Days after the synagogue shooting outside of San Diego, I wrote in Religion Dispatches about the antisemitic ideology that helped motivate the shooter. Conspiracy theories about George Soros, ‘globalists’ and ‘cultural Marxists’ are on the rise in today’s far-right movements, imagining Jews as the hidden engineers of white dispossession, the arch-enemies of white nationalism. Progressives need to understand this resurgence of antisemitism in order to show up for Jews, protect all our movements from attack and stamp out the steady rise of white nationalism in America.
I really love Purim. In this post, I’ll explain four reasons why.
Purim tells us that holiness can be found in our world, not only in the lofty striving of the soul towards immaterial realms of transcendence, but right here, in the thick grit of our social, political, historical being-together. Purim tells us that we can find strength in times of darkness, when the face of G-d is hidden from us, when life is bleak and redemption seems most remote. Purim is a fleshy tale of diaspora struggle and resilience, that concerns itself, finally, with the eradication of white supremacy and Empire from the face of the earth. How, you ask? Read on…
1. G-d is in the struggle
The Talmud, in Shabbat 88a, tells a curious tale that connects the seemingly disparate events of Sinai and Purim. When the Jewish people, wandering in the desert, gathered at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem held the mountain menacingly above our heads and said to us, ‘If you accept my Torah, great! If not, here is your burial place!’ The rabbis voice a concern- this sounds pretty coercive! Was our acceptance of the covenant at Sinai truly genuine, if performed under compulsion? Nonetheless, answer the Rabbis, in the age of Achashverosh we again accepted the covenant, this time willingly. Facing the genocidal decree of Haman, we recommitted ourselves, defiantly, to our peoplehood and faith; we ‘ordained what we had already taken upon ourselves’ at Sinai.
At Sinai, the very essence of G-d was revealed to the Jewish people in an utterly transcendent, mystical, even psychedelic experience of theological and moral enlightenment and revelation. Purim is the dialectical opposite of this. In Purim times, the First Temple lay in ruins, and many doubted if return and rebuilding was still possible. The era of prophecy was drawing to a close, and the Jewish people, through a series of political twists and turns, narrowly escaped genocide under an oppressive regime.
At Sinai, we saw G-d face-to-face; in the Book of Esther, G-d’s name is not even mentioned. What a strange assertion, then, that the exalted heights of Sinai are bound intimately to the ‘mundane’ events of Purim, occurring 1000 years in the future!
Purim is the ultimate secular, materialist holiday. The Book of Esther (which, again, never mentions G-d) is wholly concerned, not with transcendent matters of the soul, but with the gritty, precarious survival of the Jewish people in history. Its narrative unfolds wholly in the realm of realpolitik, a tale strung along by palace intrigue, political calculation, human decisions, and sheer luck. On the surface of things, divine miracles are nowhere to be found; redemption Seemingly comes to the Jewish people solely through natural means.
One may assume that, since it deals with ‘political’ as opposed to ‘spiritual’ matters, Purim is held as a lesser holiday by the Rabbis. But quite the opposite- Purim, as Shabbat 88a tells us, is the foundation-stone of our very covenant with Hashem. For the sages, Purim is the happiest day of the year, comparable in importance to Rosh Hashanah- and its mandated merry-making carries a redemptive power equivalent to fasting on Yom Kippur. Tradition teaches that after the Messiah arrives, Purim is the only holiday Jews will continue to celebrate, and the Book of Esther is the only holy book, outside of the Five Books of Moses, that will not be nullified.
We can see why Purim is accorded this special status when we understand that concepts such as ‘G-d’, ‘holiness’ and ‘faith’ reign, for the Jewish people, not only in exalted spiritual realms, but also in the concrete, material worlds of politics and history. The Western dichotomy between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ is foreign to us. Just as the Jewish ‘faith’ does not rest in the heart’s interior but concerns itself, as halacha, with the immanent details of our lives, so does the spiritual heart of our people beat for this world, in all its vexing complexity.
The activists and organizers among us can be energized by this materialist strain of Jewish peoplehood and theology. The struggle to stay alive and avoid persecution; the shifting relations between social forces; the day-to-day work of politics and relationship-building; the desire to get safe and free right here, in the immanent unfolding of our social being-together- this, too, is holy.
Forty years after Sinai, the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel, formed a civilization, built a Temple, and established a Davidic kingdom. Why did the rabbis in Shabbat 88a not link these momentous events to Sinai, as proof and embodiment of G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people? Why, when looking for a post-Sinai moment in Jewish history when we ‘ordained what we had already taken upon ourselves’, did the rabbis ‘pass over’ our epic saga of self-empowerment in the Land of Israel, to focus instead 1000 years into the future, when we huddled vulnerable and precarious under a foreign king in Persia?
Purim is the quintessential holiday of diaspora, the only holiday that takes, as its chief concern, the saga of the Jewish people facing persecution and choosing resilience in a foreign land. (While Passover echoes similar themes, I hold that Purim holds greater resonance as a direct commentary on the complexities of post-Temple diasporic Jewish life).
For centuries, the narrative arc of Purim has reflected back, into the eyes and hearts of generations of Jews, all the concentrated hopes, anxieties, promises and travails of our diaspora experience. The communal re-telling of the Purim story in shul- the only public recitation whose attendance is halachically binding upon every Jew- becomes, for each diaspora community that bears witness, an opportunity to wrestle with intimate and lived questions of our power and powerlessness, our relationship to the ruling elite, the peril of our vulnerability and the promise of empowerment, and more.
Jewish tradition contains many deep teachings insisting that galut, exile, is intimately related to hitgalut, revelation. It is only when we are dispersed throughout the world, that we can truly make visible to all humanity that Hashem’s kingdom is indeed everywhere. Our ‘descent’ into exile is, in fact, part of a grand cosmic process of tikkun, unification or repair, which is necessary for the unfolding ‘ascent’, the completion and redemption of all Creation.
Tradition is ripe with such teachings emphasizing the generative, redemptive qualities of diaspora. These teachings did not serve simply to comfort Jews during the long, cold centuries of subjugation- rather, they formed the real backbone of a rich diasporic Jewish consciousness, cosmology and worldview, one often overlooked in prevalent modern Israel-centric conceptions of Jewish identity.
In this light, we can understand the rabbis’ linkage, in Shabbat 88a, of the revelation at Sinai- which itself occurred outside the land of Israel, in the in-between space of the desert- to the diasporic events of Purim. Perhaps, living in Babylonian exile centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, this linkage of Sinai and Purim helped the Rabbis orient themselves in Jewish history, and imbue their condition with meaning and purpose.
This linkage carries an ethical message for our resilient people, as well. The covenant we make collectively with G-d, affirmed the rabbis, is concretized most primordially not when we exult in the empowerment of a Temple or a Davidic Kingdom, but rather, when we face our vulnerability in a time of precarity, when we place our trust in the redemptive power of a holy force beyond any earthly kingship.
We do not highlight this diasporist ethos in our own time, in order to score a hurried, oversimplistic political point against Israel and Zionism. Yesterday and today, dynamics of power and powerlessness, questions of exile and return remain complex for the Jewish people, and the stakes are high. We unearth subterranean strands of diasporism in order to remain attentive to all our tradition teaches us about our peoplehood, as we renew our task of being in the world, being with others, and being ourselves.
3. Personal resilience
This model of covenant as vulnerability carries resonance, not only for our peoplehood, but in our personal lives as well. As mentioned before, G-d’s name is absent from the Book of Esther, and any ‘divine’ or ‘miraculous’ import to the events of Purim is hidden behind a text which seems to depict a completely natural sequence of political events. Even the name ‘Esther’ evokes ‘hester’ or ‘hiddenness’, as in ‘hester panim’, the hiddenness of G-d’s face. The Purim story depicts a time when the Jewish people are vulnerable, frightened and on the brink of destruction- and yet here, in these very depths, we ‘ordain [the covenant] we had already taken upon ourselves’, here we are redeemed!
To be sure, we each have our ‘Sinai moments’- profound experiences of connection with the Oneness of the universe and the Source of all life, moments when we feel we have come face-to-face with an exalted, trippy Truth which has revealed itself to us. These moments surely are an important part of spiritual life- but perhaps, they aren’t the deepest part. Perhaps, like any relationship, our covenant with G-d- that is to say, our experience of the holy in our lives- is truly tested, deepened and concretized when things get hard, during times of darkness, when it seems like G-d is absent, when redemption from our travails feels farthest from view.
The words ‘Megillat Esther’, the Book of Esther, can be creatively translated as ‘the revelation of hiddenness’. Purim tells us that it is only here, in the dark night of the soul, when G-d is most radically absent, that we can truly ground an unbreakable covenant, can hold an eternal flame to the deepest darkness and affirm, in raw, unshakeable faith, that this, too, is holy.
4. Fighting white supremacy
Finally, I love Purim because, with a little digging, it can be read as a rallying cry to fight white supremacy, fascism and Empire. The archenemy of the Purim story, Haman, is identified by Rabbinic commentators as an embodiment of Amalek. The ‘eternal enemy of the Jewish people’, Amalek is described, by commentators, sometimes as an actual tribe of people sworn to attack the Jews in every generation, and more often as a spiritual force of corruption, sinfulness and degeneracy that plagues the world, standing diametrically opposed to Judaism’s holy light and purpose.
The original ancestor of Amalek was the grandson of the Biblical character of Esau, hunter, man of the flesh, pursuer of strength, celebrant of brute force. In medieval and rabbinic thought, Amalek was often conflated with Edom, another descendant of Esau, representing the spiritual force of materialism, corruption, extravagant wealth, decadence and state violence. From within the belly of the beast, the rabbinic critique of Edom/Amalek came to symbolize, over the centuries, a polemic against not only the Roman Empire- highly distrusted by the rabbis as the paradigm of human greed and moral bankruptcy- but, later, the oppressive forces of European Christianity and the larger Western world.
Amalek was sometimes theorized as the most ‘self-conscious’, ‘vanguard’ expression of Edom. Today, putting on our political theory hats, we understand that movements of fascism and white nationalism- which, from New Zealand and Pittsburgh to the White House, threaten to consume our world- represent the most concentrated, ‘vanguard’ expressions of larger structures of white supremacy, rooted in the legacy of capitalism in Christian Europe, that have fueled the Western world from the beginning. Today, we call Amalek and Edom by a different name- white supremacy, Christian hegemony, and Empire.
There are only two passages of Torah of which, each year, every Jewish man, woman, and child is halachically required to hear the recitation- the Book of Esther on Purim, and, on the Shabbat before Purim, a separate Torah passage announcing our obligation to destroy Amalek. In recent decades, right-wing Jewish movements have identified Islam and the Left as Amalek- a frightening inversion, with deadly results. To combat this chillul Hashem, some seek to do away with the traditions of Amalek entirely, or to ‘spiritualize’ Amalek to refer to principles of hate and intolerance more broadly.
I believe we owe it to our ancestors, who suffered under centuries of European Christian persecution culminating in fascism, to remain specific. The obligation to destroy Amalek is an obligation to eradicate systems and forces of white supremacy, Empire, greed-driven capitalism, and right-wing Christian fundamentalism plaguing our planet.
This Purim, may we rededicate ourselves to bringing the holy deep into every level of our lives and our worlds; may we recommit ourselves to fighting white supremacy, wherever it stands; may we reattach ourselves to all that which sparks light, even in thick darkness.
Chag Purim Sameach!
For over a century, Jews around the world have maintained a robust critique of Zionism and the state of Israel.
The tradition of Jewish dissent against Zionism has taken many forms. From the moment Theodore Herzl strode upon the world stage, many of us have insisted that leaving the diaspora for a Jewish nation-state is the wrong way to achieve safety, fight antisemitism, actualize Jewish identity, and work for justice in the world. Many have claimed that our peoples’ relationship to the land of Israel is far more complicated than a narrow nationalist vision can allow, or that we are religiously forbidden, at this time, from setting up a Jewish state in the holy land. And many have protested Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians indigenous to the land of Israel.
Though these arguments, and many others, animated Jewish life and discourse for generations, they are too often forgotten in today’s mainstream discourse, buried under the mistaken assumption that all Jews have always supported Zionism.
But today, as more Jews are awakening to the depth of Israel’s unjust oppression of Palestinians, there is a real thirst for new Jewish identities, to guide us through these troubled times. In order to dream the Jewish future beyond Zionism, we need to trace the Jewish past beyond Zionism.
This article seeks to uncover the lineages of difference and dissent, the moments in history when alternatives appeared on the horizon. This concise survey of modern Jewish non- and anti-Zionist history cannot, of course, do full justice to these issues in all their complexity; the reader is encouraged to use this overview as a starting point for further research.
The movements profiled here should not be uncritically valorized- like all movements, they remain products of their era, with strengths and limitations specific to the soil in which they grew. In tracing this lineage, we do not intend to cherry-pick the ‘good’ streams of Jewish history from the ‘bad’- any honest look backwards cannot admit such simplicity. Rather, we seek to uplift dissident voices, and roads not fully taken, so that we may learn to wrestle more fully with the totality of our past, so that we may glimpse, in its twists and turns, flares of hope that help light the way, in these dark times, towards the new Jewish future, already bursting into view.
For the first decades of its existence, Zionism was a marginal movement in Jewish life. The persuasions of Zionist leader Theodore Herzl were resoundingly rejected by most European rabbis, and in 1897, Herzl even had to relocate his First Zionist Congress from Munich, due to fierce objections from rabbinic leadership there. Up until the mid-20th century, opposition to Zionism, carried out through advocacy organizations like Agudath Israel, was the dominant position in the orthodox Jewish world.
For Orthodox Jews, to be Jewish meant to exist in a state of galut. Commonly translated as ‘exile’, galut means both that the world remains in ‘metaphysical exile’, broken, incomplete and not-yet-redeemed, and that the Jewish people are to remain in ‘physical exile’, scattered in diaspora among the nations of the world. While Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) was revered as an intensely holy place, and it was considered a mitzvah to financially support the small communities of pious Jews living in the holy land, it was specifically forbidden for Jews to return en masse and set up a Jewish political entity there, until the coming of the Messiah. According to Jewish thought, the return of the Messiah would usher in the end of galut- the restitution of a religious Jewish kingdom in the holy land, and an era of peace and justice around the world.
For decades, with few exceptions, most European Orthodox Jews rejected the secular doctrine of Zionism as a ‘false Messiah’, and vociferously condemned the movement’s presumption that Jews could accomplish the process of redemption through their own handiwork, rather than relying on the will of G-d. “The Holy One, blessed be He, will redeem Israel [the Jewish people] as a reward for piety and for faith in Him,” wrote the Sfas Emes in 1901. “Let no one imagine that the redemption and salvation of Israel will come through the Zionists. 
In a modern world where the promises of assimilation and secularism threatened to uproot inherited tradition, observant Jews were worried that Jewish nationalism would corrode and supplant religious identity and practice. “The Zionists have done even more harm than the Maskilim [supporters of Jewish enlightenment],” claimed the Rebbe Rashab, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, leader of the Chabad Hasidic movement, in 1903, because rather than urging Jews to give up their separate identity entirely and blend in as secular modern citizens, “the Zionists are far more cunning in their evil and have made nationalism a substitute for Torah and commandments” . As we shall see, ultra-Orthodox opposition to Zionism continues to this day.
Across the USA and much of Europe, the Reform movement also remained firmly anti-Zionist throughout the early 20th century. Guided by modern values of humanist universalism, Reform held that the Jewish people should remain in diaspora, where they would fulfill their divine commandment to be a moral ‘light unto the nations’. Until the late 1930s, the leadership of the American Reform movement- and a likely large majority of the millions of American Jews who fell under Reform’s umbrella- held that ‘America is our Zion’, and taught that Jews would help bring the Messianic age by working to spread democratic pluralism and tolerance in America, and around the world.
Stressing their commitment to universalism, Reformers removed all references to a Messianic rebuilding of Jerusalem from liturgy, and controversially insisted that Jews were not a ‘people’ with any ethno-national identity, but simply a faith-based religious community . Afraid of attracting the antisemitic motif of ‘dual loyalty’ then spreading across Europe, they were careful to broadcast that their political loyalty was to the USA, not to a not-yet-actualized Jewish nation.
The fear that the spread of Zionist ideology would endanger the precarious integration of Jews into their home countries, was held not only by the Reform movement, but by thousands of Jews around the world, of varying political and religious stripes. For example, Sir Edwin Montagu, who cast the sole opposing Cabinet vote to Britain’s Balfour Declaration in 1917, insisted that“Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom…when the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens”. Across the diaspora, a plethora of Jewish religious and secular voices echoed this concern, in a variety of ways, that the spread of Zionism would help encourage the growth of anti-Semitism around the world.
OPPOSITION IN THE OLD YISHUV
Palestinian Jews, who had lived peacefully in Eretz Yisrael for generations, largely rejected the arrival of European Zionists, whose secular norms and colonial ambitions clashed with the largely religious local Jewish population. Many Palestinian Jewish leaders joined their Muslim and Christian neighbors in writing statements, building organizations, and lobbying internationally against Zionist settlement.
In one example of resistance, leading rabbis of the traditional Sephardic Jewish communities in the holy land ordered their communities to disobey attempts by the British Mandate government, in the 1920s, to register every Jew in Palestine under the Zionist National Council. Here, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the majority of Jews shared a strong communal bond with their neighbors, forged over centuries of often peaceful co-existence, and resisted external attempts to bifurcate their hybrid Arab-Jewish national/cultural identities.
Meanwhile, in the first decades of Zionist settlement, Jewish activists within the Palestinian Communist Party, and in some far-left Labor Zionist circles, fought in mandate Palestine against the expropriation of Palestinian peasants, the exclusion of Palestinian workers from Zionist Jewish-only labor unions, and other unfolding injustices. Other minority Jewish voices in mandate Palestine called for Jews and Arabs to unite in anti-colonial revolt against British imperialism, while still others, like the martyred Jacob Israël de Haan, worked diplomatically to promote alternate paths of Jewish-Arab cooperation.
The Zionist movement itself carried small but fierce currents of opposition to the dominant colonial trend. Leading ‘Cultural Zionist’ voices like Ahad Ha’am, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Judah Magnes, and Albert Einstein formed organizations like Brit Shalom, decrying political Zionism’s unjust treatment of Palestinians and alliance with colonial powers, and advocating for a binational rather than a Jewish-majority state. Zionism, for these activists, meant less a project of territorial expansion and state-building, and more a project of global Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal. Often, they and other Jewish intellectuals of the era were sharply critical of Herzlian Zionism’s desire to assimilate Jewish identity into European Christian norms of culture, nationhood, masculinity, and more.
ALTERNATIVES IN EASTERN EUROPE
In eastern Europe, a number of alternatives to Zionism flourished through the first half of the 20th century. The General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia- known simply as ‘The Bund’- was a grassroots Jewish socialist movement that, at its height, claimed hundreds of thousands of members across Eastern Europe. Rooted in Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class, the Bund organized Jews alongside other national minorities for an end to capitalist exploitation and racist oppression in all its forms.
The Bund strongly rejected Zionism as a bourgeois answer to the ‘Jewish question’. The call for a Jewish state, they argued, was a pessimistic, escapist response to anti-Semitism, favored by the Jewish and Gentile upper classes, that did little to combat anti-Jewish oppression, but simply re-segregated the Jews into an exclusivist nation-state that, by its very nature, could not be truly liberatory . Instead, the Bund called for ‘national cultural autonomy’- protected minority status, with independent institutions and flourishing language and culture, for Jews across Eastern Europe, and insisted that only a socialist society, committed to racial and economic equity, could secure genuine safety and liberation for Jews and all people.
Meanwhile, a variety of diaspora nationalist movements, led by figures like Simon Dubnow, sought Ashkenazi Jewish communal self-rule through the creation of a national territory in Eastern Europe, with Yiddish as a national-cultural language. Thousands of left-wing Jews of various stripes eagerly supported the USSR and socialist or anarchist movements across Europe, drawing sharp distinctions between their varied commitments to workers’ revolution, on the one hand, and the false liberation promised by Zionist bourgeois nationalism, on the other.
In America, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe continued these strong communist, socialist and anarchist traditions of anti-Zionism. Voiced in the pages of The Jewish Daily Forward, the Morgen Freiheit and other publications, hundreds of thousands of Jewish workers rejected the call to join or support the upbuilding of a Jewish nation-state on the other side of the planet, casting their lot, instead, with movements to improve their material conditions, and advocate for workers’ rights and social justice in America. For many decades, the heart of a vibrant secular Jewish Left beat, not for the upbuilding of Jewish settlements in mandate Palestine, but for the Scottsboro Boys, the struggles of workers in factories and fields, the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, the movement to defeat Nazi Germany, the unfolding progressive vision for a more just and equal world .
DISSENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
In the middle of the 20th century, deep-rooted Jewish communities across the Middle East and North Africa found themselves caught in the precarious middle of a dizzying geopolitical battleground. National liberation movements, seeking to uproot European powers and undo the entrenched cultural and economic vestiges of their rule, looked upon Zionism with hostility as an extension of European colonialism, and viewed with great suspicion the persistent, and usually unsuccessful, attempts by Zionist emissaries to win adherents among Jewish communities across the MENA region.
While some MENA Jews supported Zionism, the majority regarded themselves, through the middle of the 20th century, as fully part of the countries in which they lived, and found little reason to uproot themselves. Like the rabbis in Europe, many pious Jews throughout MENA were suspicious of Zionism as a secular appropriation of traditional messianic yearning. Many Jewish intellectuals in Arab countries worked to articulate a modern Arab-Jewish identity, asserting natural bonds of solidarity with Palestinians and the larger Arab world in which their Jewish communities had long been deeply rooted. Often, these activists sought to form a united front against Zionism, a path that was explored in a 1932 ‘Jewish-Arab summit’ convened by groups in Jaffa.
Many secular Arab Jews allied themselves with progressive national and socialist movements in their home countries, convinced of the justness of these struggles and concerned, again, that Zionism would inflame the anti-Semitic prejudice that Jews were ‘foreign’ or ‘traitors’ to the places they lived. Throughout the 20th century, Jewish activists like Henri Curiel in Egypt, Abraham Serfaty in Morocco, and Daniel Timsit in Algeria threw themselves into the anti-colonial and socialist struggles of their era, working alongside other peoples for collective liberation .
For example, the Anti-Zionist League was an organization of Iraqi Jewish intellectuals and activists founded in 1945, that opposed Zionism as a form of colonialism and a front for British control over the Middle East. In their 1945 founding petition, they called for “the establishment of [a] completely independent, Arab, democratic state [in Palestine] where all citizens’ rights should be guaranteed regardless of Arabs and Jews”, and wrote that “the Jewish problem [i.e. antisemitism] cannot be resolved except by resolving the Jewish problem of a country where Jews are living, and we are sure that reactionaries and colonialists help Zionism playing a role in confusing Jews and Zionists.”
It is clear that, throughout the first half of the 20th century, a wide variety of Jews and Jewish movements around the world opposed Zionism- whether viewing it as a theological heresy, an inadequate response to antisemitism, an inauthentic Jewish identity, a reactionary political position, or simply as a movement with little relevance to their daily lives. While many were as yet unaware of the ‘Palestinian question’, those who were voiced strong opposition to the steady displacement of a people who already called the holy land home.
THE TRAUMAS OF THE MID-20TH CENTURY
These vibrant alternatives to Zionism were largely swept under the rug of history by the traumas faced by Jews around the world in the mid-20th century. The sudden rise of Nazi fascism snuffed out 6 million Jewish souls and decimated what was, at that time, the largest Jewish civilization on the planet, European Jewry. Across the Middle East and North Africa, Jews were steadily expelled from countries where they had lived for centuries, sometimes even for millenia. And in the United States, deepening assimilation, as well as the anti-Semitic targeting of Jewish leftists under McCarthyism, relegated radicalism to the margins of Jewish identity.
These deep and unprecedented ruptures drastically changed Jewish life and consciousness in the mid-20th century. For generations after the exodus or death of most Jews in Europe and MENA, mainstream Jewish opinion held that history itself had disproven the diasporic ideology articulated by the Bund as Doikayt (hereness), and epitomized in slogans like ‘wherever we live, that’s our homeland’. For many, understandably desperate for concrete safety in vulnerable and traumatic times, the Zionist conviction that Jews would never be safe in the diaspora, and could only be protected by a strong Jewish nation-state, seemed fortified by common sense itself.
Nonetheless, history would prove Zionism to be an unstable long-term answer to the Jewish question. As decades unfolded of deepening Israeli occupation and dispossession of Palestinians and oppression of Mizrahi, Ethiopian and other marginalized Jews- and rising resistance to these injustices- Jewish voices in Israel and the diaspora continued to question the foundational ideology of Zionism that undergirded Israel as a Jewish state.
MODERN RESISTANCE IN ISRAEL
In the decades following the creation of the state of Israel, resistance to the ongoing Palestinian Nakba, and to Zionism, could still be found amongst the Israeli Jewish public.
In 1971, Mizrahi Jews in Israel, frustrated by systemic Ashkenazi discrimination in all aspects of life, began organizing to demand equal rights, access to jobs, housing, public services and an end to second-class status in Israel. Even without always articulating their struggle as anti-Zionist, the Israeli Black Panthers, as the movement came to call itself, struck at the root of European Zionism’s internal racial hierarchy “from the standpoint”, as Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat put it, “of its Jewish victims”. In many cases, Mizrahi activists built, and continue to build, solidarity with Palestinians, recognizing the affinities between their parallel, and distinct, struggles against systemic racism in Israel/Palestine.
Over the years, as Israel’s 1967 occupation deepened and awareness of the ongoing plight of Palestinians gained traction worldwide, there remained within Israeli society a stream of dissident voices, a constant presence of New Left organizations like Matzpen and Vanguard, and student movements like SIACH, calling for a secular, democratic state in Israel/Palestine. Tirelessly dedicated and ruthlessly scapegoated, Israeli activists like Felicia Langer, Moshe Machover, Akiva Orr, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and many others organized not only against the occupation, but against the Palestinian refugee crisis and the ongoing Nakba, working side by side with Palestinians both within Israel/Palestine, and across Europe and the Middle East, to dream and demand an Israel/Palestine beyond Zionism. In 1977, the non-Zionist political party Hadash formed, uniting Mizrahim, Palestinians, Ashkenazim and more into a coalition that today holds 5 seats in the Israeli Knesset.
Beginning in the 1980s, Israeli society saw the emergence of the New Historians and the intellectual and cultural movement of Post-Zionism, crafting a new historical narrative foregrounding the Palestinian Nakba, the Mizrahi question, and other submerged injustices, and calling for a new Jewish-Israeli paradigm rooted in recognition of historical wrongs, and committed to a future of coexistence. In recent years, even while faced with frightening repression, Israeli groups like Anarchists Against the Wall, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, Zochrot, and many others continue to organize against the root causes of injustice in Israel/Palestine, within the Israeli Jewish community and in coalition alongside Palestinians.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, living in Israel and around the world, remain non- or in some cases even anti-Zionist. While members of thriving Hasidic movements like Satmar maintain deep-rooted theological opposition to Zionism, the smaller Haredi group Neturei Karta takes it one step further, engaging in vocal and often controversial advocacy for the Palestinian cause. These ultra-Orthodox groups, and more like them, refuse enlistment into the Israeli army- often facing prison time as a result- and avoid interaction with the secular state on theological grounds, insisting, again, that Jewish tradition forbids the establishment of a secular state in Eretz Yisrael before the Messianic era. While framed in religious categories that often sound foreign to progressive ears, their strong legacy of dissent should not be overlooked.
AROUND THE WORLD
In the decades after the Holocaust, opposition to Zionism transformed to enthusiastic support for Israel within the mainstream American Jewish community. While the Reform movement helped lead this trend, dissident anti-Zionist voices, such as Elmer Berger and his American Council for Judaism, could still be heard within American Reform Judaism.
Nonetheless, support for Israel and Zionism was far from uniform in American Jewry. From the latter half of the 20th century into the present, Jewish activists in labor unions, progressive politics, the civil rights movement, the New Left, and across movements for racial, economic, and gender justice have continued to articulate Jewish identities founded, not upon Israel-centrism, but upon intersectional struggles for liberation wherever we live.
With each new catastrophe, deepening injustice and stage of resistance in Israel/Palestine- such as the 1967 occupation, the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre, the two Intifadas, the three Gaza massacres- more and more American Jews have chosen to bear witness to the truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and to its root causes. Activist groups like New Jewish Agendain the 1980s brought progressive Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews together to struggle for a just American foreign and domestic policy. Meanwhile, radical Jews in the anti-nuclear movement, in queer empowerment organizations like ACT UP!, in the movement against apartheid in South Africa, and elsewhere said ‘not in our name!’, again and again, to the unfolding tragedies and traumas of Zionism in Israel/Palestine. Unsurprisingly, in America, Israel and around the world, it has remained for decades women, queer and trans folks who have led the way in articulating and building Jewish movements of resistance to Zionism, and Jewish progressive movements more broadly.
Today, a plethora of anti- and non-Zionist Jewish groups exist around the world, from the International Jewish Solidarity Network in the UK, to Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), the Jewish Solidarity Caucus of Democratic Socialists of America in the USA, and many more.
THE JEWISH FUTURE
Today’s growing Jewish movement for an end to Israeli occupation and racist laws, and for the Palestinian refugee right of return- in short, for full equality beyond Zionism in Israel/Palestine- did not arise in a vacuum. Rather, we inherit a long legacy of visionary Jewish dissent, in the holy land and across the diaspora, championed by dreamers who imagined a different Jewish future, practiced by communities whose ways of life differed from Zionist norms. In our movement-building, we bear witness to the fact that their hopes and horizons, though long-submerged by the travails and traumas of the 20th century, were not snuffed out, but live anew in the work of our hands.
We should be careful not to overly romanticize the many histories of Jewish alternatives to Zionism, nor should we pretend that every such movement lay some claim to ‘absolute truth’, and should be transplanted, as-is, into the present. Reform anti-Zionism, ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, and the other movements detailed here took shape in unique historical moments, seized upon unique opportunities and faced unique limitations borne from their particular vantage points.
Nonetheless, there is much we can learn from the Jewish activists in MENA and Eastern Europe, who struggled, as part of broad social movements, against antisemitism alongside all oppressions, for a better world; from the early Reformers, who enshrined moral witness as the pinnacle of Jewish prophetic vision; and from the many other Jewish movements, religious and secular, across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, the United States and the holy land, who charted a vision for a Jewish future founded upon peace, justice and coexistence.
Most importantly, we can learn to see Zionism, and the Jewish movements which opposed it, as different attempts by Jews, rooted in different moments of history, to comprehend and to shape the conditions in which they found themselves. Today, as Israel’s occupation, racist laws and denial of refugee rights deepens and spirals out of control, it is clear to many of us that we need a new Jewish paradigm, to shape anew the conditions in which we now find ourselves. Ken Y’hi Ratzon- may it be so.
Ben Lorber is a former staffer at Jewish Voice for Peace and a member of Democratic Socialists of America. He lives in Chicago and blogs at doikayt.com.
: ‘Statement by the Holy Gerer Rebbe, the Sfas Emes, on Zionism’, 1901. Zionism Reconsidered: The Rejection of Jewish Normalcy, edited by Michael Selzer, The Macmillan Company, 1970.
: ‘Statement by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shulem ben Schneersohn, on Zionism’, 1903. Zionism Reconsidered.
: From the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which defined the principles of the Reform movement for generations- “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”
: As one song of the era put it, ‘Oh you foolish little Zionists, with your utopian mentality/ You’d better go down to the factory, and learn the worker’s reality!/ You want to take us to Jerusalem, so we can die as a nation/ We’d rather stay in the diaspora, and fight for our liberation!’ While written partially to satirize anti-Zionists, ‘Oy ir narishe tsienistn’, recorded in 1931 in Kiev by Moshe Beregovski, nonetheless captures their sentiment.
: For more on this subject, see April Rosenblum, “Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: What Happened to Secular Jewish Identity” (Jewish Currents, May-June 2009)
: In the wake of the 1967 War, Serfaty expressed hope, in his 1970 article ‘Being a Jewish Moroccan and Fighting Against Israel’, “that Jews from the Arab world, prisoners of Zionism, will gain consciousness of their solidarity with the Arab revolution and will help to shatter the last historical attempt to lock Jews up in a ghetto- and what a ghetto…of global proportions!” See Jewish Radicals of Morocco: Case Study for a New Historiography, Alma Rachel Heckman, Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society, spring 2018.
by Benjamin Balthaser
Originally published on Jewschool, November 19, 2016
The electoral college victory of Donald Trump sent the progressive Jewish community reeling, not least because of his campaign’s naked deployment of anti-Semitic imagery and rhetoric. Just days before the election, a Trump ad linked Clinton to “global structures of power” that featured the faces of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein; another meme featured piles of money with a six-pointed Star of David; he told a group of Jewish GOP supporters that he “doesn’t want your money.” Steve Bannon, a well-known anti-Semite, is now Trump’s chief policy adviser.
After two decades of both major parties courting Jewish voters with support for Israel and appointing Jews within top cabinet positions, it was tempting to believe, along with Max Blumenthal and many others, that anti-Semitism as an organizing force in American life and politics was over. Surely, there may be a small neo-Nazi group holed up in the mountains of Idaho and occasional blowhards from the UFO wing of the Aryan Nation, but nothing like what our parents or grandparents experienced with the rise of Father Coughlin and the anti-Semitic Gotterdammerung of the red scare and Rosenberg trial. And after years of hearing Likudniks, even liberals, wielding anti-Semitism as a crude political weapon against Jewish critics of Israel, rolling one’s eyes at the yearly Yom Kippur handwringing about the rise of anti-Semitism and the precarious position of global Jewry became a kind of left-wing right-of-passage. Leave the shtetl horror stories to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); we have real work to do fighting injustice.
While I’ve never counted myself among the Jews who see Cossacks riding down from every hilltop, I’ve also never been very sanguine about friends’ frequent assurances that all is fine in our American Zion. Unlike the majority of my progressive Jewish friends and family, I did not grow up in the city or even in the suburbs. My small town in rural California was at the time (transformed now utterly by the wine industry and California real estate speculation) white, lower middle-class, evangelical. My friends’ parents and neighbors worked construction, drove busses, climbed utility poles, sold used cars. Many were prison guards.
Structural racism was the built architecture of my hometown. I remember the one row of “slums” off the main street – ramshackle houses and trailer parks – where Mexican-American and Filipino farmworkers lived. The college twenty miles away was planned as a “sundown town,” in which African Americans were expected to leave by dark, right up until the 1970s. Yet anti-Semitism was also part of the texture of town life – if not the chorus, at least the melody. It was common for my school chums to talk about “Jewing someone down” on price; if you cheated someone or stole something, friends would ask if you’d “like a bagel with that”; a swastika was carved into my locker in high school, and swastikas were regularly spray-painted on the Central Coasts’ sole temple. One of my first girlfriends asked me blankly why Jews were so greedy, and there was of course the annual ritual humiliation, as the only Jew in my classroom, to explain both Chanukah and the Holocaust. When my right-wing social studies teacher forced us to listen to free-market lectures by Alan Greenspan, he prefaced them by saying “now that’s a smart Jew.” A white nationalist spat in my face; another chased after me with a baseball bat (although I was never certain if the Nazi chased after me because I was known to be Jewish, or frequently assumed to be queer).
My first inkling that the anti-Semitism of my hometown had an origin point was the day my older brother came home from a friend’s evangelical church to announce that the Jews deserved the Holocaust for rejecting Jesus. My bother’s announcement prefigured what was my mother’s strange twenty-year odyssey as the only Jewish church organist in town — maybe any town — playing in a dozen churches before she retired. How she came to be a Jewish church organist is, as they say, a long story – put simply, she liked baroque organ music, it was a small town, and churches pay. She had a choir loft seat to small town American religious life that few outside that world have. And she experienced that world as a Jewish woman, one with a particularly well-tuned ear for anti-Semitism, having grown up in the conservative sunbelt of the outer San Fernando Valley in the 1950s.
She related to me a Sunday-after-Sunday barrage of anti-Semitic sermons. The sermons did not relate the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as simply a debatable historical fact; rather the rejection was something essential to Jewishness. A Catholic priest said we must “pray for the perfidious Jews”; “Jews were bind and stupid for rejecting Jesus” a Lutheran pastor argued; another Lutheran day school repeatedly sung the verse “the Jews are the Pharisees and the Pharisees are hypocrites;” my mother was asked by a priest if “Jewish fingers” could play “Christian hymns.” The sermons were “week after week” she said. When she asked one parishioner why the pastor repeated the same sermon about the Jews, the parishioner responded, “it brings in converts.”
Quickly she learned to keep quiet about her ethno-cultural identity. When pressed, she would give a sly smile, a side-eye, and respond that she was a “lapsed Zoroastrian.”
As April Rosenblum writes in her influential pamphlet “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” anti-Semitism can be hard to spot and talk about, as it doesn’t look like other forms of racial and religious oppression. Eighty to ninety percent of the U.S.’s six million Jews are Ashkenazi; many members of this community are white, middle class and do not face the forms of state violence, environmental racism, underemployment, displacement, and incarceration faced by people of color and the poor. There is a palpable confusion one faces as both an object of discrimination and an object of privilege. Anti-Semitism often describes Jews as clever, even powerful. Yet as insightful as Rosenblum’s pamphlet is, it doesn’t help much to describe the sudden rise of Trump’s anti-Semitism; indeed, she treats it as a kind of transhistorical fact.
As racial theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant propose in their classic Racial Formation in the United States, racism is the product of institutions and political coalitions, from the state violence of ethnic cleansing to legal regimes of Jim Crow to segregated labor markets. Using the work of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, “racial formations” are hegemonic blocs that seek to take power through racial projects, whether progressive in the name of affirmative action and antiracism, or reactionary, in the name of white supremacy and mass incarceration. In other words, racism is not primary a psychological issue as it’s often discussed, a question of hate or fear (the phase “Islamophobia” has always bothered me, as if anti-Muslim acts are a primarily a question of affect). The production of race is a question of shifting power blocs and political projects that allow such fears, feelings, affects, to harden into public acts and legal codes as a means of and a cause for seizing power.
Many of my friends who grew up in “blue America,” in big cities or central suburbs, have told me they’ve never experienced an anti-Semitic slur. Growing up in rural America, I experienced them constantly. I have no animus against Christianity, and applaud the many churches that have been on the frontlines of the struggle for racial justice since America’s violent foundation. Yet my experience with conservative Christianity in rural America was to observe an institutional site of anti-Semitic thought, or at least a space in which such thought is considered normal and acceptable. This extends to other institutions in which right-wing Christianity holds hegemonic power. In what Stephen Glade refers to as the “Christianization of the army,” specifically the officer corps, Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias pervades the military, affecting everything from performance reviews, promotion, and assignments. To paraphrase a recent internet meme, anti-Semitism may not explain Trump voters, for evangelicals, who were a major part of Trump’s electoral coalition, it wasn’t a dealbreaker, either.
Which is to say, right-wing anti-Semitism never went anywhere. It may have been buried under a consensus between traditional liberal and conservative parties that support Israel; it was quieted by the always-louder voices of anti-black racism; dampened by the sheer architectural terror of border fences, prison walls, and police sirens. And yet it should be understand as a central part of Trump’s message.
Amid the economic populism that fueled the campaign, the image of the Jewish financier, on piles of money, chairing the Fed, as CEO of Goldman-Sachs became not only a nod to the prejudices of Trump’s right-wing base, it served as part of its affective infrastructure. Lacking a critique of capitalism, anti-Semitism serves, the pre-War German left was fond of saying, as the socialism of fools. That Steven Bannon is both the Trump administration’s most vocal critic of the U.S. financial sector and it’s most visible anti-Semite should come as no surprise; indeed, it’s almost a wonder it’s taken this long for anyone to notice.
If there is any silver lining to the Trump campaign’s naked anti-Semitism, my hope is that it may help to disentangle many of myths around anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. For the last twenty years it’s been taken as an article of faith in both liberal and conservative circles that the strongest currents of anti-Semitic thought and action in the U.S. are part of the campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and blockade of Gaza. In Hillary Clinton’s most recent speech before AIPAC, combatting anti-Semitism was synonymous with combatting the BDS movement and other critics of Israel. As Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, it is the internationalist left that is currently responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and an imagined scourge of anti-Semitism on college campuses. For the last two decades, the image of the anti-Semite has not been a right-wing evangelical or an “alt-right” white nationalist; it has been a campus anti-Zionist activist wearing a Keffiyeh.
As a long-time veteran of progressive social movements and also of the BDS movement, I have never experienced the kind of anti-Semitism there that I experienced in my hometown. Are there sometimes crazy conspiracy theories about Israel? Yes. Do people say insensitive things? Of course. However, whatever anti-Semitism I experienced in my years in Students for Justice in Palestine did not compare to the many years of verbal, and sometimes quite literal, violence I experienced as one of the few Jews in a rural, conservative, evangelical community. SJP is a human rights organization dedicated to the liberation of all peoples. There is no comparison between it and the political project of white nationalism or Christian supremacy.
For progressive Jews, reconnecting anti-Semitism to the intellectual and political infrastructure of global white supremacy is one the many tasks ahead. There are ample examples of directions not to take. As pro-Israel critics and organizations refuse to attack to Trump over his selection of Bannon, we are beginning to witness a real split in the Jewish community, as it decides whether its support for Israel will outweigh its resistance to white supremacy. Even as the ADL lashes out at Trump’s anti-Semitism, it recently ruptured its ties with African American activists over their stance on Israel – condemning the Movement for Black Lives’ embrace of Palestinian rights and their critique of Israeli policy. As one African American Jewish writer noted, “I naively assumed that…a civil rights organization which presses for equal treatment under the law would have problems with a nearly 50 year illegal occupation in defiance of UN resolutions. ”
Rather than side with Israel over our allies of color in the U.S., it is Jewish alliances with activists of color that will defeat white supremacy in all its forms — whether in the U.S., or in Israel and Palestine. Linking Jewish fate with a racial state that engages in what looks like apartheid to most of the world does more than corrode “Jewish values,” it isolates us from our natural allies in the U.S. The decision to support a democratic state in the lands west of the Jordan River is not anti-Semitic – it is quite the opposite. It is to recognize that it is in long-term Jewish interest to defeat forms of racist power wherever they may exist. It is not a question of progressive Jewish tradition or Tikkun Olam, it is a question of long-term continued survival. As Israel is itself born out of a racially defined nationalist project, it seems there is a little question which direction AIPAC and other groups like it will take. Their ongoing support for Israel is not only reactionary and unethical, we need to understand it as short-sighted and dangerous as well.
In that sense, Jews need to rethink the passive politics of “allyship,” which assumes that Euro-American Jews should align with the struggles of people of color out of a desire for justice, perhaps the goodness of our hearts. As one activist said to me, “that’s fine if you’re a good person, but I want to know what skin you have in the game.” To fight anti-Semitism we are going to need an intersectional analysis. Intersectionality often sounds easy on paper but in practice it is difficult and complicated. Not all oppressions look the same, feel the same, have the same structural and institutional features. To many in movements for racial justice, Jews with European ancestry will be understood, quite rightly, as white people with all the social and legal benefits that go with it. It may be difficult and even embarrassing to insist on including an analysis of anti-Semitism when hate crimes are being committed against Muslims on the street and undocumented immigrants are threatened with deportation. But anti-Semitism is part of the cultural and political formations of white supremacy, and we need to acknowledge that defeating it is in our self-interest as well. It is also in the self-interest of any group fighting injustice. Anti-Semitism obscures the real sources of economic and political power. The Rothschilds are not the reason the banking sector collapsed in 2008; “New York values” do not explain a skyrocketing divorce rate; Israel is not the puppet-master guiding the strings of U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East, however much their interests may align. Unless we can address these twin facts openly and honestly, we will neither be able to defeat a Trump presidency – or bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.
But even as its power grows, far-right antisemitism remains a poorly understood phenomenon for much of the Left. How are we on the Left to understand antisemitism? Why is it rebounding, with renewed vigor, in the era of Trump? And most importantly, how do we fight back?
Never Fully Extinguished
Anti-Jewish oppression has a long and complex history. In medieval Christian Europe, Jews were scapegoated and attacked, often bizarrely, as Christ-killers, murderers of Christian children, poisoners of Christian water-wells, and more. With the dawn of the Enlightenment, Jews were promised acceptance, only to be accused of “dual loyalty” and treason by newly existent nation-states. Anti-Jewish sentiment reached a fever pitch with race-based theories of innate, biological Jewish wickedness developed and perfected by Nazi fascism in the twentieth century.
While Jews living in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere around the world often lived in relative security and peace, in Europe, periods of Jewish coexistence and even prosperity alternated with episodes of intense persecution, violence, and exile, leading, over centuries, to deeply ingrained collective feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, and trauma.
After the horrific slaughter of one-third of the world’s Jewish population by German fascism, it may have seemed that centuries of persecution might come to a close, as before long, Jews came to experience unprecedented empowerment in America and Israel. In the United States, the majority of Jewish communities were lifted into the beckoning arms of middle-class suburbia by the same post-World War II economic and social policies that kept black people and other minorities in poverty. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its military victories in the decades following, at the expense of displaced and dispossessed Palestinians, offered to the world the spectacle of militarily powerful Jews protected by their own nation-state.
Largely banished from the public sphere, antisemitism became synonymous with unthinkable evil. It seemed, finally, that Jews were safe. But from the fringes to the mainstream, antisemitism never truly disappeared from American society.
In the 1950s, Cold War McCarthyism carried clear antisemitic undertones, with the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and the frenzied witch hunt against disproportionately Jewish communists in unions and progressive organizations across the country. Beginning in the 1980s, neo-Nazi skinhead movements trafficked in Holocaust denial and later circulated ideas of “white genocide” that, as we shall see, put Jews at the center of a vast conspiracy to exterminate the “white race.” The dawn of the internet greatly bolstered white-supremacist organizing, sowing the seeds for the antisemitic alt-right, which would burst into wider public view with the rise of Trumpism.
Always the Hidden Puppeteers
Minutes before storming into Etz Chaim Synagogue on Saturday, Robert Bowers wrote on social media that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish immigrant and refugee support agency, “likes to bring in invaders that kill our people … I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered … I’m going in.” Bowers thought that, by targeting a synagogue involved in refugee relief, he was striking at the root cause of the migration which threatened his white race.
For white supremacists like Bowers, left-wing Jewish activists are the hidden masterminds behind immigration, Black Lives Matter, feminism, LGBTQ rights, political correctness, and all the other assorted “evils” of progressive politics that hinder the creation of their hoped-for white ethnostate. Alt-right theorists argue that throughout the twentieth century, American Jews mobilized hyper-focused networks of political and social capital to loosen the country’s immigration policies; orchestrated the Civil Rights Movement, integration, and other ills of “race mixing”; and engineered multiculturalism, relativism, sexual liberation, and other fronts of “cultural Marxism.”
The chant “Jews will not replace us,” heard at last year’s Unite the Right white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, embodies the alt-right fear that the all-powerful Jew remains the hidden puppeteer of progressivism, hell-bent on using liberal causes to keep whites outnumbered, emasculated, and demoralized.
More and more, these sentiments move, in both explicit and coded forms, from the margins to the mainstream of right-wing discourse. In the two weeks leading up to the massacre, a chorus of right-wing pundits, amplified by Trump’s Twitter account, insisted that the hand of George Soros lurked behind the migrant caravans, while prominent GOP voices claimed Soros was sneakily helping ensure Democratic wins in the midterm elections. Meanwhile, Soros’s home was the first to receive a bomb package on October 22 from alt-righter Cesar Sayoc, and earlier this month, flyers popped up on campuses across the country claiming that Jews were secretly behind sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Paradoxically, the far right blames Jews, not only for the progressive social movements of the Left, but also for the neoliberal austerity of the Right. Days before the 2016 election, Trump’s final and most prominent campaign adbeamed into millions of homes across the country the faces of Soros and other prominent Jewish figures, alongside condemnations of the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” The term “globalist” captures perfectly this bizarre assertion that the same “Jewish power” hoists upon dispossessed whites both the economic agenda that exports jobs and forecloses upon homes, and the social agenda that emasculates men, diversifies white communities, and mixes the races.
In short, according to the alt-right, Jews are “the principal enemy — not the sole enemy, but the principal enemy — of every attempt to halt and reverse white extinction.” In the words of neo-Nazi leader Victor Gerhard, “to rail against blacks and Hispanics without mentioning Jews is like complaining about the symptoms and not the disease.” Only by expunging the Jewish root can whites successfully reverse-engineer their dispossession, ensure their survival, and chart the course of their future. Antisemitism posits a vast Jewish conspiracy that can be deployed, both on the fringe and mainstream right, to obfuscate not only the true voices, faces, and demands animating progressive movements for social change, but also the true interests and actors behind neoliberal exploitation.
Antisemitism is a key pillar of white-supremacist thought, helping reinforce and repackage anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, patriarchy, and other reactionary ideas by lending the overarching veneer of a comprehensive, totalizing reactionary worldview. One always finds antisemitic conspiracy theories entangled with other oppressive ideologies, transcending and including them to offer a final meta-explanation: “it’s the Jews.”
Still the Socialism of Fools
Antisemitism is given this universal explanatory power at time when neoliberal capitalism has immiserated vast numbers of people. Framing their rule as a revolution against the “globalist agenda” of neoliberalism, today’s neofascist leaders promise to reestablish strong, sovereign nation-states, rooted in blood and soil, cleansed of “foreign infiltrators,” delivering longed-for stability and prosperity.
The last dramatic resurgence of antisemitic ideology in the 1930s, took root in similar circumstances, in the wake of a global financial crisis, when working- and middle-class whites from Germany to the US were desperate to understand and respond to their dreadful predicament. Like today’s alt-right, twentieth-century fascism blamed Jews, not only for the specters of communism, homosexuality, and other “left-wing ills” but also for the depredations of predatory finance capital.
But today, as in the 1930s, this “revolution from the right” is no revolution at all. Nationalists from Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban critique “the globalist elite” in theory, while in practice, plunging ordinary folks deeper into poverty and deepening the pockets of the ultrarich. Antisemitism, then and now, is a “foreshortened anticapitalism,” a “socialism of fools” promising false emancipation from illusory oppressors.
While many forms of oppression keep oppressed groups on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder, modern, European-derived antisemitism works when some Jews have moved up a few rungs, securing a relative degree of visible prosperity and power in society. During times of economic downturn and popular discontent, the anger of oppressed and exploited people gets redirected, like a pressure valve, away from capitalists as a class and onto the image of the conniving, all-powerful Jew.
“Peasants who go on pogrom against their Jewish neighbors” serving as the nobleman’s tax collectors, writes Puerto Rican Jewish poet and activist Aurora Levins Morales, “won’t make it to the nobleman’s palace to burn him out and seize the fields.”
Today, antisemites use the very fact that, over the twentieth century, some Jews entered visible positions in portions of the privileged and owning classes, while some others enthusiastically embraced progressive causes, as proof of the correctness of their conspiracies. The overwhelmingly white and Christian titans of heavy industry, big business, finance, oil, and the weapons industry are happy to support Trump, and while Soros gets scapegoated, happy to remain behind the scenes in their corporate boardrooms peacefully collecting mega-profits.
Conspiratorial antisemitism benefits the class interests of the 1 percent, and is rooted organically in far-right, white-nationalist movements. However, strands of the ideology also appear elsewhere. Conspiracy theories of nefarious Jewish control championed by figures like Louis Farrakhan serve to obfuscate the real capitalist relations behind the history of slavery, present-day racialized poverty, and more. Fringe voices claiming to support Palestinians — though shunned by the mainstream Palestinian rights movement, which stands against antisemitism — portray Jewish Zionists as conspiratorial infiltrators of the American government, single-handedly steering US foreign policy to support endless war in the Middle East. Marginal voices on the Left resurrect antisemitic Rothschild conspiracy theories to fashion half-baked, shoddy caricatures of neoliberalism, financial speculation, and other symptoms of capitalism.
How to Fight It
Wherever antisemitism rears its head, it steers people away from truly liberatory movements. Here, in its seductive explanatory power, lies its danger. It’s also where the Left can intervene.
If, as Walter Benjamin once said, “every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution,” it is equally true that the spread of antisemitic conspiracism means that the Left has not yet succeeded in capturing the narrative. To fight antisemitism, socialists and progressives need to offer clear, compelling analyses showing who really profits from the systems of exploitation that assail working people in this country.
We need to remind people that, as one Twitter user put it, there is a small minority of elites who control the world’s political and economic systems at the expense of the world’s population, but it’s not the Jews — it’s the bourgeoisie.
The Left also needs to understand better how antisemitism really operates: to redirect popular anger onto a convenient scapegoat, leaving the real enemies of the people unscathed. The obstacles to this understanding are many. Too often, our culture presents antisemitism as an inexplicable, unfathomable prejudice; a baseless hatred unconnected to broader structures of power and oppression we see around us. For example, the chief takeaway from much mainstream Holocaust education is that some people just hate Jews — no further explanation needed. Or, it’s seen as a tragic holdover from the 1940s, with little relevance to today’s world. Too often, false charges of antisemitism are used to batter Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and any progressive movement that stands up for Palestinian rights.
In order to combat these obfuscations, progressive movements need to trace antisemitism’s often complicated forms, illuminating the specific, material ways it benefits those in power and intersects with other oppressions. We need to give a clear analysis and condemnation of antisemitism, not only to defend Jews but also to ensure our broader movements remain rooted in sober, material comprehension of the forces against us.
Non-Jewish progressives need to support Jews facing antisemitic attacks in the United States without preconditions, expectations, or assumptions. Bringing up Israel when Jews get attacked simply for being Jews is ignorant at best and antisemitic at worst. But while the gesture of direct, unmediated solidarity is simple, grappling with the real-world, messy relationships between Jews and other minoritized groups can be anything but. Precisely because antisemitism functions by elevating some Jews and Jewish communities to positions of relative power or privilege vis a vis other minority groups, serious seeds of discord have been sown between groups that should be allies in the fight against white supremacy.
Tensions around a host of issues — Israel/Palestine, mistrust between white Jews and non-Jewish people of color, or across other fault lines — create mutual suspicion, resentment, and hostility between Jews and other groups, leading to a “divide and conquer” effect that ultimately weakens the Left and strengthens the Right. This leads many Jews to conclude that only allying with the powerful — for example, putting cops in synagogues, uncritically supporting Israel, and in some cases, even embracing Trumpism — will truly keep us safe. Progressive Jews must continue working to move our communities away from complicity and towards solidarity, while vocal non-Jewish solidarity against antisemitism will help do the same.
Unfortunately, after antisemitic attacks like Pittsburgh, mainstream narratives often dictate that only Israel will truly keep Jews safe, and that to show solidarity, non-Jews should support Israel. However, Israel has allied itself squarely with fascist regimes the world over — including regimes that are overtly antisemitic — and its policies vis a vis Palestinians, African migrants, Jewish dissidents, and others have long bore more than a passing resemblance to the far-right authoritarianism now plaguing our world. Until Palestinians are free, supporting Israel ultimately will not help Jews or anyone get truly safe or free. Progressives and leftists need to make this clear.
The way forward is familiar, though the path windy. We must fight antisemitism with solidarity. This alone can defeat white supremacy, keep us all safe, and get us all free.
The Jew of conscience is in pain.
We are in pain when we are told by family, friends, peers and Jewish communal leaders that we are ‘bad Jews’, ‘fake Jews’, ‘self-hating Jews’ for supporting Palestinian calls for full freedom and equality, and opposing Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.
We are in pain when we are told by our fellow Jews that we have no right to cast our lot with the Jewish people, because we say ‘not in our name!’ to Israel’s brutal, unceasing oppression of the Palestinian people. We are in pain when this violent denunciation- ‘self-hating Jew!’- seems to rob us of our Jewish legitimacy, deny us our right to inherit our people’s past and stake a claim in our people’s future, cast us brutally outside the bounds of peoplehood.
We are in pain when we see our own people seemingly abandon Jewish values of justice, forget the lessons of our past, and visit unceasing oppressions upon the backs of Palestinians- and upon our backs, too. In both cases, we are in pain when we see others remain silent. We are in pain when, seemingly exiled from our people, we find it hard to weave together the strands of a new Jewish identity for ourselves, when the cultural, religious and political traditions at hand have been seemingly consumed by Israel-support.
We Jews of conscience speak out to the world, denouncing the ways in which we are shut out of Jewish communities because of our support for Palestinian rights. Yet my perception is that we rarely have the space, within our own communities, to talk openly about the trauma of our excommunication. We tell ourselves that, in the urgency of the work, and with the need to bear witness to Palestinian suffering, it is indulgent to dwell too much on our own trauma. The wounds are raw, and like many pains, are easiest shared in silence. But a wound suppressed is one that festers, one that has the danger to cloud judgment, impede clarity, and distort how we relate to others, and to ourselves.
This article is an attempt to lovingly excavate some of the pain of the Jew of conscience, to explore the often fraught, tangled ways this pain structures the way we relate to our own Jewishness, and to broader Jewish communities. When we don’t work to heal from this pain, I argue, we can become estranged from our Jewish identities, and alienated from Jewish ritual and culture. We can deepen our isolation from Jews who aren’t with us politically, and relate to them in ways that do little to change hearts and minds. To build the Jewish future we need, we must work to intentionally reconnect, with full hearts, to our Jewishness, to our trauma, and to the rest of the Jewish people.
First, a note on terminology. The term ‘Jew of conscience’ was coined by Jewish theologian Marc Ellis in the 1980s, to refer to Jews who bear prophetic witness to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. I use the term ‘Jews of conscience’ here primarily to mean Jews who today publicly embrace the Palestinian call for BDS, endorse the Palestinian refugee right of return, and/or challenge Zionism. These are the ‘taboo’ positions around which Jewish communal red lines are most clearly drawn, and Jews who take these positions, therefore, face most brutally the scapegoating, excommunication and trauma I describe. Jews who publicly oppose Israel’s 50-year occupation also face plenty of opposition, and will find much to relate to in these lines. By using the term ‘Jews of conscience’ in this way, however, I do not mean to imply that pro-BDS/anti-Zionist Jews are the only Jews acting from a place of conscience around these issues- it is simply a useful term!
While my observations are formed by years organizing professionally, and as a grassroots activist, in Jews of conscience circles, I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. Some will find much, and some little, that resonates in these lines. I write because we Jews of conscience are visionary, and powerful. We are transforming the American Jewish community, and in the coming years, as Israel lurches further rightward, the views we hold will continue to gain broader acceptance. It is even more vital, then, that we think critically and fearlessly about the complexities, pitfalls and promises of how we relate to Jewishness, to other Jews and to ourselves. I write with the hope, at this pivotal and terrifying moment, not that we Jews of conscience may instantly overcome our pain, but that we may learn to dwell with it, with ourselves, and with the Jewish future which dwells in our midst, which erupts in real time from the work of our hands.
Tracing our Pain
‘Self-hating Jew’. ‘Traitor’. ‘Court Jew’. ‘Fake Jew’. ’Kapo’.
We hear it from our Jewish peers, who treat our support for Palestinian rights with fear, suspicion and distrust. We hear it from our family, who greet our views with disappointment, betrayal, outrage and shame. We hear it from the institutional leaders of the Jewish world, who tell us, with unflinching certainty, that we are disturbed, monstrous, transgressive and illegitimate Jews.
We Jews of conscience hear day after day, from nearly all corners and crevices of the Jewish world, the same message- You don’t belong. You are an aberration, a traitor, an outsider. We reject you; you are no longer one of us. Some of us receive curses, hate mail, even death threats for taking a stand. We are mocked derisively from the bima, laughed at in the JCC, sneered at in Hillel. We are barred from jobs at Jewish day schools, synagogues, summer camps.
A sponsored Facebook ad, shown to members of NYU’s Jewish community, portraying Jews of conscience as the ‘black sheep’, outcast from the rest of the Jewish community.
We worry we will be ostracized from social groups, passed over for Jewish leadership roles, and denied B’nai Mitzvah, burial in a Jewish cemetery, or even a warm Shabbat dinner, for being one of those ‘self-hating Jews’. The fear runs deep, and nestles into every little crevice of our Jewish lives. It is no secret that we are the scapegoat of the American Jewish community, and it hurts.
On the surface, of course, we reject that we are deficient Jews in any way. We assert our Jewishness with pride, and in many cases, we respond to the abuse we face not by shrinking from but by stepping up our Jewish engagement. We build vibrant Jewish communities, inside and outside the mainstream. Our Judaism is fierce and powerful, and we know it.
And yet, under the weight of abuse, it is easy to internalize, on some level, the message that there is something other-than, something broken about our Jewishness. That somewhere, deep down, we must be missing ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, if we are so eager to criticize Israel so loudly. The pain runs deep, and can grip our Jewish identity-formation at its innermost point, clouding our pintele yid– that indestructible spark of Jewishness within us- with confusion and self-doubt. We might feel this pain even if we don’t seek legitimacy from, or desire to join, mainstream Jewish communities. For on the deepest level, we still yearn to recognize ourselves, and to be recognized, as a legitimate part of the Jewish people, and that is precisely what is denied to us- that is precisely where it hurts.
Our pain is magnified because we know that, when we break with Israel, we break hearts- the hearts of our elders, our family members, those in our communities for whom Israel is anchor of their Jewish identities, refuge in their time of distress, living symbol of the concrete assurance that, so soon after the traumas of the 20th century, the Jewish people will endure. We wish we could take our elders’ hands, meet their eyes, and plead to them, “I am proud and grateful to be Jewish, I promise you, please don’t worry! Even though you don’t understand why I do what I do, please understand- I am committed to the Jewish people, to inheriting the covenant you worked so hard to pass on to me- please believe me!” We cannot help but feel guilt that we have triggered these fears- and anger that history itself has put us, and them, in such an impossible position.
Owning our Jewishness
After being told, in no uncertain terms, that we will never be accepted as Jews, some of us scornfully turn away from most aspects of Jewish identity or practice entirely. The attempts we make to connect with the Jewishness of our upbringing- to inhabit the traditions, cultures, communities in which we dwelt comfortably before awakening to the truth of Palestinian dispossession- are laced with the bitterness of betrayal, the sting of anger.
If we didn’t grow up with strong Jewish identity or community, it can be very difficult to develop that identity anew for oneself, while grappling at the same time with the truth of Israel/Palestine. How fraught it can be for many of us, to feel drawn to the simple beauty of Jewish texts and traditions, while we are repelled so brutally by Israel’s occupation and our community’s support of it- and to be attacked so viciously by other Jews, for speaking out!
We are warmed by the fire of Jewish identity, drawn- as evinced by our very proclamation that we are ‘Jews for Palestinian rights’- to cleave proudly to our Jewishness, despite the trials of these times. And yet, we are repulsed by our community’s support for Israel’s crimes; pushed away by their slandering us as ‘fake Jews’; and convulsed with shame, for the oppressive stance our people is taking on the world stage. Some of us find it near impossible, at least for the time being, to fully own and embrace our Jewishness outside of circumscribed displays of solidarity. It is simply too painful.
Perhaps we fear that Jewishness itself, like the Jewish elders from whom we learned it, may lash out at us if we get too close. On a deeper level, perhaps we don’t fully trust that we, the ‘bad Jews’, are entitled to sing our peoples’ songs, light Shabbat candles, and otherwise be just like other Jews. We are so used to being told we have rejected the covenant, that it can be difficult to see ourselves up there on the bima, reciting words of Torah just like other Jews, without feeling guilty, subversive, out-of-place.
We find community in the Palestine solidarity movement- but our non-Jewish comrades often don’t know how to talk about antisemitism, and lack nuanced understanding of Jewish history and identity. We build small communities of Jews of conscience, and begin the work of healing together. But caught between a mainstream Jewish community which has abandoned us, and a Palestine movement in which we often do not feel fully at home, our isolation is magnified.
How difficult it can be, to stumble upon this terrifying juncture in Jewish history, and, with little roadmap to guide us, to have to parse out the false from the true, the sacred from the profane, that which we must inherit from that which we must transform or cast away! How difficult, to be called a ‘fake Jew’ just as we are discovering, for the first time or anew, how to be a real Jew! Faced with this impossibly weighty task, our Judaism is for us both a source of healing and an open wound, a place of refuge and a restless question.
For many of us, healing starts with finding and building progressive Jewish spaces that welcome our whole selves, where in laughter, song, ritual, culture and simply being Jewish together, we share the pain of our condition. We quickly find that the journey to rebuild an honest, compassionate and accountable Jewishness of conscience is a beautiful struggle- one that befits a people for whom being klal Yisrael itself is a struggle, a wrestling with G-d!
Crafting our Ritual
We are eager to create new ritual and culture, and alter existing practices, to reflect our convictions as Jews of conscience. We design Palestine solidarity Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders and more, using ritual as a tool to uplift the anguish of our tears, the gnawing of our fears, the fervency of our hopes as an offering to the fraught moment of Jewish history in which we live.
Our resolve to bear witness, through ritual and culture, to the reality facing our people, is admirable. And yet, sometimes these ritual spaces revolve around the urge to condemn Israel, express shame for its crimes, distance ourselves from its actions, signal our disgust- and little else. The ritual we create can feel like window dressing for an exercise in apologetics, a public confession of guilt, betraying a relentless quest to purify our traditions by rooting out anything deemed remotely suspicious, leaving little besides alienation in its place.
We fixate on Israel as the original sin of our people; we condemn the fallenness of our tribe. Far from a prophetic call for justice, the single-mindedness of our shame brings to mind a Christian impulse of perpetual self-flagellation, rather than a Jewish ethos of finding the spark of redemption, the wholeness within a broken heart.
It is not a mystery why, in this moment, our liturgy takes this tormented tone. We feel so betrayed and confused that our people have emblazoned such a beautiful menorah upon such ugly weapons of war, that we dig into tradition itself, anxious to locate where we went wrong, desperate to purge the original sin. With Israeli flags adorning most bimas– with Israel-support playing such a central role in the normative sense of Jewish peoplehood- we are living in unprecedented times, wading into uncharted territory, with little to guide us. Faced with this weighty contradiction, we resolve that our task is to strenuously assert the antithesis, to craft a Judaism which, at every twist and turn, uproots that which corrupts, calls out a warning, condemns the dangerous path our people are taking.
But a spirit of negation won’t, by itself, carry us through to the Jewish future. ‘The sea will not open that way’ (Aurora Levins Morales, ‘The Red Sea’). We need also to actively cultivate love of Jewishness, for its own sake; joy for our ritual and cultural traditions, in all their beauty and wisdom; gratitude that our people have survived to see these times, vexing though they be; and a vulnerable mourning fueled at root, not by guilt and shame, but by compassion. The door to the Jewish future will be unlocked, not by the cleverness of our hot takes, nor by the burning of our anger or the fervor of our guilt, but by the positivity of our Jewish love and joy.
When we turn to our traditions, our trauma can guide us to see them as our pursuer and opponent- ‘what here leads to problematic support of Israel, what must be purged and disavowed?’- or to use them as a defensive shield, or an attacking spear- ‘how can we use this to critique the Jewish establishment, and bolster our self-certainty as Jews of conscience?’ Instead, our spirit of innovation must be grounded in a radical amazement and gratitude. We must seek to dwell open-hearted and empty-handed with our traditions, to bring them closer, for their own sake, into the beating hearts of our lives. When we pray- or express ourselves Jewishly in other ways- our sorrowful anger for Israel’s crimes must mingle with our gratitude, our gladness at simply being Jewish. The bitter and the sweet must complement each other.
Transforming our People
Many of us resolve that our principal task, in this moment, is to build radical spaces- shuls and havurot, communities and institutions, friendship groups and networks- on the margins, for Jews of conscience. Our task at hand, we say, is to build and strengthen these counter-hegemonic institutions and communities, so that, as the contradictions of the establishment sharpen, more Jews will grow disillusioned and join us. When the establishment finally crumbles, we tell ourselves, our communities will stand redeemed, pointing the way towards the future.
There is much of merit to these positions- for many Jews of conscience, the task at hand is indeed to build, safeguard and strengthen alternative spaces where we can heal, learn and envision the future. For many of us who have been deeply abused and traumatized by the mainstream- not only because we are Jews of conscience, but because of multiple marginal identities we hold- this is deeply important. And yet, this strategy alone cannot build the Jewish future.
A small siloed movement of Jews of conscience, cordoned neatly off from the rest of the Jewish people, surfacing occasionally to yell and chant slogans of liberation outside their doors before congratulating ourselves on the correctness of our analyses, and disappearing from view- this strategy alone, too, cannot build the Jewish future. While this may be valuable in the short term, to sharpen and expose the current contradictions in the Jewish community while winning some adherents, in the long term, this strategy alone does not get anyone free.
It does not free mainstream Jews, most of whom remain trapped under the hegemonic sway of the establishment and view us, as they have been taught and as our self-isolation confirms, as untouchable outsiders. It does not free Jews of conscience, who remain in exile from the vast majority of our people. And most importantly, it does not free Palestinians, who ultimately need Jews of conscience to plant deep, lasting roots in the mainstream Jewish communities that we need to help transform.
The Jew of conscience turns to the mainstream Jewish community which has exiled us, and with a booming voice, calls on it to change. Standing outside the doors of our establishment institutions, we detail the anti-Palestinian crimes for which they are responsible or complicit, decry their grotesque lack of accountability, and throw at their feet all manner of piercing accusations. We mark them, in the pain and anger of our betrayal, as awful Zionists, disgustingly complicit in atrocities. We tell them they are racist, Islamophobic, colonialist, privileged, violent…the list goes on. ‘Shame! Shame!’, we yell. Do they listen?
When you protest an abusive boss’s complicity in exploitation at his workplace, the primary task is not to unlock his heart, but to build a consensus that he is an exploiter, and to force him, through sheer pressure, to change. But when you protest the American Jewish community’s complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, you’re dealing with a traumatized people, a people still struggling, only two or so generations after surviving the most terrible genocide, and most shocking series of expulsions, in its history, to learn to trust others, to handle fears of imagined powerlessness, and to recognize and accountably deploy its actual power.
When a boss talks about his workplace, he’s talking about his greed; when mainstream American Jews talk about Israel/Palestine, they’re talking about their fear. When American Jews protest American Jews, we are negotiating our communal trauma. Without diluting the substance of our critique- which is usually correct- and without wholly stifling our rage- which is legitimate- we also need to lead with love, and deliver rebuke in a way that will unlock hearts. What would it look like to cultivate accountable compassion, in our own hearts, towards our Jewish community, and to hold them, in turn, to compassionate accountability for their complicity in Israel’s crimes? (I am grateful to Dove Kent, Cherie Brown and Helen Bennett, who in their ‘Understanding the Intersections of Antisemitism and Racism’ trainings, develop further this concept of ‘compassionate accountability and accountable compassion’.)
How can we even take the first step, and extend our hand in compassion, when many mainstream Jews are likely to swat it away, and call us ‘self-hating Jews’? A vicious cycle is at play here- they demonize us and push us away; we become traumatized, and our hearts harden; we scornfully lash out at them in the rage of protest, and their hearts harden. To interrupt this cycle, it is incumbent upon allies of Jews of conscience- progressive Jews who are still accepted in mainstream Jewish spaces- to demand an end to the abuse we face.
And yet, while we are not to blame for our wounds, we Jews of conscience must resist the temptation to set ourselves apart. We must not be afraid to show up, again and again, in the institutions and communal spaces of our people, to get involved and demand to be counted. We must not leave our politics at the door- but we also must not come primarily to proselytize or to do battle. We must show up, first and foremost, simply because we want to connect, open up, share traumas, and build, upon the very fissures which separate us, the indissoluble ties which reaffirm that, in truth, we are one people. We can hope to change them not by ceaselessly distancing ourselves from them, but by diving deeper with them, really claiming them as our own.
It starts with getting in touch with our own pain, helping each other heal from it. It also starts with overcoming the knee-jerk impulse to treat fellow Jewish people or Jewish communities who support Israel with fear, scorn or condescension. Forgiving them for what they have done to us- and forgiving ourselves, embracing the powerful, embodied, joyous Jews of conscience we are- are in truth, two sides of the same coin.
The mainstream Jewish community abuses us because they are afraid. In the wake of the immense traumas of the 20th century, they clutch Israel close as the only safe space they know, and frantically push away any Jews, like us, whose dissent threatens the stability of their unsustainable solution to the Jewish question. In this way, their abusive behavior towards us- that peculiar panic and rage that wells up in the hearts of our accusers, as they denounce us as traitors- is, quite literally, the displaced pain of antisemitism, traveling, like so many pains for so many peoples, below the surface across generations, deeply felt and dimly comprehended.
Thus, in a supreme historical irony, the outcasts of the world have created, within their own ranks, a new class of outcasts. As the Jews were scapegoated by the world as traitors, disloyal, pathologically rotten, idealists and cosmopolitans- we Jews of conscience are scapegoated today, by the mainstream of our own community, with these very same tropes. Our excommunication is, in a sense, the internalized antisemitism of the Jewish people writ large, the Jewish question played out anew within the body politic of the Jews themselves, taking us as its target, rendering us the outcasts of the outcast, the Jew among the Jews.
Future historians will look upon this excommunication as a tragedy of epic proportions for the Jewish people. Under the cry of ‘self-hating Jew!’, untold thousands of Jews have been slandered and banished with a sweeping vigor unparalleled in modern Jewish history. One day, our people will look back upon this self-inflicted wound upon the body of am Yisrael with shame. And they will see it, correctly, as a lynchpin of the very structure that keeps American Jewish support for Israel’s occupation in place.
We Jews of conscience are in pain, flung out at the raw edge of the turbulent trial into which history has flung our traumatized people. We have learned many lessons from this liminal space we are forced to inhabit. In our exile, we bear witness to the prophetic voice of critique, we teach to the world the supreme importance of principled moral dissent. But in order to most effectively speak to our own people- which, after all, is our mandate and task at hand- we need to lead from a place of love, cultivating accountable compassion and holding others to compassionate accountability. And to do this, we need to work on our own trauma.
It takes deep bravery, strength, and conviction to stand bravely and speak loudly, as Jews of conscience, in these tormented times. We Jews of conscience are very good Jews, despite what our detractors say about us. It is hard work to forgive them- to forgive ourselves- indeed, to forgive history itself for putting our entire people, and we Jews of conscience in particular, in such a tormented position. Cultivating self-love as Jews of conscience- this, too, is hard work, is a practice, in these times. This, too, is the work of building the Jewish future. “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
The Talmud tells a remarkable tale of the conversion to Judaism of a prominent Roman general named Onkelos, and the futile attempts by the outraged Roman Emperor Hadrian to dissuade him from his conversion. In this little story, we get a glimpse of a Judaism that lights a spark of resistance against Empire, a revolutionary Judaism that strikes at the heart of unjust power, and offers a vision of what truly just, safe, and liberated human being-together looks like.
First, the story, from Avodah Zarah 11a-
The Gemara mentions other Romans who converted to Judaism. It relates: Onkelos bar Kelonimos converted to Judaism. The Roman emperor sent a troop [gunda] of Roman soldiers after him to seize Onkelos and bring him to the emperor. Onkelos drew them toward him with verses that he cited and learned with them, and they converted. The emperor then sent another troop of Roman soldiers after him, and said to them: Do not say anything to him, so that he cannot convince you with his arguments. The troops followed this instruction, and took Onkelos with them.
When they were walking, Onkelos said to the troop of soldiers: I will say a mere statement to you: A minor official [nifyora] holds a torch before a high official [apifyora], the high official holds a torch for a duke [dukasa], a duke for the governor, and the governor for the ruler [koma]. Does the ruler hold a torch before the common people? The soldiers said to Onkelos: No. Onkelos said to them: Yet the Holy One, Blessed be He, holds a torch before the Jewish people, as it is written: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light” (Exodus 13:21). They all converted.
The emperor then sent another troop of soldiers after him, to bring Onkelos, and said to them: Do not converse with him at all. The troops followed this instruction, and took Onkelos with them. While they grabbed him and were walking, Onkelos saw a mezuza that was placed on the doorway. He placed his hand upon it and said to the soldiers: What is this? They said to him: You tell us.
Onkelos said to them: The standard practice throughout the world is that a king of flesh and blood sits inside his palace, and his servants stand guard, protecting him outside; but with regard to the Holy One, Blessed be He, His servants, the Jewish people, sit inside their homes and He guards over them outside. As it is stated: “The Lord shall guard your going out and your coming in, from now and forever”(Psalms 121:8). Upon hearing this, those soldiers also converted to Judaism. After that, the emperor sent no more soldiers after him.
First, some context- the story unfolds in the Roman Empire around the 1st century CE. During this time period, the Emperor Hadrian, who appears in this story, destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, built a pagan temple on its ruins, and passed other harsh anti-Jewish decrees, including a ban on circumcision and a special tax on Jews throughout his empire. Before and after the destruction, Jewish communities had spread throughout the Roman Empire, developing a syncretic Hellenistic Judaism that blended the ways of Torah with elements drawn from the Platonic tradition, Roman paganism, and other aspects of surrounding cultures. The vast Roman Empire, though still the politically and culturally hegemonic force, was in a state of decay, with immorality, decadence, violence, and the other vices of materialism rampant and widespread. In this context, many Romans were drawn to Judaism as an attractive, ethical alternative to the Roman Empire. Some, like Onkelos, converted to Judaism, while others adopted many Jewish practices.
Described as the nephew of the Emperor (some sources say this emperor was Hadrian himself), a prominent high-ranking Roman official, an expert on the world’s religions and a commanding figure in the marketplace, Onkelos decided to leave the state-sponsored pagan religion and join the Jewish people- the same minority tribe which had only recently mounted a vicious rebellion, in Jerusalem, against Hadrian’s rule. This decision enraged Hadrian, who perceived it as a further threat to his unstable rule over the hearts and minds of his empire. By the end of the story, it is clear that indeed, Hadrian has something to be afraid of. Onkelos uses the discourse of Torah itself as a weapon against Empire, with the power to corrode and destabilize its machinations, to transform the hearts and minds of its soldiers away from complicity and towards resistance.
How does Onkelos’s Judaism present an alternative to the status quo so radical, that the soldiers are compelled to drop their weapons and convert? While the Talmud does not record the first set of ‘verses that he cited and learned with [the first troop of soldiers]’, it shows that, when Hadrian sends his second troop to capture him, Onkelos makes explicit, to these soldiers, the coercive, hierarchical norms of their social order- one where those of low rank must ‘hold a torch’ before those above them, in a chain of subservience leading up to the highest sovereign, who wields absolute authority. Then, Onkelos contrasts this earthly model of sovereignty with the divine sovereignty of G-d, a King who, rather than demanding obedience from atop a chain of hierarchy, wields his power to liberate the downtrodden, captive Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and to protect them in their journey towards freedom. Struck by the force of this revelation, the soldiers can no longer perform their role as cogs in the state machinery and, like the first troop of soldiers, drop their weapons and join Onkelos as part of the Jewish people.
The enraged Hadrian sends a third troop of soldiers, unwittingly confirming the truth of Onkelos’s parable by demanding they obey his orders. As this regiment escorts Onkelos out of his home, Onkelos touches the mezuzah (the source for today’s widely-observed custom of touching or kissing a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a building or room). Surprised, the soldiers ask him what he’s doing, and Onkelos explains that, while the earthly king compels armed guards to stand outside his door and defend his rule, the divine King of the Jewish people stands outside the door of each Jew, guarding and blessing their comings and goings. In truth, all the king’s soldiers ultimately cannot protect him; his show of strength betrays a deeper weakness; true safety comes from trusting a power more exalted and compassionate than anything that can be promised by militarism. Again, these soldiers drop their weapons and convert.
Taken together, these Jewish visions offer a model of human cohabitation, and an analysis of power, that radically subverts any model of state power or any attempt by human beings to rule over another through force or coercion. What type of ‘king’, wondered the Roman soldiers with awe, establishes his reign not by ruling over, but by uplifting and protecting those most oppressed by his social order? What type of ‘sovereignty’ can possibly exist without the use of arms?
While the earthly King rules through hierarchy backed up by the threat of violence, Judaism asserts that there is a deeper power which frustrates the designs of Pharoahs, which protects everyone who bears witness to its wonder, regardless of social standing, not with human weapons of war but with a demilitarized divine promise. While the pagan king rules by the edicts of ‘the weak shall obey the stronger’, ‘follow orders’ and ‘the only true Law is the law of force’, the divine King overturns this barbaric earthly order to liberate the captive, protect the vulnerable and subdue the mighty. This higher power protects an entire collective of people, as it wanders through the in-between space of the desert, with the crushing might of Pharoah’s army behind them and the promise of liberation before them; and it protects a single individual, in the in-between space of the doorposts of his home, guarding his coming and goings.
In short, this parable presents Judaism as an anti-militarist, anti-state, counter-hegemonic force of justice, peace and liberation. Like the best elements in Judaism, the message it delivers is both universal- presenting an emancipatory vision and critique of Empire with broad appeal- and particular- speaking vividly of the experiences, yearnings, and values of a single people.
Seen in its historical context, this parable exemplifies the radical critique directed by post-temple Rabbinic Judaism against the Roman Empire. Rome was the imperial power that destroyed the Second Temple, the hegemonic cultural force of paganism in whose empire the Jews now lived as an often precarious and persecuted minority. The Rabbis, charged in the post-Temple era with the task of developing a diasporic Judaism for a dispersed people, mostly regarded the earthly might of Rome with distrust and suspicion, as the paradigm of human greed, materialism and moral bankruptcy. “Why does he compare it [the Roman State] to a swine?” asks a commentary on the book of Genesis, in one of the many moments of commentary criticizing Rome/Edom. “For this reason: when the swine is lying down it puts out its hoofs, as if to [deceptively] say, ‘I am clean,’ so does this wicked State rob and oppress, yet pretend to be executing justice” (Midrash Rabbah – Genesis 65:1).
Rabbinic Judaism identified Rome with Edom, the spiritual force of materialism rooted in the Biblical character of Esau, hunter, man of the flesh, pursuer of strength and all things earthly and physical; twin brother of Jacob, devotee of things intellectual and spiritual, who later was renamed Israel and became spiritual ancestor of the Jewish people. From within the belly of the beast, the rabbinic critique of Esau/Edom came to symbolize, over the centuries, a polemic against not only the Roman Empire but, later, the oppressive forces of European Christianity and the larger Western world. The dance between Jacob and Esau- which, in the Torah, was mostly one of rivalry, discord and competition- became, for the rabbis in the Talmud and beyond, a parable for the cosmic battle between the forces of justice and the forces of materialism, corruption, extravagant wealth, decadence and state violence.
The story of Onkelos and Hadrian’s soldiers, then, is part of a larger radical strain in Jewish thought which uplifts the emancipatory potential of ethical monotheism against the brutal machinations of Empire, colonialism and militarism as well as the profit-driven forces of greed, corruption, and materialism. The story also serves as an optimistic take on conversion, and on the broad (one might even say, universal) appeal of Judaism. In a decaying empire, rife with corruption, collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions, Judaism had much to offer Onkelos and his fellow Romans, delivering an earth-shattering, foundational critique of Empire that stirred the hearts of the very noblemen and soldiers most sworn to defend the reactionary regime. After his conversion, Onkelos went on to play a very important role in the Jewish people, translating the Torah into Aramaic so it could be understood by the many Jews who, in the age of Hellenization, no longer understood Hebrew. His vital translation, the Targum Onkelos, is considered so holy that today, it is rabbinically mandated to study the weekly Torah portion twice in the original, and once using Targum Onkelos.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple, according to rabbinic tradition, the Jewish people are in the ‘exile of Edom’, the longest, most bitter and final of our exiles before the coming of the Messiah. During this exile of Edom, the Rabbis prophecied, the world will be dominated by forces of materialism, profit-seeking, war, greed and spiritual corruption, under the domineering rule, first of the greedy Roman Empire and then, in more modern times, by the imperial excesses of Western European Christianity. The parallels with today’s world- Trump as Hadrian, America as Edom- are obvious. In our own time- when American Judaism, embedded within a decaying, corrupt, materialist and immoral empire, is finding new spiritual vitality and raising a new moral voice to speak truth to power and express anew our age-old ideals of justice- the story of Onkelos serves to remind us just how revolutionary our voice can be.