J Street Philadelphia Newsletter

December 2018

Message from the Chair

Many of us worked hard during the midterm elections to elect candidates who shared our vision of a just society. Our success in supporting endorsed candidates, including nearly five million dollars distributed through JStreetPAC and the work of a large cadre of campaign volunteers, demonstrated our growing political capital.

However, this recent election was only a start. We need to begin our efforts in advance of the 2020 elections, build our connections to newly elected congresswomen in our region and work to ensure that our advocacy for and commitment to equality, justice and democratic principles help shape the national policy debate here and in Israel.

We need to rally and engage the great majority of American Jews who favor diplomacy and oppose existing Israeli and US policy toward the Palestinians to join J Street’s efforts to defeat the loud and powerful minority that opposes us.

Whether it is through political advocacy, programming, or meeting with elected representatives and jewish community leaders, please join J Street in its efforts to combat nationalism, racism and xenophobia in the United States and Israel. Please let me know how you will work to effect change.

– Phyllis Snyder
Chair, J Street Philadelphia

The Rabbinical Corner

Reflections on the Tree of Life Synagogue Shootings: What Can We Learn?

The tragic shootings at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 shocked and horrified the United States and starkly reminded the American Jewish community of what hatred, ignorance, and prejudice can do when inflamed by extremist rhetoric and a divided polity. We asked three Rabbis who serve on the J Street Philadelphia Committee and the J Street Rabbinical Council to reflect on the tragedy of Squirrel Hill while offering insights from a learned Jewish perspective on moving forward as a community and society in the shadow of such sadness.

Rabbi David A. Teutsch (Reconstructionist)
Wiener Professor Emeritus of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Wyncote, PA:

The shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh included death and wounding in the Reconstructionist Dor Hadash congregation that meets in that building. I have spoken there several times over the years and knew the doctor who died; he was a wonderful man. The divisive rhetoric flowing from the White House that equates people of color, immigrants and other religious and ethnic minorities, including Jews, as the enemies of white patriarchal nationalism in America plays a major role in the current polarization in this country and empowerment of violence from the extreme right. The deaths in Pittsburgh were indirectly caused by the rhetoric that has empowered rightwing fanatics and emotionally unbalanced extremists.

However, that was not what ultimately made the Tree of Life incident, or the killing in a Black church three years ago, stand out. What made both incidents different from most other times and places was the spontaneous outpouring of support for the Black and Jewish communities from across America. The reactions have been amazing to me: The size of rallies and vigils. The outpouring of funds. The attendance at synagogues. The protective circles outside them.

My German Jewish father and grandfathers were taken to Dachau after Kristallnacht in Germany, and there was virtually no resistance from the non-Jewish community. Here in America, the Jewish community has built bridges with Christians and Muslims, civil rights activists and those working for deeper social change. And we have heard from our allies. We collectively represent the best legacy of America.

Of course, we need to fight the scourge of rhetoric that exemplifies lashon hara, damaging speech. And we need to fight politicians who seek to stir divisions among us, but we need also to recognize that we are surrounded by friends and allies who share our commitment to freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from oppression. They are our allies here, and I believe they can be our allies in fighting for fairness in Israel and Palestine. Let us stand strong together.

Rabbi Beth Janus (Reform)
Chair of the Philadelphia Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street:

“The world is a very narrow bridge and the essential teaching is to not be afraid.”
-Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

I am an American Jew who has spent much time in Israel over the past decades. I have been there when buses exploded, and suicide bombers killed people in cafes, markets, and nightclubs. And while I deeply love Israel, I think of Israel as a more dangerous place to be a Jew than here in my birth country. But for me, that belief shattered after the brutal shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Indeed, the world does seem like a narrow and frightening place with few true places of safety. And while I lived with the illusion that things were safe for me in America, while not so in Israel, in fact that was never completely true. The world is filled with all kinds of dangers. Sometimes those dangers are exposed, and even the deepest deniers among us cannot help but confront fear.

Essentially, there are two responses. We can turn inward or outward. Turning inward requires us to focus on security and protection. This is smart and probably necessary. It is happening in every Jewish institution I know. But it is also imperative that we focus outward, by turning to those who support the Jewish community and opening dialogue with those who do not. Seeing the thousands of people come stand with the Jewish community post-Pittsburgh was transformative. Having synagogues throw open their doors to all Americans in the week following Pittsburgh, despite the fear, was unprecedented in our history. By focusing outward, we more meaningfully connect with others that we wish to hold up and help those who face hate and discrimination.

In all this, J Street is our model. There are Zionists who are fearful and advocate stronger weapons, borders, and military – a turning inward. And there is J Street, alongside other like-minded groups, who turn outward and advocate movement toward the Palestinians and building a Middle East in which people separated by history and ethnicity can live independently while also building bridges to each other. J Street shows that it is possible to turn outward, while also focusing on the security of Israel.

These weeks we are reading the stories of Joseph and our migration from Canaan to Egypt. When Joseph lives in Egypt, cut off from his family, he makes his way to the top of society, governing under the Pharaoh. And because of this bridge he built with this non-Jew, he saved the entire Jewish clan when they needed a place to live and thrive while famine consumed Canaan. Thank goodness that connection was there before disaster struck.

Inward and outward. We need both responses to this complex devastating catastrophe. Perhaps we can update Rabbi Nachman’s words: The world is a very narrow bridge and the essential teaching is to build more bridges.

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom (Conservative)
Distinguished Service Rabbi, Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Elkins Park, PA:

On Shabbat morning, October 27, I was in Vienna. As I entered Seitenstettengasse to attend services at the Stadttempel, the main synagogue of Vienna, I was confronted by a uniformed officer holding a submachine gun. I was extensively questioned by an Israeli security official, who confirmed that I had “pre-registered.” I had to produce my passport. Only then was I permitted to enter.

My wife Cindy and I were at the end of a long European trip, mostly by boat, that took us to the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and, finally, Hungary. We didn’t choose this trip because it brought us to the scenes of the Nazi horror of World War II. But everywhere we went, the history of Jewish vulnerability in Western Europe loomed large over us. If we had really thought about it, I am not sure we would have chosen this trip, with its fraught itinerary, for a vacation.

In almost every town, we found a “Judenstrasse,” a street, a neighborhood, where Jews no longer live because they were expelled or murdered. Bronze Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones,” mark residences where Jews once lived, and from which they were taken by the Nazis and their collaborators, usually to their death. Each plaque has a name. Each name has a destiny. Some, only by conjecture. There are old Jewish cemeteries. And plaques to Jewish religious leaders who once taught Torah in these communities.

In Budapest, a row of iron shoes on the bank of the Danube, the Shoe Memorial, marks the site where Jews were forced to remove their shoes before being shot by the collaborating Hungarian Arrow Cross Militiamen, falling to their death in the water. Shoes were valuable. They could be sold and reused. They were more valuable than human life.

We were also witness to the fact that the roots of Anti-Semitism in Europe run much deeper than the Nazis. We were struck by carvings on two Cathedrals. In Bamberg, there is one called “Synagoga,” or “Synagogue,” representing the Jewish people as a blindfolded woman, blind to the truth of Christianity. Below her is an image of a Jewish man, identified by the distinctive pointed hat Jews were forced to wear in the Middle Ages, with the devil gouging out his eyes. On the Cathedral in Regensburg is a relief of Jews, again with pointed hats, suckling a pig as a permanent image of derision.

The Nazis did not have to invent Anti-Semitism. Its history is as old as Christianity in Europe, and, remarkably, the imagery remains in holy places. In the American South, images of the Confederacy are being systematically removed. But hate-filled images remain on Cathedrals and churches in many major cities in Europe. Dormant. Even today.

As I sat in the Vienna synagogue, my mind wandered. How remarkable, I thought, that we don’t have to go through this kind of screening in America to enter a house of prayer. But I also wondered, what if someone had gotten by security. Was it possible that a terrorist could be sitting next to me, waiting to attack? On this morning. In this beautiful sanctuary filled with peaceful worshipers. No, I said to myself. Not possible.

Then a few hours later news came of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh.

I was shocked. How could this possibly happen in America? The worst act of Anti-Semitism in American History. While I was pondering the possibility of an attack in Vienna! Who would have ever thought!

But this is today’s America. The president and his minions evoke prejudice and hatred by employing classic racial, ethnic and religious tropes. They inflame their aggrieved partisans. They pit one group of Americans against others whom they perceive as different from themselves and threatening. Why should we be surprised? In a nation where no act of gun violence — whether against churches, schools, Hindu temples, or places of work — is enough to cause sufficient outrage to control the flood of handguns, why should anyone be surprised that gun violence would eventually strike a synagogue?

Some say that this is a moment of American Jewish disillusionment. That we can no longer believe that America is different. But even in the midst of this horror, having just returned from Europe where the evidence of the historic plague of consuming Anti-Semitism remains, I continue to be resolute in my belief that America really is different. The outpouring of solidarity from the greater community that was sickened by what happened in Pittsburgh, the legal protections that are part of our society, and the midterm election, are signs that my faith in America is not in vain.

We are not a perfect society. We are a divided society. We have a demagogic president who advances his own personal interest by sowing discord and fear. He skillfully exploits prejudices harbored by too many people, but which, without his goading, they would control and overcome.  Most of Trump’s followers know they are better than that. Better than the vitriol that he declaims.  Better than what he brings out in them.

And as a society, we are better than Donald Trump. We are better than his nastiness. And our system is resilient. We have had periods like this before in America. They have never lasted. And I am convinced that this period will not endure. American society has proven itself to be self-corrective. The core values of American society may at times be obscured, but they are never obliterated. They always re-emerge, restored and reinvigorated.

It is my faith in the American experience that has led me to embrace the message of J Street, which was founded on the conviction that one can be Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace. It embraces the vision that two peoples, two nations, can one day live harmoniously next to one another. We know this, in part, because we are witness to the American experience. The United States is a testament that a society of people from different backgrounds, religions, races, and national origins, can live harmoniously without surrendering who they are. It demonstrates that when we recognize the common humanity of each individual and respect one another, we all prosper. Only as a result of mutual respect can a just society be sustained.

As we work to further the seeds of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, we must also strive to affirm and advance these ideals of humanity in our own nation in this time of challenge.

So that synagogues in America will not have to be protected by officers with submachine guns, and peaceful worshipers will not have to face the persistent inquiry of menacing security personnel, just to assemble to pray.

Advocacy Update

In the months leading up to the November 2018 elections, members of the J Street Philadelphia Executive Committee actively met with local congressional representatives and their staffs, and candidates seeking election to the House of Representatives. Fundraisers were hosted in support of Rep. Dwight Evans and newly elected Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, both of whom were endorsed by J Street. Along with Representative-elect Andy Kim of New Jersey, three members of the 116th Congress from the Philadelphia region were endorsed and supported by J Street.

Nationwide, the 116th Congress will have more J Street-supported members than ever before. The J Street caucus will be at least 128-members strong starting in 2019, with over half of the Democrats in the House and the Senate supported by J Street. 98% of J Street-endorsed incumbents won reelection and 30 challenger candidates defeated pro-Trump incumbents. J Street PAC distributed over $5 million in funds in support of J Street-endorsed candidates.

As we look ahead, J Street Philadelphia will continue to discuss, educate, and inform our local congressional representatives and senators of the policy issues that are important to J Street and its supporters. We must remain active and engaged if we wish to persuade our local and national leaders to actively support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, work for positive immigration reform, and adapt the positions overwhelmingly supported by the majority of American Jews.

J Street U Report

Matan Arad-Neeman, Co-Chair of the J Street U Chapter of Haverford College, provided the following update on the Stop Demolitions, Build Peace campaign:

This fall, J Street U is entering the second phase of its Stop Demolitions, Build Peace campaign, calling on Birthright to include the voices of Palestinians who have lived under occupation on their trips. This continues the work begun as part of this campaign last year to end Israeli policies of forced eviction and demolition of Palestinian villages and of settlement expansion and creeping annexation in Area C of the West Bank. We saw several successes over the course of the past year, culminating last spring with a landmark letter signed by 76 members of the United States House of Representatives calling on the Israeli government to halt the demolitions of Khan al-Ahmar and Susya.

Despite some success in delaying the demolitions, these Palestinian communities remain under threat of destruction. In the face of these impending demolitions, our American Jewish institutions remain silent. These institutions omit and erase Palestinians from the narratives they tell about Israel. This omission and erasure of Palestinian voices is part of the right-wing settlement movement’s efforts to preclude a two-state solution.

Birthright actively bans Palestinian Israeli citizens from speaking on trips and completely ignores the voices and experiences of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank. Birthright’s programming largely denies the existence of Palestinians as real people with needs, aspirations and rights. These trips therefore perpetuate the attitudes and politics that help make demolitions and occupation possible.

This year, thousands of students across the country are mobilizing to ask Birthright to make changes to their programming in order to make room for Palestinian perspectives and to end the omission and erasure that allows demolitions and creeping annexation to continue. In the Philadelphia area, students at Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore are calling on the Tri-College Chabad to include Palestinians living under occupation among the speakers on their Birthright trip. As of this writing, over eighty students at the three colleges have joined us, with many more expected to sign on in the coming weeks.

For more information on the Stop Demolitions, Build Peace campaign, and to take action, visit the J Street website here.

J Street’s 2018 National Leadership Summit

In November, several members of the J Street Philadelphia Executive Committee attended J Street’s National Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. Members heard inspirational talks from J Street leadership and staff, attended strategy sessions on how to most effectively impact the US political landscape in the year ahead as a new Democratic majority takes control in the House of Representatives, and addressed the changes in our political landscape and what it means for US foreign policy in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and our country. It was also an opportunity to network and exchange ideas and strategies with local J Street leaders from across the country. We must continue to work together as we continue to grow our voice and presence in national politics and fight the polarization presently harming U.S. and Israeli society.

Worth Reading: Insight and Analysis on Recent Events

Highlights from the J Street News Roundup

In case you missed it, the following news and insight from recent issues of the “J Street News Roundup” are worth your time (to receive J Street’s daily newsletter, email [email protected]):

J Street Condemns Alarming New Spate of Terror Attacks Against Israelis in West Bank, Jerusalem
“J Street is deeply alarmed and saddened by a new spate of terror attacks by Palestinian extremists against Israeli soldiers, police and civilians in the West Bank and Jerusalem… There can be no excuse for this violence, which ultimately only leads to greater suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians. According to reports, the attacks may have been orchestrated by the terrorist organization Hamas. The Palestinian Authority and all responsible Palestinian leaders must condemn these incidents and continue to undertake vital security cooperation with Israel in order to identify those responsible and help prevent a further dangerous escalation in violence.”

These Midterms, It’s a MitzVote for Jewish American Students
“I get the sense that folks feel this is an ‘all-in’ kind of time,’ Matan Neeman-Arad, a 20-year-old Haverford College student says of the midterm elections, when Americans will vote in hundreds of congressional, state and local races…. Back in Pennsylvania, Arad-Neeman has been campaigning hard for the Democratic Party. ‘I feel this is really the moment we can turn the tide,’ he says. A J Street-affiliated student, he is focused on domestic issues – the separation of children from their parents along the Mexican border has especially outraged him – but says he also cares deeply about a diplomatic push to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ‘We need to have congresspeople who are pro-diplomacy, pro-peace,’ he says. ‘The current situation is a pro-peace sham. There is thinking that by somehow taking Jerusalem off the table or defunding [Palestinian refugee agency] UNRWA, we are being brought closer to peace. But if we had a pro-diplomacy majority in Congress, we would have more leverage in telling [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu he cannot get away with, for example, demolishing people’s homes or having such a heavy hand in the disproportionate civilian death toll in Gaza.”

Right of return or time to move on?
Loveday Morris and Suzan Haidamous report, “Despite the fact that many were born and raised [in] Lebanon, Palestinian residents remain reliant on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), an entity that provides aid to millions of Palestinians around the region, particularly for basic services like health care and education. Now, however, the Trump administration is trying to dismantle that lifeline, leaving many Palestinians fearing for their futures. In a statement last summer announcing its decision to halt funding, U.S. State Department officials described UNRWA as ‘irredeemably flawed,’ echoing the Israeli sentiment that the agency perpetuates the refugee problem, rather than solving it, and allows the countries that host them to shirk their responsibilities in resettling them. The move placed increased scrutiny on UNRWA, which has struggled to raise the $1.2 billion it needs annually to serve a population it estimates has grown from 700,000 to 5.5 million — with some Palestinians even acknowledging that the time has come to hold the agency to account. At the same time, the United States has also tied the matter of UNRWA reform to a much wider aim: taking off the bargaining table Palestinians’ ‘right of return,’ one of three key issues integral to the Middle East peace process. These efforts have sparked debate over what it means to be a Palestinian refugee and highlighted questions on resettlement, and whether residency or citizenship in another country would diminish their claim to a future Palestinian state.”

Besieged on all sides, Gaza’s journalists are risking their lives to do their job
Dina Saeed reports, “The deaths of Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein, who were shot by Israeli snipers while covering the Great Return March protests on the Gaza–Israel fence, uncovered Israel’s brutal crackdown on the nonviolent movement. But their deaths also highlighted the dangerous conditions that journalists in Gaza work in, often risking their personal safety to document the lives of Palestinians in the strip. Without sufficient protection gear, access to psychological support, stable streams of payment, and free speech protections, journalists in Gaza are struggling to build their careers.”

In Israel, a Coalition of the Barely Willing
Neri Zilber writes, “Netanyahu may very well still feel pressure from his right flank next time there is an escalation in Gaza or on other fronts. To his credit—and contrary to his public image as a security hard-liner—Netanyahu avoided a major conflagration this past week while retaining his seat as prime minister. His opponents did not fare as well. Lieberman has now been exiled to the opposition; his wish for early elections as quickly as possible hasn’t come to pass. Bennett may have done himself irreparable political damage, his public image as an inexperienced hothead buttressed by his humiliating walk-back. Even Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who predicted the coalition would not hold for more than a few weeks, had to withdraw his threat to pull his center-right Kulanu party from the coalition. ‘You win some, you lose some,’ Bennett said Monday, shrugging off his failed maneuver. For Netanyahu, it’s been mostly wins.”

A Blue Jewish Wave
“Jewish voters overwhelmingly chose Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. Among Jewish voters, 82 percent of the two-party U.S. House vote went to Democrats and 18 percent went to Republicans. This 64-point margin of support for House Democrats is the largest among Jewish voters in a decade and one of the largest on record…. Although the data can’t say with certainty what caused the Jewish jump in support for Democrats, one possibility is the shock and alarm caused by the Pittsburgh synagogue killings, according to the Mellman Group. An election day survey for J Street by GBA Strategies found 72 percent of Jewish voters said that “Donald Trump’s comments and policies” were at least somewhat “responsible for the recent shooting that took place at the synagogue in Pittsburgh.” Eighty-six percent Jews who identify as Democrats ascribed some responsibility for the massacre to Trump, but so did a 56 percent majority of Jewish independents and 35 percent of Jewish Republicans.”