Protests and prayers are more alike than they seem

What are we to do, having faced the dual anniversary of a sacred tradition of repentance and a peace agreement in our name that has now gone awry? Everything in our power to make it right.

Sa'ar from Israel
17 September 2013

The holiest day of the Jewish calendar is without a question Yom Kippur, the day of atonement (this past Saturday). Two years ago, some 1,000 New York Jews celebrated by converging at Occupy Wall St. in Zuccotti Park for an outdoor, decidedly political Kol Nidre service, marking the commencement of the Yom Kippur fast, the holy period in which Jews reflect upon their transgressions and ask god and their fellows for forgiveness. One of the blessings traditionally read and repeated throughout the Kol Nidre service is the Al Cheit, which had been rewritten for this Occupy Kol Nidre to include:

We have sinned

By yielding to confusion and falling into passivity[…]

By not standing up for ourselves

By thinking about Jewish values only on holy days

By tolerating global warming, global disease and global poverty

By being cynical about repairing the world

By not defending Israel

By not defending Palestine

For all our sins, may the force that makes forgiveness possible, forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.

For not standing up to fanaticism, terrorism, rape and torture-- no matter who the perpetrators are

For not rocking the boat

For not being grateful for our blessings

Including Israel in an alternative Al Cheit seems obvious enough, but I have to admit I was astounded to see some 1,000 or more Jews not only proclaim their passivity of the defense of Palestine as personal transgressions against god, themselves and their community (something notable in itself), but to do so in such a public way - shouting it on the streets of New York on the holiest day of the Jewish year. It was a reminder that sometimes religious intuitions can teach us to cross borders that seem so obvious throughout the year and indeed participants described a feeling of “levitation” during their prayer service. I was reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Hasidic rabbi who wrote of his participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery during the civil rights movement:

"For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

It turns out, prayer and protests aren't so different after all.

Still, I feel compelled to address one question from the Al Cheit: what is there for a Jew to defend about Palestine? Though we know there is no simple answer, we should recognize that increasing numbers of diaspora Jews are getting involved in Israeli politics, not as advocates but as activists. And now that Israeli peace negotiations and two states between the river and the sea are on the cards again, and some semblance of peace (and justice) is on the horizon, we repent forgetting about Israelis and Palestinians. But more so, we accept our unique positions to pressure Israel to play its role in creating the peace necessary for the safety of our family in Israel and those of our not-so-distant Arab cousins.

Still, the hopes in the Oslo Accords remain unfulfilled promises, and, twenty years on (this past Friday), laden with excuses. Too often, the story is posed as a zero-sum; what is good for Palestinians is bad for Israelis, what restricts Palestinians makes Israelis safer, or engaging in a peace process is a concession in itself. When the state claims to stand for Jews and with it Jewish morality, it is precisely because of these political privileges on religious grounds that diaspora Jews feel pushed to engage with power.

George ("Getzel") Davis gave the sermon at Occupy Kol Nidre two years ago saying, "Service to humankind is sacred and a reflection of service of god. This is the reason why we pray the Aleinu. Aleinu means 'on us', and is our affirmation that it is our job to change the world."

So, what are we to do, having faced the dual anniversary of a sacred tradition of repentance and a peace agreement in our name that has now gone awry? Everything in our power to make it right.

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