Op-Ed: An Open Letter From Two Rabbis

People of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, as well as Christians with roots in the Middle East, have been living and working harmoniously in the Virgin Islands for many decades now.

There have been Jews in the Virgin Islands since the 17th century, living in religious freedom since 1685, founding the first synagogue on these shores in 1796. In that entire time, we have cherished our ties both with all other groups and populations on these islands, as well as with Jews all over the world – including in Israel.

On an individual level, relationships between Jewish and Muslim islanders have been good, and even close. Friendships developed, and partnerships flourished.

The exterior of the St. Thomas synagogue.
The exterior of the St. Thomas synagogue. (File photo)

Solid foundations for this friendship are already in place. As a Jewish community we were very grateful when the Imam attended services at the St. Thomas synagogue to show support following the massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a few years ago. And we were immediately present at the mosque in solidarity after a so-called “ISIS flag” was put up outside the Cyril E. King airport a year after that.

But there remains much work to be done and many bridges to build between our communities. And, as we see now: events from far away can pose a challenge even on a local level.

Anyone with a heart hopes for an end to suffering, cruelty and loss of life on every side of even the most complicated conflict. The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is immense, and intense.

Still, a rally held on May 26, 2021, in Christiansted, as reported by a local internet website, was problematic – both in terms of what happened and in the coverage of the event – that many in the Jewish community believe we cannot remain silent.

The pain of Palestinians is real. We understand and relate to their suffering, anger and frustration. And we certainly support the right to give voice to those feelings.

But what happened on Wednesday, and the article covering it, went far beyond that.

  1. The rally moved from protest to hate.
  2. The article was biased, one-sided, and contained blatant factual errors.
  3. An opportunity to share anguish was lost in a moral haze, an expression of solidarity which, possibly well-intentioned on the part of some participants, nevertheless gave support to ignorance, and made a volatile situation worse.

And the pain and fear of Israelis is real as well.

Before we share what was so wrong about this protest, we want to be clear about three things. Speaking for ourselves now and not on behalf of our communities: We do believe that some of Israel’s recent actions were provocative. Also, we still hold out hope for a two-state solution: independent, democratic states of Israel and Palestine living side by side in security and peace. Finally, as we learned in kindergarten, we can say that an action is bad without saying a person is bad. The same thing is true of communities, and of countries. We believe that one can be critical of policies, without saying that the entire polity, an entire country, should be erased, or cease to exist.

So here is what was wrong with the rally and its coverage:

This was 100% one-sided coverage of an extremely complicated conflict. No attempt at all was made to convey any other perspective. (And this is not a question, such as whether the earth is flat, which deserves only one side presented.)

We understand calls for humanity. But in this case, to see one side as only victims and the other as only aggressors, and to ignore textbook definitions of terrorism by your own people — that is not supportive of humanity. That is simply inhumane.

There were serious factual errors in this coverage. Israeli responses in Gaza, tragic and terrible, were nevertheless hardly “random.” Critically, they were also “responses,” reactions to what was truly random, and clearly terrorism — the firing of over 4500 rockets into Israeli cities, towns and villages. The fact that these are crude weapons which cannot be precisely targeted is exactly the point of what makes this an act of terror and a crime against humanity. (Did the people marching in Christiansted even know that some of the Israelis killed by Hamas rockets were, in fact, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel – including a child?) It is certainly one perspective to refer to those in Gaza as only “victims.” But to not even mention the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas in an article about this conflict is obscene.

Here is a fact, that anyone who is honest admits: If there were no rockets coming from Gaza, there would be no Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. If, on the other hand, there were no Israeli defense against terrorism, there would be no Israel.

Even those who organized the march on Wednesday know this! Did you see the pictures of shirts, and signs, which show all of Israel labeled as “Palestine”?

Those bearing such signs know full well the truth of what we said above — even if many well-meaning or kind-hearted folks they got to join them do not.

Israeli actions on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, which even some supporters of Israel think unwise or provocative, and insensitive in timing, are still not justification for murder. They did not warrant launching a war.

The Palestinians have repeatedly suffered many tragedies, and many people of all faiths — including Jews — and all nationalities — including Israelis — are open to finding a better path forward, involving safety, security and dignity for all sides.

While we acknowledge their suffering, to say that the Palestinians are “the last people on the face of the earth that are still under colonial occupation” is ignorant at best. Many Tibetans would disagree, and Kurds, and Chechens, and many others; it is, sadly, a very long list!

Most significantly, there are hurtful and frightening ways in which this protest, and this article, move from questioning Israel’s policies to being against Jews and Judaism. It is, in fact, antisemitic to say “the Jewish” in the way this article does. Even in a direct quote, context and framing of such a statement is called for. The exchangeable use of terms like “Jewish” and “Israel” in this setting refute the argument that being anti-Israel does not mean anti-Jewish. Instead, it implies, or even proves, just that.

And the entire phrase “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea” is a call for the elimination, eradication and destruction of the entire state of Israel.

History, including recent events in the 20th century, with the persistent denial of refuge to Jews – including here in the Virgin Islands – firmly testifies to the need for one place in the world which can serve as a beacon and safe-haven for our people.

That chant, then, is hate speech, in and of itself. It is dangerous, inherently violent, and deeply anti-Jewish. And a reporter who does not know that or fails to put it in proper context has no business doing a story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We can, we should, and we must do better. All of us. We call on the members of the Jewish and Muslim communities of the Virgin Islands, and, indeed, all those in this territory who are people of good will who care about events in other places as well as here, to find ways to peacefully come together. We invite our Muslim and Palestinian neighbors to join us in mutual acknowledgment of shared values and commitment to pursue peace and equal opportunities for all people. Let us, together, denounce hatred, prejudice and violence wherever it appears. Let us learn to appreciate how diversity enriches our lives, granting opportunities to all to relish our colorful and common humanity.

Each of our communities are suffering here because of what is happening there.

But all of us can find our own oases – without denying pain, but by somehow, carefully, delicately… coming closer together.

And as we do find ways to work together, all people, of all faiths, will be able to see the blessings, and the beauty to be found in both of our communities, and both of our traditions.

Editor’s note: Michael L. Feshbach is the rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, Marcy Gelb Delbick is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Or of St Croix.