"What is at Stake in Gaza" Talk by Rabbi Brian Walt at United Nations Advocacy Week of the World Council of Churches

Posted 10/20/2010 - 10:30 by Rabbi Brian Walt

What is at stake in Gaza?

Posted by rabbibrian on October 19, 2010

Three weeks ago, I had the honor of participating as a Jewish observer at the United Nations Advocacy week of the World Council of Churches. This annual event meets in Geneva, Switzerland and focuses on issues of human rights, justice and peace in two different countries each year. This year the focus was on Israel/Palestine and Nigeria

I was invited as co-founder of Taanit Tzedek-Jewish Fast for Gaza to be part of a panel on “What is at stake in Gaza?” and to address this question from the perspective of participants in Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza. You can read a report about the panel on the World Council of Churches website.

The following is the text of my talk:

World Council of Churches

What's at Stake in Gaza? A Taanit Tzedek/Jewish Perspective

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thank you so much for inviting me to be a Jewish observer at this sacred gathering. I was also honored to attend the launch of the Kairos document in Bethlehem in December 2009 and am so pleased to have this opportunity to be with you again today.

Our topic for today is "What's at stake in Gaza" and my task is to share a Jewish response to this question -- in particular from the point of view of Jews involved in Taanit Tzedek, the Jewish Fast for Gaza.

In July 2009, about six months after Operation Cast Lead ended, a group of 10 rabbis launched Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza. As an expression of our moral concern about the devastating suffering of 1.5 million men, women and children in Gaza, drawing on an ancient Jewish tradition of calling a public fast in a time of moral emergency, we invited people of all faiths and people of conscience to join together to fast one day a month.

Our fast has three goals:

Break the Silence Lift the Siege Pursue Peace

1. Break the Silence:

We break the silence in America and in the American Jewish community in particular about the suffering in Gaza. We are committed to learning as much as possible about the reality in Gaza, from residents of Gaza, experts on Gaza and activists. We bring this information into our communities and suggest ways for our communities to respond by providing humanitarian aid and by public advocacy. We counter those in our community who justify the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and/or attempt to silence Jews and others who speak about the suffering in Gaza.

2. Lift the Siege:

We call upon Israel, the US, and the international community to engage in negotiations without preconditions with all relevant Palestinian parties - including Hamas - in order to end the illegal and immoral blockade of Gaza. The partial relaxation in the number of goods allowed into Gaza after the attack on the Mavi Mara at the end of May is only a token step in the right direction. Gaza is still an open air prison without the ability to import the resources they need for development and reconstruction. The people of Gaza deserve complete freedom of movement and freedom to export and import goods and services as guaranteed by international law. The siege is an illegal and immoral act of collective punishment and it must be lifted.

3. Pursue Peace:

We call on the Israeli government and the American government to pursue a negotiated peace between Israel and all relevant Palestinian partners, including Hamas to resolve the conflict. There is no military solution; a negotiated peace is the only solution to the conflict.

Over 1,000 people of all faiths and people of conscience have joined the fast, including over 80 rabbis and rabbinical students, over 40 Christian clergy and ten imams. What is at stake in Gaza from the perspective of the rabbis and Jews involved in Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza is our direct and indirect responsibility for the suffering in Gaza. We have responsibility as Americans and as Jews. As Americans, it is our government — the American government — that has refused to talk to Hamas and that has made it possible for Israel to act with impunity. As Jews, it is the Israeli government - that claims to act in our name – that maintains Gaza as an open air prison. Lastly, it is leaders of major American Jewish organizations who justify Israeli policy and exert enormous pressure on the American government, on American Jews and on all Americans, not to challenge these immoral acts.

Israel has a right to security and rocket attacks on Israel should end. The rocket attacks, however, do not in any way justify the vicious assault on Gaza and the continuing illegal siege. We are ashamed of the shocking acts that were committed in our name during Operation Cast Lead and the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza as a result of the illegal siege. We stand in solidarity with the victims of this injustice.

On a deeper level, what is at stake for us, is no less than the moral core of our faith. The central belief of our faith is that every human being is created in the image of God and deserves justice and compassion. Our faith is based on our liberation from Egypt: You shall not oppress the stranger/ the “other”, for you know the heart of the “other” because you were the “other” in the land of Egypt. “Justice, Justice shall you pursue!” commands the Torah. How can our people who believe in the God of liberation and justice and who suffered so much in many different countries, impose collective punishment on 1.5 million people? Israeli government policy in Gaza and in the West Bank is a shocking betrayal of these very fundamental beliefs of our faith and our historical legacy as a people.

Our liberation as Jews is inextricably bound to justice for the people of Gaza. We, as Jews, will never be free, as long as Israel oppresses the people of Gaza. Our spiritual core and our very humanity is diminished by the denial of justice and basic human rights to Gazans.

Israel can no longer act with impunity. We fully support the courage of Judge Richard Goldstone, telling the truth at great cost to himself. We organized a phone conference call for over 150 rabbis with Judge Goldstone. While many rabbinic and Jewish communal leaders desecrated our faith by justifying the killing of 1400 Palestinians, Judge Richard Goldstone upheld the core of our faith by insisting that his commitment to human rights for all transcended any ethnic or tribal loyalty as a Jew. To do what is just and right is what being a Jew means. Judge Goldstone understood this and to us he is a moral hero. The vicious vilification of him in Israel and the American Jewish community is profoundly disturbing.

The residents of Gaza are largely refugees and the children and grandchildren of refugees from the 1948 war. For Jews, the creation of the State of Israel after the Holocaust was a liberation, for the Palestinians it was a disaster. Gaza reminds us again that the roots of the Israeli Palestinian conflict lie in 1948 and not in the Occupation that began 1967. Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is dependent on Israel’s acknowledgment of its responsibility for the dispossession of the Palestinian people. The occupation of the West Bank and the control over Gaza are a continuation of the dispossession in 1948.

One of the programs of Taanit Tzedek is to sponsor a phone conference on our monthly fast day, the third Thursday, for fast participants and others who are interested. Recently our guest was Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, the Israeli human rights group dedicated to protecting the right to freedom of movement. Bashi explained that in Gaza Israel imposes maximum control with minimum responsibility by Israel for the fate of the inhabitants. She suggested that this was what Israel planned to do on the West Bank as well. Israel may agree eventually to a Palestinian state but it would resemble Gaza. Israel would control the air, the electromagnetic fields, the water and would control movement just as it does in Gaza.

This is a recipe for continued conflict. Palestinians deserve justice and Israelis deserve not to live in a garrison state, fearing for their security. The only path to ensure security for Israel is through a negotiated settlement. A negotiated settlement that begins the long process of breaking down the years of mistrust, injustice, suspicion and violence, is the only path that offers hope for all.

In the American Jewish community Taanit Tzedek is only one very small example of an important change in the Jewish community in relation to Israel policy. The eighty rabbis who have joined our effort have all taken a risk for justice and many more support us privately. Especially since the Israeli attack on Gaza, many more liberal Jews are disturbed by Israeli policy. American Jews who have been very liberal on all issues except the issue of Israel, are beginning to apply their liberal values to Israeli policy as well. Younger Jews, horrified by Israeli policy, and are making their their voice heard and to take actions in solidarity with the struggle for justice for the Palestinians.

Peter Beinart, who supported the Iraq war, and was the editor of New Republic, wrote an article on “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment” that has stimulated much important debate in the Jewish community. Beinart pointed out that the major American Jewish organizations had asked young Jews to leave their liberal values at the door and to their surprise, young Jews have left their Zionism at the door. Many young Jews are involved in Jewish Voice for Peace, in J Street and other organizations and in the B.D.S movement. The emergence of J Street, a pro-Israel and pro-peace as a counter to the Israel lobby, is another indication of the important change in the American Jewish community. There is a growing number of excellent blogs of American Jews and Israelis that deal with these issues that are still rarely covered in the mainstream press.

The power of the Israel lobby is still enormous but the opposition to the lobby is growing within America in general and within the American Jewish community. While this is a very hopeful development, it is not at all clear when this development will be significant enough to have a direct impact in providing justice for the victims.

While Taanit Tzedek was initiated by rabbis, it is an interfaith project. We need to work together, Jews, Chritians and Muslims, as people of faith for a just solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This interfaith partnership for justice models a world where people of different faiths and nationalities can work together for the common good.

Lastly I want to offer a teaching of hope. Today is the seventh day of Sukkot/The Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish harvest festival. Jews spend these seven days eating and some even live in a sukkah/a hut that is open to the sky. The sukkah reminds us of our blessings and that we are most secure when we are open to other human beings and to nature.

The sukkah is the opposite of huge walls, checkpoints, limits on freedom of movement that characterise Gaza and the West Bank. Sukkot teaches that true security comes from openness to others and to nature, accepting our vulnerability and relying on God’s protection. We pray: Ufros aleynu sukkat shlomecha/ Spread over us the sukkah of your peace.

Jews, Muslims and Christians need to build a sukkah of peace together. Israelis and Palestinians need a sukkah of peace built from difficult direct negotiation, by knowing one another as human beings, and by creating a peace settlement that provides justice for Palestinians, security for Israel and for all who live on the land. The prophet Isaiah teaches the justice results in peace. It is only through justice that there will be peace, a peace that will end Palestinian suffering, a peace that will end Israeli fear and insecurity, a peace that will give our people, the Jewish people, security and will allow us to return to the core spiritual teachings of our faith.

May God spread over us a sukkah of peace and may God bless all of you and all around the world who are working to build that sukkah. Blessed is the One who works through us to spread a sukkah of peace, over us and over all who live in Jerusalem, and all who live in our world.