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Public Comment

12/14/2023 02:12:21 PM


Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss

Until 3pm every Monday, anyone can sign up to make a statement before the Houston City Council, during “Public Comment” which takes place on Tuesdays at 2pm. Under normal circumstances, individuals can sign up for public comment of 1, 2 or 3-minute duration. But as Mayor Turner explained, when there are public comment sign-ups that in total exceed more than 150 minutes, the city council moves to limit all speakers to only one minute. And that was the case last Tuesday; all the more so just a couple of days ago. Available upon arrival, there is a printed list of public commentors, by name, requested time, and subject matter. Some of the comments focused on concerns over construction zones, relocation of bus depots, and the like. But as I looked down the list, the majority were focused on Gaza/Israel. The air in the room felt tense, and at 2 o’clock the first speaker was invited to the dais.

Most of the pro-Palestinian speakers generally asked the city council to support their requests for a cease-fire. The very few pro-Israel supporters sought to explain that the issues that we hope the City Council members would focus on (because it is in their remit) is the growing anti-Semitism in our society. (Since October 7, in Houston, a Jewish restaurant was vandalized, other Jewish or Israeli-style restaurants have been targeted with online harassment, and just the other day, as Natalie was walking Michigan around the Menil, she found that someone had used a trashcan to defame the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) - see picture below).  And throughout the US: Between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7, ADL recorded a total of 2,031 antisemitic incidents, up from 465 incidents during the same period in 2022, representing a 337-percent increase year-over-year.

  • 40 incidents of physical assault,

  • 337 incidents of vandalism,

  • 749 incidents of verbal or written harassment and

  • 905 rallies including antisemitic rhetoric, anti-Zionism or support for terrorism against Israel.

This week, Rabbi Gideon Estes and I joined the effort along with an Israeli expat group, called “Unxeptable,” to coordinate efforts and messaging. To be clear, I don’t know anyone in our Jewish community who is deaf to the deaths of innocent civilians in Gaza. While there are some in our broader Jewish community who make the argument that the Palestinians’ tacit approval of Hamas indicates they are our enemies too, I don’t believe that. Living under totalitarian, dictatorial, and fundamentalist rule does indeed strip citizenry of significant levels of ownership for the deeds of their “elected officials.”

Rabbi Estes declared that Israel is not committing genocide and he was booed until Mayor Turner explained that all must remain silent; then they coughed loudly in unison, and Mayor Turner threatened to empty the chamber. I then approached the dais and was met with many of the visitors’ disapproval, as well. Unfortunately, most of our hecklers are young, feel beyond reproach, and unbounded by decorum (kind of a definition of youth!) I left soon after to head back to my car and on my way out of City Hall, 50 or so college age students were demonstrating in the plaza adjacent to the reflection pool (in the shadow of the large Chanukiah set up there for Chanukah). The young people were well organized. They were quite loud, but they were demonstrating peacefully. And when I asked one of them to tell me the words in one of their chants, I gently suggested that I didn’t think they all had the full picture. 

Before I knew it, 15 or so had surrounded me – asking me questions, challenging me, with their phones trained on me and each other (my inquisitors). Here is what I learned: 

1. They are well-versed in the anti-Israel debate. They know their “stuff.”  But many of their views are skewed and misguided. For example, Israel is not a settler colonial state because Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel.  

2. We know Hamas committed pre-meditated atrocities because of their own “GoPro” video recordings in real time AND because their instruction manuals for what to do and how to do it explain it all step by step.

3. A ceasefire that doesn’t demand it from both sides is “Dead on Arrival.” Israel could agree to a ceasefire if all hostages were released and all missiles fired into Israel ceased (since October 7, more than 11,000 have been fired into Israel).  Almost of them were destroyed by Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system.

4. They tragically align themselves with entities that would never grant them or others the freedom they enjoy here. (Of course the irony is that in, of all the places in the Middle East, there is only one place where they could freely express their opinions and the law would protect them: Israel.) 

5. “Genocide” is indeed the accusation they believe is just. “Genocide is an internationally recognized crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”  “Israel’s war is against Hamas: Israel is not seeking to destroy the Palestinian people or the Palestinian population of Gaza, which is what would need to happen in order to correctly apply the term “genocide.” Israel’s leaders have repeatedly asserted that their campaign in Gaza is solely against the terrorist organization Hamas. In fact, this type of military campaign is the exact opposite of reflecting an attempt to eliminate the Palestinian population.” Some argue the accusation that  Israel is committing genocide is itself  a form of antisemitism. It is manifestly false: If Israel really wanted to commit genocide in Gaza, it has the means to do so. Accusing Jews of the very crime of which they themselves were history’s greatest victim is a uniquely vile taunt. And the charge of genocide is so heinous that it licenses any form of violence to stop it, including the sort of massacre we saw on October 7.

6. What Hamas did to Israel was not only an act of extreme violence but we know it was genocide because the expressed desire to destroy all Jews is in their charter AND because since October 7, they have confirmed that they will seek to do this again.

7. The students’ story of the genesis of the state of Israel goes as follows: in 1947, a powerful group of white people from Europe (no different than all other stories of colonialism) descended upon “Palestine”, dispossessed approximately 700,000 “Palestinian” people who had lived there in the “nation” of Palestine for thousands of years, and most of them when challenged, cannot claim that “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” doesn’t mean that this land must become “judenrein” (free of Jews) in order to achieve their goals.  

8. They don’t seem to care much for the Jewish historical and biblical connection to the land that goes back 3000 years, and yet at the same time, they are also co-opting central Jewish tenets for the Palestinians: they insist that Muslims are the true Semites and that they are directly descended from the Canaanites (thus seeking to completely undermine any notion of legitimate Jewish roots to the land). 

9. When I asked them why Egypt isn’t held partially responsible for the plight of Gazans, considering there are two borders, one with Israel and one with Egypt, their answer is quite nuanced and “seemingly” just. They ask, “Why should Egypt or any other Arab country take responsibility for people whose land was stolen by another?” They have no understanding that the Middle East conflict has mostly never been between Israel and the Palestinians. The conflict has been between Israel and the Arab world and continues today between Israel and Iran. In 1947, the UN voted to create two states: one that would be for the “Jewish Palestinians” and one that would be for the “Arab Palestinians”, for after all, “Palestine” was (and remained officially until 1988) a term indicating a geographic area deemed as such by the Romans in the first century, which was itself a propaganda move to seek to sever the Jews from their land). In 1947, the Jewish Palestinians accepted their country and called it “Israel.” The Arab countries rejected the vote altogether and five Arab countries declared war. 

If you’re still reading this, kol hakavod! All the honor to you. I write all of this in part because it’s a cathartic exercise for me. Thanks for riding along.  

It doesn’t make any of it feel better or bring peace, clearly.  But we are facing gargantuan challenges that will remain with us for quite a long time. Buckle your seat belts it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Rabbi Scott 

PS if you would like to discuss these issues further, please feel free to reach out to me.



Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784