasing the rest of the hostages. It means demanding our president and congress, in concert with other nations, make real demands on Israel and Hamas to end hostilities, and insist that Israel allow in humanitarian aid and end the siege. We base our plea on the idea that the Holocaust-derived slogan “Never Again” means never again for anyone.
I must assume that our colleagues (and legislators) who have not joined us see “ceasefire now” as “fighting words” rather than an expression of the value shared across our religious traditions that holds all life as precious. Perhaps they think that our demand does not give adequate attention to the “security” of Israel and return of the hostages. But the mass murder and ethnic cleansing that is taking place in Gaza — in which more children have been killed in a matter of weeks than in all global conflicts last year, and Palestinians face a total humanitarian crisis as Israel withholds access to food, water and electricity — leaves no room for this debate over words. Israel’s violence must end.
Neither Palestinians nor Israelis can be safe unless Palestinians have justice. Peace with justice is the only possible road to the humanistic vision of sharing the land in a society premised on equality. The call for a permanent ceasefire is not simply a slogan; it is a plan of action, a plan for peace, and a plea to end the systematic destruction of an entire society.
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