As the televised servants in the British series Downton Abbey -- returning to American prime time this week -- are preparing the morning breakfast and refilling the mansion’s inkwells, on Monday morning in Jerusalem the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s real-life staff might just be sharpening their letter openers. At 10:30 A.M., several rabbinical students will deliver over 700 letters to the Prime Minister's Office protesting last month’s announcement of construction planned for the sensitive E-1 corridor of East Jerusalem.
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Three organizations -- Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now, have galvanized rabbis, cantors and rabbinical and cantorial students to write and deliver the letters. A parallel campaign is taking place in Washington, DC, where clergy and other representatives from the organizations will deliver a copy of the letter to the Israeli Embassy.
I spoke with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of RHR-NA.
Why should rabbis and cantors be the ones to deliver the message? I asked.
“Rabbis and cantors care deeply about Israel and the Jewish people," Jacobs said. "Unlike the many voices out there criticizing Israel who do not care deeply about the country, we come from a place of deep love. We want Israel to do the right thing, to live up to democratic and Jewish values.”
What immediately came to my mind was the debate that raged the summer before last, when Daniel Gordis published an essay in Commentary Magazine, suggesting that today’s rabbis “are turning on Israel.” Stunned, as he put it, by demonstrations of compassion for both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from some contemporary liberal rabbis, Gordis accused today’s (non-Orthodox) American rabbinical students of embracing an ethic of universalism over particularism.
I asked Jacobs what she thought of the universalism-particularism quandary in the context of this initiative. “There is actually a very particularist reason we’re doing this,” she told me. “The reason we’re asking Netanyahu to end the E-1 settlement plan is that it's absolutely destructive to Israel.”
“The countries we care most about are the U.S. and Canada -- the countries where we live, as well as Israel,” Jacobs went on. “We see this decision as something destroying the peace process. And if there’s no chance for peace, then we’re scared for Israel’s future.”
Marisa James is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, and one of those delivering the letters on Monday. As part of her training, she is currently living and studying in Jerusalem. I asked Marisa about how she sees the tension between universalism and particularism in this mission.
“My desire for Israel to have democratic values and real justice comes straight from my reading of the prophets. And that’s about as particularist as you can get,” James told me. "When you think about phrases like ‘justice rolling down like a mighty river’ or ‘spreading the tent pegs as widely as you possibly can,’ how is it possible not to be motivated to fight for justice for everyone?”
James is struck by the contradictions within Jerusalem. She is troubled by the fact that, when it comes to basic practices like whether a resident is allowed to put an addition on one’s home, the rules often differ between Jewish and non-Jewish residents.
“Part of my relationship to this place is that there’s nothing holy about it if everybody does not have the same basic human rights in this place as everybody else,” James said.
Recent news reports have suggested that Netanyahu might be retreating from his plan to build in E-1. Jacobs told me that RHR-NA tweeted their congratulations to the prime minister when they heard. They now hope their letter campaign ensures that he abstains from the original plan.
Tweeting “congrats” to the Prime Minster, knocking on his door on a Monday morning armed with a sack of letters and hoping for Israel to do the right thing sounds particularist enough; perhaps even haimisch.
Those whose first instinct is to demand fealty to the Israeli government’s every move might not like this campaign. But there are others who believe that wrestling with the Jewish state with a copy of the Hebrew prophets under one’s arm is a better way to ensure the survival of Israel’s Jewish and democratic soul.
Marisa James hopes she gets to speak to the prime minister directly on Monday morning. If she is granted an audience with Bibi, what will she tell him? “I will tell him how important this is to the future of this country,” she said.