Making Israel an Occupation

Josh Warshawsky (above) will serve as cantorial soloist for Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Congregation during the High Holidays.

Ellen Futterman, Editor

The U.S. Campaign to End the Israel Occupation is holding its annual conference on the campus of St. Louis University Sept. 21 to 23. For those unfamiliar, the organization advocates stopping all United States involvement in Israel and “apartheid policies toward Palestinians.” It calls for divestments, sanctions and economic and academic boycotts targeting Israel, including boycotts of companies such as Motorola and Caterpillar because they “profit from the occupation” by selling equipment to Israel used for defense.

“Our mission is to change U.S. policy toward Palestine-Israel, support human rights and international law and equality,” said Ramah Kudaimi, membership and outreach coordinator of the organization, who says she expects 100 to 150 people to take part in the St. Louis conference.  “We want to end U.S. military aid to Israel. It’s impossible for the U.S. to act as a mediator and bring about peace between Palestine and Israel if the U.S. is supporting one group militarily.”

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A much larger coalition believes End the Occupation is nothing more than a fringe group espousing Jewish hate as it seeks to undermine Israel’s right to exist. It maintains that the organization tries to demonize and delegitimize Israel while reprehensibly comparing the Jewish State to apartheid South Africa and even Nazi Germany.

In a joint letter to the Jewish Light that appeared Aug. 22, six local Jewish groups, including the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Council and St. Louis Hillel, said as much, adding “the centrality of Israel is a core value of the Jewish community. A deep concern for Israel’s security flows naturally from that value.”

The local groups also point out that the conference is being held at a rental space at SLU, and that is it not a university-sanctioned event.

Meanwhile, the Washington D.C.-based Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, whose mission is to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and to “promote justice for all,” has called upon SLU administrators, notably President Lawrence Biondi, to speak out against anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate speech in advance of the “controversial” September conference.

“As a human rights organization, the Brandeis Center believes that the appearance of university endorsement of hate and bias events could create a campus environment which is incompatible with equal opportunity and civil discourse,” the Center said in a statement.

When I reached out to SLU I was put in touch, via email, with Clayton Berry, assistant vice president of communications. He issued this statement: “As a Catholic, Jesuit institution of higher education, St. Louis University hosts speakers, programs and events that represent a wide variety of ideological, cultural, social and political spectrums. Use of university facilities does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of every campus speaker, program or event, including those that may present views with which all members of the SLU community do not agree.”

Berry further added that the university has had “extensive and constructive” discussions with representatives of the local Jewish community about the conference. He notes that Father Biondi traveled to Israel this summer to participate in the American Jewish Committee’s University Presidents Seminar. There, the delegation met with their counterparts at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University and senior officials within the Israeli government, and traveled to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian leaders.

“In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of the extremely complex issues that face the region, I returned home even more convinced that the calls for academic boycotts against Israeli universities are not consistent with the academic freedom that we all believe in and cherish,” Biondi said in a message to students and faculty. “A few have criticized the University Presidents Seminar as propaganda for Israel. While I disagree with this criticism, to me, it highlights the fact that it has become increasingly difficult to discuss issues of the Middle East — even on college campuses — because of the sensitivities of the issues involved. But that doesn’t mean that discussion, dialogue and debate shouldn’t take place.”

The same could be said for newspapers. A few readers, knowing about the conference, asked that the Light not write about it at all.  They feel any publicity is “good publicity” and better to ignore it altogether.

While this newspaper does not support groups that espouse hate or attempt to dismantle the Jewish State, we do have a responsibility to report on events that affect Israel. As a media organization, we think those who object to the activities of the End the Israel Occupation group need to be aware of its actions and words.

Singing a different tune

What would you have done if you were Josh Warshawsky?

Let’s rewind to earlier this summer when like Josh, you find out you have been selected to compete in the 2012 Hallelujah Global Jewish Singing Contest in Israel. This means you have beaten virtually thousands of Jewish singers between the ages of 18 and 30 from all over the world to earn this coveted spot. You’ve heard that winning the competition is tantamount to securing the top spot on television shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice.” Your future as a rising soloist would likely be sealed.

But as soon as you recover from the excitement of being chosen you realize you have a dilemma. The competition in Israel falls while you are at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, overseeing 65 campers ages 10 and 11 and 40 staff members. Do you leave camp to compete in Israel or do you stay at Ramah?

If you’re Warshawsky, you stay and fulfill your obligation. “I really felt that we were making a difference with this youngest age group, creating a camping experience that was unique,” said Warshawsky, 22. He explained that he helped implement an overarching theme for the summer based on the ideas, “If not for myself who would be for me” and “If only for myself, who am I.” He and counselors worked with this young age group to help them learn to advocate for themselves as well as nurture friendships and create a true community at camp.

“I felt leaving my job with two more weeks of camp still to go would be irresponsible,” said Warshawsky, who spent 11 summers at Camp Ramah; the last five on staff. “Cutting things short would have a negative impact on the kids and the staff. I just felt it wouldn’t be right to do that.”

Warshawksy, who grew up in the Chicago area but has been part of Rick Recht’s Songleader Boot Camp in St. Louis several times, currently serves as musical director of the Columbia Clefhangers a cappella group and is the music specialist for United Synagogue of Hoboken in Hoboken, N.J. He also is a student in the joint bachelor’s degree program of Columbia University and List College, Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

He says he isn’t done with the Hallelujah competition, and plans to audition again next year. “I have to hope I will have the same success,” he said. “If I can make it one year, hopefully I can make it another year.”

For those interested in hearing Warshawsky, he will serve as cantorial soloist and song leader for the High Holy Days at Shir Hadash. He will join Reconstructionist Rabbi Lane Steinger in leading the services at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. The services are free and open to the public. For more information, go to www.shirhadashstl.info or call 314-991-7972.