A Spot at the Kotel Won’t Save Us: A Crisis in American Judaism

(originally published in Tikkun)

“Remember the days of the world; understand the years of each generation” (Devarim, 32:7)

“…that [we] may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers” (Malachi, 3:24)

Last month, the eyes of the liberal American Jewish world were fixed on the Kotel. In a rare display of unity and resolve, leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements banded together to demand a mixed-gender space at the Western Wall, in a clear pushback against the institutional power of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel. So deep were we stung by this bitter betrayal, that for the first time in living memory, prominent liberal American Jews even threatened to boycott Netanyahu’s government over its refusal to recognize the liberal diaspora.

And yet, even as we are united in condemnation of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, the liberal American Jewish world remains more divided than ever. Day after day, the establishment sounds the alarms- rates of intermarriage are skyrocketing, and more and more American Jews are publicly opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Many cease to identify with Zionism at all, as the rift between Israel and diaspora Jewry widens daily[1]. For the establishment, the idea that masses of Jews are embracing intermarriage and abandoning Israel rings the death-knell of Jewish peoplehood in America. Such gestures, according to common-sense logic, threaten to dissolve the very ties that make a Jew a Jew.

Liberal American Jewry is utterly transfixed by these crises. In the same week that the Kotel crisis made headlines, a leading Conservative rabbi shocked the Jewish world by announcing his intention to officiate at intermarriages[2], while a new report warned of a massive drop-off in support for Israel among American Jewish college students[3]. Prominent liberal columnist J.J. Goldberg evokes this creeping malaise in his recent piece, “The Rise and Fall of American Jewish Hope”, where he laments the “strange metamorphosis of the Jewish spirit over the past century, from hopeful optimism in the face of great suffering to bitterness and suspicion amid plenty…[if], for a half-century after 1917, the dominant mood among Jews in America and Israel alike was one of optimism…in the half-century since 1967, the mood has been increasingly gloomy and cynical.”[4]

My contention is that these crises signify not the end of liberal Jewish identity in America, but its new beginning. Put simply, we are in transition towards a future where our communal identity will not be defined by support for Israel, nor will it rest primarily upon markers of blood. This is progress- in fact, far from combatting assimilation, our decades-long fixation on Israel and endogamy has sapped American Jewish identity of the vitality and dynamism it needs to survive.

For too long, mainstream Jewish America has turned the dictum of Rabbi Hillel on its head- “make Jewish babies and support Israel”, we tell our children; “the rest is commentary, and little need to study it.” We are beginning to shake loose these inherited normative frameworks, and evolve in exciting new directions. The establishment is in panic precisely because, in its gut, it knows these tremors announce the birth-pangs of a new American Jewish identity, breaking through the stultified crust of the old.

– – –

Growing Up Assimilated

As Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, I see these transformations play out every day. I work with hundreds of Jewish college students who support BDS and, in many cases, identify as anti- or non-Zionist. Beyond these students, there are thousands more, in organizations like IfNotNow and Open Hillel, who publicly and proudly oppose Israel’s occupation as Jews. Mirroring trends across the Jewish world, many of us come from mixed families, and many ourselves have non-Jewish partners. We are no less Jewish than our predecessors.

I see these transformations play out in my family history as well. I am a product of American Jewish assimilation. I come from a middle-class, Ashkenaz, suburban family. I was raised by loving parents who married within the tribe, but didn’t really bring much Jewish substance into our home. We ate bagels and lox and watched Seinfeld; we had chanukiahsand Kiddush cups on a shelf in a living room cabinet. But these superficial expressions of identity represented the full extent of our domestic Jewishness.

I am grateful for the Jewish upbringing my parents provided me. I belonged to a Conservative synagogue, went to Hebrew school, had a Bar Mitzvah and even went to Jewish sports camp for two weeks every summer. On the level of institutions, my parents checked all the right boxes. But in my house, we celebrated only Passover and Hannukah, never Shabbat, and usually went to shul only for the High Holidays, where we sat bored and sleepy through the service. My parents were not religious, and did not have a strong connection to the many secular strands of Jewish politics and culture forged in the modern era. Basically, we knew that we were Jews, and did the basics with pride- more than many families!- but on the level of our daily lives, we didn’t much notice or care.

In college, I began to encounter Jewishness anew. At first, as a philosophy major, I found myself drawn to ideas and themes deemed, by academics, to be quintessentially ‘Jewish’ in the works of philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx. Over the next few years of self-education, I steadily assembled the pieces of a radical Jewish identity. When two of my secular friends became ultra-Orthodox and nudged me to join them at a yeshiva in Israel, I went with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. My two-month introduction to Torah and Talmud at yeshiva, though brief and not without its faults, exposed me to a depth of Jewish life immeasurably richer than anything I remembered from the dry and emotionless synagogue of my childhood.

During these years, as my love of Yiddishkeit grew, my views on Israel/Palestine began to change as well. I was born during the First Intifada, and became Bar Mitzvah during the Second. To my memory, my family celebrated Israel the same way we recognized our Jewishness- automatically, by default, without much fanfare or attention. My parents and grandparents bought Israel Bonds for me, and spoke warmly of the state from time to time, but my parents never visited, never encouraged me to visit, and seemed to know very little, in fact, about the actual history or politics of the country. While I drank, without questioning, the standard serving of hasbara Kool-Aid in shul and Hebrew School, strong Zionism was not a constituent part of my upbringing.

Perhaps for this reason, it was relatively easy for me, in college, to re-educate myself around the conflict, hear alternate perspectives, and come to support the burgeoning grassroots movement for Palestinian rights. After my time at the yeshiva, I crossed over to the West Bank, saw the occupation with my own eyes, and decided to spend several months there as a journalist and activist. I felt angry, and betrayed, to discover that behind the idyllic image of Israel presented to me in Hebrew school, there lurked the brutality of the apartheid wall, the cruelty of home demolitions, the terror of tear gas, and the thousand small humiliations faced daily by millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Today, like many other American Jews, I support the BDS movement, identify as anti-Zionist, and dream of a decolonized Israel/Palestine where all live equal and free. Also like many others, this identity awakens in me a still greater need to understand Judaism, Zionism, and the complex, entangled histories that have brought our people to this moment. I continue to develop my Jewishness, in the many secular and spiritual forms it takes, guided by a deep love for the journey itself- a love that, had I not searched for it on my own, I may never have found.

My family’s story, and my own, is by no means universal- across liberal American Jewish life, there is great diversity in the way we relate to Jewish ritual and culture, to Israel, to each other and ourselves. Nonetheless, my family’s story, rooted in the particularities of our white Ashkenazi experience, traces an arc common across much of mainstream American Jewish life. In the latter half of the 20th century, American Jewish assimilation, and support for Israel, went hand in hand.

– – –

Zionism, Assimilation, and American Jews

My parents became b’nai Mitzvah in 1967, the year of the Six Day War. At this time, their families, like those of many American Jews, had comfortably assimilated into white middle-class American culture. The process of identification with the mainstream was, for these generations of American Jews, a complex phenomenon- at once adopted willingly, and enforced upon us by the many social pressures of post-war America; at once a means for our communal empowerment, and a response, so soon after the Holocaust, to the ever-present fear of persecution[5]. And as with many other groups, our assimilation came at a price- over the course of the 20th century, the more we became American, the more we lost many of the spiritual and secular[6], modern and pre-modern expressions of Jewish ritual, culture and community that had sustained our people’s existence for centuries.

As my parents strode across the bimah to enter Jewish adulthood, Israel strode to the forefront of the American Jewish psyche. After its victory in 1967, Israel was embraced with pride by my parent’s generation as a tangible symbol of Jewish safety, success and self-determination. Living under the long shadow of the Holocaust, Israel came to symbolize, for American Jews, the dynamic epicenter, the forward-looking vanguard of Jewish existence. As older religious and secular Jewish identities became dulled by assimilation, suppressed by McCarthyism, and otherwise diluted in the American melting pot, Zionism became an acceptable mold in which to cast our civic identities as Jews.

To be clear, these processes of assimilation and secularization were underway well before Israel’s victory in 1967[7]. Nonetheless, it can be said that for the generations of American Jews raised after 1967, Israel became “the new Torah, the new Judaism,” said JJ Goldberg at the recent ‘Israel at the Crossroads’ conference. “It used to be if you kept kosher and you kept shabbos, you were Jewish. Now it doesn’t matter what you do on Saturday as long as you support Israel….”[8] Zionism bolstered American Jewish assimilation by offering, to its believers, the allure of Jewish nationalism as an easy substitute for abandoned forms of Jewish identity and practice. By the time my generation came around, American Jewish identity had long since become doubly displaced- vanished from the home, it was outsourced to institutions like the synagogue and Hebrew school; and these institutions of Jewish life, in turn, imported much of their substance and content ready-made from Israel.

This by no means meant that American Jews grappled rigorously with Israel in its actuality, as a real country with whose details they were deeply acquainted. The Israel towards which the congregants at my shul prayed every Saturday dwelt, within many of them, more as an emotion, a safe haven, a symbol of Jewish perseverance and self-determination forged by Paul Newman in Exodus, Birthright, the JNF and B’nai Brith. This is why, during the Kotel crisis, liberal American Jewry seemed shocked, blindsided to discover that Netanyahu’s Israel, dominated by the Orthodox, actually had no desire to appease our liberalism. It was as if, in return for buying Israel Bonds and sending our kids on Birthright, we expected this country to remain truly our own, to faithfully reflect the contours of our progressive Jewishness back at us.

This willful ignorance of the real Israel also means that, day after day, the bulk of American Jewry remains willfully unaware of the suffering of the Palestinian people. While our communal eye was fixed on the Kotel, few of us knew of the brutal blackout imposed on the Palestinians of Gaza as a result of Israel’s decades-long blockade. We’ll write the state a check, defend its policies in the public sphere, and send our kids there on Birthright, but Israel remains for us, as Noam Scheizaf wrote in +972 Magazine, suspended “in a plane thatis separate from politics, and therefore shielded from the nativist and xenophobic ideological trends that have come to dominate Israel in recent years.” Taken together, our outcry over the Kotel crisis, and our silence around the crisis in Gaza, show that we remain blind to the moral rot steadily decaying a country founded and maintained upon the displacement and subjugation of its indigenous population, and given over increasingly to religious fanaticism.

Our fixation on an imaginary Israel also blinds us to ourselves. In a way, the American Jewish identity crafted by our mainstream institutions, and internalized by many of us, has existed in a state of perpetual displacement, a dislocated, split Jewishness fixated more upon Israel as scene of Jewish self-actualization, and less upon our own American Jewishness on its own terms, as its own entity. We are encouraged to assume that Jewish life in Israel is the center, the vanguard of world Jewry, while our own communities are secondary and peripheral to the modern Jewish narrative[9]. For too many of us, our Jewish hearts throb when we regale ourselves with tales of David Ben-Gurion, illumined with the glow of the ancient King David- but we neglect to commit ourselves to the hard work of building vibrant Jewish communities here in America, where we actually live[10].

To be sure, Zionism is not the sole force behind the emptying-out of post-war American Jewish identity; nor can we overlook the many vibrant movements, from Reconstructionism and Renewal to the Havurah movement, New Jewish Agenda, and more, that grew firmly from American Jewish soil. But such movements have tended to flourish in the margins, while the mainstream, trapped in multiple layers of displacement and self-deception, has steadily stagnated. Our communal discourse around intermarriage reveals another side to the crisis.

– – –

A Judaism of Blood and State

“It wasn’t so important to me to practice Judaism in the home,” my father once told me, “or to learn much about it- but it was very important for me to marry a Jewish woman. And not a convert, a Jewish woman by birth. After the Holocaust, I wanted to do my part to keep Judaism alive.” Thankfully, my parents always made sure to empower my brother and I to marry whomever we loved, regardless of religion. But over the years, the problematic strangeness of my father’s statement became more apparent to me. The irony is that, while endogamy has clearly been an important part of Jewish survival through centuries of diaspora, with real roots in text and tradition, this racialized conception of Jewishness- as primarily an ethnic tribe, bound together irreducibly by blood quanta- has more in common with the ‘eternal Jew’ of modern anti-Semitism, than with the ‘nation of Torah’, grounded in communal worship and practice, that our ancestors fought to preserve[11].

Clearly, my parents, and many others like them, wanted to marry Jewish in order to preserve Judaism. My father was named for a relative who perished in the Holocaust, and was taught, from an early age, to ‘keep the blood line going’, as he describes it. But the deeper irony is that, in ‘marrying Jewish’ while neglecting to really dig deep into the substance of Jewish life, mainstream American Jewry has raised kids who don’t really care about Jewishness, and won’t pass it on. Had I not rediscovered Jewishness anew in college, my Bar Mitzvah could easily have marked, as it does for many, my exit from Jewish life. Under the guise of preserving Jewishness, families like mine, by disengaging from the depth of Jewish experience, help create the conditions for its disappearance.

Why did American Jewishness ground itself in ties of blood and state, and little else? The reasons are many. As scholars like Noam Pianko have pointed out[12], the ethnocultural notion of ‘Jewish peoplehood’ was crafted as a proto-Zionist identity in the 1930s, as a tool to allow Jews to fit comfortably into a post-war America which saw itself increasingly as a patchwork of ethnicities. Living under the shadow of the Holocaust, the impulse of Jewish survival became the all-important ’614th commandment’, as Reform rabbi Emil Fackenheim put it in 1965- and for many, especially the secular, making Jewish babies and defending the Jewish state became the primary ways to fulfill this commandment.

Today, Birthright Israel embodies perfectly the biopolitics of blood and state Judaism. Created to combat assimilation in America, Birthright Israel flies young Jews to Israel and encourages them to fornicate with each other[13] there. ‘Make Jewish babies and support Israel’- this central message of Birthright ensures that values of blood and state will underlie what, for many, will be the formative Jewish experience of their adult lives[14].

According to the logic of the establishment, ‘make Jewish babies and support Israel’ is the very formula that can assure the survival of American Jewry in a fast-changing world. Of course, this logic dictates, endogamy is the obvious way to preserve communal boundaries in the vast American melting pot; and, of course, only a Jewish ethno-state can ensure Jewish safety, continuity and self-determination in a world marred by the permanent threat of persecution. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the same right-wing, fundamentalist Israeli Orthodoxy that denied us a spot at the Kotel insists, with smug satisfaction, that we are doomed to vanish in the ‘second Holocaust’ of intermarriage and assimilation[15]. And so long as liberal Jewry is bound by the same logic, it can provide no real rebuttal to its interlocutors; it can only view its present condition as one of catastrophe, anxiously awaiting the next Pew study to confirm its self-pity and despair.

Today, however, we see that this strategy for combating assimilation has backfired, that the values of blood and state only serve to accelerate the emptying-out of Jewish identity and community in America. A Jewishness reduced to the simple imperatives to preserve a blood line that is increasingly intermingled, and to defend a nation-state whose policies are increasingly indefensible, cannot last- its children will quietly drop the torch. And why would they do otherwise? What is exciting, energizing, enlivening about a Jewishness framed solely as a defensive struggle against extinction, a Jewishness lived in the shadow of death?

What is lost, for a Jewishness that rests easy within the ready-made containers of nation-state and blood-tribe, is the ritual and song that made our ancestors tremble; the texts they pored over by candlelight; the values that girded their footsteps; the secular Jewish theatre, dance, and poetry that enflamed their hearts; the proud traditions of radicalism that gave direction to their days. What is lost, most of all, is a sense of Jewishness as struggle and commitment, as the hard work of being klal Yisrael, those who wrestle with God. This is the deep crisis faced by liberal American Jewry- and traveling halfway around the world, to beg the ultra-Orthodox for a spot at the Kotel, won’t save us.

To maintain a robust Jewishness in a modern world of distraction, it is not enough to hold Jewish identity merely as a feature of blood or genetics, or to root for a nation-state as if it were a football team. Even as, today, we are relatively free from persecution, we still must say, as did our ancestors, that shver tzu zein a yid, ‘it is hard to be a Jew’- our Jewishness must be molded, shaped, questioned, held before our eyes, and on our lips, again and again, the length of our days.

– – –

A Way Forward

How to renew a Jewishness dismembered by assimilation, dulled by overemphasis on blood, warped by worship of state? This hard work will take many forms. Some will work to revitalize neglected spiritual traditions; some will work to remember forgotten histories; some will work to build new institutions of learning and community; some will fight to end our communal complicity in Israel’s occupation and apartheid, and our own complicity in systems of oppression here in America. My intention is not to legislate any of the myriad ‘paths of return’ as more authentic than any other, nor even to insist that every Jew must do this hard work to win their badge of authenticity. But the future of liberal American Jewishness will be secured when more of us put in this hard work, and stitch together new collectives bound by revitalized myths, rituals, beliefs, histories, radicalisms that will again sit at the center of our shared existence, illumining our comings and goings with meaning, beauty, purpose and transcendence.

And in truth, deep changes are already afoot in American Jewry. As more young Jews join movements like JVP, IfNotNow and Open Hillel to fight Israeli apartheid, challenge the hegemony of Zionism and confront the moral vacuity of our communal leadership, we are fortifying our commitment to Jewishness, even as we call for its radical transformation. In questioning Israel, our Jewishness itself becomes a question for us. In dislodging Zionism, that which it had submerged comes again to the surface. We discover anew our forgotten histories, our discarded modes of practice and ritual, our long-neglected muscles of activism and organizing. And what terrifies our elders, anxious to maintain their grip on the only Jewish identity they know, is precisely that, in saying ‘no!’ to Zionism, we are saying ‘yes!’ to Jewishness.

In the same sense, whenever a Jewish community commits to welcoming into the communal tent intermarried couples, patrilineal Jews and all others excluded by our narrow fixation on endogamy, that community is asserting that the Jewishness they share is no longer founded chiefly upon blood. What, then, will sit at the center of their collective Jewish experience? As more of us ask this question, we are shaping the contours of an American Jewry bound, as a community, by ties deeper, holier and more lasting than that of an ethnic tribe. It is no coincidence that in these diverse and pluralistic Jewish communities, one is more likely to find Jews critical of Israel’s occupation, Jews who no longer identify as Zionist. For taken together, these twin trends are at the cutting edge of what 21st-century liberal American Jewishness will look like.

To be sure, the work of progressive Jewish communal renewal in America runs deep, and the battles raging in our communities over endogamy and Zionism can only mark the beginning of this work. Without a larger revitalization of liberal American Jewish practice, culture and community, these battles may be mere epiphenomena for a community en route to extinction. But the angst of the establishment shows that we have hit a nerve, that by rattling the shaky foundations of yesterday’s Jewishness, our movements can open the floodgates for the most profound transformation American Judaism has experienced in decades.

– – –

Watching the grainy ’90s home movies of my childhood in suburban Maryland, one moment in particular warms my Jewish heart. My parents and grandparents stand over my brother and I as we light Hanukkah candles, in the dark kitchen of our middle-class home. I was 10, my brother 8. Our faces are lit by the candles while the dim outlines of two generations are faintly visible behind us. The voices of my late grandmother and grandfather, my mother and father, my brother and me, merge as we sing together: ‘Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam…

Even as I trace the shortcomings of their generation, I cannot blame them for what has come of Jewishness in America. I can only thank my grandparents, may their memories be a blessing, for raising a family, helping found a synagogue, navigating the currents of post-war America as best they could; I can only thank my parents for doing all they could, in ways large and small, to raise us with love and blessings, as Jews, into this time. I can only offer to their generation, not anger for what was lost, but gratitude for what remains; not scorn, but tochecha (compassionate rebuke) for the shortcomings that, between then and now, have led our communities astray.

May we merit the strength to mourn that which was lost, and to remember that which was forgotten; to smash that which has obscured, and to lift that which was submerged; to confront that which has grown harmful, and to preserve that which remains strong; to inherit it all as one piece, the good and the bad, and to build, with love and with gratitude, the American Jewishness of tomorrow.

I’d like to thank my parents, Jonathan Gelernter, Lex Rofes, Benjamin Powell, and everyone else who provided feedback and support around this piece.

[5] As we assimilated, we assumed the many privileges of race and class enjoyed by the white middle class then flourishing under mid-20th century American racial capitalism. These privileges, past and present, must be entangled and confronted as we build a new Jewish identity in America. Though this writing focuses on the crises of endogamy and Zionism, the crisis of our communal complicity in white supremacy is closely related.

[6] For more on the disappearance, through assimilation, of the rich traditions of secular American Jewishness, see April Rosenblum’s piece, ‘Offers We Couldn’t Refuse’, in Jewish Currents- http://jewishcurrents.org/offers-we-couldnt-refuse/.

[7] On a deeper level, the secularization of American Jewry continues the ambivalent legacy of Jewish Enlightenment, which began in 18th-century Europe.

[9] In his book A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, professor Daniel Boyarin writes that in the early centuries of the 1st millenium CE, “the Babylonian center” of world Jewry, “notwithstanding a certain degree of residual self-doubt, considered itself fully the equal, and even the superior, of the Palestinian center” (65)- that is to say, Jewish communities in the Babylonian diaspora viewed themselves on an equal footing, spiritually and culturally, with Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael. Can we say the same regarding the modern relationship between American Jewry and the state of Israel?

[10] The recent words of Haaretz columnist Ofri Ilany come to mind- “it’s easy to be swept up by the propaganda of Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett and to think that Israel is the center of Jewishness today, while the liberal Americans are just a pain in the neck,” he writes. “But that’s a biased picture. Even though there are nearly seven million Jews in Israel, it’s American Jewry that concentrates the meaningful Jewish cultural, economic and political clout in our world.” http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-1.799606

[11] In his work Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, Solomon Schechter, architect of Conservative Judaism, outlines the classical Rabbinic view that “[the Jewish people] is not a nation by virtue of race or of certain peculiar political combinations. As R. Saadya expressed it, ‘Because our nation is only a nation by reason of its Torah’.”

[14] It should also be noted that blood and state Judaism, by valorizing the Jewish womb as the chief anchor of Jewish continuity, helps reinforce patriarchy at the deepest levels of Jewish identity- though a full consideration of these matters is beyond the scope of this essay.

[15] As one columnist put it, “Netanyahu’s circle sees liberal Jewry as a transient phenomenon that will disappear on its own in another generation due to intermarriage and lack of interest in Jewish tradition or Israel.” http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.802602

 

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.