For a related post from Stephen Smith entitled “Words Have Meaning” click here.
The Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC has come under criticism for statements made by their Senior Rabbi Shira Stutman during its Shabbat service on May 14. Speaking from the bima, Stutman accused Israel of being a country in which the government, representing “the will of the people…categorically dismisses, discriminates, ethnically cleanses, and at its most base cares little for the basic human rights of millions of people that live under its administration.”
The sermon, which was streamed live on the synagogue’s Facebook page, immediately drew the ire of some in its virtual audience, who accused the rabbi of disseminating “the most despicable untruth” that would “provoke anti-Semites” and “gives them ammunition against Jews, not just in Washington DC, but everywhere.”
Simone Friedman, Head of Philanthropy and Impact Investment at EJF Philanthropies, resigned her position on the synagogue’s Board of Directors after the organization refused to condemn Stutman’s allegations. “I value bringing people together. I don’t support speech that inflames and exacerbates tensions within and outside of the Jewish community. My decision to leave Sixth & I’s Board is congruent with my values given their refusal to condemn inflammatory speech from their pulpit which could incite hatred and violence against Jews,” Friedman told the Jewish Journal.
The synagogue, which has a national platform and an audience that includes federal policy makers, responded directly on Facebook in the comments on the sermon video: “As a nonpartisan center for arts, entertainment, and ideas and a synagogue that reimagines how religion and community can enhance people’s everyday lives, Sixth & I is dedicated to offering a forum for a wide range of views on a diversity of topics across our programs. We are also committed to promoting freedom of speech, intellectual discourse, and rigorous debate through our programming.
“In response to Rabbi Stutman’s sermon on May 14, Sixth & I recognizes and values the important principle of Freedom of the Pulpit which means that clergy on our staff may express their own opinions and teachings—and when they do, they are strictly speaking for themselves and may be expressing views that, at times, are at odds with others on Sixth & I’s staff and Board of Directors. As clergy speak their truth, we invite those in the Sixth & I community and beyond to speak their truth as well, with civility, as we have difficult dialogue at a heartbreaking time when lives are being lost in Israel and Palestine.”
In addition to her role at the synagogue, Stutman is a member of the Board of Directors of Jews United for Justice and J Street’s Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet. In her sermon, Stutman bookended her accusations against the government and people of Israel with other statements calling on observers to refrain from judging Israel in its self-defensive actions against Hamas. “And then there’s the loss of my own safety as a Jew… I was brought up to think that we’d be safe in Israel… That would be the one place that when the Nazis, not if, when the Nazis came again…you’ll be able to go to Israel,” said Stutman. “Israel is a place which is getting showered indiscriminately, terrorized day after day after day. Even when the rockets are not falling, there is the fear of them falling. And please, I am not interested in hearing from any of you who have never lived under that terror or under that fear.”
In a statement to the Journal, Stutman apologized for using the term “ethnic cleansing,” saying that the phrase “shuts down conversations rather than encouraging them.”
In a statement to the Journal, Stutman apologized for using the term “ethnic cleansing,” saying that the phrase “shuts down conversations rather than encouraging them.” Here is her full statement:
“I am a Zionist who believes that the Jews have a right to live in their ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel. I also believe that the Israeli occupation is not only intolerable for Palestinians but also, ultimately, unsustainable for Israelis as well. As former prime minister Ehud Barak said, “If we keep controlling the whole area from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan where some 13 million people are living – eight million Israelis, five million Palestinians… it would become inevitably – that’s the key word, inevitably – either non-Jewish or non-democratic.” With every passing day, Israel is inching toward a point of no return.
“I have devoted my professional life to bringing young, disaffected American Jews and their non-Jewish partners into a closer relationship with, among other things, the State of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the Zionist dream itself. In a sermon to my community last week, I used the term ‘ethnic cleansing,’ by which I meant the forced removal of one ethnic or religious group from their homes in exchange for members of another ethnic or religious group. I am sorry I used that term, rather than just saying exactly what I think: in East Jerusalem, Palestinians are being forced from their homes so as to settle Israeli Jews in the area. Because ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a phrase that can be understood in many ways, using the term shuts down conversations rather than encouraging them. Polarizing rhetoric, inflamed by social media, only worsens the situation. Progress in this conflict requires more, not fewer, thoughtful conversations.
“Some people argue that when Israel is under attack, Jews should unite as one and not say anything critical about Israel, because there are too many people who, driven by bigotry and intolerance, hate Jews, and therefore Israel, and that we shouldn’t add fuel to the fire. I agree with those who are concerned about the rise in vitriolic anti-Semitism, and I believe that anti-Zionism is all too often a mask for anti-Semitism. I also believe it is possible, if not required, to express both support for the people of Israel, and criticism of the government of Israel, at the same time. Change happens when people lift up their voices to demand it. I still believe in an Israel that can live up to its promise, in safety and peace.
“Ultimately, if you listen to the sermon in its entirety, you will hear that it was not about my views on specific policies of the current Israeli government. It was about loneliness, and sadness, and also potential and possibility. About how to embrace complexity, and not give up hope, even when it may feel easier to walk away entirely. A tragedy for me would be to see the young people I serve in my community abandon Israel. I am working day and night to prevent that from happening.”
Oleg Ivanov is a freelance reporter for the Jewish Journal.