Letter to a Young Jew

I’m thrilled that you got in touch to ask me about your discomfort with the prayer for Israel we did in the shul during High Holy Days. I’m also very happy to hear that you are finding ways to express your sense of Jewish identity in resistance to the evils of our day. Jews, with our natural bend toward community, have created a number of activist organizations on our local scene: Matzah Bloc, Alberta Shul, Bend the Arc’s Moral Minyan, Never Again Action, and TischPDX, among others. In all of these I appreciate the chance to show up as a Jew in support of other marginalized communities, and to make common cause to struggle for justice.

To me all this comes from a very Jewish place, and my protest ethics are informed by Jewish sources both rabbinic and prophetic: 

1. It was the Israelite prophets who insisted that we must support the vulnerable or our society is doomed, so I feel that my actions when I protest ICE or police brutality are directly in line with Isaiah or Jeremiah or Huldah. Those prophets were declaring their fiery words directly at the government of the kingdom of Israel. Jeremiah was arrested for sedition and thrown in jail by the king who wanted to him. Elie Weisel (may he rest in peace) was famous for saying that Jews “speak truth to power” and it’s an ancient Jewish ethic.

2. Jews do not condemn human beings, we condemn human behavior. In a famous ancient story, a rabbi (Meir) is assaulted by a gang and subsequently prays for their deaths. His partner, also a rabbi (Bruriah), asks how Meir can possibly believe such a prayer could be acceptable. Rather, she counsels, he should pray for those who do evil to repent – so he does. We pray for the end of evil, not the end of evil-doers.
Thus the Jewish liturgy includes prayers for the U.S. government and the Israeli government. Not that they should prosper in their wickedness, but to speak our optimism that every human being, created in the image of G*d, is capable of evil, and of turning from evil and doing good. 

Jewish prayer has a lot of purposes. Maybe you remember the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof who insisted that there is a blessing for everyone and everything? his students ask him, if that’s so, what’s the blessing for the Czar (under whom Jews were massacred regularly). He offers the immortal line “may G*d bless and keep the Czar…far away from us.” Prayer is not agreement. It’s review, it’s musing, it’s sometimes a cry of anger against G*d, it’s sometimes disgust. To care enough about good to be disgusted by evil is also a kind of prayer. Apathy is the only non-prayer I know.

3. I’m also informed by the Jewish teaching that all is one, that all existence is connected. As Alice Walker wrote, I know that if I cut a tree my arm will bleed. All of us are part of the same living continuum. It’s a cop out, according to Jewish mystical tradition, to say that someone or some thing is demonic, i.e. beyond the bounds of human. It’s a disinclination to recognize that we are all capable of evil, an frankly all it does is draw the circle of our capacity smaller than it actually is. We can only defeat evil when we understand and own it as being a human failing that we can understand and recognize.

One final note. On the Left, Jews are usually asked to leave their Jewish particularity at the door. Events are held on Shabbat or Jewish holy days, because we’re a very small group, percentage-wise, in every social justice movement. Many Jews are not entirely proud of their Jewishness anyway. 

It’s important, ethically, to me to distinguish between protest against the Israeli government and the occupation, and condemnation of every Israeli. There are groups in Israel/Palestine in which Palestinians and Jews work arm in arm together for peace and justice; there are bilingual schools which teach Arabic and Jewish culture and language together. 

Blanket dismissal of any people – our own included – is just bigotry. Lumping a state’s government in with its people is sloppy and wrong (anyone who condemns the protesters in Portland because of their Mayor is similarly wrong). As a Jew, I believe it is a mitzvah to work for social justice in Israel, just as I do in the U.S. I’m not pro- or anti-U.S. or pro- or anti-Israel; I’m anti-cruelty, anti-occupation, anti-oppression anywhere and everywhere. It’s in the U.S. where I am a citizen, and Israel where my people comes from, where I must make those words live.

May these days of Hanukkah bring warmth and illumination for you in the midst of all this darkness of fear and hatred.

Some reading if you’re into it:

Reflections on Being a Jewish Activist:


The difference between criticizing Israel and being antisemitic:

and intersectionality:


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