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03/21/2024 02:56:18 PM


Cantor Joanna Alexander

This week's Torah portion Pekudei closes the final chapters of Exodus, with the conclusion of the building of the Mishkan, when all the instructions have been followed Torah says: 

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift.  (Ex 40:34-37) 

A summarized quote from an attendee at our Spirit of Galilee panel February 24: 

“In this place I feel the presence of God, the work of the Spirit of Galilee, the work we are doing here, God’s presence is showing us this is what we should be doing.” 

During the week of February 21-25, Spirit of Galilee taught us nuanced and diverse ideas about Israel, they spoke about being non-Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and they spoke about segregation in towns, trains, and education. They spoke about learning about Jewish history and the Jewish bible without having the Jewish citizens learn about Palestinian history or religious traditions; they spoke about the national anthem speaking of the hope of the Jewish soul. They spoke about not being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine but being pro-humanity, being pro-equality and human dignity, and pro-democracy. This picture challenged some of the assumed statements about Zionism as a Jewish state, which often ignore the 20% of the non-Jewish population. The works of Ghadir Hani, as a peace activist, taught that you cannot draw strict lines of who you are willing to be in relationship with in order to work on a common or shared subject. Women Waging Peace, of which she is an active member, includes women who are part of the settlement movement, which Ghadir does not approve of or agree with, but she chooses to put that aside to be in relationship around feminist peace initiatives. Ghadir mentioned to me, when we were on the UNO campus, how exciting it was for her to see pro-Palestine signs and flags, she felt so glad to feel supported by those community members. At the same time as a Jew and listening to our college students, I know those same signs and flags often make many of our Jewish students feel uncomfortable and even unsafe.  

You may already be aware of this, but it is not easy to stand before the Jewish community and speak about Israel, it is even less easy to speak in criticism of Israel. You are probably familiar with the joke/common truth that for two Jews there are three opinions, but for any Jew who disagrees with the statements coming from the bimah, their opinion is usually the only correct one. So, bringing in a pluralistic group of a Rabbi, a Priest, and a Muslim Peace activist from the Galilee to speak about shared society, but also about the challenges of the Israeli system in creating and maintaining shared society, especially at this time of war…this was a fearful thing for me. I was concerned that our Jewish community would find the criticism too harsh, would find it to be “the wrong time” to criticize Israel, or would generally be upset it was happening publicly. I’m pleased to say I have not heard that critique. Though I do welcome you to communicate with me if you found what you heard concerning or challenging, let's continue the conversation.  

What I failed to anticipate was the challenge from within the Muslim community. This was a Temple Israel event which I invited our partners to share in, including choosing to have some events take place at the Tri-Faith Center as a more neutral space; but it was organized and funded by Temple Israel and the Jewish Federation Foundation. I was not so naïve as to believe that all people would be interested in hearing from Israelis even Israeli Palestinians, but I was surprised at the pushback surrounding the “Zionist funding” of what they believed would be Zionist Propaganda. Temple Israel was awarded several Federation grants for this program, and as the terms of the grant indicate, all advertisements of the program must include the funders. Our major funder was the Albert and Eleanor Feldman Family Israel Foundation, their mission statement includes:  

To implement and enhance the relationship of Omaha Jewry with Israel… bring them closer to their homeland and recognize how important Israel is to the preservation of the Jewish People….to provide funds for programs and activities which support and promote Israel, its history, culture, holidays, and current events. 

The money to support bringing Spirit of Galilee is, by most definitions, Zionist. Yet the program was far from Zionist propaganda and I believe most of the people who attended the program walked away understanding that. Yet this concept, and the anger surrounding it. That Tri-Faith would be involved in taking Zionist Money, that AMI would participate in an event with Israelis supported by Zionist Money. It shocked me, it was dripping with vitriol, and it was dripping with no desire to see nuance, shades of grey or even curiosity for our guests who are both Palestinian and Israeli. 

Perhaps I should not have been shocked, perhaps I’ve lived in a bubble of my own making, trying to see the good in everyone and trying to build bridges while it is so obvious that so much of the world is filled with the black and white categories of righteous anger, where you are either with us or against us, and please don’t confuse me with nuance or narratives.  

On Saturday night at the event hosted at the Tri-Faith Center, after each of our guests spoke and answered some questions based on the public criticisms raised, many of the community members spoke up saying “this was not the propaganda they expected,” “what we are witnessing and experiencing shows God’s work,” “is anyone doing this work in the West Bank, this is hope they need to see too.” The response was overwhelmingly positive by all in the room, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. Everyone heard some things that felt uncomfortable, but nothing was the black and white they are used to experiencing, and all that was shared elevated humanity over power, over politics, and over even history. Equality and dignity for all was a core lesson from the Spirit of Galilee.  

I walked away profoundly moved and grateful, but I also walked away with a new sense of Zionism. On Thursday, the word Zionism was being used as a slur against the program and its funders, by Saturday I knew it was “Zionist money” that had brought this program not of propaganda but of nuance and empathy, diversity, and shared goals. Zionist money and a Zionist Cantor wanted to reclaim the vision of Zionism not as Jews winning over Palestinians but as a Jewish homeland where all are truly equal and able to live in dignity in their own homes. This Zionist Cantor would still like to see an Independent Palestinian State living in safety and security as Israel’s neighbor, but I also desire to continue seeking out an Israel that returns to the democratic foundations of the Declaration of Independence with equality and dignity for all her inhabitants.  

Over the last number of years, as the Israeli society and government moved farther away from my political ideals; and while the world was using the word Zionism as a slur; it was sometimes hard for me to own the word for myself. I believe in a Jewish democratic homeland on the land of our ancestral history, and having bad government does not negate that belief, but words still have meanings and if the modern definition of Zionism is...X and I don’t support X perhaps I need a different word for what I do support. Yet my experience of Spirit of Galilee and especially my experience of the vitriolic pushback to it, helped solidify a new definition of Zionism for me, and one I am proud of. We learned 3 Israeli activists' views on peace, shared society, the government, the possible future, and the ways to grow together, and each came from a different religion and ethnic background. Two called themselves Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. This is the Zionism I embrace and would like to continue to teach and uphold.  

Let us be careful of letting others define our words for us, but let us also know how they are commonly used, I can reclaim Zionism while also understanding that that term is threatening, challenging, or even evil to some. Just as Ghadir helped me to re-calculate Pro-Palestinian. I too am pro-Palestinian, that does not mean that I dream of displacing all the Jews, nor that I conflate all Jews with all Zionism; nor that I believe Hamas to be some form of legitimate freedom fighter; but perhaps I need to give those who wear kufiya, or a Palestinian flag the same benefit of the doubt I asked them to bring us in our hosting of Spirit of Galilee. Perhaps I need to understand their definition of pro-Palestine not just a couple of words on a poster but what do they actually know, and desire? As Yehuda Kurtzner of the Shalom Hartman Institute asks, what is the space of productive discomfort versus actual lack of safety? Let us all find more comfort in productive discomfort, so we feel less unsafe just because we disagree. Let us strive to be, as Ghadir asked us while at church on Sunday: “Don’t be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, be pro-humanity.” 

May the presence of the Eternal fill our community gathering spaces so we may know the holiness of our work and the holiness of each other. 


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784