Interview- Rescuing Jewish culture from Zionism

(originally published in Socialist Worker)

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[Ben Lorber is the campus coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). He talked with Jonah ben Avraham about the declining support for Israel and Zionism among Jewish Americans. In this interview, he is speaking as an individual, and not for JVP.]

 

IT’S NO secret that Zionism and support for settler-colonialism in Palestine are strong in the institutional Jewish community. How strong do you think those politics are? What impact do you think this has on American Jewish life?

I THINK the most important thing to say about those politics is that they’re weakening. The stranglehold, not only of support for Israel’s increasingly right-wing policies towards the Palestinian people, but of Zionism itself, is really slipping in the American Jewish community, especially when you look at younger generations of American Jews like you and I.

It seems like every day now, there are more and more reports and headlines that young American Jews don’t support Israel’s increasingly racist and xenophobic policies, and don’t hold the state at the center of their Jewish identities.

Especially with the rise of the Trump administration and the phenomenon of Trumpism in America, American Jews as a whole have seen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being great buddies with Trump, and that’s disturbing to the majority of American Jews who define themselves as liberal or progressive and are shocked by the policies of the Trump administration.

Every time Israel does something terrible–like the latest massacres in Gaza or the deportation of African refugees, to name two recent examples–we see many different sectors of American Jewry speaking out in new ways, with increasing intensity.

I also think that in the long term, it’s a fundamentally unnatural and unsustainable project to tie American Jewish identity to a nation-state halfway around the world, and to put the program of supporting its policies at the center of American Jewish identity. Many of us are actively concerned at Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and are working hard to broaden and deepen our Jewish identities beyond Zionism.

What impact has Zionism had on American Jewish life? First of all, it puts us on the wrong side of history.

Driven partly by inherited fears and traumas about anti-Semitism, the need to unconditionally support Israel means many of us end up allying with right-wing Christian Zionism and supporting reactionary U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This leaves our institutional leadership and many in our communities alienated from progressive allies and divided from the left.

This is a very old tactic in Zionism, and it’s why during the early 1900s, Zionism was supported by European powers. They were worried about the strong phenomenon of European Jewish support for revolutionary movements, and they supported Zionism as a divide-and-conquer alternative for the Jewish community.

Over and over again today, you see these things like the Movement for Black Lives being attacked for being anti-Israel, or the Women’s March being attacked because of Linda Sarsour’s supposed anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, many American Jews basically tend to be scared away from supporting these progressive causes because of the wedge issue of Israel, while false charges of antisemitism are weaponized to batter and weaken progressive movements.

It’s also a question of our community’s resources. Birthright raises tens of millions of dollars every year from American Jewish donors and institutions. What if that money was being used to make our synagogues affordable or to provide enriching, accessible, affordable Jewish life in America?

Imagine if, instead of putting defense of Israel’s illiberal policies at the top of its priorities list, our American Jewish communal institutions were committed with the same public vigor to supporting calls for social security, Medicare for all and affordable housing, to stopping Trumpism’s attacks on vulnerable minorities, and other progressive causes.

Finally, it’s a question of identity. There’s been a long process of assimilation of American Jewish identities–basically a similar phenomenon that happens with many cultures and identities under capitalism, where there’s a constant pressure to forget our traditions and to assimilate into consumer culture.

Contrary to popular belief, Zionism has helped a lot with that. For too many American Jews, the chief way we have been taught to express our Jewish identity is to support Israel’s policies. Forget learning in depth about our histories, forget religious practices–the way to show you’re a good Jew is to attack BDS.

In this way, despite presenting itself as an anti-assimilationist Jewish identity project, Zionism has paradoxically helped further American Jewish assimilation.

WHEN YOU look at young Jews in America today, what kinds of alternatives to that kind of navigation of Jewish identity are you seeing them put forward?

I THINK we’re at the beginning stages of a revolution in Jewish identity in America. I see young Jews on campuses all over the country creating and building alternative Jewish institutions.

For some of them, it’s organizations specifically advocating for Palestinian human rights as Jews, and for others, it’s simply a space outside of their Hillel–which has become overwhelmingly Zionist–where they just get together and enjoy and celebrate being Jewish.

More and more American Jews on college campuses are being alienated by the mainstream pro-Israel support they see in their Hillels, and so they’re building alternative institutions.

WHAT DO you see in these alternative institutions? What’s exciting about them?

ONE EXAMPLE I can think of is at Tufts University. They’ve had for a while this space called Alt-J, which is basically a monthly potluck Shabbat at someone’s house.

Each month, a different person is responsible for uplifting a different cause as far as the social justice work they’re doing, and it gives an opportunity for other people to get involved. Many similar non-Zionist Jewish spaces have formed on other campuses, outside of Hillel.

Here in Chicago, we have a space called Cool Chicago Jews–which started as a Facebook group, just a way for young non-Zionist Jews of Chicago to connect.

We have monthly Shabbats in people’s houses. Some folks gathered together and put on a Purim shpiel recently that had Yiddish and Ladino. And we have Passover seders that draw on ancient themes of liberation and imbue them with new radical messaging. At our recent Passover Seder, we had 50 young Jews in a room yelling ‘Free Palestine!’ and cheering. This is the future!

We also have Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist congregation with folks of all ages. Across the country, there are non-Zionist havurot (mini-congregations) springing up all over the place. Rabbinical schools are filled with non-Zionist and anti-occupation rabbis-to-be. The future of American Jewry’s relationship to Israel is an open question.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. For decades, especially since the 1960s, there have been a lot of grassroots progressive Jewish movements in America that combine radical politics and radical spirituality, to differing degrees.

But I think today, it’s bubbling up and growing stronger, and we’re seeing a proliferation of spaces for radical Jews who are involved with different organizing initiatives to connect and to share in community.

The common trope that you hear repeated again and again is that Zionism and support for Israel is the core way for Jews to connect with their Jewishness, and if we didn’t have support for Israel, our identities would be lost to assimilation. We would disappear as Jews if we didn’t all have support for Israel to unite us.

But I think these communities are proving that’s bogus. There are young Jews who are strongly anti-Zionist, but are just as strongly devoted to developing a strong Jewish identity. These DIY spaces and shuls are made by young Jews who are taking our Judaism into our own hands, and we’re building our Jewish future with our own sweat and hard work, and that’s what makes it so powerful.

WHY ORGANIZE as a Jew? Why is there a growth in interest in doing social justice work as Jews?

THIS IS a question that confronts a lot of leftists who happen to be Jews: Should I just organize as a worker and a human being, or as a white ally [if they’re a white Jew]? Or should I specifically attach a Jewish label to my activism?

I think the first answer to the question of “Why organize as a Jew?” is really simple: it’s just because it’s who we are. No matter how different folks who call themselves Jews came to their Jewish identities, if you identify as a Jewish person, and that identity is important to you, then you have every right to bring your identity to your organizing, just as we bring all of our identities to the work we do.

People throw around the phrase tikkun olam [repair of the world] a lot to say, “There is something inherently Jewish–something deep within our millenia-old tradition–about striving for justice.” Sometimes I think that’s true, and other times, I’m a little skeptical of that.

But one thing’s for sure–millions of American Jews in the modern era have put radicalism at the deep core of their Jewish identities.

For many American Jews who came of age in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, going on strike with your union and fighting for racial justice was the most deeply Jewish thing one could do. This was a core part of American Jewish identity in the first half of the 20th century, and it was suppressed mainly by anti-Semitic McCarthyism and assimilation (for many) into whiteness and the middle class.

I also think that today our institutional leadership is, for the most part, deeply reactionary, and a lot of people are outraged by that. So there is an especially strong impetus today to organize as Jews to tell our communal leadership, “Hey, we’re reclaiming our heritage that you’ve forgotten and you need to wake up.”

I think we’re seeing a surge in Jewish social justice organizing today because we’re looking at our communities, which are deeply embedded in white supremacy in a lot of ways, and we’re saying, “This needs to change.”

WHAT ROLE do you see the fight against anti-Semitism playing in the radical Jewish spaces that we’ve talked about? Do you think that these kinds of communities of Jews bring anything special to the fight against anti-Semitism, and with it, the fight for collective liberation of all people?

TOTALLY. I think a lot of Jewish folks have been rightly shocked to see the rise of the anti-Semitic alt-right, to see the white nationalist marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, and a lot of these folks are joining left-Jewish organizations. Being in community with other leftist Jews at scary times like this is deeply therapeutic and deeply empowering, and it makes these spaces even stronger.

The other side of the coin is that we see our institutional leadership getting the fight against anti-Semitism wrong. We see our mainstream Jewish organizations raising their voice to attack Linda Sarsour or the Movement for Black Lives, while, meanwhile, they aren’t spending enough time fighting the rise of the white nationalist alt-right.

So even more so, there’s this impetus to come together and build radical Jewish community that will get the fight against anti-Semitism right, and that will actually know who our enemies are.

This is a matter of our own long-term safety. In this moment, as anti-Semitic fascism is rising in this country, we’re concerned that our leadership is trying to harm and subvert grassroots movements like the Movement for Black Lives and leaders like Linda Sarsour–forces of progressive struggle, which are building the power to beat fascism.

Our community’s mistaken priorities are actually a colossal mistake that could be putting our bodies in danger in the long run. The BDS movement is one of the most powerful and vibrant people-of-color-led intersectional movements for justice, and false charges of antisemitism are being used by our government, by Christian Zionist leaders in America and, sadly, some leaders in our own community to harm this movement.

So we are very concerned that false claims of anti-Semitism are hurting the left right now, and we need to be strengthening the left. So it’s even more important for us to build these genuinely left-wing, progressive Jewish spaces that are on the right side of history.

History is heating up right now, and we’re not sure what the future holds in America. We need to get on the right side of the barricades, and to get as much of our community on the right side of the barricades as possible.

I also think radical Jews and radical communities have a lot to offer the left around its analysis of anti-Semitism, because there are times when anti-Semitism does appear on the left, and other times when the left simply lacks an understanding of what anti-Semitism is and how it functions.

I think it’s up to us as Jewish allies on the left who have built close relationships and who show up for struggle–it’s up to us to lovingly call in our allies and do education around anti-Semitism, in the context of our deep relationships, and to develop a progressive movement that can passionately fight against anti-Semitism alongside all forms of oppression.

No, Zionists, Jewishness does not stagnate in diaspora

So Tablet just published an awful article, ‘The Art of Christmas Avoidance: Feeling Jewish Enough to Enjoy the Spirit of Christmas in Israel’. Articles like this come out every Christmas, shaming American Jews for living in pluralistic societies and insisting that only in Israel, surrounded by other Jews, can one be comfortably, authentically, fully Jewish.

For the author, a Jew in the diaspora feels discomforted, unsettled, and out-of-place within the larger non-Jewish society. Confronted by Christmas and the many other culturally dominant rituals and behavior patterns of non-Jews, Jewishness in diaspora is visualized by the author as a neurotic and burdensome need to assert our difference, an unhappy struggle to maintain distinct from the non-Jew. In Israel, by contrast, ‘the sense of belonging is taken for granted’, one no longer has to work to maintain difference, and surrounded by other Jews in a Jewish-majority society, one can finally relax. Not needing to do anything particularly Jewish, but resting secure in the comfort that, for once, we are the majority and the Christian is a guest within our nation- this, for the author, is what ‘feeling Jewish enough’, feeling ‘secure enough as a Jew’ feels like.

Every Christmas, American Jews hear the ‘good news’ of Zionism from emissaries of the state of Israel. As this author puts it, ‘language, food preferences, traditions—everything stagnates in diaspora’- and only Israel can save Jewish identity in the modern world.

And every year it bears repeating- no, Zionists, Jewishness does not stagnate in diaspora, it is not ‘less than’, it is not insecure in itself. Jewish culture, spirituality, philosophy, and life flourished for *thousands of years* in the diaspora- long before your fledgling Maccabee-cosplay experiment was a twinkle in Herzl’s eye. Diaspora is the lifeblood of Jewish peoplehood.

Yes, it takes work to maintain Jewish particularity and difference within a larger non-Jewish society, but this does not make one ‘not Jewish enough’, ‘not secure enough’ or ‘less than’ anything. In fact, the very substance of Jewish identity, as articulated in the Torah and concretized in ritual developed over millenia, is that we are commanded to mark, perform and reaffirm our difference, to celebrate our particularity by enacting rituals that distinguish us from non-Jews. This isn’t an unhappy burden, as the author asserts; we are commanded to rejoice in it. It is the beating heart of Jewish peoplehood.

Zionism needs to hold a monopoly on Jewish authenticity, in order for its project to remain compelling for Jews worldwide. So it shames Jews all over the world into thinking that Jewish life in the diaspora is an insurmountable contradiction, a curse, and that the only way to remain fully, authentically Jewish in the modern world, is to live in a Jewish-majority society.

Articles like this come out every year around Christmastime, reinforcing the American Jewish inferiority complex, beckoning us to swallow a fantasy vision of Israel as symbol of Jewish fulfillment. This diaspora-shaming mentality is deeply ingrained in Zionism, and not surprisingly, American Jews who internalize this diaspora self-hatred tend to overcompensate by performing the most unflinching, uncompromising support for Israel’s policies at all costs.

Normally, the gospel announced by these Zionist emissaries is that in the diaspora, Jews will assimilate into non-Jewish society, will lose all desire to remain Jewish, and only in Israel can Jews maintain their difference. In this particular article, however, the argument is reversed. Only in the diaspora, the author asserts, do we have do to the tedious work of maintaining our difference, while in Israel we can drop all pretenses, assimilate, and stop working so hard to remain Jewish. The ‘authentic Jewishness’ coveted by the author in Israel is ‘mundane’, as she puts it, in the truest sense- it is a simple, effortless, normalized national identity. One feels ‘fully Jewish’ in Israel like a Frenchman feels ‘fully French’ in France. For the author, this is what our ancestors envisioned when, for generations, they prayed, with tears in their eyes, towards Jerusalem; it’s really as simple as that.

But this is actually a mockery of what makes Jewishness special. For thousands of years, our cultures have flourished precisely through the hard work of maintaining distinctiveness, while also dynamically cross-fertilizing with the cultures around us. Living for millennia across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and around the world, the vibrancy of Jewishness has come from the creative tension generated by dwelling amongst others, influencing and being influenced by the larger non-Jewish world.

Granted, the problems of assimilation in the modern world are real. Ever since the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), modern Jews have been grappling with how to maintain vibrant Jewish peoplehood in pluralistic, individualist modern societies. The internal structure of Jewish communities changed drastically under the liberalizing pressures of the modern, secular world, and like many other cultures, much has been radically transformed, and much has been lost.

But is Zionism- the move to close ourselves off in an all-Jewish society, to live by the sword, and to lord over another people- really the answer to the challenges posed to Jewishness by modernity? Does Israeli Jewish society- dominated by an Ashkenazi elite, addicted to occupation and the racism it engenders, ruptured by religious antagonisms, lurching towards fascism- really represent the apotheosis of Jewish peoplehood, the consummation and deepest flourishing of our culture and life?

I’m sorry writers like this don’t feel ‘Jewish enough’ outside Israel, but that’s their problem, and it’s a sentiment utterly foreign to Jewish history and memory. Living amongst others, navigating our relationship to those others, transforming and being transformed by them, while maintaining a strong sense of our own identity and community- this is what has defined and animated the Jewish experience ‘from time immemorial’. The modern world continues to pose many questions and challenges to Jewish peoplehood, but conjuring up a nation-state of our own to rescue and normalize us is hardly a worthy answer to these questions. It’s a wish-fulfillment that grows more destructive every day, not only to Palestinians, but to the Jewish soul as well.

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.