The Rotary Club of Milwaukee hosted keynote speaker Rabbi Michael Davis at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center on December 11 in response to the anti-Palestinian guest who spoke several months ago.
A large crowd filled the room at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center on December 11 to listen to keynote speaker Rabbi Michael Davis. This event followed outrage in the community over the Milwaukee Jewish Federation inviting the Israeli ambassador to the US to speak at the service club back in June. The ambassador represents the extreme right of the Israeli establishment and is often referred to as the “Apartheid Ambassador for his endorsement of policies that are in violation of Palestinian human rights.
As a teacher of Torah – the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures – Rabbi Davis shared his faith and perspective to hundreds of Rotary members and guests. His message was in stark contrast to the position of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who had been invited by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation to speak to Rotary members on June 5.
That event came less than a month after America’s embassy in Israel was moved to Jerusalem on May 14 by President Trump. It coincided with the 70th Anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and was met with the tragic deaths of Palestinian protestors.
Ambassador Dermer’s longstanding position echoed the hardline Israeli government’s harsh treatment deployed against Palestinians. Rabbi Davis, on the opposite side of the policy spectrum, showed words of support for Palestine. He reminded the crowd that it was not in the best interest of anyone to ignore the problems that mutually affected their future.
Rabbi Davis is an Israeli citizen, a former Israeli military member, and former military spokesperson on Israeli policy. Now serving as an activist and Rabbi, he is a voice of solidarity with Palestine and has encouraged efforts to aid their struggle for equality in Israel. In 2014, he founded a national organization for Rabbis committed to open dialog on the subject of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
During his Rotary speech, he called for an end to the Jewish-theocratic state because he said it was “only democratic for the Jewish people of Israel.” He also offered insight into the monolithic perception about Jewish opinion in Israel. There are many, in fact, who support the Palestinian effort seeking legal equality.
For the past 50 years the country has been divided and controlled by a religiously conservative administration, that bonds political action with religious identity. Palestinians in Israel are under the control of a government that limits their opportunity and representation. Their ability to participate in the voting process and their access to employment and education are severely limited.
Rabbi Davis spoke about the right of anyone to raise their voice without the risk of retaliation or retribution. With the lack of representation comes the lack of change that the Palestinians are looking for.
During Ambassador Dermer’s speech, there was an organized protest outside the War Memorial organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, one of a number of Jewish organizations calling on Israel to uphold International law and end its oppressive laws that only target Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Bringing Rabbi Davis to speak demonstrated that Jewish people in Milwaukee and the diaspora around the world have different opinions than the Israeli government and those Jewish organizations in the US that work on behalf of Israel.
Rabbi Davis reminded the audience that America took a strong position against the South African government’s policy of apartheid. The institutional racial segregation faced by Palestinians in Israel qualifies for similar action. Because America has had very close ties with Israel, that support demonstrates in a non-direct way that it supports what is happening. Rabbi Davis explained that because of billions of American tax dollars gifted to Israel and arms deals with the United States, America has a moral responsibility because the weapons used against the Palestinian people were made in America.
One of the key belief of the Jewish people is that they are supposed to stand with the oppressed. Jews have been historically oppressed going back to ancient times, and more traumatically during Nazi German’s institution of the Holocaust. Under right-wing Israeli leadership, Jewish people now find themselves in the position of victimizing a population that has been interwoven with their culture for centuries – the people of Palestine.
A major theme of the December 11 speech was about equal representation, and the relationship with the American Constitution. Equality under the law is a hallowed American principle. It is also a Jewish, Biblical precept with a spiritual dimension. However, Palestinians have been shut out of positions of power in the State of Israel. A two-tier system is enforced through constant state violence, nearly identical to institutions developed to segregate people of color during the Jim Crow era. That separate institution was unequal in the United States, just as it is in Israel today.
Americans have seen from their own history that such a cultural divide leaves problems for future generations long after the past ones are cleaned up. The city of Jerusalem is located on a plateau in the Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and is considered holy to the three major Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three religions should have equal access to the city which will create the chance for peace and unity.
Rabbi Davis reminded the crowd that “we are one family,” and like the U.S. Constitution we need to remain united in a polarized world that seeks to tear people apart. The ability to listen to the diversity of opinion is what is needed to give strength to a changing world.
“We are complicit unless we speak out. This is a problem that we cannot ignore because we think it doesn’t affect us. It affects everyone.” – Rabbi Davis