Ask The Rabbis // The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement

By | Sep 09, 2015

Should rabbis talk to their congregants about BDS?


It is not our role to sway the masses toward any particular side of an issue. First of all, what good is it? Rabbi A could be preaching her opinion while on the other side of town Rabbi B is preaching in direct opposition. Rather, rabbis ought to focus on imparting teachings from our rich tradition that empower each individual to form her or his own personal opinion. This is the way of Torah: not to blindly follow the trends of any majority, but to be discerning and to honor the voice of the individual no less than that of the collective.

Lately, too many rabbis have their congregants hopping zealously onto politically trendy bandwagons just because their banner reads “Compassion” or “Humanitarian.” We are an independent-thinking people, but of late we have bartered this mindset for illusory dreams of “ecumenism” and “acceptance.” Let’s not fool ourselves. Regardless of whose side we’re on, we will always remain number one on the critic’s list at the United Nations, in our local church, our neighborhood mosque and in the media. So, rabbis, stay out of politics and instead share a midrash or two, make Kiddush and go home.

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Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA


Years ago, as I was starting out in the rabbinate, an older relative cautioned me not to speak about politics, Israel or a slew of other hot-button topics. What expertise, he said, did I have in these matters? Let my congregants form their own opinions or read editorials if they want, but I should stick with religious, spiritual themes for coping with life’s ongoing challenges. But can the line be drawn so neatly? And is our mandate to stay safe or, occasionally, to wade into some difficult and controversial waters?

While we’re prohibited for tax status reasons from endorsing candidates, many rabbis don’t hesitate to express their opinions on the issues of the day and to buttress their positions with Jewish teachings or values. In some cases, the rabbi’s purpose is to forcefully stake out a particular viewpoint and condemn others. Or to stay neutral, but to examine the meta-language of the debate and expose faulty thinking or contradictory arguments on both sides. Or, by airing certain controversial matters, to demonstrate how a community can still talk civilly about them.

Talking about BDS falls into all these categories. But a rabbi should not be compelled to talk about this topic any more than he or she should be compelled to avoid it, or any other subject.

Rabbi Peter Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanist Judaism
New York, NY


Rabbis are uniquely suited to leverage spirituality in the BDS debate. On a parallel track with the politics, we can ask, “When you ponder BDS, what comes up for you? Is your answer different if the boycott is limited only to businesses beyond the Green Line (in the West Bank)? If you support BDS, is it because you thirst for justice, seek nonviolence or believe you’re supporting a certain quality of Israel/Zionism? If you oppose BDS, is it because that movement makes you feel victimized, or unfairly calls out an Israel you love, or seems like betrayal?”

Whatever our politics, rabbis can remind congregants that how we discuss BDS refracts our beloved Israel. The “difficult teacher” of the BDS movement calls Jews—both Israelis and those in diaspora—to reflect deeply on our quality of discourse and how we actually care for our neighbors as ourselves—even and especially if they make our blood boil. How we discuss BDS thus is vital to the kind of Jews and the kind of rabbis we aspire to be. It’s our job as rabbis to help our communities practice empathy for multiple views without false relativism or nihilism, to give the benefit of the doubt precisely when we’re most upset, and thereby to support a K’lal Yisrael (community of Israel) that, by our own words and deeds, helps affirm our Jewish hope for peace, justice and a world redeemed.

Rabbi David Evan Markus
Temple Beth-El of City Island
New York, NY


Modern rabbis are connectors, drawing on a dozen disciplines a day, giving all perspectives their due. We’re pastors, serving big-tent communities, ensuring that all voices are heard. Experts on every issue fill our communities; we’re conveners, expert in balancing. On a good day, rabbis follow Ben Zoma (Avot 4:1): “Who is wise? Whoever learns from everyone.” We hold our convictions firmly, but humbly, and encourage others to do likewise.

On BDS, rabbis will have informed opinions. We’ll advocate. But we’ll also listen. We hear on the Israeli street gripping fear of delegitimization and destruction; even pro-BDS colleagues honor that perspective. We hear the painful exclusion of progressive Jews from mainstream settings, and yes, we hear Palestinian pain; it’s real, even for right-wing rabbis. We are accountable to the whole Jewish people, across the spectrum: ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel, applies above all to the people Israel, and we, teachers in Israel, are charged with love of this people, no exceptions. We are also accountable to the whole of tradition, from the discomfiting parts, like “Jews first,” to core teachings like “all bear God’s image”—no exceptions! So, yes, rabbis should address BDS—in our inimitable Balanced, Direct, Sacred style.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD


The BDS movement is complex. Those involved are not necessarily all of like mind. Some of these groups and individuals have anti-Semitic motives and are attempting to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist, while others seek to boycott only Israeli businesses profiting from or producing goods in the West Bank.

Reform Judaism calls upon each of us to find within Judaism the moral and ethical lessons that can guide our behavior and our decisions each day.  A rabbi’s role in talking to congregants should aim at education about the BDS debate, helping to unpack the issues and Jewish values at play. For some congregants, BDS is a very real issue, affecting their own professional practice. Seeking rabbinic insight and guidance in helping make a personal decision is appropriate.

Without expressing a personal opinion, a rabbi has the responsibility to teach his or her congregation about Jewish values and the Jewish obligation to act justly. A rabbi need not tell others what to believe or how to act. Each of us, as Jews, has the responsibility to make that ethical and moral decision for ourselves.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Fresno, CA


The BDS movement is dangerous because Israel’s most important strategic asset is its close relationship with the United States and the American people, and the goal of BDS is to disrupt that relationship. Its views are increasingly finding support on college campuses and in liberal communities. As a result, rabbis, along with all other Jewish professionals, must take a strong, uncompromising stand against BDS.

BDS claims to be promoting peace in the Middle East. Actually it embodies the three Ds of Delegitimization, Demonization and Double Standards. Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, once wrote, “Indeed, in another place and generation, BDS might have stood for Banish, Desecrate, and Sequester or Burn, Destroy, and Slaughter.”

Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. While it is imperfect, as all countries are, any assertion that Israel remotely resembles an apartheid system is slanderous and deeply offensive. So when BDS supporters argue that the movement is similar to earlier boycotts of apartheid South Africa, rabbis must vehemently refute this libelous charge.

Finally, as religious leaders, rabbis have a responsibility to respond to Christian groups (United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church, to name just a few) who have strongly endorsed BDS.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


Yes, rabbis should talk to congregants about the BDS movement. By equating Israel with South Africa, the groups involved are saying that Israel is a white colonialist regime imposed on a native population and has no right to be there. If the movement succeeds, it could put Israel in mortal danger. One of the primary roles of the synagogue historically has been to alert Jews to looming danger and to rally them to solidarity with Jews in jeopardy. There can be no more important or appropriate role for a rabbi than this.

Although rabbis are not political experts, they can educate congregants about the fraudulent BDS tactic of highlighting the West Bank in order to pose as a human rights movement—but in fact impugning the legitimacy of Israel as established in 1948. Thus they negate a nation that was recognized by the international community as a Jewish state (alongside a proposed Arab country) and upheld in a war in which 1 percent of the Jewish population died in defense of their country.

Rabbis should point out that by ignoring all the outright imperialist oppression in the world, such as China’s over Tibet, BDS is saying that only Jews have no right to their own state—blatant anti-Semitism. Thus the movement covers up ancient hatred with the rhetoric of human rights and of sympathy for third-world populations. Never have so many of the noblest human values been used to cover the basest of human intentions.

Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Riverdale, NY


There are three reasons it is unusually important for clergy to get involved. First, BDS relies on the Big Lie—on trying to fool as many people as much of the time as possible. It is built on misinformation about the nature, history and context of the Jewish state. For a huge number of people, the only way to counteract the siren call of BDS revisionism is to spread real knowledge, real information, real context. Rabbis should be starting programs to fill the gaps in knowledge, to equip people to be ambassadors for the Jewish state in their interactions with friends, neighbors and coworkers.

Second, the Palestinians have been working to win over some of the strongest traditional friends of Israel, targeting churches, including conservative evangelical churches, with some success. Rabbis need to do the same—reach out to clergy of all denominations, one by one, establishing bridges and connections. Often it’s not an issue of winning them over to our narrative but merely of reminding them there are two sides to a complex issue.

Third, we need rabbis to pit their rabbinic authority against clergy on the pro-Palestinian side, who have increasingly turned this into a theological battle by invoking old concepts such as supersessionism—the idea that Christians replaced Jews as the beneficiaries of all Divine promises—stripping the Jewish people of any association with biblical covenants and with the land. They have to be matched by equally authoritative people on the Jewish side saying it ain’t so, Joe.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA


Should we talk about and engage with BDS? We have no choice: It presents itself to us. The question is therefore one of strategic approach. Portfolios filled with facts, figures and one-line zingers will not change the minds of those in favor of BDS. As the saying goes, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; I have already made up my mind.” Instead, we must get to the soul of the matter by giving young people knowledge of our heritage and deep pride in the Jewish people.

This Jewish year, 5776, is a Hakhel year (Deuteronomy 31:10-12)—a time when, after a sabbatical year, typically a year of hardship in many respects, the entire Jewish people would gather in unity and celebration of their peoplehood. In our era, a Hakhel year is an opportune time to devote ourselves to unity-building events and communal Torah study. By building our collective self-confidence, we prevent ourselves from being bullied by the BDS movement, and it will lose ground and become irrelevant.

This approach empowers young people with the skills of Jewish living in the 21st century and confronts the challenge of BDS by “inoculating” them through the power of education, delivered with a double serving of acceptance and love.

Rabbi Shlomo Elkan
Chabad at Oberlin College
Oberlin, OH

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