God hears the cry of the oppressed: A theology of BDS

Demonstrators rally in New York City to protest anti-BDS legislation, Jun 9, 2016. (photo: Sipa USA via AP)

Remarks on BDS delivered during a session at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.

By Rabbi Brant Rosen | Shalov Rav | Nov 20, 2017

Ed note: On Nov 19, 2017, the American Academy of Religion cancelled a panel discussion on the ethical and theological motivations of BDS after several anti-BDS speakers withdrew from participation at the last moment. The Academy subsequently allowed several papers to be presented “informally,” but without discussion. One of those papers is presented here. Read details of the cancellation here →

Beyond the fears of BDS articulated by so many in the Jewish communal establishment, I think there’s an even deeper fear for many of us in the Jewish community: the prospect of facing the honest truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. . . .

[With BDS], however, a nonviolent call for popular resistance has been placed before us. Thus, for those of us that believe God hears the cry of the oppressed and demands that we do the same, the BDS call represents a direct challenge to our faith. Will we be like God, and hearken to their cries, or will we be like Pharaoh and ignore them?

In my remarks to you today, I’d like to address one of the questions originally presented to the panelists of our session: “What, from your perspective, stands out as a particularly important element of religious ethics and theology that motivates those inspired to take up the cause of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions?”

For me, this question is profoundly connected to one of the most important theological teachings of Jewish tradition: namely that God hears and hearkens to the cry of the oppressed. This teaching is needless to say, deeply imbedded in the Torah; in Genesis 18:20-21, God says to Abraham:

The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me. . . .” Later, at the outset of the Exodus story, God says to Moses, “Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them.” (Exodus 3:9)

It should be noted that Godly attributes in Jewish tradition are not mere academic concepts — they are nothing short of divine imperatives. God’s ways must be our ways as well.

Judaism is replete with references to imitatio dei, including this oft-cited teaching from the Talmud:

Why does it say (Deut. 13: 5): “One should walk after God”? Is it possible to walk after the Divine Presence? Is God not like a consuming fire (ibid., 4:24)? Rather, it means that one should imitate God’s ways. As God clothed Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21), so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the ailing (Gen. 18: 1), so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death (Gen. 25: 11), so should we comfort mourners; as God buried Moses (Deut. 34:6), so should we care for the dignity of the dead. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a).

To this list, we might well add: “As God hears the cry of the oppressed, so should we hear the cry of the oppressed.”

Read the full article here →