St. Louis rabbi, others targeted as ‘terrorists’ in social media campaign

Rabbi Susan Talve

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi Susan Talve, for many years on the frontlines advocating for racial and social justice causes, is now the target of a fierce social media campaign against her support of Israel. 

Not shy of controversy, the founding rabbi of the progressive Central Reform Congregation has gained national stature over the last year marching and praying alongside Black Lives Matter protesters to draw attention to police shootings like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014.

But Talve, who has won many awards for her human rights  advocacy and actions, is being labeled a “#realterrorist” in a social media campaign by some in the same Black Lives Matter/Hands Up United movement she has marched alongside.  

The Hands Up United Facebook page shows a picture of Talve with the hashtag “#realterrorist” and the words “supports genocide and international apartheid.”

The Hands Up United social media postings have sparked a verbal firestorm, with the rabbi’s supporters defending her as “compassionate” and uniting in scores of comments on Facebook and Twitter. Talve’s supporters call her detractors “cowards” and “anti-Jewish propagandists” and say that labeling her a terrorist is “a despicable character assassination.”

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Attempts to reach a Hands Up United spokesperson numerous times over five days were unsuccessful through phone, Facebook messaging, email, and the group’s website.  

In addition to the Hands Up United opponents, a small Jewish activist group, St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), as well as the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) also are criticizing Talve for what they say is her lack of support for Palestinians victimized by “Israeli oppression” in Gaza and her support for mainstream Jewish-American groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace, which has about 10 core members and a larger mailing list, wrote an open letter to Talve Dec. 3.     

“We can no longer sit patiently by while you defend the oppression of Palestinians at Israeli hands,” the group wrote Talve.  While praising her work against racism in America, JVP wrote: “(We) stand with the indigenous people of Palestine who have been oppressed for more than 65 years by Zionist policies….including near-daily assassinations…mass incarceration…demolitions of families’ homes.”

JVP says it is committed to “the end of the occupation and ways in which Israel treats Palestinians differently than Israeli Jews.”

 An Israel for all

Talve said the situation “makes me sad.”    

“I understand people have different narratives, especially around Israel and Palestine,” she said in an interview. “For example, we celebrate Israel independence and the Palestinians call it ‘The Disaster.’ Both narratives are true. They’re conflicting narratives but they’re true.”

Talve added: “We have to get to a place where you can be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and pro-peace, because Israel is not going away.”  She said she believed peace was possible but that there had be an acceptance that “Israel is going to exist.”

“The people who seem to be behind this campaign want to see the end of Israel,” she added.

The national Jewish Voice for Peace group is seeking “a just Israel,” Talve said, but some of the local activists appear to want “the dissolution of Israel.” 

“The only conversation they seem to want to have is not about Israel’s policies but the very end of Israel.”

She also said her words on various occasions apparently were misunderstood and that she indeed had spoken out against some of Israel’s excesses in the Gaza war, including house demolitions and checkpoints.

“I have spoken out on many things,” Talve said. “(It) makes me sad that my words have been completely taken out of context. I understand that’s the way people heard them… but that’s not the way they were meant to be.”

Talve continued: “I deeply care about the rights of the Palestinian people and I really believe that for Israel to be Israel’s best, American Jews need to be educated about what’s happening there. Also as an American Jew, I believe that there are Israelis and Palestinians who would, with the right leadership, find a way to live together.”

 Talve supporters unite

The social media campaign waged by Hands Up United and its allies has outraged some members of Talve’s congregation, several of whom pointed out the historic alliance of Jews and blacks in the civil rights movement.  Talve’s supporters say she has initiated interfaith dialogue groups and brought Palestinian speakers to CRC, including Palestinian Christian Mazen Badra, a professor who once spoke on the Jewish High Holy Days.

Ed Reggi, an actor, gay activist and CRC congregant, wrote on Facebook of the “thankless, endless good work around social justice (Talve) does every single day.” 

“I am tired, angry, sad…worried,” Reggi wrote. “I am numb to the ignorance over at Hands Up United… who are willing to destroy their biggest (‎Black Lives Matter) ally in the name of the Palestine/Israel geopolitical and religious conflict.

 “Rabbi Talve’s critics fiercely cry they are not anti-Jewish and yet I am of the opinion that when they target Zionism — Rabbi Talve supports the right of the State of Israel to exist — they are indeed anti-Jewish and this fuels more anti-Semitic language around an already heated political issue,” Reggi wrote. 

Steve Sorkin, a member of CRC, led about 30 Talve supporters who signed an open letter this week condemning Jewish Voice for Peace for aligning with people calling Talve a “terrorist” who supports “genocide.” The signers said JVP should have protested Hands Up United’s “vicious” attacks.  Sorkin said his ad hoc committee also was made up of “Jewish progressive activists” who seek fairer treatment of Palestinians.

Sorkin’s group wrote:  “We are angry because you have chosen to be silent in the face of an ugly personal attack by a group with which you are aligned against a leader in our community whom we greatly respect . . . Political disagreements with (Talve) are no excuse for demonizing her with those libelous words.”

Some other local leaders branded as “terrorists” by the Hands Up United campaign include Gov. Jay Nixon, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed and St. Louis Alderwoman Dionne Flowers.

The point of the campaign, an ally of Hands Up United posted on Facebook, is to “call out St. Louis power brokers for their role in perpetuating systems of racial oppression.” 

 From Ferguson to Palestine

Local chapters of the Jewish Voice for Peace and the Palestine Solidarity Committee contend that Talve:

• Took a 2014 trip sponsored by AIPAC, which the groups assert is hawkish and right wing, at the same time hundreds of Gaza Palestinians were dying by actions of the Israeli military;  

• Did not stand up for Palestinians when the Missouri History Museum cancelled a program linking Ferguson and Israel that was to feature a Palestinian speaker.

“From Ferguson to Palestine” has become a movement, its backers say. They say that police treatment of blacks in Ferguson and Israeli treatment of Palestinians are both examples of oppression. A delegation of black activists, including one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, traveled to Israel to meet with Palestinians, said Jeff Ordower, a Jew active in Ferguson and one of the leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace.

 “This is not a personal attack against Rabbi Talve,” Ordower said of his organization’s letter to Talve. “This is about her support and the Jewish community’s support for systems and structures that oppress Palestinians. We have always talked to Rabbi Talve and are very willing to talk and dialogue.”  

After some members of the organization were removed from a meeting at the Jewish Federation building, Talve invited them to speak to her congregation. 

Ordower, a community organizer who works for Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, said he was part of Jewish Voice for Peace because “I feel my Jewish values are to fight discrimination and it doesn’t stop when it comes to Israel or anywhere.”

 Asked about calling Talve a #realterrorist, he said: “We don’t want to focus on this episode and lose sight of the fundamental issue, which is Rabbi Talve’s support for the oppressed in all cases except for the Palestinian case. We are doing this in allyship with the Hands Up United and the Palestine Solidarity Committee.”

Sandra Tamari, a leader of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, wrote an open letter on Facebook and online at last week also taking Talve to task.  Tamari did not respond to attempts by a reporter to talk with her.

In an open letter Dec. 1, Tamari wrote: “Talve is at the center of social justice movements in St. Louis. For that, she should be commended. But her hypocrisy of fighting against racial injustice in St. Louis while supporting it in Israel is what Hands Up United was calling out. Zionism has no place in liberation spaces led by people of color. I am so grateful to my family at Hands Up United for understanding that none of us are free until all of us are free.”

Says Talve: “If we don’t all work together to end hate — racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia — and if we don’t stand up when it happens — then we’re all going to suffer.”