Transcript - PeaceCast #223: Rabbis for Human Rights with Michael Marmur

Ori Nir 0:09
Welcome to PeaceCast, Americans for Peace Now's Podcast. I'm Ori Nir and moderating the discussion with me today is my colleague Claire Davidson-Miller. Hi, Claire.

Claire Miller 0:17
Hi, Ori.

Ori Nir 0:19
If you follow Israeli Palestinian News, I'm sure that you've seen reports and probably also the footage of the January 21 brutal attack by young settlers on a group of mostly elderly Israeli Jews near the West Bank village of Burin that's not far from Nablus. The Israelis were there to help Palestinian villagers plant trees near Burin, olive trees, when Jewish settlers attacked them with clubs and rocks and burned one of their vehicles. We're recording this conversation on Monday, February 7th, 2022. On Friday, the fourth so this is three days ago, over 400 Israeli peace activists returned to the same spot. They planted the olive trees and showed the violent settlers who this time were held back by IDF forces, that there still are many Israelis were determined to protest the occupation, shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians, and who are not deterred by settler violence. The organization that was behind the original action and that coordinated Friday's action is a relatively small Israeli human rights organization. It's called Rabbis for Human Rights, and with us today is the chair of the board of Rabbis for Human Rights. Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur. He is Associate Professor of Jewish theology at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He is the author of several books and a gifted speaker. I heard him speaking recently in Jerusalem. And I will drop a link to Rabbi Marmur's bio, which is quite long and substantial in the show notes and of course, there will also be a link there to Rabbis for Human Rights website, Rabbi Marmor, Michael, welcome to PeaceCast.

Michael Marmur 2:10
Thank you. It's, it's a great pleasure to be with you folks.

Ori Nir 2:14
So we usually ask our guests to introduce themselves to just say, what they think is relevant, about themselves, about their background, to the topic of our conversation. So maybe you could tell us a bit just briefly about your background, your upbringing, and how you became a rabbi and a Jewish scholar.

Michael Marmur 2:35
Okay, well, my accent give some of the some of the story away. Unless, unless I was actually born in Kentucky, and I'm just pretending I'm from England originally, was born and raised there. The son of a reform rabbi, so I'm in the family business. I came to Israel in the mid 1980s. And have lived here ever since I started at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, was ordained, went off to Haifa, where I worked for a number of years at the Leo Baeck Education Center. And then was asked to come back to Jerusalem and have been associated with HUC in Jerusalem ever since. I was the dean of the school and I was the provost. HUC has got four campuses and I was its chief academic officer. So I ran around a lot. It's United States, locations, and various other places relevant to perhaps our conversation is that most, my areas of particular interest is the theology and legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel. And I wrote a book about him some years ago. And from Heschel, if you take Heschel seriously, you learn I think that simply adopting a position of comfort within one's study room, which I must admit is often a very tempting thing to do, should not be an option. And therefore one has to find the appropriate barricades to get together on and the some causes or others rather than one cares about and wasn't getting involved in. So that perhaps as relevant I have been teaching, I've been involved in the training of rabbis, cantors, educators and others, to serve non-orthodox congregations, mainly in North America, in Israel, but also in other places for most of my adult life, and it's a passion of mine. And I think that also perhaps, is relevant to this introduction, which I promise you I am about to wind up that the question of what sort of example, obviously I don't speak to my students in class in any overt or explicit political way, but most of them will be aware that these are my passions and interests and this is how I choose to spend some of my extra time and I think that's important. I think one needs to present a model for tomorrow's rabbinic leadership, however clumsy and however imperfect our engagement and involvement.

Claire Miller 5:09
Thank you. So, you say that Heschel inspired you and Heschel teaches us all that we need to find our own barricades to stand on outside perhaps of the Beit Midrash? Why is this your barricade? Why Rabbis for Human Rights as opposed to any other social issue?

Michael Marmur 5:32
Perhaps to answer the question, I should say something about what we do as an organization. And then and then I do promise that I will eventually get to the question you actually asked. So rabbis for human rights is involved in issues related to the occupation? And I'll tell you in a second, why I think that's such a an enormous and are avoidable moral and political challenge for any Jew who's upright and paying attention. And, and that's part of what we do. It's an organization that is also very involved in a range of social justice questions. within Israel proper, we've had a lot to do with issues with poverty, food insecurity, we tried to take on the cause of all kinds of invisible and transparent and voiceless people in Israeli society. I don't pretend I mean, there's obviously no particular argument to be made that this is the only organization and the only possible cause. And from my perspective, somebody who chooses to become involved, and then in you know, other crucial areas, environmental awareness, whatever the long list, more power to you, the real dichotomy, or the real choice to be made is, are you going to find something you're passionate about and get engaged in it? Or are you going to find ways of distracting and avoiding for me, I do not believe, as somebody who's came to Israel, excited and thrilled that the cultural and religious possibilities of being part of this unlikely historical adventure, I don't believe that one can allow oneself the privilege of that excitement, and that enthusiasm, if one is not prepared to face up to the enormous challenges that this project faces, and I don't only mean, the challenge of, you know, military threat from outside and what the Iranians are cooking up in their kitchens, so forth. But I mean, perhaps even more than that, what it means for the Jewish people to step back into history, if one can use that expression, and to take on the burden and the challenge and the delights, I suppose, of sovereignty and nationhood and power. And if you don't, if I don't, I can't talk to anybody else. If I'm not prepared to face up to some of the abuses of that power to some of the dangers and risks inherent in this project, then I don't feel that I deserve to enjoy all of its privileges. So for me, this organization which aims to raise a rabbinic voice, a Jewish voice of conscience, and in the light of such complex and challenging problems, it speaks to my, my wish not to look away, not to turn the other way.

Claire Miller 8:48
So when you say that Rabbis for Human Rights is trying to raise a Jewish voice in these issues, what do you mean by that? What kind of Jewish voice Are you raising? You mentioned that you work with primarily non-orthodox students, but what is in Rabbis for Human Rights? What is that kind of demographic and denominational breakdown? I know that, you know, interdenominational relationships can be quite tense in Israel and I'm wondering how an organization like yours might navigate that?

Michael Marmur 9:24
Well, you're not from from England, but that was an understatement. You said that rather well. What you suggested that it can be quite tense. In fact, this week in Israel, a well known broadcaster on the on Galei Tzahal, the army station and author made a sort of wild attack on Jews like me, and suggested that we'd failed here and we ought to leave the country and most insulting the of course, for me that we ought to go back to America I found that very difficult to, to listen to, No, but but so there are all kinds of problems. You asked me two questions. One is what does a rabbinic voice mean, and the second is, who are the people around our table? We- it to Rabbi's for Human Rights today has a little over 130 members, comprising rabbis, religious leaders from across the denominational spectrum. When, I say cross denominational, we don't have any Haredi rabbis, that's actually true. There are. There are, excuse me, a number of Orthodox rabbis. By definition, they tend to have a more liberal Orthodox orientation, not necessarily on issues of halacha and Jewish law, but in terms of their political and social worldview. Conservative, Reformed, Reconstructionist, and Humanist rabbi. So we have actually on our board, a couple of people from an emerging scene here in Israel have a program that ordains humanist, rabbis and such. So we do, really, you know, cover the waterfront, I mentioned to you that I work mainly with non-Orthodox, rabbinical students. That's in my day job. That's what I do. At HUC, the Hebrew Union College but at Rabbi for Human Rights, we are transdenominational and proudly so. Now your great question of what does it mean to raise rabbinic voice that one way of looking at it is like this. There are many who would argue that the only way that things are going to get better, if they are ever to get better here in the Middle East, is by stepping away from the religious backgrounds and religious heritages of the various players. And I understand that argument, and sometimes I have sympathy for it. But in the end, I don't buy it, I actually think that what's going to need to happen is that the peoples here, and let's talk particularly about the Jewish people, because that those are the people I know best, and with whom I identify most directly, are going to have to find a way of reading, interpreting and living our Jewish sources and our Jewish values in a way that corresponds to and relate to this new reality in which we find ourselves where we have a great deal of power. We're in Israel, I don't need to give you a whole lecture about Israel. But it's a strange, paradoxical, a meeting of extremes, great power and agency, on the one hand, enormous fear and insecurity. On the other hand, and from my perspective, raising a rabbinic voice means reading out of the sources of our tradition, those voices which can inspire and inform a contemporary response to our situation, which is grounded and rooted within our Jewish tradition, is, am I arguing that all you need to do that any reading of Judaism will bring you to the the, to my political and social point of view? No, clearly not. Most people who interpret Judaism in Israel today find very, very different kinds of messages within it than the ones I'm interested in highlighting. That's all the more reason why I want to say, "Well, we tried to say, there is not a monopoly on what Judaism says about occupying every millimeter of biblical Land of Israel", there is not a monopoly on interpreting what it means to look out for Jewish interests, whilst also acknowledging the essential humanity of-of the other. I'll give you an example of a Jewish Voice. This is more of an answer then you were looking for, but it's a rabbi you're talking to what are you going to do? So the, there's a Talmudic Tale, which I often like to tell, but appears in Tractate Hullin, one of the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, where a rabbi is trying to get across a river in a hurry. And he's doing so because he has to perform the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, the commandment to redeem somebody who's been held captive. And he speaks to the river because that's what you do if you're in it rabbi in a Talmudic story, and he persuades the river to open up and he goes across, before he gets to the other side, you remember- remembers that there's another guy standing by the river who's holding a bag of wheat. And this is probably a story set in the springtime and the man needs to get over the river to bring wheat for matzah to the village over the other side of the river. And he says access to the river stay out, but we got to get this guy out. And the story ends in a really remarkable way it describes the Aramaic word is tiyah an Arab merchant, who is also trying to get across the river. And the rabbi, the rabbi Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair , yeah, he says to the river, we're gonna let this guy- we must make sure that this guy gets across as well. I read this story in kind of allegorical fashion. Part of what's happened to the, to the Jews in the 20th and 21st century is we've taken the act of pidyon shvuyim very seriously, we're looking out for the well being physical, military, economic, whatever else of Jews, part of this story is working out how we're gonna get the sack of wheats, Jewish tradition, Jewish culture, Jewish creativity across the river. But part of the challenge no less is what are we going to say to the other individual who also wants to get across the river, and live a life of decency and all the rest of it. And in my reading of this source, and many others, we are called upon not just to stop the story, after the first two people have gone across the river, but to read it in a holistic way. That's an example I would suggest to you are what it means to raise a rabbinic voice in this in this arena.

Ori Nir 15:56
I like that story much better than the other story that people often tell, in context, in the context of Israeli Palestinian conflict, which is the story of the frog and the scorpion and the crossing of the river. You're probably familiar with that one. But I wanted to push you a little bit on on the issue of religion and the conflict. And you said that you don't buy the approach that says that there should be a division. But I want to, I want to ask you in terms of a solution. People often say, Look, this is a not this is not a religious conflict. Therefore, the religion, the solution to the conflict should not involve religion, particularly when religion is so squishy. You can interpret religious texts and religious edicts in various ways. Let's leave religion aside, let's not turn it into a religious conflict by by involving religion. How would you answer that?

Michael Marmur 16:57
Well, it's not working. I, as I said to you, I can appreciate the logic and the wisdom on not turning every political question into a theological debate. I understand that. But what we've learned all together, there were all sorts of predictions in our new modern and postmodern world, that religious affiliations and commitments were on the way, and they were, you know, kind of old news. Actually, what it turns out is they still exercise an extremely strong hold on, on many people, and therefore, partly what I'm saying, you know, if you're good question is, I'm not sure that it's, it's an effective strategy just to say, 'well, let's leave religion out of it'. In the meantime, every day, pretty grim things are being done with a religious license. And it seems to me necessary and appropriate for a voice to be raised to say, that is not what Judaism says, as if there's one thing that Judaism says about what it means to be- and I'll give you an example. Okay. We were in a meeting following the events of Burin in Burin that you talked about the one that happened three weeks ago, and Gilad Kariv, who is a member of Knesset for Labor Party and a reform Rabbi, who chairs the Committee on constitution and law, and the Israeli Knesset had a meeting of his committee in which to discuss this. This example of settler violence, which is one of many centuries, I do want to add, parenthetically, there's lots of violence on the West Bank, and it's not all perpetrated by Jewish settlers. I don't want to give a mistaken impression. But this was a topic we were focusing on appropriately, given the fact that these guys, these young man had come down the hill from Giv'at Ronen and from the legal settlement where there was situated, the, the, I'm not sure I may want to use the word where that comes to my mind. They beat the- our volunteers in a serious way, with large blocks of words and threw stones at them and then vote one of their cars. So this is pretty bad. And nobody thankfully was injured. Anyway, there was a discussion and a number of members of Knesset from across the political spectrum, spoke. One of them who I won't name spoke on behalf of morality, Jewish morality and said his understanding of morality is that we need to look out for the interests of Jews. Now, that's not my understanding of Jewish morality. Okay. And I think it's important and necessary, whilst acknowledging Ori what you have said that in some dimensions we need to bring down the we want to make sure that this doesn't turn into a holy war between different theologies, I do think that whilst policies are being said, and deeds are being done, in the name of my tradition, I have an obligation to speak up on them in the name of at least my reading of that tradition and say, It ain't necessarily so.

Claire Miller 20:18
Something I'm curious about, as you talk about the ways that your rabbinic voice can make, perhaps make a difference in this fight for justice in the West Bank, I wonder if it maybe also does something different in the Jewish sphere in Israel, because what I personally have experienced in Israel, is that the vast majority of people who are not orthodox are very secular, and that it's often challenging for Israelis to connect to Judaism, through a non orthodox lens, perhaps the same way it can be hard for some people to connect to Zionism, while also pointing out flaws with the State of Israel today, there's very much this all or nothing approach. And I'm wondering if you find that your work in the West Bank allows you kind of a different path to connect with Jews within Israel. Does that question make sense?

Michael Marmur 21:30
It does make sense, it does make sense. Look, we all hear the stuff within our own, with our in our own areas of resonance. So we had about 1,000 people come out during the olive harvest season. The Hebrew word for that is masik a good rabbinic Hebrew word that happens in the fall that happens around you know, timber, October time. Although given global warming, who knows what what month, it will be next year or the year after. But typically, that's when it happens. We have about 1,000 volunteers, I'm not now talking about our rabbis, some of the some of the rabbis came out too. But these are regular Israeli folks from from different places who want to come and express solidarity bear witness and lay their hand to Palestinian farmers, the area that was described near near Nablus in the Northern Samaria, you could set to use the rabbinical terminology, the rabbinical terminology. And a number of them have said to us, we are so happy that this activity is organized by a rabbinical organization because we are not used to a Jewish Voice like this being raised. And we're delighted that people like you exist. I hear that from a handful of volunteers who come out to our organization's activities. I don't want to extrapolate from this, that millions of Israelis are, you know, full of- thrilled and enamored of everything that we do. There is evidence Claire, though, just to relate to your particular question, that the dichotomy, which you were describe it with either your orthodox or your not anything very much, has actually been breaking down for many years with Israel. That today, you have a much more complex landscape. Okay. You have folks who would describe themselves as Masorti as traditional that some sometimes they do they, where their families come from as cultural and other implications. You find a lot of Jewish Israelis come from the former Soviet Union, who bring their own kind of sensibilities to bear you've got the growth modest though it be of non Orthodox Jewish expressions within Israel, you have a blurring of lines between ultra orthodox and Orthodox, it's a much more fluid picture than then might be imagined. Overwhelmingly, I go back to the point I was making before, overwhelmingly, if you hear a rabbi expressing opinion on some of these issues of politics, and policy, the opinion will be one that is likely to make me uncomfortable or cringe. Typically, the sources of Judaism will be invoked in order to espouse pretty benighted opinion. That's why folks like us with respect and with moderation but with firmness of purpose, are trying to raise an alternative voice.

Ori Nir 24:52
I'm really interested in your observation about the changing nature of Israeli society when it becomes two more receptivity of non Orthodox Judaism. One I think, said in a really interesting segment, it's something that I haven't seen my much writing about. But my sense just anecdotally is that there is a very important segment of Israeli society that serves as an agent in that sense. And those are techies. Israeli techies who lived abroad for a while, mainly in the United States, were exposed to non Orthodox Judaism, and either brought it back or brought back the sensibility and tried to establish that in Israel, or be a part of the of the establishing of it. I wanted to to quote to you a, something that Avi Dabush, who's the director, Executive Director of your Rabbis for Human Rights, said, in Burin, on Friday, he said, "We came here to Burin because of our determined conviction that there is another Judaism, one that seeks human rights, peace and solidarity. This is our Judaism. And this is the clear answer to extremism, to Messianism to the ill fated evil that gnaws at Israeli society in the form of those who seek to install a messianic regime based on hate and isolation", which are very strong words, and I think they come from a person who's not religious right Avi, as far as I know, is saying-

Michael Marmur 26:26
That's not accurate.

Ori Nir 26:27

Michael Marmur 26:27
But I will tell you something about the Avi, which is that indeed, our Executive Director, it's been so for the last almost three years. And he's, he's really a remarkable individual. Altogether, he speaks a little bit to the blurring of these distinctions that we were mentioning before he did grow up in a family a family of Libyan and, and Morocco, extraction grew up in Ashkelon, in an orthodox family, but they are Kiva and all the rest of it and moved away from that Millia. He, for the last many years has lived into their heart, he lives right on the border with Gaza Strip, he's been very involved in a range of issues. He just wrote a very important book, a small book about what's called in Hebrew, her hepatic failure, the the social, and sometimes geographic periphery of Israeli society. And he's been very involved. He was involved in party politics before coming to us, and was a candidate on the merits list and so forth. And actually, these days as they are Executive Director, he's also a rabbinic student at the moment in one of the non orthodox programs. That's currently burgeoning here in Israel. So it to your question, I don't think you could describe him as non religious, but he doesn't suit the conventional binary understanding that either you're one thing or the other. And he did make a strong statement. It was actually a remarkable ceremony. We have three members of Knesset present to from merits, and also Dr. Hoffman TV was there. So as was pointed out to from currently within the government coalition, and one from the the opposition, it was Gaby Lasky. And mostly lads from from, from Berets. We had a number of other individuals. We had hundreds of people there, it was quite a moving thing. And yes, obvious declaration was important. It was certainly talking about our saying that when one espouses a kind of Messianic worldview, that enables you to believe that any violence you perpetrate against an innocent other is somehow justified in some great scheme of things. That's where he would speak out. We also heard from a number of the individuals who were injured in the attack a couple of weeks earlier, who spoke very movingly about their commitment just to cut back. I mean, the whole thing, if you if you were to witness it looks like a Sisyphean task. We showed up, we showed up to plant some trees, these guys, these young young man came down, beat the crap out of us and that routed the trees and burned the car. We show that with 10 times as many people has been have been there last time and we planted a bunch more trees. I can't tell you that those trees are still there today. A few days after we planted them, I would not be at all surprised if the folks from the nearby settlements had come down and you know, to make a point that burn them or uproot them or whatever else. And I do appreciate that on this level. If it's only about the trees, this may not be the most efficient way of behaving. But I think we have to take a stand and say you will try to uproot. We will keep on planting. And in the end the question is who's going to prevail in this case? showdown?

Ori Nir 30:01
Yeah, well, I have to say one of the things that really impressed me is that, and that's something that we've seen among progressive Israelis, increasingly, is the fact that several organizations were part of this initiative on Friday, it was not just Rabbis for Human Rights, there were others there as well acting as a coalition both organizationally and ideologically, if you will. I thought that was quite impressive.

Michael Marmur 30:28
Yeah. Um, yes, it was a really nice coalition. And there were Palestinian organizations who were present, Jewish organizations and different folks, the event when it took place, there was actually a thing called the- the Olive Harvest Coalition, and they were responsible for that day's planting. We've been involved with them for many years. So there was indeed a bunch of people, some of them not, not with a an overtly Jewish or religious or rabbinical agenda. We have been doing this, it's been now this has been our 19th year when we showing up in that area, to help with the picking and light to the planting of these olives. So we've been, you know, we've proven over a long period of time, if you're if you do this kind of work, you have to be prepared to be in for the long haul. Because it's a lot you know, it's a long and sometimes pretty soul destroying process.

Ori Nir 31:24
So, Michael, Rabbi Marmur, thank you so much for joining us. This was truly fascinating, and good luck with your future actions with Rabbis for Human Rights.

Michael Marmur 31:35
It's been a pleasure to spend this time with you Ori and Claire, and I hope it's been of some some interest and whenever any of your listeners are in this part of the world if we ever manage ever to travel again, outside of our home precinct, I hope you'll come and look us up.

Ori Nir 31:53
Sure will, thank you

Claire Miller 31:54
Absolutely! Thank you.

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