The following is a letter I wrote in response to recent complaints about my performance at a synagogue in the DC, Maryland, Virginia area. The Rabbi walked out of my performance and several audience members were upset with my poetry. Many loved it, but my performance caused a bit of a stir and my appropriateness has been questioned. A response was requested, so I wrote the following (edited here to try to keep from calling out individuals and specific temples):
To the Rabbi who walked out of my performance and anyone else who wishes to question, quell, censor or dismiss me, my poetry, or my views:
I am very thankful for the opportunity to perform at the 2012 Festival and understand that my performance was very memorable. In addition to many thanks, hugs, and handshakes I received after the show congratulating me on a great performance both necessary and captivating, I also understand that some audience members were not pleased with my poetry. This is often the case with poetry, as in most art forms, so I am not offended or surprised. In particular, Rabbi S_____ got up and walked out before I even finished my second poem, for reasons I can only assume were negative and due to strong disagreement with my art and not a sudden need to use the bathroom. Reb D___, who invited me to perform, has received strong criticism for this choice, and congregation president, Mr. C____ has described my work as both boring and inappropriate. I hear others had more offensive words for me and my poetry (one person called me a disgrace to my people!) and that many were talking about it. While I appreciate the power of my art to cause a reaction in listeners, I wish all of the fabulous artists who graced the stage would receive attention for their powerful performances. It seems negative opinions are getting more attention than positive ones, so I write you today in response, to once again share my words. It is my hope that you will listen to them in their entirety before judging me.
The main poem in contention is Dear David, a personal exploration of my Jewish identity complicated by the history and actions of the government of Israel, which uses the Star of David as its symbol on the Israeli flag. In this poem I speak directly to this symbol. I don’t believe anyone has a problem with the creative basis of the poem. It seems as though some people disagree with my personal identity problems related to the symbol as a representative of both the state of Israel and the Jewish people. Frankly, they see things differently than I do, and not only don’t appreciate my personal opinion, but feel it has something to do with them and their opinions as well. Let me clear this up: it doesn’t. This poem is about me and my struggle with identifying as Jewish when the rest of the world links Jewishness with the actions of the state of Israel. My criticisms of the state of Israel come out in this poem; it is not hard to discern how I feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after hearing the piece. Nowhere in the poem do I advocate for one policy or another. Nowhere in the poem do I say that others should think or act like me. Again, it is my poem, about my life as a Jew. I thought it fit well within the great Jewish tradition of questioning, and that is why it fit perfectly in the Jewish Festival. Jews have been using oral storytelling for centuries. Jews have been questioning and debating for centuries. To me, this poem fits well within that tradition. It is not advocacy for one side or another, nor inappropriate for a young Jewish man to be honest with his people about his identity problems. Would it be inappropriate advocacy if I were advocating in support of the state of Israel? If not, why does the inappropriate advocacy rule only go one way when we as Jews are called to seek justice for all people? This is off topic though, because in that poem I do not advocate a single thing. I simply describe my struggle with Jewish identity through a conversation with the symbol that most represents Jews to the world.
In my first poem, This Rock, and my last poem, Elevators, I definitely advocate for peace, justice, activism, and nonviolent resistance. I also come out strongly against violence and segregation. I was not told that advocating against violence and segregation was not allowed at the Festival, so I performed all of these poems because, to me, they fit within the Jewish theme of tikkun olam. I did not advocate for a political party. I did not say anything blasphemous or question the existence of the state of Israel. If I made some people uncomfortable with my poetry, that is a good thing. I welcome conversation and discussion about it. From Mr. C____’s introduction to last year’s forum at [your synagogue] on Palestine’s admission to the UN, I can see that he, and the board of [your synagogue] is in agreement with me about the need to sometimes engage in dialogue that is uncomfortable. I stayed after the show, talked with everyone who approached me, and provided my contact information. I did not hear from Mr. C____ nor Rabbi S_____. In fact, only two people who were uncomfortable with my performance spoke with me: one was a very rude gentleman who called me a disgrace an left quickly, the other a very polite woman whom I spoke with at length about the meaning behind my poem and how I want to be as proud of my Magen David as she is of hers, but that I find it very difficult given the extreme oppression of the Palestinian people. Everyone else had nice things to say.
To conclude I will address what I feel are the two main underlying problems here. Mr. C____, and by extension the board of [your synagogue] state that “The belief in Israel as a Jewish homeland and a democratic, religiously pluralistic state, and the support for a secure and peaceful Israel is a good basis for working together and respecting one another. None of us believes in expulsion or apartheid.” I LOVE THIS STATEMENT! I love it so much and want it to be reality so much that I will not delude myself nor others with rose-colored glasses when it comes to Israel and Palestine, and especially when it comes to our lives and actions as American Jews living in the U.S. tacitly supporting the occupation of Palestine. It is clear to me that my views on Palestine and Israel are not welcome at [your synagogue] and by extension, it seems, in the Jewish community generally. I will spare you a full listing of my beliefs, suffice it to say that peace cannot come without justice, and I support the oppressed in their struggle for freedom and justice. We were once an oppressed people. Notice the past tense.
The fact that I cannot advocate for the human rights of Palestinians while among my people is a tremendous problem (need I quote Martin Niemoller here? “When they came for the … I did not speak up…” etc.). The fact that Jewishness is somehow tied to political support for a government is a tremendous problem. The fact that you are more concerned with my poetry than with ending the killing and suffering of innocent people is a tremendous problem. Our blind support of an oppressive government using illegal and violent tactics in an occupation without end is a tremendous problem. I can talk poetry and appropriateness all day; Neither will bring back the dead children. It is easy to look away and justify from our comfy positions in our wealthy neighborhoods. It is easy, but it is not the Jewish thing to do. Defending a piece of land rather than a fellow human is not the Jewish thing to do. I chose and choose to do the Jewish thing, speaking and standing for justice for all people, not just some people. I believe Israel should exist and it should be democratic and pluralistic. It is not. If it is a home for one religious group of people, then it is a theocracy. The discrimination against Arabs and Palestinians is not democratic and does not help to create a secure and peaceful place for anybody. It is state sponsored segregation and state terrorism via the occupation. It is collective punishment illegal under international law. Of all people, Jews should know the grave problem with such a policy and should be the first to prevent it from happening anywhere. For time’s sake and because you probably already know about them, I will not include the extremely bigoted and genocidal things that leaders in the state of Israel and the IDF continue to say about the Palestinians and others. To paraphrase a line from my poem: it makes me sick.
The second underlying problem is fear. Are those complaining about my poem afraid that I might convince somebody of something I hold true? Afraid that a Jew supporting Palestinian rights will destroy Judaism? Are we afraid of Arabs and Muslims?!?!? What is it that we are afraid of hearing at next year’s festival if I am invited back? Or is it our own consciences that we fear? Scared that the veils of victimhood and self defense will erode if we allow ourselves to take in other viewpoints? Are we afraid of Jews who think differently?
“In the world in which we live, Jews cannot afford to split into opposing camps,” says Mr. C____. I strongly disagree. We have always been in many different camps, and we can’t always avoid opposition. There is always opposition, but the Jewish people have done a great job of silencing it here at home. That is why I was nervous to perform my poem. That is why you want to silence me and those who think like me by creating some policy banning “inappropriate advocacy” and other opinions you dislike. Opposition is something we can afford and something we need more of, unless we want to be a monolithic cult obeying whatever some foreign state says is right. Please, I beg you, I implore you, do not fear opposition and do not silence it in your house of worship. “Questioning the existence and legitimacy of the State of Israel is outside the pale” does not sound Jewish to me. The Jewish folk tradition that I know puts nothing outside the pale. The reason I trust my Rabbi so much is because I know I can always talk to him about anything. He instilled in me a faith in my people to never push me away, no matter what I think, say, or do. He taught me that it is better to ask the difficult questions than to repeat the easy answers. This applies not only to questions of God and faith and religion, but to EVERYTHING. If we cannot question the existence of the state of Israel, how on earth can we question the existence of God? Or is that not allowed at [your synagogue] either?
Are we teaching our youth how to believe or what to believe? How to think and question, or what to think and question?
Thank you for hearing me out. It is very unfortunate that my words may have caused problems at your synagogue. I am only being me, as honestly and bravely as I can possibly be. I am fortunate to come from a long line of Jewish leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Albert Einstein, Amy Goodman, Phyllis Bennis, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who stand, speak, and live their Jewish values even when (especially when) they are unpopular, unwanted, inappropriate or dangerous. I pray that you will join us in standing for justice for all people.
Jonathan B. Tucker