A Vanished World

A vanished world. Heartbreaking. I am haunted by the past.

By the image of the past that flits up in an instant, and is never seen again- full to bursting with the pathos of the lived moment, the aching of the human creature caught in history, blindsided by it. An eye that meets mine, blinks, and disappears. Hands that grow tense, and loosen, and clench again. A gaze that implores- remember me. Even in my vanishing.

Stewards of Remembrance

There is a gift of remembrance, nestled in the human heart, that makes the angels tremble with jealousy. Remembrance is not the simple muscle memory of the living creature, human or animal, that yearns instinctually for the food it once had, misses shelter, longs for a lost kiss, or the embrace of a mother. In remembrance there is something more. 

Looking at old photographs, engaged in reminiscience, there is a haunting, a deep sadness, an awareness of the passing of time itself, a sorrow and wisdom embedded in the notion that the moment itself, the presence of the present, is eternally passing away. Often we can hold this quality of remembrance before the powers of our thought for only a moment, before it flits away; as if we get glimpses of a secret dwelling within, and beyond, time itself. 

The past is eternally past; this moment, too, is already past; the drama of our human lives will fade away, will be held onto only as sweet memory, as history. The hands of those who came before us have worked hard to bring us to the present. Our ancestors are no longer with us, and yet our remembrance of them is charged with gratitude, awe and responsibility. 

It as if somewhere, a candle is lit that bathes the halls and caverns of time itself in the light of remembrance, a light suffused with the sigh of the human heart, the yearning, hope and sorrow of our incomplete redemption. When we turn our gaze upon the past, we see by virtue of this light only; in this light, the daily motions of humans upon the earth are captured as shadows. We cannot see this candle directly, but to sit before it fills our hearts with a deep, unspeakable sadness and a warm, unquenchable gratitude.

Nature already does a great job consecrating space; humans can build temples of spatial holiness that, in the end, mimic the beauty of nature, or gesture to a truth beyond it. This is all well and good, though one wonders if nature itself already offers, to our gaze, the most perfect temple imaginable. 

But nature cannot speak of time or remembrance; before remembrance, nature is mute, its gaze does not venture towards these realms. An animal cannot tap into this eerie, ghostlike quality of awareness of the passing of time itself, in its ineffable, simple yet staggering beauty. It is as if humans have been gifted the ability to dwell in time, to consecrate time itself. It is given to humans to build structures of holiness in time itself. In our hearts and minds, existence doubles back upon itself; we are ‘he who writes and he who is written’ (Jabes). We are stewards of remembrance, entrusted to care for that candle that, flame bent towards the past, makes its nest in the very pulse of being. 

(Written at the wake of Dottie Nabakowski)

Our Relationship to the Land

‘Every Jew has a stake in the Land of Israel, and therefore what is done in Israel is the business of every Jew.’ – the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1970

In the above quote, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was responding to criticism that, from his home in Brooklyn, he was too involved in the state affairs of Israel. His involvement, it should be noted, was very right wing– for decades, he counseled Netanyahu and the many other leading Israeli politicians who visited him in Crown Heights to hold on to every inch of land in the West Bank, to see Israel’s wars as wars of expansion, to see all Palestinians as Amalekites, etc.

But this quote resonated with me, ironically, as an American Jewish BDS activist. While the Rebbe, were he alive today, may recoil in horror to hear me say so, I actually share his sentiment. It drives the work I do, to advocate for an end to occupation and apartheid, and for the return of Palestinian refugees. I do this firstly, not as a white person fighting American empire and global white supremacy, but as a Jew (and yes, as a white Jew specifically), as a Jew with a stake in the affairs of his people, and with a concern, today, for what we’re doing in the holy land. I think the Rebbe’s quote can serve as an effective model to help Jews doing anti-occupation/BDS work articulate a healthy self-interest in our work, and a healthy relationship to that land, wherever we live around the world.

When we ask ‘what is the future of Judaism beyond Zionism?’, or ‘what will the new Jewish identity look like?’, another question is folded within these- ‘how should we conceive of our relationship to Eretz Yisrael, outside a Zionist framework?’ Thankfully, many different answers exist to this question, as they should- you have the secular ‘doikayt’ diasporists on the one hand, attached only to ‘Zion’ as a symbol for the future liberation of humanity, and those who gravitate towards some form of ‘old time religion’ on the other, grounded in apolitical devotion to the living stones of the land. And, of course, you have many shades in between, within and around these two points I have chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, amidst many others in the rich tapestry of Jewish experience.

Mostly, I have drifted around the former camp, with at least one toe in the latter. My family is rooted in America and, before, that Europe; I am a Marxist spiritual agnostic, I have a pious rabbi and a fiery radical jostling within me in sometimes uneasy, but always creative, tension. And while I cling to a fierce diasporism, I see alot of beauty in directing our prayers towards Jerusalem, as a compass for our souls; I resonate with the idea of Eretz Yisrael as a throbbing in the heart of every Jew in exile in an unredeemed world.

In many ways, this dream of Zion has always been a deeply diasporist one for our people, steeped, for every Jew who has muttered it three times a day throughout the centuries, in the yearnings, sorrows and joys of their experience in history. For so many Jews across the spectrum of observance and identity, the hegemony of political Zionism, among other forces of modernity, has erased from our memory this sensibility of a relationship to Zion suffused with the travail of exile, an exile at once spiritual and physical, personal and collective, signifying the incomplete redemption of the soul, the Jewish people, and the world. Instead, Zionism has taught too many Jews to hear the cries of our sages for Zion, as little more than an injunction to pray today for the political victories of the modern nation-state of Israel, as one would cheer for a football team.

I feel drawn to this larger idea of Zion as a modality of exile, but I feel a connection to the physical Eretz Yisrael as well, one made all sorts of complicated by the two months I spent in yeshiva in Jerusalem, followed by four months doing activist work in the West Bank, in 2011. My time at the yeshiva, during which I occasionally traveled to religious sites (including occupied Hebron), was in many ways problematic- from the politics and the patriarchy, to the very fact that I, as a Jew, could visit there while Palestinians couldn’t (which applies, also, to my time in the WB)- but many of my religious experiences were very beautiful. And while some of these experiences- like the study of Torah and Talmud in a spiritually charged community- could also occur with equal force elsewhere, many were not wholly unrelated to that land, and the centuries of Jewish yearning somehow calcified in its stones. In many ways I’ve repressed the joy I felt, unable to let myself fully re-embrace those experiences, to let myself dream of them occurring again in that place, because of the reality of the occupation, the awareness of the continuing Nakba that remains unrecognized.

It’s as if my activism now is driven, at the end of the day, by a desire to see justice in that land, so that my- our- spiritual relationship to it, as an idea and as reality, can be authentic again, without blood on our hands. I don’t need my people, in the present day, to constitute a nation-state there, atop someone else’s land, driving another people from their homes- but I want to be able to make holy pilgrimage there, as my ancestors did for generations, to sing and cry at its holy places. Until we have repented for and ended occupation and apartheid, and allowed the refugees to return, I don’t want to excise from my prayer book all the words about Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, the Temple- I pray most fervently during those parts of the service, sometimes. ‘May our eyes behold Your return to Zion with compassion’- may we understand that the return of the holy presence to Zion may occur through none other than the attribute of compassion, and may we act accordingly.

In truth, our personal and collective relationship to the Eretz Yisrael, Zion and Jerusalem in our prayer books cannot be separated from our relationship to those actual locations in the world, and never has been, for any period in Jewish history. When our ancestors prayed for the holy land, they prayed partially, but not solely, towards an idea- their prayers were charged with the energy, full to bursting, of what they were experiencing in their own time, caught as they were, in their unique historical moment, in the tension between the travails of exile and the desire for liberation. And, their prayers were also directed towards a very real place, one they may have visited themselves or heard from other pilgrims about, one they may have hoped to be buried in. And today, Jews continue to pray for Zion with words charged with the passions of our historical moment, words related, viscerally and imminently, to a real place on the earth’s surface. Just as some Jews on the right today, sadly, read prayers about the rebuilding of the Temple and think literally of the shattering of the Dome of the Rock, Jews on the left should, and do, read the words in their Siddurim about peace and mercy in the holy land quite literally, and pray, wholeheartedly, for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.

 

But whereas yesterday, we looked towards Zion and dreamed of being liberated from exile, today, we claim to be liberated, as a people, in Zion, but in truth we remain deeper in exile. Zionism has helped us forget that, all along, exile for us meant much more, as a concept, than the simple dispersal of Jews across the earth’s surface- it meant the unredeemed sorrows of an unjust world; the continued existence of oppressors and oppressed; the incomplete process of redemption embedded within creation itself. Today, as the exile of the world continues, the exile of the Jewish people assumes a new and wholly unprecedented dimension. On the surface of things, we appear to be reconstituted, as a people, on our land- we appear to have miraculously ended 2000 years of Galut. We’ve even written this proud declaration into our very prayer books, alongside the pleas to Zion that made our ancestors tremble! Or at least the non-Orthodox prayer books have been altered in this way- these loftiest of claims made by Zionism upon the very core of Jewish history and identity were never accepted by traditional Jewry, including the predecessors of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, though he cheered on the conquests of the Zionist state.

But with Zionism, just as we have driven another people into physical exile, so have we driven ourselves deeper into spiritual exile as well. When we pray towards Jerusalem today, we must fervently pray for this exile to end; we must pray, in an old-and-new way, for justice, mercy and peace to dwell upon that land; and we must reaffirm that ‘every Jew has a stake’, as the Rebbe said, in demanding an end to Israeli occupation and apartheid, in demanding the right of return for refugees, in rectifying our relations, as a people, with the Other, with Hashem, with the land and with ourselves.

As the Rebbe showed in his life’s work, it is foundational to Jewish being-in-the-world that we remain invested, concerned, implicated in the affairs of the Jewish people, the affairs of the world at large, and the relation between the two. In this way, Jewish being-in-the-world has always been ‘political’ in the broad sense, long before that word came to connote the affairs of modern nation-states. And as the Rebbe said in the quote above, this ‘political’ sense of Jewish being-in-the-world has always somehow involved the land of Israel, whether as yesterday’s futural promise or today’s political nightmare. May we pray today, with the thoughts of our heart and the work of our hands, that this nightmare come to an end.

 

History as a trial

‘To present history as a trial in which man as advocate for mute nature makes a complaint against the nonappearance of the promised Messiah. The court, however, decides to hear witnesses for the future. There appear the poet who senses it, the sculptor who sees it, the musician who hears it, and the philosopher who knows it. Their testimony thus diverges, though all of them testify to his coming. The court does not dare admit its indecision. Hence there is no end of new complaints or new witnesses. There is torture and martyrdom. The jury benches are occupied by the living, who listen to the human prosecutor and the witnesses with equal mistrust. The jurors’ seats are inherited by their sons. At length they grow afraid they may be driven from their benches. Finally all the jurors take flight, and only the prosecutor and the witnesses remain.’
– Walter Benjamin

‘Never Again’, Again

There is no question that Jews tried to enter into a dialogue with Germans, and from all possible perspectives and standpoints: now demanding, now pleading and imploring; now crawling on their hands and knees, now defiant; now with all possible compelling tones of dignity, now with a godforsaken lack of self-respect. . . . No one responded to this cry. . . .and today, when the symphony is over, the time may be ripe for studying their motifs and for attempting a critique of their tones.” – Gershom Scholem, 1962, speaking of German Jewry in the decades before the Holocaust

Deep in the heart of the Zionist dream, which has long since turned into a nightmare, is wedged the Jewish people’s response to that dark midnight of their 20th century. For both its defenders on both the right and left, Zionism remains as it was in the years before and after the Holocaust- the determination that Jews must stand up for ourselves and be counted among the nations, must straighten our backs and walk proudly, must work to transform our conditions, throw off the yoke of our oppressors and create our own history on our own terms.

This emotional core of Zionism did not descend fully-formed from heaven, to implant itself in the waiting hearts of Jews worldwide. Rather, it grew from the specific soil of 20th-century Europe, from the constellation of ideas and conditions that defined that time period; and like Marx said of the communist idea a half-century earlier, the Zionist idea was “in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it comes”. The many movements that animated the word, thought and deed of early 20th-century European Jewry- not only Zionism but also Bundism, Yiddishism, territorialism and more- were attempts at Jewish self-determination broadly defined, attempts by Jews to define and determine anew their collective identity in a modern world that flung all traditions, social groupings and identities of the past into upheaval.

After the Shoah rendered most other Jewish self-determination movements in Europe null and void, Zionism came to embody the essence of Jewish pride, Jewish continuity, Jewish identity in the hearts of most Jews worldwide. And considered in the abstract, apart from its actualization on the ground in Palestine, there is nothing in this emotional core of Zionism to be condemned. Were it not ensnared, inextricably, with a settler-colonial project, the emotional underpinnings of Zionism- the Jewish people’s defiance in the face of our oppressors- are no different from those passions that fueled other liberation movements of the time that, from the US South to the Third World, brought the taste of freedom and self-determination to the lips of oppressed peoples across the earth.

But when a Zionist Jewish student, on a college campus, closes their eyes and cries ‘never again’ to a divestment resolution- it is this emotional core of Zionism which further blinds them, the tighter they cling, to the reality of Israel’s human rights violations. When a defender of Israeli settlements calls the 1967 borders ‘Auschwitz borders’, it is this core which has atrophied into a blind arrogance, a machismo, a heart turned cold. While right-wing Zionists close their eyes to reality and the Other and ferociously cling to a toxic ‘us against the world’ notion of Jewish self-determination, liberal Zionists are caught, against their will, in a paralyzing self-deception, unable to reconcile their idea of Zionism as Jewish liberation from oppression with the reality of Israel as oppressor, unable to answer to the present or chart a path to the future.

For Jews like Gershom Scholem, who searched for identity in an early 20th-century Europe in upheaval, Zionism may have been, for a time, an authentic response to their historical moment (though the reality of political state-building in Palestine would quickly come into sharp conflict with the lofty cultural Zionism of dreamers like Scholem, as he came to realize after he actually moved there in 1923). But Zionism today, in both its left and right variations, leaves us unequipped to face our present moment in history authentically.  Zionism was the Jewish people in dialogue with its European Other, an Other which, as the 20th century progressed, turned, as Scholem described, into a demon- which is perhaps why, on the ground in Palestine, Zionism was never able to meaningfully enter into anything resembling a ‘dialogue’ with the decidedly non-European Others who inhabited the land. Now, in the 21st century, Zionism rots, like many other ideologies forged in the crucible of European modernity, long past its expiration date.

But in a way, Zionism was also the Jewish people in dialogue with itself. For Scholem and so many other European Jews, movements like Zionism represented a break with the tepid, assimilated institutional Jewish establishment; with the ossified strictures of religious orthodoxy; with a Jewish mainstream which, in a thousand ways, had lost (or had never possessed) authenticity, an awareness of itself, an ability to stand up for itself and determine its own destiny. Becoming a Zionist, or a revolutionary, or a Yiddishist, or any other of the newly minted Jewish identities was, for these rebels, a way to bring the Jewish people to self-consciousness, to an alignment with the currents of the historical moment, to a proper response to the challenges and travails of the modern world.

In fact, in many ways, today’s anti-Zionist and anti-occupation Jewish movements bear an uncanny resemblance to these early 20th-century Jewish gestures of auto-emancipation. Just as, a century ago, the Zionist youth said to their politically passive, religiously pious parents ‘do not submit to the yoke of oppression, do not close your eyes to the storm clouds gathering around you, stand up! Demand our right to self-determination!’- so today, a new movement of pro-BDS and anti-occupation youth says to our parents ‘do not passively support the oppression of Palestinians, do not close your eyes to the injustices being committed in our name- speak out! Demand our community choose justice!’

In a dialectical inversion, then, yesterday’s assimilated, acquiescent German Jews become today’s guilty, angst-ridden American Jewish liberal Zionists. And just as Jews of the last century built a new Zionist identity by fighting against mainstream Jewish assimilation and self-deception, so Jews today are beginning to gesture towards a new anti-Zionist identity, by fighting against mainstream Jewish complicity in Israel’s occupation and apartheid (and, parallel to this, against American Jewish complicity in structures of white supremacy in the USA).  Echoing yesterday’s injunction to ‘fight against our oppression as Jews!’, today’s moral injunction to ‘fight against our complicity in oppression as Jews!’ traces the contours of a new Jewish consciousness that, as storm clouds of fascism gather, may yet form.

Today, the Zionist dream, which once gave a sense of orientation in history to our ancestors, has spiraled into our nightmare of endless occupation, and American Jewry gazes helplessly, careening into the 21st century with no historical compass to guide us, caught between a fascist America and a fascist Israel, both of which, in their ugliness, have become unrecognizable to us. Like the ossified, reactionary institutional Jewish leadership of a century ago, our American Jewish leaders, and their mainstream institutions, have again become mired in self-deception, unmoored, disoriented, rudderless, unable to comprehend the historical moment or act to transform it. Tethered to a Zionism which spirals into fascism, we are in danger of becoming strangers to the world, and to ourselves. Over and against this ossified leadership, young American Jews are beginning to say ‘No!’ to endless occupation and apartheid, ‘No!’ to complicity in global white supremacy, ‘No!’ to a politics of fear.

In order to evolve a new Jewish identity beyond Zionism, we will have to answer anew, as a people, to our changing conditions, to face our position in history and give an authentic response to what these times demand of us. We will again have to awaken, but this time, from a different self-deception. This time, it is a matter not of emancipating ourselves from an oppressor which faces us, or even, primarily, from an oppressive ideology within- it is first and foremost a matter of renouncing, as a people, our role as occupiers and oppressors of the Palestinians, and of rejecting our communal leadership’s unholy alliance with the oppressors of the world, the global structures of white supremacy and empire.

This renunciation should not be misunderstood, for the collective psyche of our people, as a return, from the strength and independence of our self-determination, to a weakened state of passivity and servitude. In truth, this renunciation can be a different, and equally powerful, kind of self-determination. Today, the Zionist movement is not independent- it is ensnared, from without, by an addictive obsession with conquering land and subjugating the Other; and ensnared, from within, by a crippling trauma which sees a new Shoah around every corner, which fears annihilation lurking behind every peace deal. Gathering the strength, courage and self-awareness to collectively renounce occupation will actually evolve our people to a new, heightened kind of self-consciousness and intregity, indeed, a new kind of self-determination. 

But before the new Jewish identity can awaken and stand on its own two feet, there will be much in thought, word and deed for the Jewish people to unpack, to untangle, and ultimately, to atone for. In many ways, this is uncharted territory- the nature and scope of this atonement is unprecedented in Jewish memory, for not since the time of the Prophets have we as a people built a kingdom, and watched it crumble from the weight of its internal contradictions. 

But we are no strangers to these sentiments- our inherited tradition gives us many tools and technologies well-tailored to assist us in collective mourning and repentance. On Yom Kippur, for example, we mourn and atone for our collective sins as a people. One can easily imagine, in the not too distant future, the great bulk of the Jewish people fasting and doing teshuvah, in a way similar to Yom Kippur, for the sins committed by Israel against the Palestinians- a powerful image indeed! Perhaps, in answering the Prophetic call to repent, to atone, to give an accounting and a reckoning, we may yet find for our people’s flesh a new heart, for our lungs a new breath, for our souls a new spirit.

Of course, such paradigm shifts in a people’s consciousness and identity never occur solely through acts of will and decision- or as an abstract ‘dialogue’ with past and future,  unfolding in the rarefied air of the spirit- but always evolve alongside, in reaction to and acting upon, the myriad political conditions of the present. Zionism seized the king’s palace of Jewish peoplehood not solely because its prime movers fulfilled, in thought, word and deed, Herzl’s injunction that ‘if you will it, it is no dream’, but also because fascism intervened to clear Europe of those millions of Jews who, for many different reasons, opposed the Zionist project. G-d willing, may we evolve today as a people beyond Zionism not, as before, in frenzied response to a terrible catastrophe, but as a conscious moral decision grounded in peace, justice and safety.

As we build our Jewish future, we have much to unlearn from the many injunctions of Herzl and his acolytes. As Zionism imposed a system of colonial violence upon the land and people of Palestine, the ‘New Jew’ it created in the self-image of its followers reeked of patriarchy, internalized anti-Semitism, Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and other oppressive structures of thought. But as we work to overcome Zionism and build a new Jewish identity, we must share with its founders a fundamental belief in the open-endedness of Jewish history, the capacity of our people to break with the old and begin anew.

 

Today, as a newly rising global fascism tips the inherited political structures, communal institutions, and hegemonic systems of yesterday’s world closer to catastrophe, American Jewry is in unprecedented existential crisis, as is the Zionist project to which it has too long been intimately bound. A rising generation of young anti-occupation and anti-Zionist Jews is gathering the courage to say ‘No!’ to the conditions of the present, and taking the first step towards the Jewish future.

The new Jewish identity will have been born when we, as a people, can say ‘never again’, again- this time, not ‘never again shall we allow another to be dominant over us’, but ‘never again shall we mistake dominance over another for our own liberation’.

“[Gershom Scholem] used to say that we will pay for all this, since there is no people, even bigger than the Jewish people, who could survive those two events- Holocaust and independence- without paying an extremely high price. And the price would be not only in blood but also in spirit.” Fania Scholem, Gershom’s widow, 1987, speaking of Gershom’s evolving views on Zionism

Red Flag (for the 21st century)

 

There is a flag on the ground.

 

Hid in swamp,

marked by mud,

Wet with dream-tears,

Stained with blood-sorrow

and sweat-anger,

Ragged with world-vision.

Stitched by a million hands,

Kissed with new joy,

 Tucked away in cellars,

Folded in whispers,

kept warm with old hope.

 

Until dragged into daylight,

hoisted high above heads,

Carved into monuments,

It quickened hearts,

loosened tongues,

Rattled throats like chains.

 

Until torn asunder,

thrown to wind,

Buried in dust-

 

There is a flag on the ground.

Pick it up.