Today, as Jewish communities across the world gather together for Yom Kippur’s collective rituals of atonement, I am thinking about how, in Jewish tradition, words are said to have a sacred power.
In the first chapter of the Torah, God creates the world itself through the power of speech. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites speak as one people at Sinai, thereby entering into a covenant with God. It is said that on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple and utter the otherwise unspeakable Name of God — and at that moment the fate of the very world hung in the balance.
When we release our words into the world, sometimes we cannot immediately see their effects — sometimes their power remains dormant. Other times, our words represent the crossing of a line from which we cannot return.
As the rabbi of Tzedek Chicago — a synagogue that explicitly opposes Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people — I think a great deal about the impact of our words when it comes to the issue of Israel/Palestine.
Contestations Over “Democracy,” “Occupation” and “Apartheid”
We have witnessed the power of words, for instance, over the course of this past year, as thousands of Israelis have been holding regular demonstrations against the current Israeli administration and its plans to gut the power of the Israeli judiciary. Week after week, protesters chanted words in the streets and carried them on signs, voicing their collective outrage over the government’s “threat to Israeli democracy.” More recently, many in the American Jewish community — including many rabbis — have voiced their support for these protests and have even been staging public protests of their own.
On one level, it could be said that these massive rallies have had a powerful impact. They are the largest and most sustained protests in Israeli history and the most massive mobilization of the Israeli left in years. The rhetoric of the rally has also empowered Zionists in general. Many who advocate for Israel will often refer to it as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” I would suggest that the use of this word is powerful for all the wrong reasons. It covers up the reality that while Israel may be a democracy for Jews, it is decidedly not one for Palestinians. Indeed, for many centrist and right-wing Israelis these demonstrations are important because they serve to entrench Zionism and strengthen the Jewish state.
It is true that at many of these demonstrations, there have been some chants and signs condemning Israel’s “occupation.” However, this is an oft-invoked word that can mean different things to different people. For some it refers only to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For others it also includes annexed territories such as East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. For still others, the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is considered to be occupied territory. Thus, when the word “occupation” is invoked during the demonstrations, there is little clarity on what it actually means — or what is actually being demanded.
There is yet another powerful word that has recently emerged in relation to Israel/Palestine, and that word is “apartheid.” Last year, three respected human rights organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli group B’Tselem, all released well-researched reports concluding that Israel is an apartheid regime. Over the past year, many surprising figures have been increasingly using this word in relation to Israel, including a retired Israeli general.
This past year, a letter was posted online by Israeli academics that openly criticized American Jews for “(paying) insufficient attention to the elephant in the room: Israel’s long-standing occupation.” The letter pointedly stated that “there cannot be democracy for Jews in Israel as long as Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid, as Israeli legal experts have described it.” The so-called Elephant in the Room Letter was widely distributed and was eventually signed by Jewish leaders and figures — to date it has over 2,700 signatures.
It is very significant that liberal Jewish leaders are increasingly willing to use the “A” word in public. There is every indication that it is losing its stigmatized, transgressive status in the Jewish community. But even here, the meaning of the word “apartheid” depends on how it is used. The B’Tselem report, for instance, claims that Israeli apartheid extends “from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” The Israeli general, on the other hand, limited it to the West Bank alone.
There are also those who would say that the term “apartheid” itself doesn’t go far enough — that it is a technical term from international humanitarian law that has limited legal applications. Many argue that the word “settler colonialism” is much more powerful because it is related to decolonization — a concrete process of action that includes the return of refugees and reparations to the Palestinian people.
Let’s Find the Courage to Utter Truths That Feel Unspeakable
On Yom Kippur, Jewish people ourselves stand as a community and say the words of our collective confessions together. As our liturgy would have it, we may not be written into the Book of Life for the new year unless we speak these words out loud.
In the face of Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism, what does it mean for us to speak the unspeakable in more ways than one?
Can the liturgies of Yom Kippur embolden us not only to speak the unspeakable Name of God, but also to utter political truths that we have been hiding from?
Years ago, I used to avoid controversial and potentially incendiary words in connection with Israel, feeling that they might well alienate and push away the very people I was trying to reach. I would typically use words I thought were less triggering: “dispossession” instead of “ethnic cleansing,” “non-Zionist” instead of “anti-Zionist,” “occupation” instead of “settler colonialism.”
I feel differently about this now. I actually think it’s important to use words such as these. I believe it’s important to not hide behind euphemisms — to name oppression explicitly. If some words make people uncomfortable, that’s OK. Once a word is said, it can’t be unsaid. It’s now part of the discourse. While some may well recoil from that word, they may well come around to accept it in time.
Words can indeed push the line of what is considered acceptable. But they can also represent one step too far, or the crossing of a line. There is still, for instance, a hard line drawn on the word Zionism. For most Jews, it is still considered beyond the pale to refer to oneself as an anti-Zionist: to break not just with the Israeli government, not just with the 1967 occupation, but with the very concept of an exclusively Jewish nation-state.
In its way, it seems to me that when we say these words and cross this particular line openly, we’re really making a kind of confession. It’s not merely a political opinion — it’s a public admission that our Jewish identity has been inextricably connected to the oppression of another people.
Confronting Hard Truths at the Heart of Zionism
When I was growing up, I was routinely taught that Zionism was the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. But I was never taught that this “liberation” came at the expense of another people. Like many American Jews, I was raised to view the establishment of the state of Israel as the exclusive Jewish homeland; a Jewish refuge after centuries of persecution; a redemptive homecoming following the collective trauma of the Holocaust.
That trauma is compounded by the sense that the world was complicit in it — that the Jewish people were abandoned by the international community. To be sure, the Allied nations should rightly bear deep shame for its inaction during the Holocaust and its refusal to accept Jewish refugees following the war. But even as our Jewish trauma is all too real, it was tragic and profoundly wrong to justify it by inflicting trauma on another people: to establish a Jewish state on their backs and create what has now become the largest refugee population in the world.
When Jewish Zionists publicly confess and act on the truth of this history it can often shake their Jewish identity to the core. This phenomenon often reminds me of something James Baldwin wrote in his classic 1962 essay, “A Letter to My Nephew:”
As you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.
Though Baldwin was addressing white supremacy in the U.S., I think his words are equally applicable to Jewish supremacy in Israel. Zionism has become such an indelible part of Jewish identity that it has caused us to enable — or at the very least tolerate — the oppression of another people. The power of this mythic Zionist narrative manages to keep the truth of this ongoing oppression at bay, lest it causes everything we once held so dear to come crashing to the ground.
I experienced this upheaval personally in 2008, at my former congregation. During Israel’s military assault on Gaza, I experienced deep anguish — and I expressed those feelings in a blog post. While I had often been critical of Israel in the past, this was very different. Rather than using the usual words, calling for “balance” and a plea for “peace on both sides,” I used strong and angry language, explicitly naming Israel as the oppressor. I concluded my post with these words:
We good Jews are ready to protest oppression and human rights abuses anywhere in the world but are all too willing to give Israel a pass. It’s a fascinating double standard, and one I know all too well. I understand it, because I’ve been just as responsible as anyone else for perpetrating it.
So no more rationalizations. What Israel has been doing to the people of Gaza is an outrage. It has brought neither safety nor security to the people of Israel and it has wrought nothing but misery and tragedy upon the Palestinian people.
There I said it. Now what do I do?
Now many years after later, I realize that post was a kind of confession. Though I didn’t know it at the time, when I wrote those words, I was actually crossing a line that would eventually force me to leave my congregation. To use Baldwin’s words, it was upheaval so profound that it attacked my sense of my own reality. I was fairly sure I couldn’t continue as a congregational rabbi — and I wasn’t completely sure what kind of Jew I would be either.
But once our words are out in the world, there are myriad ways their power might be manifested. I was eventually able to recover my Jewish identity along with my Jewish conscience. Speaking those words was unexpectedly liberating. I discovered there were other Jews like me — lots and lots of them. And together we became part of an emergent Jewish community that had the freedom to say out loud what must be said. I have no illusions that there is a distinct minority of Jews on this side of the line, but I also know that there are many who are now crossing over, breaking their silence on Israel/Palestine in unprecedented ways.
Solidarity With Palestinians Is a Mitzvah — a Sacred Act
The new Jewish community that I’m a part of is creating a new counternarrative to the Zionist narrative that has been dominant for so long. One critical part of this counternarrative is the understanding that standing in solidarity with Palestinians is a mitzvah — a sacred act. Those who engage in solidarity with disenfranchised people know that while words may have great power, words can quickly lose their power if they do not lead to action.
Indeed, history is littered with the betrayal of empty words, promises unkept and treaties broken. It can often be a challenge for those who are trying to practice solidarity in good faith. The growing popularity of land acknowledgements is significant and important — but as many Native people have pointed out, they amount to empty words unless they contain accountability — unless they exist in a larger context of decolonization and reparation. As President Robert Larsen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community has put it, “An apology or an acknowledgment is one thing, but what are you going to do next?”
The same applies to those of us who express solidarity with the Palestinian people. Yes, the words we say matter, but unless they lead to genuine transformation, they will remain little more than empty words. Words represent the initial spark, but once kindled, it takes real effort to sustain and increase its power. We must take active responsibility to maintain that initial spark — otherwise, it will eventually sputter out.
Putting our words of solidarity with Palestinians into action can take many forms, but a core priority requested by Palestinian civil society groups is for support of BDS — the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. I invite any Truthout readers who are interested to attend a free online Yom Kippur conversation on September 25, with Omar Barghouti, the cofounder of the BDS National Committee, who will be talking about “Repentance, Reparation and Ethical Reconciliation: A Palestinian Vision for Common Liberation.”
And readers from all faith communities can organize their religious institutions to sign a pledge from the Apartheid-Free Communities initiative, a newly created interfaith coalition convened by the American Friends Service Committee. In that statement, signatories pledge “to join others in working to end all support to Israel’s apartheid regime, settler colonialism and military occupation.” Signing a public pledge like this helps grow our courage to speak unspeakable truths and struggle to live out these words as a community.
In the Shacharit service (the Jewish morning prayer) we say the words, “Baruch she’amar ve’haya ha’olam” — “Blessed is the one who spoke and the world became.” While this literally refers to God, it is also a statement about the potential within each and every one of us. Our words have the power to transform our lives and our world — indeed, to create whole worlds anew.
So, on this day I offer this as a collective blessing to challenge us all: Let us find the courage to speak the words that must be spoken. Let our words kindle sparks of possibility, and may they inspire us all to create the world we know is possible — a world of justice, repair and wholeness for all who dwell on Earth.
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