Arab lawmaker quits Knesset as probe begins


Israeli Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara has abruptly ended a parliamentary career built on denouncing the Jewish state from enemy capitals and then dodging charges of sedition at home.

After weeks spent abroad on what he called routine travels, Bishara turned up at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on April 22 to submit a letter of resignation to the Knesset.

The move followed an announcement by the Israeli police that Bishara, who heads the predominantly Arab party Balad, was under investigation for allegations that could not be published due to a court-issued gag order that was extended to Wednesday.

Bishara, 50, has denied wrongdoing but made clear he is in no hurry to face the probe.

“I decided to tender my resignation today, after leaving the country, because I know that I would not have been able to leave the country for three years, the time it would take the court cases and investigations,” he told Al-Jazeera.

“Exile is not an option. Return is definite, but the matter will take some time and arrangements,” said Bishara, a Christian from the religiously mixed town of Nazareth.

For many mainstream Israelis, it was goodbye and good riddance. In an Israeli Arab leadership increasingly considered disloyal among the Jewish majority, Bishara stood out for his especially provocative antics.

He visited Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon to voice outrage at Israel’s military offensive last year. He met with Syrian President Bashar Assad as well as radical Palestinian leaders, always ready to praise the ethos of armed “resistance” against Israel.

Bishara overcame repeated attempts to have him tried for fraternizing with Israel’s enemies, invoking his parliamentary immunity from prosecution. This enraged rightist Israelis, who warned of a “fifth column” among the country’s Arab minority.

Some moderate Israeli Arabs also sought to distance themselves from Bishara, so astounded by his temerity as to suggest it was all an elaborate cover for a role as an Israeli spy or covert diplomat.

“The definition of Knesset member Bishara as a ‘collaborator’ is one of the ways to explain the behavior, conduct and statements of this man, in oratory and in writing,” Alex Fishman wrote in Yediot Achronot. “He has stretched all the ropes to the breaking point, tested the limits of the tolerance of Israeli democracy, and each time succeeded in establishing a new limit.”

Balad, which holds three of the Knesset’s 120 seats, calls for Israel to abandon Zionism and become a “state of all its citizens.” That is out of the question for most Israelis, who want the country to remain a democratic Jewish homeland.

News of Bishara’s departure and rumors of his legal worries, which may involve charges from the counter-terrorism and counter-espionage Shin Bet agency, was greeted with regret in some corner of the Israeli intelligentsia.

There was empathy and even admiration for the scintillating intellectual, who speaks four languages, including a Hebrew more erudite than that of many Jewish Israelis.

One veteran commentator, Yaron London, saw in Bishara a sort of latter-day version of the Diaspora’s old political mavericks — the revolutionaries and utopianists.

“I once said to Azmi Bishara that he is more Jewish than I,” London said. “The heart of a Jew, even one who lives among Jews in their state, is the heart of a minority figure, but a Christian Arab who is a citizen of the Jewish state is an island within an island, a minority within a minority.”

“Bishara, a brilliant and arrogant intellectual, bossy and stormy, charming and easily offended, has no time to waste. He realized that the Jews would not accept his vision unless they were greatly weakened — and therefore they must be weakened.”

New Prayer Communities Seek Spiritual High


Don’t call them synagogues.

They are minyanim, or spiritual communities. They have evolved from shared and individual dreams and from serendipitous, profound and beshert connections. They are new, egalitarian, independent, warm, collaborative and vibrant.

And they are all led by female rabbis.

Ahavat Torah, with Rabbi Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell, meets Saturday mornings in rented space at Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles.

Ikar, with Rabbi Sharon Brous, holds biweekly Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills.

And Nashuva, with Rabbi Naomi Levy, hosts a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Westwood.

Technically, a minyan is a quorum of 10 people, traditionally men, which is necessary for reciting certain prayers and performing certain rituals, according to the Mishnah.

In the United States, however, the minyan emerged as an independent prayer group created and led by lay leaders in the late ’60s and ’70s, an outgrowth of the havurah movement. An example is the Library Minyan, formed in 1971 and originally housed in Temple Beth Am’s library. A more recent example is Shtibl Minyan, founded in 2000, which meets in The Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles.

“A minyan is a natural answer to what many refer to as Judaism’s ‘edifice complex.’ It attracts Jews interested in praying, who can do that anywhere,” said Isa Aron, professor at Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and founding director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.

These new minyanim, however, attract not only practicing Jews but also what Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of University of Judaism and co-founder of Synagogue 2000, calls “spiritual seekers.”

“I think a lot of people are looking for that spiritual high and, guess what, these independent minyanim are actually offering it,” Wolfson said.

They’re also offering fellowship, a commitment to social action and a rabbi at the helm.

Ahavat Torah

“Right now I really consider myself living my dream,” said Lefkovits-Hamrell, who was ordained in May 2003 through the Academy of Jewish Religion and who became the spiritual leader of Ahavat Torah, meaning love of Torah, shortly thereafter.

As a child in Israel, the goal of becoming a congregational rabbi was unreachable. She would sit in shul, a mechitzah between her and her father, and ask why they had to be separated.

“On Simchat Torah I yearned to hold and dance with the Torah,” she said.

Finally, when Lefkovits-Hamrell and her family moved to Los Angeles in 1969, she was able to hold a Torah and later become a bat mitzvah. And while she married and raised three now-grown sons, she continued to pursue her dream, always studying and working as a Jewish educator. Along the way she even acquired her own Torah, which sits in a case in her living room.

Her dream became a reality when a friend introduced her to a group who had formed Ahavat Torah as a lay minyan a few months prior.

“We had been roaming around to different congregations to see if we fit,” founding member Blanche Moss said. “Finally we decided we fit together.”

And they decided Lefkovits-Hamrell fit with them.

She described her minyan, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, as “Conservative/Reform/Chasidic,” with lots of singing, clapping and even spontaneous dancing in the aisles. She and lay cantor Gary Levine, an executive at Showtime, lead it. Adhering to their motto “One Torah, Many Teachers, One Community,” it is participatory, with congregants reading Torah, presenting d’vrai Torah and leading discussions.

Following services, members share a potluck dairy lunch.

Learning continues during the week, with many taking part in one of three study groups that Lefkovits-Hamrell facilitates. They also observe holidays and socialize together. Ahavat Torah also boasts a strong program of gemilut chasadim — acts of lovingkindness.

“We give each other a lot of help, being there as family,” member Lois Miller-Nave said.

And Lefkovits-Hamrell remains in close and constant contact with her congregants.

Membership numbers about 70, with a goal of 120. Visitors are effusively welcomed, and dues are reasonable “so as not to exclude anyone,” said member Rick Nave. Most congregants are in their 50s and 60s, though the minyan has celebrated its first bar mitzvah, with a second one coming up.

And this year, Ahavat Torah will hold its first High Holiday services, at Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

But the Saturday morning minyan, which attracts between 40 and 70 people, remains the group’s focus.

“These people deeply care about Judaism and search for meaning and spirituality. That’s what unites us,” Lefkovits-Hamrell said.

For more information, call (310) 362-1111.

Ikar

“For the last couple of years, I’ve been dreaming about what kind of spiritual community I could help build,” said Sharon Brous, rabbi of Ikar, which means root or essence.

One force fueling this dream was her two-year stint as a rabbinic fellow at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — which she describes as “the country’s most vibrant, compelling Jewish community — following ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The other force is her continuing work as rabbi for Reboot, a network of 25- to 35-year-old Jews who are creative and intellectual trendsetters but don’t always resonate to traditional Jewish ways.

Additionally, she met parents and others who were “hungry for Jewish learning and real spiritual encounter.”

Brous’ dream began to materialize when a friend connected her with three couples desperately seeking to make Shabbat central in their lives.

“We sat on the verge of tears, feeling something of great importance was happening. It felt beshert,” Brous explained.

They held an experimental service in April, expecting 40; 135 showed up. The group then raised enough money to hire Brous full time.

Since June, services have been held biweekly, a family picnic followed by Kabbalat Shabbat. The service, led by Brous and second-year rabbinic student Andy Shugerman, is primarily in Hebrew, a combination of the Conservative siddur and Shlomo Carlebach melodies. Text study is incorporated into the service, and Brous’ d’var Torah weaves together congregants’ reflections.

More than 200 adults and children attend each service, clapping, swaying, dancing and holding babies. A few bring drums. The crowd is diverse, ranging from observant Jews to people like Reboot member Josh Kun, who admitted, “I don’t understand 80 percent of the service, but the intense mixture of connection and spiritual enthusiasm is incredibly appealing.”

Ikar is planning to hold High Holiday services at the Westside Jewish Community Center, and afterward will add a monthly Saturday minyan to the schedule.

Brous and the Ikar board work closely to create a community that reflects the group’s values in all areas, from the arrangement of chairs to the structuring of dues. In addition to money, members are asked to contribute toward community building, tikkun olam and learning.

Tikkun olam is especially critical to Brous. She wants people’s spiritual development to lead to transforming the world.

And the learning piece, which will include studies for children in kindergarten through bar and bat mitzvah, is important to many parents.

“We want the intellectual, spiritual and social justice values transmitted to our children,” founding parent Melissa Balaban said. “We want them to fall in love with Judaism.”

But the core values remain important to everyone.

“We want to do away with what’s orderly, precise and dignified and build a place where people have a spiritual encounter that’s profound and joyous and creative and transformative,” Brous said.

For more information, call (310) 450-9679 or visit www.Ikar-la.org .

Nashuva

“Naomi, it’s time.”

“Time for what?” Rabbi Naomi Levy asked two friends who had invited her to breakfast last April.

“Time to start a service.”

Levy knew from age 4 that she wanted to be a rabbi. She entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in the first class of women and spent seven years as rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. She has spent the last seven years writing the best-seller, “To Begin Again” (Ballantine, 1999) and “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002).

Levy decided to act. Looking for an available location, she cold-called a church whose facade she often admired.

“Did you call me because you know my husband is Jewish?” the reverend asked.

“No,” Levy answered.

“Well, my husband is Jewish and there is nothing I would like more. It would be such an honor.”

Levy and the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld met that afternoon.

“We both felt like we were led to each other, like we’d known each other our entire lives,” Levy said.

Things promptly fell into place. Levy knew the name would be Nashuva, meaning “we will return,” from the last line in Lamentations. She also knew prayer would be meaningless if not linked to social action, and immediately she and Linford-Steinfeld committed to joint monthly projects.

Levy also knew she would offer new translations of the Hebrew prayer book that would be “accessible, personal and soulful.” And she knew she wanted to work with musicians who could, “get congregants out of their seats and on their feet.”

Levy, who is married to Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman, met with 11 founding members around her dining room table to make this happen. She created a prayerbook with every Hebrew word transliterated and with accompanying English prayers in simple, poetic language. She also assembled a group of eight musicians and gathered music from Jewish Eastern European, Sephardic, African and other traditions.

Founding member Wanda Peretz handpainted and appliqu├ęd a wall hanging for the bima, a Tree of Life with the words of Lamentations, “Turn us to you, O God, and we will return.”

Levy committed to one service each month, beginning last June. And each so far has overfilled the church, which seats 250. Nashuva is also planning a Tashlich service for Rosh Hashanah, with a drumming circle, shofar blowing and dancing on Venice Beach. Other High Holiday services will be announced on Nashuva’s Web site.

Last month, the standing-room-only crowd showed that Levy’s joyful and intimate approach has touched a chord among all types of Jews: young parents (Nashuva provides free child care and a children’s service), singles, seniors, interfaith couples, traditional affiliated Jews and adults whose last visit to shul was on their bar mitzvah.

They swing and sway to upbeat and moving melodies. They listen raptly to Levy’s engaging and insightful d’var Torah. “There’s a wonderful sense of community in the room, even if you don’t know anyone,” said Carol Taubman.

At this point, Nashuva is privately funded. Levy said she believes people who value the experience will make free-will offerings.

“When people come to Nashuva and feel elevated and [have] an honest communication with God, I feel blessed. When people come to Nashuva and then go and serve in the community, I feel overwhelmed,” Levy said.

For more information, visit www.nashuva.org .

Are these new minyanim a threat to established synagogues?

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when Jewish life became cooperative rather than hierarchical, Jews have been forming, disbanding, merging and splitting prayer communities.

“This is an old tradition in the Jewish world,” Wolfson said.

To be fair, synagogues themselves are offering minyanim and alternative services, from Beth Jacob Congregation’s Happy Minyan to Adat Ari El’s One Shabbat Morning to University Synagogue’s Great Shabbos.

And, as Levy herself said, “Shuls in Los Angeles are doing incredible work.”

But in the meantime, as Aron points out, “The new minyanim are making more Jews more intensely Jewish, and that’s basically a good thing.”

Gay Marriage


Just married in San Francisco, Mindy Blum and Pam Postrel returned home to Pasadena to find that their kids had decorated the house in balloons and signs congratulating “Mom and Mommy.”

For days after, Eve, 7, shouted in playground sing-song, “I have married parents! I have married parents!”

“Coming from her, especially, it really just hit us where we live,” said Postrel, who has been with Blum for 16 years. The two are also mothers to Matt, 5.

It hit them, in fact, much more than they had anticipated.

“For some reason, the societal recognition is important to both of us. We kind of felt like it shouldn’t be — like who cares — but it is a big deal,” Postrel said.

Amid a flurry of legal activity and political posturing, the topic of gay marriage has moved with lightning speed from being an obscure issue reserved for advocates and their seasoned respondents to the forefront of political, emotional and intellectual debate.

Advocates and opponents of gay marriage are in agreement about what is at stake here: giving same-sex marriage equal status as heterosexual marriage. Where they differ is on the impact. Gays and their supporters say marriage is the only way to guarantee their constitutional right to equal protection under the law. Opponents say gay marriage will lead to nothing less than the unraveling of society.

At the heart of the debate is an intertwining of the social, religious and legal fibers that combine to form marriage and questions regarding to what extent those fibers can or should be untangled.

Opponents of same-sex marriage say that trying to separate the spiritual and legal definitions of marriage is a disingenuous exercise, since marriage is defined by a society that bases itself on moral, and very often religious-based, values and uses those values to decide who will reap the benefits of society.

“Our society is based upon Judeo-Christian values, and as much as people would like to think we are completely divorced from religion, that is simply not the case,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, rabbi of the Orthodox Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park. “Our society does make moral judgments, and ultimately, moral judgments are based on a moral compass. And where does that come from? For most people in the United States, that moral compass comes from the Bible.”

Advocates say society would benefit from loving couples and their children being afforded the same legal protections and benefits as anyone else. They argue that choosing one religious definition of marriage over another to determine who receives governmental benefits is unconstitutional.

“We are dangerously overlapping church and state in the whole legal marriage discussion,” said Rabbi Lisa Edwards, leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) on Pico Boulevard, which was the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue. “I do think that God needs to be part of the conversation within the Jewish community and other religious communities, but I don’t think God ought to be part of the larger legal, public discussion.”

Bringing religion in obscures the basic civil rights issue that is at the heart of this, advocates say.

“This movement for gay marriages is plain and simple about helping families protect themselves, using the mechanisms our society has created to protect families and to protect partners in loving relationships, and to have them live up to the rights and responsibilities that go along with that,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, rabbi of Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue, and a member of the steering committee of the California Freedom to Marry Coalition.

But many fear the consequences of taking God out of foundational societal mores.

“A godless society is not a healthy society,” Korobkin said. “It may be functional, but if there is no larger cause that unifies the people and calls them to a higher moral standard, then that society is doomed to a short-lived and amoral tenure.”

One idea being floated is taking the state out of the marriage business altogether. The state would offer civil unions to everyone — gay and straight couples — and leave the sanctification to religious bodies.

“It makes sense to me to get city hall out of the marriage business and put that squarely in the hands of the religious leaders,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who came out of the closet a few years ago. “The advantage of this approach is that nobody uses civil marriage as a bully pulpit to force one religious view of marriage or another on the larger body politic.”

But gay couples acknowledge — and opponents are quick to agree — that it is both an emotion and legal challenge to make that separation. The bestowal of the hundreds of legal rights and protections that go along with the word “marriage” signifies a societal acceptance that is an equally, if not more, important goal of the movement to legalize same-gender marriage.

“My parents have this piece of paper, and we wanted to have the same piece of paper and have the same experience,” says Bracha Yael, holding up the framed marriage license she and her partner of 24 years, Davi Cheng, signed in San Francisco in February. “For me it confirms that our relationship is equal; that my parents’ relationship is not somehow greater than ours.”

It is only in the last seven or eight years that Cheng and Yael have lived openly and proudly as lesbians. In 1998, they had a Jewish wedding at BCC, with many friends and almost no family members.

“There has been this tremendous arc in our relationship, from being fully closeted, where no one had to tell us we were less than, because we already thought we were less than, through these trials and tribulations to the other side, where we’re equal within society, but mainly within ourselves,” said Yael, a contractor.

When they announced they had gotten married, even Cheng’s “Rush Limbaugh Republican” colleague cried and hugged her.

It is just that kind of validation and acceptance of facts on the ground that opponents don’t want to see, that they say can lead to the slippery slope of a society with no moral foothold.

“I don’t want children to start thinking at the age of 7, when somebody says, ‘Who are you going to marry?’ ‘Well, maybe it will be Johnny or maybe it will be Jennifer,'” said Dennis Prager, the conservative KRLA radio talk show host who debated same-sex marriage at the University of Judaism on May 12 with Greenberg and others.

He argues that the question of same-sex marriage has nothing to do with civil rights, since, just like anyone else, gays are permitted to marry members of the opposite sex.

Prager said that society does and should define the terms of who can marry — such as prohibitions on brothers and sisters marrying each other or polygamy.

“Utah was banned from admission to the union until it prohibited polygamy. Why was that not anti-Mormon or violating the rights of Mormons?” Prager asks.

Prager said his issue is not with gays who want to be in relationships, it is with those who want to make those relationships equal to heterosexual marriage.

“Everybody has a line they draw, and the burden of argument is on those who wish to redefine an institution that has had only one meaning in the history of civilization,” Prager said.

While opponents of same-sex marriage draw parallels to polygamy and incest, advocates compare it to the ban on interracial marriage, which California became the first state to lift in 1948.

Experts estimate that anywhere between 3 percent and 10 percent of all people are homosexual, and a growing number of gays are weaving themselves into society as proud couples and families.

“I understand it’s this huge cultural shift for some people, but the fact of the matter is it has been going on for years in some form or fashion, whether it was called marriage or not,” said Samuel Bernstein-Shore, who married Ronald, his partner of 10 years, in Vancouver last summer and at Temple Kol Ami in 1996. “By having this discussion, people are forced to acknowledge that we exist, and that we exist in a loving and committed way.”

When the Bernstein-Shores married in Canada, they didn’t realize that their marriage would not be portable — that in most places in the United States, that marriage license would be meaningless.

It is one of the many legal confusions arising out of the incremental gains and setbacks to legalizing same-sex marriage.

Marriages performed in San Francisco in February remain valid while the California Supreme Court weighs the issue, taking into account both the 4,000 couples who are already married and the 2000 Defense of Marriage initiative, which defined marriage as between a man and woman. But like marriages and civil unions performed in Vermont, Canada or starting this week in Massachusetts, California gay marriages may not be recognized in other states. Before February there were four cases before courts nationwide. Today, there are at least two dozen.

Gay couples in California have been able to register as domestic partners since 1979, and the rights associated with domestic partnership — rights to hospital visits, power of attorney, limited inheritance rights, benefits for partners of state employees, sick leave to care for partners — have been increasing over the years.

In January 2005, a new law will take effect in California that gives domestic partners — which is limited to same-sex couples or senior citizens — nearly all the same state and county rights as married couples, though none of the federal rights. It will also remove other existing inequities, such as gay partners having to pay taxes on insurance benefits for a partner.

The constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, if enacted, would pull the plug on states that have already allowed marriages and not leave many options open to gay rights advocates.

Jewish law, meanwhile, divides along denominational lines. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the first to ordain gay rabbis, starting in 1984, and endorsed officiating at gay marriages in 1993.

The Reform movement has been ordaining gay rabbis since 1990. Reform rabbis have been performing same sex-ceremonies since the 1970s, and in 2000, the movement passed a resolution endorsing rabbis who choose to officiate and supporting the personal autonomy of those who don’t.

Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements endorse civil gay marriages.

Simcha DuBowski’s movie, “Trembling Before G-d,” chronicling the struggle of gays within the Orthodox movement, along with Greenberg’s coming out, opened up in some Orthodox circles conversations about how to act more sensitively, even when open homosexuality is not sanctioned by halacha.

It is in the Conservative movement that the conversation is most active and possibly divisive.

“I think many people who want to retain the traditional stance feel intimidated by an increasing number of people who demand politically correct statements and politically correct positions and are eager to demonize those who would uphold traditional standards, as opposed to going with the more liberal reforms, and that is hurtful to people,” said Rabbi Perry Rank, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

The questions of same-sex commitment ceremonies and ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis are currently before the movement’s influential Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. By next March, the committee will consider teshuvot (halachic treatises) prepared by its members and most likely will ultimately validate several positions. Conservative rabbis will be free to choose which to follow.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, is vice chair of the law committee and had been slated to become its chairman last year. But because his views are clearly on the left on this issue — he advocates full equality — the committee deferred his chairmanship until the question has been decided.

Dorff believes it is clear that gays do not choose to be gay and cannot become straight and that society has an interest in seeing loving, stable, monogamous relationships.

With those factors motivating his study, Dorff believes it is imperative to narrow down the interpretation of the verses in Leviticus prohibiting male-male sex.

“I am not in any way shape or form trying to ignore the verses or change them by takanah [rabbinic decree]. All I am doing is saying that we should understand those verses differently from our ancestors, who understood them to prohibit all homosexual sex. We should understand them to prohibit only promiscuous, oppressive or cultic sex, but loving monogamous homosexual sex would be outside of those verses and would be something we want to sanctify,” Dorff said.

Whether or not Dorff’s opinion will prevail, it is clear that within both American society and the Jewish community, the terms of the conversation have changed.

Gays who once would have been thrilled with civil unions are now pushing for full marriage.

And some who might never have considered civil unions are now open to it. Korobkin, the Orthodox rabbi from Hancock Park who is firmly against gay marriage, not only believes the Orthodox community should be more tolerant and sensitive to gays, but he is open to the idea of giving loving partners legal status other than marriage to afford them rights and protections.

“If two people have committed themselves to each other as partners, they should have a right to designate another person of whatever gender as the primary caregiver or life partner, and I think that person should have special privileges,” he said. “I think it would be a callous society that would deny a homosexual the comfort and consolation of his life partner.”

Open Debate Preferable to Blind Support


A recent report in The New York Times captured almost perfectly the thorny questions that stand at the center of relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. Should one be permitted to criticize the government of a foreign country with which one feels a deep affinity, or is it a moral and political imperative to support the policies of that government, right or wrong?

What was so striking about The Times article was that it raised these questions not about the American Jewish community and Israel, but rather about the African American community and Zimbabwe.

The parallels between the two cases couldn’t be more intriguing. Just as a number of American Jews, usually of the progressive persuasion, have asserted their right and responsibility to criticize Israeli government policy, so, too, a group of African American intellectuals and activists recently abandoned their posture of strong support and advocacy for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by issuing a stinging condemnation of his policies, including appropriation of white-owned farmland.

In a letter of June 3, 2003, they recalled their “strong historical ties to the liberation movements in Zimbabwe, which included material and political support, as well as opposition to U.S. government policies that supported white minority rule.” But they quickly moved on to denounce “the political repression under way in Zimbabwe as intolerable and in complete contradiction of the values and principles that were both the foundation of your liberation struggle and of our solidarity with that struggle.”

This public letter provoked a torrent of responses from African Americans, many of whom were critical of the signatories. According to The Times account, the letter writers have been cast as “politically naive, sellouts and misguided betrayers of liberation struggle.”

Among the more serious critics, professor Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland justified his opposition to the letter by stating that “I am on the side of the people who claim there’s a justice issue in terms of the land. You can’t escape the racial dynamic, and you can’t escape the political history.”

Another critic, Mark Fancher, questioned the legitimacy of the letter writers. “This is an African problem, a Zimbabwean problem” — beyond the ken of “people who are really disconnected from the day-to-day lives of people in Zimbabwe.”

It is hard not to hear in those words echoes of a refrain frequently uttered in the American Jewish community — the gist of which is that it is the responsibility of American Jews to express enthusiastic and unequivocal support for the government of Israel.

The underlying logic is that American Jews are themselves “disconnected from the day-to-day lives” of Israelis. It is not they who fight the wars or suffer from the scourge of terrorism; consequently, they have no standing to criticize. Indeed, to express criticism of Israeli policies is to abet the enemy — and thereby come dangerously close to treason.

I am familiar with these arguments, because I have often been on the wrong end of them. Those of us American Jews who have felt compelled to condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as immoral, self-destructive and a violation of Israel’s own best ideals have often faced the wrath of fellow community members. How could a Jew attack Israel in a time of need? Hadn’t the Palestinians surrendered any right to a state? Weren’t they better off now than before 1967?

A similar set of justifications now issues from the mouths of the opponents of Mugabe’s African American critics. How can one attack an African leader, a heroic figure, in time of need? After all, as Fancher asserts, “The one thing nobody disputes is that, whether he won or not, Mugabe got a lot of votes.” Such statements reveal the absurdity — and moral bankruptcy — of blind support.

Curiously, the tables have turned in the case of American Jews and Israel. Not too long ago, it was taboo to criticize Israel’s occupation. Israel’s government had to be supported, regardless of its policies.

But will the same people who insisted on these principles now be able to reverse course? After all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a speech to his own party, used the “O” word — occupation — to refer to Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza. All of the extraordinary Israeli and Jewish public relations efforts that went into claiming that the territories were “administered” rather than “occupied” went out the door after that speech.

Even more significantly, Sharon has adopted the “road map” for peace. The logic of blind support would dictate that American Jews line up in warm embrace of this Israeli government policy.

It is tempting to argue that those who demanded in an earlier period that American Jewish progressives hold their criticism do the same as Israel enters a new and more promising phase, even if they have reservations about the road map. Tempting perhaps, but not beneficial in the long run.

The recent case of African Americans and Zimbabwe reveals that the stifling of dissent not only reinforces a dangerous status quo but replicates the very policies of repression that one might want to criticize. Open debate, with all its messiness, is preferable to blind support.

This is an important principle to keep in mind — now and in the future — as Jews and African Americans debate the policies of, and demonstrate their bonds to, the countries of their dreams.


David N. Myers is professor of Jewish history and vice chair of the history department at UCLA.