Opinion |

U.S. Synagogues, Stop Canceling Jews Whose Values Compel Them to Criticize Israel

When we decided to stand behind Jessie Sander, a teacher who was fired by a New York synagogue for her anti-Zionist views, Eric Yoffie asked: 'What were you thinking?' Here's our response

Robert Herbst, Daniel Boyarin and Hasia Diner
Protesters carry signs saying "Jews Against Apartheid" at a demonstration in support of Palestinians outside the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, on May 15, 2021.
Protesters carry signs saying "Jews Against Apartheid" at a demonstration in support of Palestinians outside the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, on May 15, 2021.Credit: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP
Robert Herbst, Daniel Boyarin and Hasia Diner

On February 17, 2022, Eric H. Yoffie, emeritus president of the Union of Reform Judaism, took to the pages of Haaretz's English Edition to pillory Jessie Sander, a 26-year-old Jewish woman fired last summer from her teaching position at the Westchester Reform Temple, a prominent Scarsdale, New York, congregation, “because of a blog post she had written that was critical of Zionism and Israel.” Yoffie also attacked the 129 rabbis, Jewish scholars, educators and other prominent members of the American Jewish community who wrote and signed an “open letter” urging WRT to reinstate Ms. Sander, who has brought a lawsuit under the New York Labor Law seeking such reinstatement. One of the three of us is a lawyer in that case. The other two authors of this piece are among those signers of the open letter to whom Rabbi Yoffie directly addressed by name the question, “What were you thinking?” We feel compelled to answer that question.

Rabbi Yoffie defended the firing, while professing not to have spoken to the leaders of the temple and disclaiming any direct knowledge of “what transpired.” Apparently, for Rabbi Yoffie, when it comes to young Jews who publish views severely critical of Israel and its May 2021 bombardment of Gaza while affirming their passion for Judaism, their investment in building Jewish community, and their commitment to fight for justice for all Jews, the facts about “what transpired” don’t matter. We hope those facts will matter to your readers. They are contained in the complaint filed on Jessie Sander’s behalf. Since the complaint is published online right next to the Open Letter , Rabbi Yoffie could hardly have missed it. His failure to refer to the facts in his opinion piece speaks volumes.

Jessie Sander was hired in May 2021, to begin work that same July, by Westchester Reform Temple’s Associate Rabbi David Levy, who since 2017 has also been the director of WRT’s school. The job was secular rather than religious in nature: teaching and tutoring Hebrew, and assisting and supporting the development of social, cultural and community-service programs for WRT teens, jobs for which Sander was superbly qualified. The job description did not require adherence to any particular point of view about Israel, Zionism, the Palestinians, or Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. In offering Ms. Sander the job after interviewing her, Rabbi Levy stressed her “commitment to causes you believe in, and your dedication to Jewish learning and the Jewish people are laudable.”

Sander started work on July 6, and by July 15, Rabbi Levy had read her May 21 blog post and met with her. They engaged in a frank, honest and lengthy discussion of their respective views about Israel, in which she acknowledged the connection that she, Rabbi Levy and all Jews have to the Land of Israel, but said that for her personally, she could not justify the creation of a state solely for the Jewish people at the expense of another people, the Palestinians.

In that meeting, Rabbi Levy made some significant statements that Rabbi Yoffie left out of his screed pillorying Sander. Rabbi Levy said he agreed with 90 percent of what she was saying, and that her views seemed to align with those of Peter Beinart, a widely respected Jewish professor and journalist who, (1) believes Zionism is in crisis, (2) no longer believes in a Jewish state, and (3) supports a fully democratic Israel-Palestine, with equal rights for all and a right of return for both Jews and Palestinians – a vision for a just Israel shared by Jessie Sander. (While Yoffie criticizes Beinart for signing the Open Letter, he does not suggest that no Jewish “synagogue in its right mind would want a person with such views” – such as Beinart – “teaching its children,” as Yoffie does with Sander.)

Rabbi Levy also told her that WRT and its school embraces a “wrestling with Israel” position and welcomes diverse thinkers. Levy also said that while “there are some people here who would demand I fire you immediately” upon seeing the blog post, Ms. Sander should “never work at a place that would fire you for your beliefs.” He thanked his new teacher for her openness and honesty in discussing her views, and in so doing, the director of the school and WRT’s associate rabbi of 10 years’ standing, made Sander feel welcomed and understood.

Palestinian women react as Israeli machinery demolishes an under-construction house, in Hebron, December 28, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

Immediately after that meeting, Rabbi Levy wrote an email to both the senior rabbi and president of Westchester Reform Temple, summarizing his conversation with Sander, expressing his “full confidence” in her as an educator, and noting that she would be “a good role model for our students.” To evidence his support, he forwarded a copy of that email to her as well.

One week later, unidentified powers that be at WRT prevailed upon Rabbi Levy to fire Jessie, after having given her to understand that WRT was not a place that would fire her for her views.

Ironically, each of WRT’s three rabbis share many of Sander’s severely critical views of Israel. This is clear not only from Rabbi Levy’s own acknowledgment that he agreed with 90 percent of what Jessie was saying. Rabbi Daniel Reiser, the youngest of the three, candidly says that had he attended the First Zionist Congress, he would have followed Ahad Ha’am, a critic of the Zionist movement who broke with Herzl, and who thought that Jewish mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs was immoral and unworkable, and who did not support creation of a state in which only Jews would have the right of self-determination, or in which Jews dominated Palestine’s indigenous non-Jewish population. Like Jessie Sander today.

WRT’s senior rabbi, Jonathan Blake, told his WRT congregants from the pulpit this past Rosh Hashanah that Israel is pervaded by a “dangerous fanaticism,” “a state that has eroded its democratic credibility by [...] chauvinistically privileg[ing] Jewish culture and Hebrew language,” and “a country that continues to encroach on Bedouin and Palestinian lands with ever-expanding development projects and settlements, further marginalizing and aggravating already underprivileged populations; a country that has empowered some of its most fanatical religious and ultra-nationalistic voices [...] to the long-term detriment of security, much less peace.” Rabbi Blake called this “a grandiose vision of Jewish totalitarianism in the Biblical Holy Land” that “has become a moral and political morass with no end in sight.” About this Israel – the Israel that resembles the “Abraham whose religious fervor nearly led to the sacrifice of his own child – we must unflinchingly speak the truth, because we are Jews, and that’s what we do. The Torah regards it as an act of love and a moral obligation to offer reproof when one’s fellow goes astray. We do not prevaricate.”

Rabbi Blake also acknowledged in that sermon that many American Jews are severe critics of Israel, with “a quarter of American Jews [who] agree with the statement, ‘Israel is an apartheid state,’” with “nearly as many American Jews affirming that, ‘Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians,’ and even as many as one in five under the age of 40 declaring that ‘Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.’” (The figures come from a survey commissioned last year by the Jewish Electorate Institute, and were largely confirmed by a similar poll done by the Pew Research Center.)

Yet despite these statistics, the severely critical views of all three WRT rabbis, and the blessing of Sander by Rabbi Levy, her boss and the director of the school, Yoffie asks us, “What were you thinking,” in signing the Open Letter seeking Jessie’s reinstatement? Once the pertinent facts of “what transpired” are known, our answer is clear:

Israeli protesters demonstrating against President Isaac Herzog's decision to light a Hanukkah candle in the West Bank settlement of Hebron last November.Credit: HAZEM BADER / AFP

We were thinking that it is time for Jewish institutions to stop canceling people whose deeply felt Jewish values compel them to condemn the policies of the State of Israel.

We were thinking that Jewish institutions should not “excommunicate” rabbis, teachers or members for espousing views critical of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, views that vindicate the Jewish teachings they learned in Jewish temples and schools.

We include “rabbis” here because it turns out that, not long after WRT fired Jessie Sander, WRT announced that Rabbi Levy would be leaving the synagogue in June 2022, after 10 years there, without having secured another position. It thus appears that WRT may have also have decided to cancel Rabbi Levy, the only senior person at WRT who had actually talked to Jessie Sander before she was fired about her views expressed in the blog post, and who then endorsed her as a Jewish educator and role model for WRT students.

What were we thinking? That it is time to end the hypocrisy that is inherent in the firing of a highly qualified young woman for espousing views WRT’s male clergy hold themselves, in whole or significant part, and which, despite Rabbi Yoffie’s disagreement, are also held by a substantial portion of the American Reform Jewish community, especially those under 40, who represent the future of that community and American Jewry as a whole.

Eric Yoffie should know better than to claim to be the arbiter of what views critical of Israel are “right to mention.” He is a Reform rabbi, and for virtually all of his professional life, he himself has been effectively excommunicated by those public officials in charge of Israeli religious affairs simply because he is Reform and not Orthodox. That pervasive discrimination against Reform and other non-Orthodox clergy and laity continues today notwithstanding legal action in the last two decades seeking equal treatment, and despite the tempering of their criticism of Israeli apartheid by many American rabbis who have remained silent in their congregations about the crimes committed every day against defenseless Palestinians.

When Rabbi Yoffie defends Ms. Sander’s removal, he is not saving Judaism. He is endangering it. When he casts out those who take Israeli Jewish apartheid seriously and want to eradicate it, and American support for it, because of what Judaism has taught them about justice and peace, he undermines everything progressive and pluralistic American Jews have stood and fought for since the beginning of the republic. He leaves Judaism to right-wing Jews who desecrate it with their tribalism.

A detsroyed building in Gaza City on May 22, 2021, following a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinians. Jessie Sander supported the liberation of Palestinians from the yoke of Israeli oppression.Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

Rabbi Yoffie proclaims the “central task of Zionism” to be the creation of “a safe haven” for Jews. You will get no argument from Jessie Sander or her supporters about the right of Jews to live safely in Israel-Palestine, in a fully democratic state that accords self-determination and full and equal political, social and economic rights to all the inhabitants of the Holy Land, including Christian and Muslim Palestinians. That is precisely what she is urging – the dismantling of the apartheid regime that dominates and pervasively discriminates against Palestinians, the liberation of Palestinians from the yoke of Israeli oppression, and the liberation of Jews from their role as oppressors.

In doing so, Jessie Sander did just what Rabbi Blake said WRT rabbis, teachers and congregants should always do – “unflinchingly speak the truth, because we are Jews, and that’s what we do.” She “offer[ed] reproof when one’s fellow goes astray.” She did “not prevaricate.” And she offered her reproof in the spirit of the Torah, which, Blake properly noted, “regards it as an act of love and a moral obligation.”

This is what Rabbi Levy perceived when he talked to her and then endorsed her as a Jewish educator and role model for WRT’s students. It is what Rabbi Yoffie misses because neither he nor those at Westchester Reform Temple who made the decision to fire her, bothered to talk to her before condemning and casting her out. That decision is a shonda – shameful – and so is Eric Yoffie’s defense of it.

Robert Herbst is a civil-rights lawyer, and an activist for both Palestinian and Jewish liberation. Daniel Boyarin is the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture (emeritus) at UC Berkeley and the Caroline Zelaznik Gruss and Joseph S. Gruss Visiting Professor in Talmudic Civil Law at Harvard Law School. Hasia R. Diner is the Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History and director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University.

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