April 30, 2023, remarks:
Shavua tov — thank you to everyone for being here, especially so many members of the Jewish community. Your presence means a lot.
I want to tell you something about how I came to be standing on this stage right now.
I grew up in a very loving and sheltered environment in Los Angeles.
When I was 16, my friends and I went on a road trip to Berkeley.
I had visited Israel for the first time the previous summer, 5 weeks with other teenagers after a week in Poland visiting the camps.
Walking near campus, I saw graffiti that read “Free Palestine.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. I can remember vividly the feeling of being attacked.
That slogan represented one thing and one thing only:
The destruction of the state of Israel, the expulsion or killing of its Jewish inhabitants, and a return to a geo-political context in which the next Hitler might finish the job.
Since then, it’s been 25 years of listening, learning & unlearning – of seeing things I can’t unsee. I was taught to see Palestinian identity as a threat and I have had to unlearn that way of seeing. It was hard – it IS hard. But I am blessed that there were many Jews and Palestinians who offered me patience and compassion along the way.
Yesterday, Jews around the world read the words of Leviticus.
This week’s reading K’doshim contains some of the core Jewish teachings about ethical living, sometimes called The Holiness Code. Rabbi Eli Freedman explains:
“We are holy, because God is holy. But what does it mean to be holy? To pray? To study Torah? All good things, but according to Leviticus 19, holiness is found in our honest dealings with our neighbors. We are holy when we leave the corners of our fields [for the poor], when we refrain from cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind.
"We are holy when we have honest weights and measures and just courts.
"We are holy when we respect our elders.
"And when strangers dwell with us in our land, we shall not wrong them.
"This is what it means to be holy.”
Among the many moral commands in the Holiness Code is the imperative to call people in – “Hochayach tochi’ach amitecha – You will surely reprove your friend…”
Reprove, rebuke — or tochecha, as we call it in Hebrew — we are obligated to call each other in.
So I say to my beloved Jewish family:
It is not antisemitic to be Palestinian and to express your identity, to speak your history, to name your experiences and tell other people about what it means for you to walk through this world.
We Jews have been taught to see Palestinian-ness as a direct threat to Jews.
As antisemitic. The experience of becoming refugees and longing for homeland is a central piece of Palestinian identity.
But if you support right of return, if you’re Palestinian and you want to go home, you are immediately accused of being antisemitic – you are against Jewish self-determination.
If you tell your family story of displacement, if you believe that your family should be allowed to go home, then you’re antisemitic. We make it impossible for Palestinians to talk about their lives without being accused of antisemitism.
We don’t have any practice listening, we only have practice policing –
...You didn’t tell that story right, you didn’t say it in a way that we could hear it...
When we police and censor their most basic relationship to history and family, we tell Palestinians that they cannot exist in the world except according to our very strict parameters.
Not only is it anti-intellectual, not only is this cruel to Palestinians, it’s actually self-defeating.
In so many ways!
Our children will find out what’s really going on over there, and they will be furious.
It’s hard enough to maintain our Jewishness in America in 2023 — by shielding our children, lying to them, and enlisting them in this battle against a dispossessed people, the liberal Jewish community risks our very future.
We are afraid — so afraid. And for good reason!
But we cannot survive if our people lack the resilience to hear another people’s story.
We are crying wolf, and it is incredibly dangerous. Antisemitism is real!
People think Jews killed Jesus and that we’re orchestrating an immigration crisis to undermine the white race — Jews control the media, global finance. And my favorite, the weather (if only!)
The antisemitism we need to be afraid of is embedded at the heart of white nationalism —
That’s not to say there isn’t antisemitism on the left! There is! We’re not perfect! And we have to do that work.
But antisemitism on the right makes antisemitism on the left look like child’s play.
When we confuse the source of our insecurity, we make the wrong allies, and we leave the machinery of antisemitism uninterrupted.
When we are unable to distinguish between what is and isn’t truly threatening our lives, we risk wasting our power, at best. And at worst, doing serious damage and making ourselves less safe.
When Jews came to this country, we had no one to rely on but each other.
So we built an incredible network of agencies, congregations and federations who would support and advocate for our community. I am indebted to Jewish communal infrastructure. These institutions made it possible for my family to send me to summer camp, for me to afford rabbinical school — now as a rabbi, I rely on colleagues in these institutions to help me navigate congregant mental health crises, and so much more.
I would really love to give tzedakah to these organizations without worrying that those dollars will be used to attack human rights activists.
The political muscle flexing our Jewish institutions did in response to the Bloomfield Hills High School incident only reinforces the worst antisemitic stereotypes.
We are caught in a vicious cycle, making it impossible to heal from our collective trauma.
We have been trained to experience Palestinian expressions of identity as a threat.
And perhaps it is!
If our vision of Israel depends on the subjugation, disenfranchisement and exclusion of Palestinians — who at this point make up at least 50% of the inhabitants of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, then yes — we American Jews must silence their diasporic kin through legislation and defamation.
My beloved fellow Jews: the safety of our people is directly bound up with the safety of the Palestinian people, the only path to true safety is through solidarity with other oppressed peoples in a project of collective liberation.
To my beloved fellow human rights activists:
It’s critical that we take antisemitism seriously.
We cannot constantly point out what antisemitism is not without being able to articulate clearly what it is, and to demonstrate our commitment to eradicating it.
That’s in my interest, because I want safety for my people and want to see my people on the right side of the struggle for a mult-racial democracy — and it’s in all our interests because antisemitism is a key part of the machinery of white supremacy —
We cannot fight for collective liberation without fighting antisemitism.
May this painful incident lead to new learning and deep listening, may it open up the possibility of new relationships, and move us one step closer to a future with freedom and dignity for all.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Alana Alpert serves as the Rabbi of Congregation T'chiyah, a queer-loving, justice-pursuing intergenerational community rooted in Reconstructionist Jewish practice. Soon after ordination from Hebrew College in 2014, Rabbi Alana helped to found Detroit Jews for Justice. She has a long history of engagement with Israel/Palestine including 3 years living in the region, founding Project Hayei Sarah, facilitating for Encounter, and serving on the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinic Council. Her more recent work has been supporting IfNotNow, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, and Shleimut.