Author: Jeremy Burton

This Anti-Semitism. And This Anti-Semitism. And Us.

The next two statements will each annoy, at various levels, some part of the organized Jewish community that is represented within JCRC:

  1. Rising anti-Semitism and its increasing mainstream toleration on the left in the United States and around the world is a serious concern that we need to name and address as a community.
  2. Rising anti-Semitism and its increasing mainstream toleration on the right in the United States and around the world is a serious concern that we need to name and address as a community.

Barely a day goes by that someone within our community isn’t raising one of these concerns to me. I share them both.

Rarely does that same person raise the other concern. More often than not, that person tends to identify themselves with a world-view sitting in partisan opposition to where they articulate the problem coming from. Simply put, we are a community divided; not in our concern about rising anti-Semitism but in our lack of shared understanding about which forms of it are of consequence and concern for us.

And too often, rather than agreeing on the multiple threats facing us and collectively heeding the call to address them, we allow ourselves to be splintered as we argue amongst ourselves about which anti-Semitism is worse.

Like many of us who sit at the center of our communal politics and debates, I tend to come down on the side of Elu, v’Elu, This and This (to poorly re-purpose the rabbis of the Talmud). Cannot both be true? Cannot both forms of rising anti-Semitism be a threat at the same time?

It ought not to be a partisan nor controversial statement within our Jewish community to say that we face an existential threat if left-wing denial of our national identity as a Jewish people is normalized.  Or that dismissing the fact of our people’s historical origins in and enduring connection to our homeland is inherently anti-Semitic. And yes, that this ideology and the conclusions it draws threaten the safety and the future of the world’s largest Jewish community.

It ought not to be a partisan nor controversial statement within our Jewish community to say that there is an existential threat if right-wing denial of the equality of individuals and ours as Jews is normalized. Or that the advance of a politics of white supremacy and racial nationalism, of “blood and soil,” that places blame on the international and cosmopolitan Jew, puts at risk everything we’ve achieved through enlightened liberal democracy. And yes, that we’ve seen this before.

We, who strive to reflect the broad center of our community, must commit ourselves to confronting the existential threat from both extremes of the political spectrum. We can and should debate strategies for confronting them, and even weigh the best use of our finite resources in doing so, but we dare not diminish either as a real and significant threat.

The need to bridge our differences and uphold our responsibility for confronting both these threats is all the more urgent precisely because our fractured communal conversation results in our being less effective than we need to be in combating both. My own sense is that the most effective members of our community to confront the left-wing threat would be those who themselves authentically sit within the progressive world. And, conversely, the most effective voices against the right-wing threat are those of us who sit comfortably in conservative spaces. I tend to think that those speaking out against anti-Semitism from across a political aisle aren’t terribly effective speaking to an audience that they don’t particularly respect or understand on other matters. But those who’ve acted courageously in holding their own ideological peers accountable – and often enduring inordinate online abuse as a result – have inspired awe and admiration.

At times like this I think of that Nazi propaganda poster displaying “the Jew as centipede” crawling over the globe. One eye of this caricatured “international Jew” has a dollar sign; the Jew as capitalist. The other eye has a hammer and sickle; the Jew as communist. If the worst of the worst could paint us, in one fell swoop, as a threat from the left and the right, then surely we can name the threat to us today from both the left and the right.

This and this. Both must be fought. And we must all be in this together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Putting Justice in the Criminal Justice System

In our inception, we at JCRC have known from our own history in Boston that the criminal justice system is not always just.

Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon’s “The Death of an American Jewish Community” chronicles the period in the 1940s when Jewish teens experienced regular assaults by Irish gangs, often fueled by the anti-Semitic radio diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin. But following the street violence, Jewish youth were victimized once again by the police and justice system, who too often turned a blind eye to the assaults.

The ADL kept scrupulous records of the confrontations, documenting the lackadaisical response of the police to the frequent attacks on these Jewish teens. But in the infrequent cases when the Jewish youth prevailed over their assailants, the Jews were vigorously prosecuted.  The targeting of powerless Jews both on the street and in the courts served as a wakeup call to the Jewish community to mobilize and organize – leading to the founding of the Jewish Community Council (as we were then named).

Our collective experience of a failing justice system, along with the development of our commitment to civil rights for all who live in this nation, have developed within us an enduring commitment to advocating for a fair and equitable justice system. And we have turned our attention to a current crisis of epic proportions; the rampant criminalization of people of color.

It is hard to overstate the devastating toll this has had on communities of color, in perpetuating intergenerational poverty, income inequality, and family instability. When over 27 million children in the United States have at least one parent in prison, then our entire society is at risk. In Massachusetts, where Latinos are 4.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than Whites – the highest disparity rate in the nation – and Blacks are 7.5 times more likely, we are called upon on to act (Sentencing Project).

Over a year ago, JCRC set about to address with renewed vigor this civil rights issue of our day, one aptly characterized as “The New Jim Crow.” Our Council invited policy experts to provide guidance and identify strategic levers for change. Last winter the Council discussed and endorsed a set of policy recommendations to:

  • reduce the rates of incarceration and recidivism,
  • reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system,
  • reform the use of mandatory minimums to provide for more judicial discretion,
  • reform our juvenile justice system to reduce the school to prison pipelines, and
  • address the impact of fines and fees associated with all aspects of the criminal justice system.

Guided by this set of priorities, we have been hard at work alongside our partner, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), to advocate for meaningful criminal justice reform. Together, we are mobilizing the Jewish community along with other faith communities to press our legislators to act.  Leaders from five synagogues have brought hundreds of people through their doors to engage with their state senators and representatives, and fifty Reform rabbis from across the Commonwealth signed on to a letter urging serious reform.

Our efforts, and those of other criminal justice advocates, have borne fruit. By a vote of 27 to 10, our State Senate passed a bill reflecting all of our priorities in varying degrees. Now we need the Massachusetts House to be equally bold and seize this historic opportunity to pass comprehensive reform.

Join me and over 150 faith leaders, elected officials, and advocates this Monday at 1pm at the State House, at the Grand Staircase to demonstrate our support and solidarity.

If you can’t make it to the State House, you can still take action by using JCRC’s Phone2Action platform. Simply text “CJR” to the number 52886. You will receive a phone script and be instantly connected to your legislator to demonstrate your support for this work. You can also sign up online here.

This is, once again, an urgent moment. And as we have many times in the past, it is one where we have an opportunity: To speak with a powerful voice and to take meaningful action to advance our community’s commitment to justice. I hope that you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Taking Action for a Two-State Solution

The achievement of the two-state solution has, for a long time, been a question of when and not if. We have raised a generation of the Jewish people on the idea that the two-state solution is the only resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures justice and security for all peoples. For our community here in Boston, the two-state solution continues to be our aspiration and the focus of our dreams about Israel’s future. And yet right now, the reality of the two-state solution seems both daunting and distant. Some have even argued that we are past the point of no return; the two-state solution is already in the rear view mirror. This is a grave mistake. We are under no illusion that achieving a two-state agreement is an easy task, or one likely to be achieved in the short-term. However, we have no doubt that there are actions that we can take to advance our vision and hopes of a peaceful future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Every observer has their own arguments and rationale for why a lasting peace appears to be distant. We have argued that the only path to a lasting peace is through direct negotiation, and we are wary of unilateral moves that seek to define the end conditions of negotiations. Both the Israelis and Palestinians have done this in at one point or another, and in the current situation direct negotiations appear unlikely in the near future.

We follow, with interest and anticipation, the efforts by the current US administration to lead a breakthrough for Israeli and Palestinian peace, one that will create a better outlook for Israelis and Palestinians. Certainly, if such a breakthrough comes we will celebrate it and support the government’s efforts. But we cannot place our hopes in the efforts of the American government. Rather, we find our hope elsewhere, in the changes happening at the grassroots level between Israelis and Palestinians. We at JCRC seek to support Israelis and Palestinians who are organizing and creating opportunities for mutual recognition, economic cooperation, and civic engagement. We are supporting the emergence of a new generation of leaders, one that can challenge the existing paradigms and move Israelis and Palestinians into a brighter, more interdependent, and peaceful future.

We are launching two new initiatives to support these grassroots efforts. The Israel Collaborative convenes groups of young leaders to develop and implement innovate projects to support peacemaking NGOs. We ran a successful pilot this summer, and will be launching a second round of the program over the next two weeks. We are also developing a new initiative in partnership with CJP called Boston Partners for Peace. This program will highlight the work of impactful NGOs in this field and provide the Boston community with concrete ways to support their efforts. The program is currently being tested with focus groups, with a launch scheduled for later this winter.

John F. Kennedy, when facing the seemingly impossible task, famously said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” For many of us today, helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peaceful end to their conflict feels as impossible as going to the moon did to President Kennedy. We accept this challenge because it is hard, and because it will take the best of us to make our vision a reality. Will you join us in this work?

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The American Tradition of Defending Our Democracy’s Norms

In 1796, President George Washington voluntarily set the precedent for a two-term limit on the Presidency, stepping aside and giving up power on his own. Historians tell us that his decision was informed both by his desire “to pass through the vale of life in retirement” and to honor his early promise not to seek unfair power as a government official. The two-term custom he established stood for 150 years until President Franklin Roosevelt, as the Nazis already were taking over Europe, stood for a third term in 1940, and then a fourth in 1944.

The American people chose to re-elect Roosevelt those two additional times. However, when the war was over, they worried that the convention of a two-term presidency would not be easily restored. In 1947 Congress passed, and in 1951 the states ratified, the 23rd Amendment, codifying the two-term presidency.

In 1960, President Kennedy defied convention and appointed his brother Robert as Attorney General. The Senate ratified his choice (and Bobby Kennedy would become one of the great liberal visionaries of his era), but the choice continued to raise concerns about dynasties in the White House. In 1967, President Johnson signed an anti-nepotism law, limiting the appointment of relatives to federal offices, thus restoring a pre-existing norm.

Time and again in our nation’s history, when the norms and customs of our democracy have been trespassed – ones that foster transparency between the governed and those that govern, that limit the ability of those in power to use office for personal and family gain, or that hold leaders accountable to the people – we have had the conversation and when necessary taken action, through law, to restore those norms.

It is in this spirit that I take pride in JCRC’s announcement this week that we would support legislation requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns before appearing on the ballot in Massachusetts. These times are “not normal,” as Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) so eloquently stated this week while announcing his retirement:

“We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country.”

In these times we are all called to defend the norms of our democracy; the institutions and customs that ensure accountability, transparency, and a healthy, vigorous, and respectful public debate about the issues our nation faces. We at JCRC believe that we must do our part here in Massachusetts with our federal delegation and in our Commonwealth, to protect those norms through the establishment of new laws that preserve the fundamentals which make our nation great.

We do not accept the sundering of our country. I invite you to join us in the work of restoring the norms of our democracy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Listening & Learning: Preparing for Yom Kippur

This past Tuesday, JCRC was privileged to host the Connie S. Birnbaum Memorial Lecture, with over 350 people in attendance. There were two notes that evening that I find myself reflecting on as we head into Yom Kippur.

In introducing the lecture, Herbie, Connie’s husband who founded this lecture 14 years ago, talked about her commitment to K’lal Yisrael. He pondered a discussion he’d had with a friend about the meaning of this term (literally: the “Whole,” or “Unity,” of the people of Israel). Is it about a shared faith, culture, nationality, an ethnicity? Herbie, in this conversation, arrived at the conclusion that what we are is a family.


Lecture founder Dr. Herbert Birnbaum

And then we had the privilege of an extraordinary lecture from Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik. It is hard to do justice in describing his talk about preparing for Yom Kippur and Rembrandt’s depiction of Jacob blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. Soloveichik covered a wide range of material. He grappled with Talmudic sources and Christian theology, cited the Simpsons and baseball, and read from an exchange of letters between a rabbi and a Catholic priest in Boston in the 1950’s. Suffice to say that he imparted a powerful meditation on repentance, about that which belongs to the Divine, and on our relationships with our children (Sadly, you had to be there as we are not able to share this amazing talk online. I hope that you will join us next year! You can view more photos of our evening on Facebook.).


Featured speaker Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik

As the lecture ended, an additional thought came to mind:

Rembrandt’s art was deeply informed and enriched by his relationships with his neighbor, a rabbi. Four hundred years later, our understanding of the most ancient of Jewish practices and holidays is deepened through understanding the work of this Dutch master.

Today our Jewish family struggles in our relationship with each other. We have strongly held opinions and deep disagreements. We have divides that often seem unbridgeable, differences that some choose to exacerbate, which drive us even further apart.

If Rembrandt could learn from a rabbi to enrich his own understanding, and if we can learn from Rembrandt across the ages to enrich our own, then surely we can learn to hear and appreciate each other across our differences; not to create a false unity of agreement, but to foster the understanding and respectful relationships that define a family committed to its shared future.

Let this be a central piece of our work, as a family and a community, in the coming year.

Wishing those who are doing so a meaningful fast this weekend.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

New Year Brings New Lessons from Malden High Students

As we welcome the new year, we close the door on a summer that has shaken many of us. We were saddened and horrified when, in the space of six weeks, two glass panels from the New England Holocaust Memorial were destroyed by acts of vandalism. The second glass panel was shattered just days after white supremacists and self-proclaimed neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville. Though we did not know the motivation of the vandals, the incidents at the Memorial were deeply painful for many in our community, particularly given the proximity to these frightening displays of hatred.

We do know that the young man who allegedly destroyed the second panel came from Malden, one of the most diverse towns in the Commonwealth. At a community gathering at the Memorial the morning after the incident, Malden Mayor Gary Christiansen told the crowd he was “completely disheartened” to learn that the person responsible for the vandalism was from his city.

Janet Stein Calm, President of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants of Greater Boston, publicly invited the mayor of Malden to bring students back to the Memorial to learn about the sacredness of the space directly from Holocaust survivors and their children. Last week, Mayor Christiansen, 30 Malden students, school administrators, and teachers took Janet up on her invitation and joined local survivors and Jewish community members at the Memorial. The Malden visitors came determined to begin the healing process both for their town and for the survivors, committed to learning and hearing from them firsthand.

It turns out the mayor wasn’t the only one who was pained by the vandalism. When students returned from summer vacation and learned of the incident, they were appalled and disbelieving that a peer of theirs could do something like this. They felt compelled to take action and say, “We will not stand for this in our community, to let this one person represent and define us.”

  
All images courtesy of the City of Malden. Click to enlarge. Left: Survivor Anna Ornstein. Right: Surivivor Izzy Arbeiter.

“We have seen the damage hate and intolerance can cause. We have experienced it ourselves,” said one student, speaking about her personal experience as a young Muslim woman. She continued with a written declaration from the student group:

“We are here to come together to try and reverse hate. We will not stand for hate. We will come together with love, peace, and dignity; to celebrate our differences, because that is what truly brings us together. In order to start the healing of the damage caused by hate, we have come here tonight to honor victims of the Holocaust.” Students went on to read the bios and obituaries for the family members of the survivors in attendance.

  
Left: Mayor Marty Walsh with Malden High Students. Right: Surivivor Izzy Arbeiter and Mayor of Malden Gary Christenson.

The survivors present were profoundly moved, not only by the students’ outrage, but by their commitment to understand, share, and preserve the legacy of their new friends, whose sacred site was desecrated.

“To see you all here, to talk to you, to get to know you, to see the diversity of the students, gives me such hope for the future,” said Izzy Arbeiter, a Holocaust survivor and one of the founders of the New England Holocaust Memorial.

“You are not that young man who destroyed the panel,” he told them.

 
Malden High School students.

Sadly, we know that acts of anti-Semitism, hatred, and bigotry are on the rise and we can’t stop them all. But we can take a lesson from the students of Malden High School, who took collective responsibility for an act committed by one of their own. Over the coming Days of Awe, we will recite the traditional litany of confessions as part of our liturgy. We will reflect not as an assemblage of individuals but rather as a collective, with our sins articulated in the plural Ashamnu – we have sinned. As these remarkable young people from Malden demonstrated, teshuvah the work of atonement begins with the painful acknowledgement of grievous errors and sins on the part of those in our circle. And it is completed with a resolution to do better, to hold ourselves accountable to be a more just and compassionate community. As we enter 5778, we deepen our own resolve to show up when it counts, and to stand with those in need of our support and solidarity within our own community and beyond.

Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

When To Speak Up; When To Speak Out

Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me: “Is JCRC making a statement on x today?” And hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear a critique of our choices. Some ask, “Why are you speaking on that?” From others we hear, “How could you possibly stay silent in the face of such an urgent issue?" Allow me to share just a few considerations we’ve weighed in recent months when deciding to make statements.

First, we try to be clear about who we are speaking for, and to who. We strive to represent the consensus voice of our network, acting as an umbrella on behalf of the organized Jewish community. And our primary purpose is to speak beyond the Jewish community, in Boston’s public square, to reflect our community’s consensus – where there is one – and to help the broader civil society gain an understanding of that collective perspective.

Some statements are made as an organizing tool to lift up a consensus and catalyze action by our network. When the executive orders on immigration and refugees were issued earlier this year, we consulted many of our members and released a joint statement that enabled forty-one Jewish organizations to speak as one. Though we didn’t say anything that JCRC hadn’t said before, we defined a broad communal consensus – including organizations not generally in the practice of weighing in on public policy issues – that has animated powerful action ever since.

At times we speak because our Jewish voice is being sought, often on previously unaddressed issues, and often in response to requests from our civic partners – and we step into new territory. When we do that well, we take the time for consultation with many of our members, we get feedback that sharpens and clarifies what we are able to say, and we establish “buy in” from our stakeholders. Last winter, when David Friedman was named ambassador to Israel, the process, from first draft to statement, took several days. The result was a better statement that raised questions and provoked interesting conversations with members of Congress.

Expressing consensus or addressing a new question about what we think isn’t always our goal. Some statements are intended to name that something is front and center, and of urgent concern in that moment. This summer, each time the New England Holocaust Memorial was desecrated, I doubt that anyone was wondering whether the Jewish community was dismayed. But as the steward of the Memorial’s education mission, JCRC was charged with sounding the alarm and ensuring that the media and the community were aware of these assaults on our sacred site.

We don’t always get it right. There’ve been times over the years where we moved too fast, and didn’t adequately consult our network. As a result, we shut down discussion and strained relationships, when we would have been better served by inviting conversations and striving to bridge differences. We’ve worked to hear and accept the feedback when we did so, and I’d like to believe that we’ve grown from those mistakes.

At the end of the day, statements are only one aspect of our work. What matters more than any announcement is what we do to act on our values and to stand with and for our partners every day.

I’m looking back at this crazy summer and what I’m most proud of wasn’t something we published, but something we helped organize – an interfaith gathering at Temple Israel ahead of the massive protest weekend in Boston last month. And while I’m proud of our statement on immigrants and refugees, I’m even prouder of what has happened since then: broad Jewish support for the MA Safe Communities Act, synagogues across the region engaging in rapid response and sanctuary work, and a new partnership between CJP and Catholic Charities to meet the legal services needs of immigrants in these urgent times.

I’ll close by adding that if JCRC is “speaking from” the Jewish community, then we do our best work when we are also hearing from the Jewish community. We value your input, your advice, and your feedback about the considerations we weigh, about the issues where you think our voice is needed, and when you think we get it right (or don’t).

I invite your thoughts. These conversations enrich the work we do every day, and I thank you for them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Legacy and Future

The other day, after moving to our brand-new renovated offices a few weeks ago (come visit!), we re-installed our wall of photos showcasing all the past JCRC presidents and executive directors, going back to our founding in 1944. I shared an image of the wall with our living past presidents and directors. The responses have been delightful, and prompted me to think about what it means to lead a legacy Jewish organization in a time of disruption and anxiety.


click to enlarge

I look at that wall and think about all the changes along the way that have brought us to where we are today. I’m reminded of an essay that Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University delivered in 1994. “A Great Awakening” explored the American Jewish experience, our ongoing renaissance, and in particular, our own revival in the late 19th century. Informed by forces external and internal, this revival was driven by new leaders from a younger generation.

Sarna concluded that for the American Jewish community of our own time, “continuity may depend on discontinuity,” that it was the young and those on the periphery of Jewish life who were most often the drivers of creativity and innovation, and that “over and over again” we’ve “confounded doom and gloom,” often emerging even stronger from the challenges.

I look at that wall and am reminded that JCRC was created as a response to the challenges of an earlier time, as are so many of the legacy organizations of our community. Jewish federations, advocacy groups, human service partners - even some of our congregational denominations - would not exist but for the need to innovate and respond.

I look at that wall and think about the nearly 75 years of work that informs who we are at JCRC today, and the responsibility to look to the next 75.

One of my teachers told me long ago that the Jewish idea of self is one in which we act in the present, but always existing in deep conversation with our past and our future. “And you shall tell your children that we do this, for we were once slaves in Egypt.”

We carry memory of the past across thousands of years into the present. It informs our understanding of our world and our work in it. We also carry in the present our obligation to envision a hopeful future, with directives to ensure that ours is not the last generation. This is the most important mandate we carry through the ages.

At a recent JCRC Officers’ retreat I was asked about my priorities - the things I “lie awake at night” thinking about for JCRC. I told them that what I think about every day is how to make sure we have the tools we need to effectively advance our community’s priorities and values right now in Boston’s public square and civic debate, and equally important, how to ensure that we will be even stronger and continuously relevant for our next generation in 20 years and beyond.

I’m looking at that wall this week and looking ahead to the coming year while thinking about the sheer volume of leadership change that our Boston Jewish community is undergoing, with new directors starting this summer at some of our finest institutions. Several of our most respected and inspiring professionals have announced plans to leave their current roles and some of our most dedicated volunteer leaders are now conducting important searches for their successors.

I am excited by what’s coming next for our community as so many of our institutions individually, and our community collectively, will be building on our legacy while stepping forward to innovate and respond to the challenges ahead. I am looking back with pride for what the Boston Jewish community has become, and ahead with hope for where we will go, and I am honored that we at JCRC are a part of that journey.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jeremy

By the Rivers of Babylon

This week our latest study tour – for Boston area Christian leaders – returned from Israel. I’ve heard about some of the experiences they had over the course of eight days, including spending last weekend in Jerusalem; sharing Shabbat dinner in a family home and learning later about the brutal murder of the Salomon family at a similar table only miles away. I write this fourteen days after terrorists emerged from the Muslim community’s sacred Noble Sanctuary – the place we treasure as the Temple Mount – to kill two Israeli Druze policemen, and then they fled back to that holy place. I write this unsure of what today, tomorrow, and the next day will bring.

What I do know is that come next Tuesday - the ninth day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar – thousands of Jews will converge at the Western Wall as many Jews around the world, including myself, observe the solemn fast of Tisha B’Av. We will commemorate the destruction of the Jewish Temple twice over. Many wise words will be shared in the days ahead about the contemporary relevance of this fast. Some will emphasize the significance of remembering the burning of ancient Jerusalem while violence roils in the streets of the modern city; and others will focus on the ways in which Jews continue to turn on each other and the deep divisions that often separate us.

When civic leaders study Israel with us, they inevitably ask questions about the nature of the Jewish connection to this land. They seek to understand our Jewish sense of belonging here, and how that sits alongside a Palestinian narrative of identity and their place in that same land. As I think about those conversations, my thoughts turn to the words of Psalm 137, written in the wake of the destruction of the first Temple, following the conquest of ancient Judea in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar.

“By the rivers of Babylon,” the writer tells us, “there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

The destruction of that first Temple was a formative moment in Jewish history. The Israelite people were being forced to establish a diasporic national identity. Psalm 137 describes the existential grief of a people entering exile. Under the watchful eye of the invader’s army, the Israelites were marched into modern day Iraq. As they reached the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, they asked themselves: “How shall we sing God’s song in a foreign land?”

In that moment, an important aspect of our national identity took form. Wherever we might go we would never abandon our connection to our homeland. They said: “If I forget you, Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.”

It was in the Babylonian and Persian exiles so long ago that key aspects of Jewish identity took form, including the first recording, in the book of Esther, of a member of an Israelite tribe other than Judah - Mordechai from Benjamin - being called a Jew. When the Persians allowed our ancestors to return to Jerusalem to build a second Temple, not all of them returned – thus beginning 2,500 years of diaspora-homeland relations.

I linger today on the Psalmist’s words. They record a historical moment when national identity and place were articulated as inextricably linked. For two-and-a-half millennia, our ancestors would nurture that identity: we were indigenous to Judea, wandering in the world. Some would always remain living in the homeland throughout those long centuries. But all would keep the vow made by the rivers of Babylon; to never forget where it was that we belonged.

Today our hearts and minds turn again to Jerusalem, many of us with deep sorrow for the events unfolding. For many of us, as well, there is the pain and the knowledge that there is work to do in learning to share that homeland with another people who also have a national narrative in the same place. As we commemorate Tisha B’Av this coming week let our songs and our stories – even those filled with sorrow - strengthen our understanding of our connection to this place, and what it means to the Jewish people to belong there.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

It’s Time To Say: #NoHateInTheBayState

This Tuesday, July 18th, the Massachusetts legislature will conduct a public hearing on a bipartisan bill S.1689/H.1685: An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts. Filed by Senator Cynthia Creem, Representatives Paul McMurtry and Steven Howitt this bill is being sponsored by over one-third of the members of the legislature. We at JCRC are proud to be leading a broad coalition in support of this bill.

Some on the far-left who work to demonize Israel and who seek to boycott everything and everyone connected with her are mobilizing a vociferous opposition to this legislation. They claim that this bill, if adopted, would restrict their right to freedom of expression, including boycotting Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here is what the bill would actually do. S.1689/H.1685 requires anyone seeking to do business with the Commonwealth to affirm that they are in compliance with the state’s anti-discrimination laws. In other words, that they do not refuse to employ, serve, or rent to people based on their immutable characteristics – including nationality. It also requires that these contractors affirm that they will not categorically refuse to do business with someone based on those same characteristics – including nationality.

Basically if your business boycotts the government of China because of human rights abuses in its prisons, you can still do business with the Commonwealth. What you cannot do is refuse to do business with someone because they are a Chinese national – and still do business with the government of our Commonwealth.

Nothing in this legislation denies or restricts an individual’s right to boycott a foreign government or to participate in a political or social movement. What it does is say that when participation in a political boycott crosses the line and starts targeting individuals based on who they are and what they cannot change, our Commonwealth will utilize its procurement power to make its own view known: Discrimination, by any name and in all its many forms and window dressings, is abhorrent and antithetical to the policy of our state and will not be subsidized with taxpayer funds.  That opponents of this bill are so vociferous in their opposition tells you something. They aren’t defending their right to protest the Occupation. They aren’t even defending their right to engage in economic warfare against Israel and to deny Israel’s right to exist.

No. This time they are fighting for the right to discriminate against Israelis.

Massachusetts’ civic leaders, and JCRC’s network alongside them, have boldly led the nation in rejecting bias and bigotry in so many areas in recent years – standing up for the transgender community, for women, for the disabled, and for immigrants. Now they have a responsibility to reject this kind of discrimination as well.

Because I have the privilege of taking legislators, including nearly one-third of the current members, on study tours to Israel – a privilege that is not available to lobbyists – I will not be testifying on Tuesday in support of this bill. But JCRC has endorsed S.1689/H.1685 and members of our leadership will be testifying in support. And I will be there for the hearing as leaders from across our network, along with our allies within and beyond the Jewish community, come together and urge the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight to favorably report this bill to the full Legislature.

In October 2015 our Legislature strongly demonstrated their commitment to the Massachusetts-Israel relationship and rejected the movement to isolate and demonize Israel when they unanimously approved a resolution, sponsored by Senator Michael Moore and Representative Jeff Roy, to underscore the depth of connection between the Commonwealth and Israel.  Now, we are asking them to demonstrate their commitment to preventing discrimination against Israelis who seek to do business with our Commonwealth, and who ought to be valued and supported as part of the fabric of our civil society.

We hope that you will join us in this effort by attending the hearing this coming Tuesday and filling out the action alert urging the Committee to favorably report the bill out of committee.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy