Rabbi Alissa Wise’s love letter to anti-Zionist Jews, as she leaves ten years’ work with Jewish Voice for Peace
We are not one thing, but we are — you are — everything
This sermon was originally delivered Friday, March 12th as part of a virtual Kabbalat Shabbat service co-hosted by Kol Tzedek Synagogue in Philadelphia, Tzedek Chicago and Jewish Voice for Peace.
WOW. I am so grateful and so overwhelmed by Kol Tzedek, Tzedek Chicago, and JVP coming together to honor me tonight. Thank you, thank you! It’s so auspicious for us to be here on Shabbat HaChodesh and Rosh Chodesh Nissan — the new month in which we remember and imagine freedom.
I am particularly struck that ten years ago, when I started at Jewish Voice for Peace, a Kabbalat Shabbat service like this felt like an impossibility. I knew that anti-Zionist Jews finding our rightful place in Jewish communities was what I was building towards, and seeing that this is happening right now is something that I have never felt before. And in fact, my decision to become a rabbi, to dedicate my life to the Jewish people and ensure that Judaism endures as a force for good in the world, began by facing all the ways it wasn’t.
I have very bright memories of the moment — I can picture it so clearly. It must have been 2002. I was sitting in my cubicle at the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community organization where I was a tenant organizer in Brooklyn. It was after hours, no one else was there, and myself and a comrade from Jews Against the Occupation were calling through a list of liberal synagogues in Brooklyn to ask if any of them would be willing to host an upcoming tour of the Shministim, Jewish Israeli high school students who refuse to serve in the Israeli military because of its treatment of Palestinians. I was raised deeply immersed in Jewish community. My parents volunteered with the Jewish Federation and I was a youth leader there. My uncle was the rabbi of our congregation. My family were Jewish communal leaders, and so reaching out to rabbis was a comfort zone for me — until it wasn’t.
We had called through the entire list over a period of weeks, and that night we made the last calls. I got a particularly nasty rabbi on the phone. Not a single congregation would host the Israeli conscientious objectors — I recall hanging up the phone and bursting into tears. I felt so hurt and betrayed by a community that had made me, me. It was so confusing and heartbreaking. It was truly painful to see so plainly how the Jewish community I had been raised to trust was in fact so closed. Sure, looking back I was being totally naive, but I recall just feeling genuinely crushed that the community who taught me Judaism, which led me to understand that I have a responsibility to stand with Palestinians, would refuse to hear the voices of young Jewish Israelis because they were challenging the occupation. I recall my comrade saying: “You should go become a rabbi so there would be a congregation for us that would host this type of event.”
And so I did. I set out to become a rabbi — and to do it my own way.
During rabbinical school, I spent summers in the West Bank working with the International Women’s Peace Service, living in a Palestinian village, and getting to know the Israeli organization Zochrot. Zochrot is dedicated to bring awareness of the Nakba, the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their lives and lands at the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Though typically rabbinical students spend time in West Jerusalem studying traditional books, I really felt that living in Palestinian communities and learning from anti-Zionist Israelis would prepare me for the rabbinate I was to go on to hold. One that would challenge the American Jewish community to address the Nakba. One that would allow access to Jewish wisdom to anyone who wants it. I wanted to be a rabbi who would be about welcoming — with wide-open arms — tens of thousands of American Jews into solidarity with Palestine. AND, I wanted to teach and discover together a way to live meaningful, ethical lives scaffolded by the holidays, rituals, and teaching of Judaism. I wanted to be a rabbi that would insist on a Judaism for the future we’re organizing for.
And tonight I just feel in love with all of the anti-Zionist Jews and rabbis here in the US, and the ones who came before us who showed us how. Our numbers have exploded in the past decade, and I feel in love with the thriving Jewish culture we are building here in the US and all over the world. Tonight, I really just want to say how much I love you, my fellow anti-Zionist Jews.
I love you in your refusal to accept things as they are. How courageous you are to go against the grain! I love how beautiful you are when you are coming to the defense of a comrade, in your determination and your insistence. I love how creative you are. I love how many things you all are, we all are. For some of us our anti-Zionism came down the line to us from those that raised us. For some of us, we had to figure out on our own and in our own ways. We learned it from Rabbi Tameres, or Hannah Arendt, or the Talmud, or Sami Shalom Chetrit, or Matzpen, or the Bund, or the Israeli Black Panthers. Some of us, like me, were raised in Zionist communities and lost so much communal and familial comfort when we came out as anti-Zionists. Some of us came here through anti-war organizing in the 60s, ACT UP in the 90s, and some of us just got here. Some of us keep Shabbat, some of us never would. We are multiracial and intergenerational. We are not one thing, but we are — you are — everything.
I love you for your reverence of the past. How connected and curious you are about who our ancestors were and what they thought, believed, practiced, and imagined. I love when you continue to try the traditions on and let them work on you in 2021. You let the past teach you, be a part of you, but not control or determine you. This is one of our most sacred legacies as a people. For hundreds of years our people passed down the disagreements of our ancestors from generation to generation in the form of Torah and Talmud and the Shabbat siddur or Passover Haggadah. We are a people bound together by the practices of our ancestors. I love the tender humility in which I see us caretaking, mindfully and temporarily, for these traditions, taking them into our homes and our lives, even with how imperfect they are, with how imperfect we are. How unprepared some of those traditions are for us. I love watching how malleable and responsive our traditions become when you bring your creativity.
It can also be very confusing.
One of those summers I spent in the West Bank, I recall returning to the house after a long day defending Palestinian land in the village of Marda from hogs that a group of nearby settlers had released on the land to eat up the barley and wheat that the village grew, as their main source of income. It was gruesome, the cruelty. I recall that it was a Friday night and as I prepared to make Kiddush, I could hear coming across the hills the voices of the settlers making Kiddush at their tables. It shook me. I considered putting down the Kiddush cup and not picking it up again. I didn’t want to blend my voice with theirs. I made a commitment to myself then that this tradition was mine. I recommitted then to not compromise my commitment to living a life the way my ancestors did — Jewishly. I committed to not sacrifice the sacred inheritance of the rhythms of Jewish time and the rituals of Jewish wisdom, but instead liberate and reclaim them. But it wasn’t easy to make that pledge, and honestly, it hasn’t been easy to keep it. So thank you to all of you who, however knowingly, made that same commitment with me.
To you who keep making it.
To the incredible JVP members who are leading the way in retrieving a Judaism beyond Zionism for us. The JVP Rabbinical Council members who, every year, create the Radical Jewish calendar, the JVP members who co-created Let My People Sing. The rabbis who lead the two congregations hosting us tonight, plus the dozen more non- and anti-Zionist and diasporist Jewish communities around the country. The JVP chapter leaders who have created DIY Jewish spiritual communities when they needed them to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, or blow the shofar on the High Holidays. For reimagining the Haggadah every year, for letting the holiday cycle draw you closer into relationships of solidarity with Palestinians. Thank you for preserving and enriching Judaism for all of us, fulfilling the words of the Psalmist: Even ma’asu habonim haiytah lerosh pinah / Me’et Hashem haiytah zot / Hi nifla’ot be’eineinu: “A stone cast away by builders became a cornerstone / This is from G-d / It is wondrous in our eyes.”
This commitment to stay tethered to tradition can be excruciating.
Like many of you, I get a lot of hate mail as a result of my support for Palestinian liberation. It should be no surprise to you that the most vitriolic hatred directed towards me comes from the Jewish community. It has come between me and my family. Over the past ten years, I have regularly received death threats, sexually threatening emails, voicemails and even letters delivered to my home. I have been barred from traveling to Israel. I almost was kicked out of rabbinical school. I have been called a kapo more times than I can count. I have developed a thick skin. One has to in order to keep doing this work.
I always maintained it didn’t seep in. But did it? Does it?
There’s a quirky little Talmud story that’s come to my mind as I’ve reflected on why I have decided to leave JVP now.
It starts with an unattributed voice asking:
“Hey, do you ever think about the fact that all of us are going to burn in hell?” (More or less — technically it says Gehenna since Jews don’t do hell, but you know what I mean!)
The response is, “Well, sure, but most of us will descend into hell but then ascend.”
The first voice says, “But there are some that won’t ascend and those include men who sleep with another man’s wife, the one who humiliates another in public, and the one who calls someone a derogatory name.”
The first one — let’s actually table that, there’s much we can say about it, but none of it is what I want to talk with you about tonight. And the other two are likewise what the rabbis of the Talmud dig deeper into.
Another unattributed question is asked: “Wait, isn’t humiliating someone in public and calling them a derogatory name the same?” Basically, “What’s the difference?”
The answer comes in five Aramaic words that translate in English to: “No, because the derogatory name is something that, even if it no longer actively humiliates the person because you have said it so many times, you said it to be hurtful — and that is worse.”
One of those five Aramaic words is “desh” — often translated into English as “gotten used to.” So like, kinda how I felt: I have been called a “kapo” so many times, it doesn’t really sting anymore.
But a more direct translation of the Aramaic would be “trod upon” or “trampled on.” So it could read, “Because you have trampled the person with that derogatory name, it no longer actively humiliates them when you say it.”
Oof. Trampled on. That resonates so much. Too much. It’s not something I reflect on in public — or ever, if I am honest.
It doesn’t feel good to do, but I want to encourage all of us anti-Zionist Jews to pay attention to those feelings, even if they don’t actively humiliate us anymore. Don’t let that trampled feeling have more power in you by ignoring it. I think I was negligent when taking care of those feelings for myself, and I think that is a part of how I ended up needing to take a break 10 years in, when in all honesty I had imagined myself at JVP until JVP was not needed anymore.
That’s why the rabbis of the Talmud understood incessant name-calling as such a profound transgression. The messages hurt, precisely as they are designed to. They’re designed to make us feel self-conscious, unwanted, unethical, negligent, to prey on the precise core human needs that keep us connected. This kind of trampling also makes it hard to do the day-to-day work of organizing for olam haba, or the world that is coming. When it’s hard to endure the pain and frustration of organizing in this world, who has time to build toward the next?
The only remedy to this name-calling — kapo, self-hating Jew, you know — is more of us anti-Zionist Jews showing up for the fight for Palestinian freedom. But these incessant attacks and accusations and rejections are designed precisely to have a chilling effect. To keep us silent.
And it doesn’t even need to be explicit name-calling. It’s the Jewish social justice organization that won’t touch a JVP member with a ten-foot pole for risk of losing support from a donor. The fear and trepidation other Jews feel in knowing an anti-Zionist Jew is part of their community, let alone in a leadership position. The fact that the Jewish Federation and Hillel (and many other Jewish communal organizations) have explicit policies barring Jews like us from being part of their organizations. It’s the progressive Jewish groups who will speak to me only in private or who think of me as the nuisance, not Israeli apartheid. It’s my own family members, with whom I cannot and do not talk about my work at JVP. All of this can silence us.
A tough skin is important, even critical, in this world, if we’re going to continue to keep fighting for and envisioning a world worthy of our children and our children’s children. But a tough skin is also dangerous: We cannot let the names and the slurs and the slights and the hot-takes trample us to the point where we are not in our full power. We don’t want to let our skin be so tough that we don’t recognize the pain that is there. Let’s feel our pain AND feel our power.
In those stories I told earlier — of finding my clarity to become a rabbi through the pain of the Jewish community’s refusal to acknowledge Palestinian lives matter; or the commitment I made to fight for a Judaism I could be proud of, in the wake of watching settlers raise a glass on Shabbat in joy after terrorizing Palestinians — my pain was in those moments. My wake-up call, my reminder that I have power to transform and reclaim and reimagine. There’s so much potential in feeling our pain and our power. Let’s use it.
The harassment takes its toll, and I believe it is essential we name it, we feel it if we have to, we challenge it, we interrupt it — whatever your relationship is to this harassment, we all have a role to play in ending it. We have a world to win, and we all need to be as whole and healthy as possible not just to win it, but to enjoy it when we get there.
That’s why we need each other. That’s why we need JVP, and Kol Tzedek and Tzedek Chicago and the havurot and minyanim, the DIY spiritual communities popping up across the country. That is why we make our own homes for each other and why we must tell each other we love each other more. I’m sorry if I haven’t said it enough. I love you all.
I am so enormously proud of all we have done together and still will do together, as we ensure Palestinians have all the tools, all the platforms, all the support they need as they organize and win their freedom.
So, yes, I will continue the kiddush cup each Shabbat. There’s a practice by some Jews that as we lift a glass to lead a group in blessing the Shabbes wine, we ask first “Birshut,” (“With your permission”), and the group responds “L’chaim.” It’s a lovely moment of consent and permission and welcome.
I feel sheepish. I ought to have asked for this sacred permission when I first started at JVP over ten years ago. It was the beginning of a ten-year-long recitation of blessing on behalf of, and in concert with, beloved comrades and community. A most sacred offering. So now I ask, Birshut — with your permission — I will take my leave from this role at JVP, but never from the work of realizing Palestinian freedom, which is to say: freedom for all of us. I take my leave knowing that anti-Zionist Jews are a thriving, beautiful, irrefutable part of American Judaism.
To my beloved anti-Zionist Jews who face the ostracism and name-calling and threats, and still keep struggling to free Palestine and Palestinians and to build sacred Jewish practice, I want to bless you with the blessing I offer my kids’ keppies/heads every Friday night:
Thihu asher tihieiu v’tihieu bruchim b’chol asher tihieu.
May you be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.