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

(originally published in Tikkun)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

Growing Up Assimilated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

Zionism, Assimilation, and American Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

A Judaism of Blood and State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

A Way Forward

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Never Again’, Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

‘And You Are Faithful to Resuscitate the Dead’- Towards a Torah of Radical Remembrance

“And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead.”

                 – from ‘Gevurot’, ‘God’s Strength’, a daily Jewish prayer

“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.”

                 – Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

For modern secular Jews, the ‘resuscitation of the dead’ can be one of the more alienating aspects of our tradition. Techiat HaMeitim, codified as one of the 13 foundational principles of Judaism by Maimonides in the 12th century, dictates that when Moshiach (Messiah) returns and redeems the world, the bodies and souls of the faithful will be resurrected to live again in a perfected world, this world, a world which will be at once fully ‘earthly’, and fully ‘divine’. Most of the time, I see Reform or Reconstructionist prayer books change this daily prayer from ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who resuscitates the dead’ to something like ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who gives life to all that lives’. Says the Enlightened Jew to himself- ‘of course, my dead body will not rise, fully intact, from my grave one day when a Messiah comes, and walk upon the earth again for all eternity, as the rabbis promised’. So we discard this notion completely, and regard the resuscitation of the dead as a quaint, magical notion, ill-suited to the rational world of today.

I would like to resuscitate this dead notion of the resuscitation of the dead, through a Marxist lens. I think, in discarding it completely, we are losing one of the most compelling aspects of our tradition. I would like to reinterpret it as referring, not to the literal reawakening of the human body, but to a way of relating to memory, animated by a passionate fidelity to the living past. Moreover, the memory in question is inherently radical and revolutionary. According to Rabbinic tradition, the resuscitation of the dead will occur only once the Messiah has come- and the Messiah comes to end all wars and oppression, and usher in an era of tranquility and peace upon the earth. It is no coincidence that, for the rabbis, the dead will awaken when the earthly bonds of oppression are shattered.

In 1940, the German Jewish philosopher and Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ as he was trying to escape Nazi-occupied France. He committed suicide one stormy night on the border, unwilling to be delivered by the French to the Germans. Fellow theorist and German Jew Hannah Arendt managed to smuggle his ‘Theses’ on scraps of paper out of Europe, and to publish it as his last work.

Benjamin’s ‘Theses’ are suffused with a Jewish spirit of radical remembrance, a quality that Benjamin himself, within the 18 Theses and in his larger life’s work, makes no effort to hide. For Benjamin, the Marxist historian is commanded to remember the struggling, oppressed peoples of the past, and to continue their struggle in the present. Echoing Howard Zinn, the ‘official’, textbook history of the past is most often the history of the victors, the gilded, hegemonic narrative crafted by the rulers of society, the story that fits their interests, portrays their rule as benevolent, inevitable, natural and divine. And why would we expect any different? Today, those with the power and resources write the textbooks and control the narrative; yesterday, the kings had the scribes, the rich had the parchment. Everyone else- the 99% of past and present, the overwhelming majority of the human race- could not as easily transmit their stories and histories to future generations. Of course, the historical memory of any suffering people is long- in rituals, in customs, in stories, in rich oral traditions, cultural memory is preserved and transmitted by all oppressed peoples as a means of survival. But this memory rarely builds monuments to itself; it is rarely recorded diligently, in great detail, and guarded closely in the king’s palace. It is not broadcast to millions of living rooms on the nightly news; the state produces textbooks glorifying its leaders, not exposing their barbarism.

It is the task of the radical historian to tear away the textbook ‘bourgeois’ version of history, and to listen, underneath, for the narrative and perspective of the oppressed. From this perspective, it is clear, writes Benjamin, that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” To uncover the history of the oppressed is to learn that they lived, suffered, and died under oppression, and to realize that their struggle against that oppression, in their lifetime, was not completed. This memory is a work of mourning, a realization that the textbook version of history is dripping with blood, and that the suffering of the oppressed has not yet been avenged. And because “all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them”, the radical historian realizes that yesterday’s king left the seat warm for today’s president; today’s America is the Roman Empire reincarnate; we confront the very same oppressor our ancestors faced.

When we uncover this hidden truth of the past, we clarify the past, we bring it from a place of obscurity, hiddenness and falsehood- for example, ‘Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is caused by antisemitism’- into a light of truth- ‘actually, Zionists drove the Palestinians off of their land, and that has caused the conflict today’. This clarifies, not only the past, but the present as well. Growing up, we are taught that the suffering of our situation is ‘natural’, or inexplicable, arbitrary and beyond our control; later, we realize this is actually the oppressor’s narrative, and that systemic inequality, not blind chance, structures our world through a series of traceable processes, in the past, that create and condition our suffering in the present.

In his ‘Arcades Project’, Benjamin describes this illuminating, clarifying power of radical memory as a form of awakening, as the ‘dialectical, Copernican turn of remembrance’. It is an awakening, because once we awaken to the root causes of our situation, we realize, like Neo leaving the Matrix, how asleep we once had been. “The tradition of all dead generations”, writes Marx, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” As long as oppressive structures are not overthrown, humanity remains in a kind of sleep, in an incomplete process of shrugging off the yoke of the past, of overcoming systemic inequities that are outmoded, reactionary, that prevent humanity from achieving its full potential. The existence of Donald Trump as president mocks us, like a sick joke, a rotting remnant of a capitalist world-system on life support, surviving only through the worst crisis-ridden speculations of finance capital, a nightmare which should have died long ago.

Just as our ancestors were unable to vanquish the enemy, it is by no means guaranteed that their stories of struggle, and our own, will be remembered. “In every era,” writes Benjamin, “the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism which is about to overpower it”. In every era, the ‘truth’ of the past threatens to be forgotten. The false version of events, told by the oppressor, is largely accepted as fact; the stories of the oppressed threaten to be buried under the weight of this oppression, to slip permanently from our collective memory. It is incumbent upon us to attempt, over and over again, to re-awaken and clarify subterranean history, to overcome the gravity of forgetting, to do continuous, circuitous and always-novel battle, with pen and sword, against the persistent effort of the rulers to maintain hegemony, to restore illusory narratives, to destroy radically subversive institutions of cultural memory.

“And you are faithful to resuscitate the dead”. With this plea, the rabbis begged God not to forget, but to fulfill, the tradition of the oppressed. Though we oppressed Jews may die today, they said, God will not forget our suffering, as He will not forget those who came before; one day, the Messiah will come, this earth will know peace, and we all will dwell anew and free in this kingdom of peace. This is not a heaven or afterlife, occurring on some other plane or dimension- our bodies are restored on earth, the promised kingdom is created politically, here, as a harmonious human society, at once earthly and divine but in the flesh, immanent, interpersonal, within our grasp.

In the future messianic kingdom, according to rabbinic tradition, all the faithful, oppressed Jews who have existed across all moments of history will be resurrected; they will dwell together, in harmony, in the land of peace towards which, in the suffering of their former lives, their prayers had always turned. Says Chabad.org– “In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since ‘G‑d does not deprive any creature of its due’, all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.” In the same way, the Marxist historian believes that in the future, all the oppressed of the past will be remembered; the enemy that oppressed them will be finally vanquished; the world for which they struggled will come to fruition; they will be redeemed. The spirit dwelling behind both these Messianic visions is the same.

“The Era of Moshiach is not a supernatural world; it is the very same world we know today–without the corruptions of human nature. Man will have conquered his selfishness and prejudices; a harmonious world community will devote its energies and resources for the common good and the quest for continued growth in wisdom and perfection. In short, the Era of Moshiach represents man’s attainment of the peak of his natural potential.”

Neither the radical historian nor the religious Jew prays for the liberatory force of history, or for God, merely to ‘remember’ the dead, but to bring the dead back to life. The latter is much more radical. It is not that in the promised stateless classless society, the great, definitive history book will finally be written, and all oppressed narratives of the past will be remembered fully, in a grand apotheosis of knowledge- this fantasy of pure knowledge, of total accuracy in and for itself, is in fact closer to the bourgeois fantasy of total history. Rather, it is that the better world, for which our oppressed ancestors struggled, will finally come to fruition; their vision will be actualized; their arrow will reach its target; their oppressors will have not won. Freedom, which for them was only partial, a distant, longed-for vision, becomes actual, confirming their faith in its inevitability. By avenging their oppression, by vanquishing their oppressor, we bring to fruition that which, for them, slumbered in potentiality. Their struggle was not for naught- just as the end of a sentence bestows meaning upon its beginning, the meaning of their struggle is retroactively confirmed, made apparent, vindicated by our success in the present. They are brought back to life in victory, and their death- that is, their defeat by the oppressor- was in fact a falsehood.

When we struggle, in the present, we struggle also for the past; we fight for those before us, who were vanquished, who pray now, from beyond the grave, for our success. We bring with us their hope, it animates and sustains us. We avenge their deaths and we redeem their lives. So in the present, we pray for them to give us strength; we pray for the spirit of resistance that animated their bones, to animate ours as well; we pray that the liberatory spirit of God which guided their hands, will guide ours to victory. We have faith that their struggle was not in vain- that the movement of history towards justice ‘is faithful to resuscitate the dead’.

‘You will resuscitate the dead’- for the religious Jew or radical historian who mutters these words, the memory is turned toward the past, but the promise is futural. Suspended in this dislocated temporality, the religious Jew is comforted by the promise, not just that yesterday’s dead will be revived, but that we too, one day in the future, will be revived as well. Similarly, when we remember the struggles of oppressed peoples in the past, we know that they expected this of us; we ourselves pray that one day, some future radical will remember our struggle. The torch of struggle is passed between the generations, casting a glow into past and future with a flame that scintillates within this imperfect world, and gestures beyond, toward the half-glimpsed promise of the world’s perfection.

‘And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead’- may we merit, in our own day, to see humanity awaken from its sleep, unshackle the cords of oppression, and complete the process of liberation that animated our ancestors in struggle, and animates us today.

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In The Age of Trump, Progressive Jews Can Learn From the 20th Century’s Radical Yiddish Tradition

(first published at In These Times)

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The official, textbook history of any nation or group of people, writes radical historian Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, can be sure to conceal “the fierce conflicts of interests, sometimes exploding, often repressed, between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated. … In such a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”

Acording to Zinn, it is the task of the radical historian not merely to recount the events of the past with the disinterested, depoliticized gaze of an “objective” academic. We need a history, rather, that lets the marginalized and oppressed voices of the past speak, that listens to these voices so as to distill new lessons, perspectives and imperatives urgently needed to face the political reality of the present.

Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism, written by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg, attempts to write such a subversive and relevant history. First published as Le Yiddishland révolutionnaire in 1983 and re-released this November in a first-ever English translation by Verso with new editorial notes, references and an introduction by the translator David Fernbach, the book deals with the generation of Jewish radicals in Eastern Europe who, in the first half of the 20th century, helped raise the banner of world revolution against the terrifying forces of capitalism and fascism. A haunting, inspiring and often tragic book, Revolutionary Yiddishland uses first-hand interviews, deep archival research and sharp analysis to bring to life a complex landscape of factory workers, partisans, poets, party leaders, refugees, ghetto fighters and movement intellectuals.

Released on the day of Donald Trump’s election, the book’s timing of could not be more appropriate. Today, we see clouds of fascism disturbingly analogous to those of a century ago darkening our own political landscape, driven by a toxic and too-familiar collusion of xenophobia and scapegoating, authoritarianism and far-right nationalism, liberal capitulation and corporate mega-profit.

The Radical Jews of Yiddishland

In the late 1800s, millions of Jews living across Eastern Europe left their rural villages, called shtetls, and sought work in the new industrial factories crowding cities like Minsk and Vilna. Before long, this Jewish proletariat birthed a militant trade union movement with messianic intensity. The largest of these mass organizations, the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund, or the Jewish Workers Bund, sought to unite all Jewish workers into a socialist party that demanded, in a revitalized Yiddish tongue, equal civil rights and freedom from discrimination for Jews and all workers, an end to class oppression, and a new Russia founded upon democratic socialism and cultural and religious freedom.

As the book recounts, these radical Jews created a new, socialist Jewish culture that brought secular Yiddish theatre, literature, discussion groups, educational systems and other vibrant and democratic institutions to a Jewish world in upheaval. This is the beating heart of Yiddishland—a word which, for the authors, conjures at once the region of Eastern Europe, the Yiddish culture and radical spirit of the Jews who lived there, and the historical moment itself, the dynamic and terrifying 20th-century arc upon which their lives unfolded.

Revolutionary Yiddishland traces how, as the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsar and brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917, many Yiddishland radicals helped drive the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm that swept Western and Eastern Europe. They helped build left parties, socialist governments and, in many cases, Jewish wings of these and other movements across the continent.

Meanwhile, the nationalist ideology of Zionism, popular among middle-class Jews in Western Europe, also began to make inroads in Yiddishland. The book unearths the passionate arguments between, on the one hand, those Jewish Communists and Bundists who insisted on staying and fighting as part of broad-based grassroots movements in Europe, and, on the other hand, those left-wing Zionists who struggled to fuse their aim of world revolution with their attraction toward a Jewish national home in Palestine.

Later, the book shows how, as fascism spread across Europe, the revolutionaries of Yiddishland fought falangists in 1930s Spain, formed self-defense militias in Nazi-occupied countries like France, organized underground networks of resistance in ghettos like Warsaw, and launched covert campaigns of sabotage and attack as partisans hiding deep behind enemy lines. Finally, we witness the utter liquidation of Yiddishland in the ovens, battlefields and mass graves of Nazi terror. We see its few survivors struggle, and often fail, to maintain their revolutionary spirit in a post-war world that was too quick to suppress and stigmatize the trauma of their destruction, and too eager to denounce their radicalism in the name of realism, or Zionism, or liberalism.

Though Yiddishland traces dense political trajectories across a broad historical arc, it is grounded in a fabric of human experience that makes these narratives anything but abstract. The authors, who in the 1980s conducted extensive interviews with survivors, offer vivid, intimate glimpses into the beating heart of a vanished world.

In the grueling sweat of the factory, we see young workers replace Torah and Talmud with the Communist Manifesto, and convince their religious parents to join them in the fight for a new Messiah. In the crowded working-class neighborhoods of Białystok, we see struggling Jewish families rejoice in the discovery of new literature and theatre that speaks to their own troubles and aspirations, in their own proud Yiddish tongue. On the frenzied streets of revolutionary Russia, we watch patrols of Jewish workers battle tsarist soldiers and chase spies away from meeting houses. On a Yom Kippur night in early 1940s Moscow, we listen as worried Jewish refugees from Poland huddle with their Russian Jewish comrades outside a synagogue, trading terrifying rumors of the ovens at Auschwitz, narrating heroic tales of resistance from the Warsaw Ghetto.

These stories, and so many others, jostle together in the crowded pages of Yiddishland, the faces of the protagonists gazing from the past asking us, if not to avenge their death, at least to remember their life. And Yiddishland does just that, in a stark, refreshing prose that does not glorify these fighters in any “cult of great Heroes,” or idealize them as larger-than-life martyrs.

Rather, the book portrays what it calls a “resistance of the shadows” made of ordinary people who, in extraordinary times, dedicate themselves “without hesitation” to a gritty, uncertain struggle to survive with dignity. The texture of their resistance is not romantic but brutal, often marked by “hunger and fear, missed encounters, tiresome tasks, boredom and greyness, pain and anguish.” And while Yiddishland tells a specifically Jewish story, it opens a first-hand window into the larger movements for political emancipation, working-class empowerment and resistance to fascism that made the 20th century so momentous, and terrifying, for the whole human race.

Why Study Yiddishland Today?

As the authors of Yiddishland detail, a vast, seemingly unbridgeable gulf separates the world of these radicals from our world today. Put simply, German fascism erased their existence from the face of the planet, and uprooted the language, customs, history, cuisine, institutions, religion and economic life of the world that they called home.

How does the Left as a whole view its own past today, ninety-nine years after the Russian Revolution helped usher in a near-century of powerful socialist, leftist, anti-imperialist and other movements that shook the planet? We view these movements mostly as anachronisms of a bygone era—flawed and failed, if well-intentioned and inspiring.

But we have yet to find new forms of resistance capable of challenging and dismantling a rapacious and rampant 21st century global capitalism. As the authors of Yiddishland make clear in their introduction, the larger Left today, like radical Jews, has yet to process and mourn the twists and turns of its recent history. We cannot help but look upon the passionate, almost messianic optimism of early-20th century radicals with a strange sense of dislocation and longing.

In the Jewish imagination today, the memory of the revolutionary Jews of Yiddishland is suppressed, or at most, consumed as a pale imitation. In its absence, the ideology and historiography of Zionism places the creation of Israel at the pinnacle of Jewish history, and portrays the millennia that Jews lived in diaspora, amongst the peoples of the world, as a cycle of permanent suffering, plagued by an eternal anti-Semitism.

In the hegemonic narrative shared and co-created, to some extent, by most Jewish communities in both America and Israel, the memory of the revolutionary Jew of Yiddishland is an image held dimly, and with warmth and pride. But, so the narrative continues, this history’s bitter lesson is that Yiddishland values of solidarity and revolution did not protect even these Jews from Hitler, and that only the Jewish state of Israel can provide the haven of safety, security and identity needed for Jews to exist in the world today.

Even most Jews on the radical left today scarcely remember the names of the radical Jews of Yiddishland. With mere traces of remembrance, we have yet to give them a proper burial, to learn what they yearn to teach us, to know exactly what we, today, have inherited or have yet to inherit from them. Meanwhile, the state of Israel’s 68-year old assault on Palestinian land and life continues at a dizzying rate, and American Jewish support for the Israeli regime continues to lure us onto the wrong side of history, like a collective nightmare from which our community cannot yet awaken.

A New Yiddishland?

It is highly fitting that Revolutionary Yiddishland appears today in English, just as a new radical Jewish movement is emerging here in America, the largest global Jewish population center since Yiddishland itself (slightly edging out Israel by some estimates). Today, more American Jews than ever are joining and building movements against Israel’s occupation and apartheid. Meanwhile, across a thousand spheres of Jewish communal life, progressive movements are forming which seek to hold our many institutions and leaders accountable to the racial and economic justice struggles around and within which we as Jews live. In my work as Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization inspired by Jewish tradition to stand for justice in Palestine and against all forms of racism, I see this new Jewish identity being built by student activists on college campuses every day.

One hundred years later, with the state of Israel and its right-wing allies in the U.S. finding clear common ground with Donald Trump and neofascist forces worldwide, little has changed since the radicals of Yiddishland organized against capitalists and fascist collaborators in their own community, and denounced Zionism as a bourgeoisie, nationalist movement that allied itself with imperial interests and ruling elites, and cared little for the real struggles of poor and oppressed Jews and non-Jews around the world.

But if this burgeoning movement may be symbolically called here a “new Yiddishland,” it must be stated that this new movement is hardly Yiddish. In a porous, multicultural America, while many Jewish radicals trace their roots to the shtetl, many others inherit traditions from the many non-European Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and from non-Jewish ancestors as well. There are other important differences between past and present: While the radical Jewish identity of Yiddishland was forged in direct struggle against class exploitation and violent anti-Semitism, many, though certainly not all, American Jews today benefit from some degree of race and/or class privilege. While yesterday’s Jewish radicals were staunch atheists, today many of us embrace prayer, ritual and spiritual identity infused with, and inseparable from, our radical politics and lives.

It is also appropriate that Revolutionary Yiddishland appears today as a resource for the Left as a whole. As neoliberal capitalism maintains its destructive grip and delivers misery to most inhabitants on the planet, the Left faces a terrifying fascist threat unseen since the era of Yiddishland, with the rapid embrace of far-right politics engulfing Europe and culminating, last week, with the startling seizure by Donald Trump of the most powerful political position in the world. As we combat mounting attacks on Muslim and Arab communities, black folks, immigrants, Jews, women, LGBTQ folks and more, we have much to learn from the boundless optimism, the fearless advances and the terrifying retreats of those who struggled before.

We need to draw hope from this previous generation of radicals who believed, against all odds, that a new sun was dawning in the sky of history. Revolutionary Yiddishland lets this generation speak, and helps us to listen. Through this radical act of remembrance—and through continuing, in our own time, the struggles they were not able to see to victory—we inherit their fight, we redeem their loss, we ensure their death was not in vain. And we relearn, in a new way, that vital lesson expressed in a saying of the ancient rabbis: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Looking Back At New Jewish Agenda: An Interview with Ezra Berkley Nepon

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From an article published by Jewish Currents

Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book, Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda, published in May by Thread Makes Blanket Press, is the first serious attempt to document the history of this progressive Jewish organization of the 1980s and to weigh its accomplishments and shortcomings. NJA was a multi-issue, national membership organization with local chapters in many cities. It worked for a dozen years to advocate for Middle East peace, nuclear disarmament, rights for lesbian and gay Jews, economic and social justice, peace in Latin America, an end to South African apartheid, Jewish feminism, and a variety of other issues in a climate of increasing Reagan-era neoliberalism and Cold War conservatism. Twenty years after the organization’s official dissolution, Nepon seeks to draw inspiration from Agenda’s dedication to what the book describes as “participatory (grassroots) democracy and civil rights for all people, especially those marginalized within the mainstream Jewish community.”

Nepon is a writer, performer and political organizer who was featured in the 2006 documentary filmYoung, Jewish and Left. Nepon has written about gender identity, Jewish identity, and queer culture for Zeek and Tikkun, and has co-created and performed in the annual Purimspiels organized since 2004 by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, and the Great Small Works puppet troupe.

Ben Lorber is a Jewish activist in Tucson, Arizona and a journalist who worked with the Israeli-Palestinian Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem. His articles have appeared in The Abolitionist, Common Dreams, The Palestine Chronicle, Links, Green Left Weekly, The Earth First Journal, and many other outlets. Currently he works with the migrant justice organization, No More Deaths, delivering food, water, and medical aid to migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona’s Sonora Desert, and advocating on behalf of undocumented immigrants.

Ben Lorber: This summer you took your book on tour. What was it like to see former New Jewish Agenda activists and the next generation of Jewish radicals reflecting together on the past, present and future of progressive Jewish organizing in America?

Ezra Berkley Nepon: It was spectacular. For the most part we would have a great group of NJA veterans and a room full of younger activists. Sometimes there were also people who came from the same generation of Agenda activists but hadn’t been part of the organization, so there was more than one dynamic — but there was consistently this exchange happening between Agenda activists and a younger generation, which was very interesting and moving to witness.

In the book, I focused on the organization at the national level, because I was trying to give an abbreviated version of a very long and complex history. The book tour events gave us all a chance to learn the juicy local organizing stories. People shared what on-the-ground organizing for Agenda looked like, with specific details about local issues and the flavor of each community.

BL: In your introduction to Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue, you write that in 2003 you were reading “all the Jewish feminist writing I could get my hands on, and references to NJA kept showing up,” which led you to be “curious about this organization that so many profound movement builders, writers and thinkers had been part of.” But when you went “looking for a book or good long article to learn more,” you found “a strange lack of record.” How do you explain this amnesia that the present Jewish progressive movement displays towards its past?

EBN: I’m in my mid-30s, and I find people of my age to be hungry for stories of people who have done really radical work, yet I’ve met very few  who have heard of Agenda — and that’s just very strange, because it was an influential element in Jewish Left history. One explanation is that NJA was so exhausting for people, especially at the end, because of the rigors of having direct democracy on a national scale, with international allies, but without e-mail, without easy conference-calling, without Skype — people, I think, were drained when the organization ended and were happy to move on to other things. In the ensuing years, Agenda didn’t get talked about that much because people kept doing and thinking about their new work.

But people’s eyes light up as they learn about Agenda, and it has been very powerful to create a space for activists from Agenda to witness the joy that younger people have in learning about their work. We have enthusiasm for critically engaging the details of Agenda platforms and the dynamics of its democratic process. People are excited to think about the theoretical questions Agenda was immersed in: multi- vs. single-issue organizing, the place of identity within organizing, the diversity of tactics,the intersection of issues, etc.

BL: One of the defining things about Agenda was its success as a multi-issue organization. When it closed up shop in 1992, it was replaced by a multitude of single-issue organizations, some of which formed in its wake, others of which were offshoots organized during its existence. One point you bring up is that today there is no unifying force such as Agenda to articulate and coordinate a mass progressive movement among American Jews.

EBN: Many single-issue organizations came out of Agenda, and some were led by leaders of Agenda, but the multi-issue model has been somewhat lost, especially that model of nationwide, membership-based, grassroots organizing. NJA helped a lot of different groups join each other’s struggles. It can be very valuable to have an organizational context through which Jewish groups can stand with other left groups and say, “We are in solidarity with what you are doing,” and to stand together in common resistance against oppression — and to promote that kind of visibility on the left for radical Jewish organizing. Agenda made that possible. Many of the qualities Agenda was known for could today inform the way we build organizations and the way our organizations can align with each other.

At our Baltimore event, at Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse, former NJA members related that their organizational model was, “Every issue is a Jewish issue!” Definitely, I want to talk to other people who think that way! I want to talk about how our feminist politics and our Middle East politics relate to each other. I want a space where intergenerational Jewish activists can learn and work together. I want to work on Israel/Palestine, but I also want a broader range of Jewish issues. I want our ethics and our politics to intersect with all our work. There’s a conversation to have about whether the current political moment could support an organization like Agenda — and if not, what options do we have for at least bringing some of those qualities to the work we do now.

BL: Today’s political moment, in many ways, does remind me of the one in which Agenda took root. Two months before the NJA Founding Convention, Ronald Reagan was elected president, ushering in an era that would become known, as you write in Justice, Justice,  “for brutally cutting resources for the U.S.’s poor and low-income, breaking unions,” and concentrating “wealth in what we now call the ‘1%’; for supporting military terror in Central America, the Middle East, Argentina, Grenada, and around the globe; for the Iran-Contra scandal and the Savings and Loans crisis; for an obsessive battle against Communism; and for staying silent as the AIDS pandemic swept the nation and the world.” Since then, the failure of the Oslo Accords, the violence of the second Intifada and Operation Cast Lead, have increased the disillusionment many American Jews feel towards Israel; wealth has become further concentrated; and a neo-imperialist global war on terror has pushed the American political climate further right.

EBN: And we have plenty of organizations to say, “As Jews, we oppose this,” or “As Jews, we stand in solidarity with this” — but I would like to see the different pieces of our Jewish work for justice brought together through dialogue, so we can build wisdom. It’s a Midrashic version of activism, in which different kinds of Jewish work add complexity and nuance to each other.

There’s this story about a khasid who’s lost walking in the forest, and he’s saying to God, “Oh, it’s been days, I’ve been lost for too long, I don’t know if it’s shabes. I want to say the shabes prayers, but I’m so hungry and thirsty and out of my mind, I don’t even remember them. I’ll tell you what, God. I’ll say the alef-beys, and you, in your wisdom, can put the letters together.” I love that story so much: It’s like, we have all the pieces, and our work would be really enhanced by having more opportunities to talk about how those pieces fit together.

BL: In one of the afterwords to your book, Daniel Rozsa Lang/Levitsky speaks of the complicated question of Israel and Zionism in NJA. Agenda broke huge ground within the Jewish mainstream by getting a resolution for a West Bank settlement freeze brought up in the General Assembly of the Council of Federations in 1983, even though the proposal was tabled. And Agenda succeeded in balancing the work of the Middle East Task Force with the work of many other sub-committees devoted to other local and national issues.

EBN: It was a huge balancing act for Agenda, and I argue that they were successful in important ways. Agenda people had to work really hard to get their voices into the mainstream and not to be isolated by their Israel politics. They did that through committed, on-the-ground organizing in their local chapters, and by making opportunities for people who shared their politics —and even those who didn’t — to join in. In our session in Seattle, someone recalled the time in 1985 when Reagan laid a wreath at the Bitburg Military Cemetery in West Germany, which included the graves of members of the SS. The Seattle NJA chapter organized a protest about that, which attracted people who did not have the same politics about Israel but still connected with Agenda about this outrageous thing that Reagan was doing!
Agenda also had activists who were very involved in Jewish communal life and knew people who were “insiders” within the Jewish mainstream. The organization didn’t simply walk around outside the Federation with a sign saying “We’re against settlements” — they created an opportunity to present it to the Federations by finding allies inside. A group pushing hard from the left allows some that are closer to the center to make changes. Part of Agenda’s legacy is found in the changes that other people were able to make because of Agenda’s advocacy.

BL: Still, the Jewish Federation is unabashedly supportive of Israel’s policies, is extensively connected to America’s corporate-political establishment, and represents middle-class and upper-class Jews, marginalizing the voices of queer Jews, Jews of color, and working-class Jews.

EBN: Many things haven’t changed that much ­— but some have! I keep seeing reports of how few women are in leadership in the biggest Jewish organizations. It’s like, “What year is this?” It’s not as if there’s a shortage of amazing and capable Jewish women to be in leadership roles! On the other hand, in the course of my research, I’ve come to realize how many more opportunities I have as a queer Jew today, opportunities that were created by NJA’s generation. Many of the people pushing for those changes built analyses and gained influence together in Agenda — like Avi Rose and Christie Balka, who were national NJA co-chairs together and co-authored Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay and Jewish, which was a groundbreaking publication in 1989.

BL: You end your book by saying that “the new Occupy Judaism movement, and the Occupy movement as a whole, have reinvigorated strategies of mass mobilization and direct action that challenge the trend of professionalization in social-change work, and bring new voices from the margin to the people’s mic every day.” What do you think Occupy Judaism takes from the legacy of Agenda?

EBN: One of the primary positives of the Occupy movement is creating big gathering spaces for people to come together in person and figure out what they want to do together. Agenda did not have social media, and people had to be together physically in a way that built culture, built community, and provided opportunities for synchronicity and spontaneous inspiration. That provides for the kind of relationship building that allows you to go through something hard with somebody and still want to talk to them: You actually know each other, and have actually seen each other grow and change over the course of days or weeks or years.
Another very powerful aspect of Occupy Judaism is the commitment to direct action, including the street-theater element — enacting spiritual ritual in the midst of public space. All the holidays that were celebrated during Occupy Judaism were mobilizing and inspirational, and that was a crucial New Jewish Agenda tactic, to bring Jewish life out into the streets, into public parks, into alignment with protest movements, and to put politics and culture together. It sets a great example for Jews on the left to say, “We are here as Jews in solidarity, we are going to have a public ritual to say why we are here as Jews, we’re going to talk about how Jewish culture has brought us here and about what Jewish culture says about this issue.” That’s what New Jewish Agenda did.

BL: NJA also allowed progressive Jews to ally themselves, as a unified bloc, with social justice movements in the larger community. As we speak, I am sitting in the office of No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid and advocacy organization that fights for migrant rights along the U.S.-Mexico border. No More Deaths grew out of the Sanctuary movement, which counted New Jewish Agenda as a powerful ally.

EBN: The Sanctuary movement started with churches providing sanctuary for refugees fleeing the dictatorships in Latin America, and NJA linked up early on to bring Sanctuary into synagogues. Agenda sent out packets with information on the sanctuary issue to over two thousand synagogues, and many congregations got involved.

This legacy of working with allies continues today. One example is Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), which over the last decade has allied with the Domestic Workers Union (DWU) to fight for a domestic workers’ bill of rights and advocate for economic justice for domestic workers. JFREJ went to synagogues and did education, reached out to Jewish legislators and community members — many of whom employ domestic workers for childcare and elder care — to raise awareness on issues of fair pay, sick days and other rights.

BL: There are many times throughout its history that Agenda experienced what you describe as “growing pains” — instances when local and national task forces came face-to-face with manifestations of white privilege, racism, and homophobia within the organization. You relate how the Feminist Task Force (FTF), for example, sought in 1985 to convene meetings among African-American, Arab and Jewish women in New York to address the contentious “Zionism equals racism” equation that surfaced at the UN Decade for Women Forum in Copenhagen. FTF received a challenging letter from Carol Haddad of the Feminist Arab Network, identifying the problematic power imbalances inherent in the proposal for meetings, and pointing to the need for FTF members to examine their own white privilege and racism. Your book also brings up the lingering homophobia within NJA that challenged queer Jewish organizers in the mid-1980s, as well as NJA’s last official conference in 1991, which, as you wrote, “received significant criticism, especially for a lack of representation of Jews of color, reinforcing a false dichotomy between white Jews and African, Latino/a or Arab peoples.” How did Agenda deal with these problems within its own organization, and what can we learn from that today?

EBN: Everything that exists in the larger world also exists in activist organizations, and a lot of the time the exact dynamics we are trying to fix in the world show up in our organizations. This is part of what happens when people are building new awareness about the ways that privilege works in a community: people who are able-bodied and can’t imagine otherwise, or men who aren’t aware of all the sexism that’s happening, or white Jews who think all Jews are European. NJA functioned as a space where people could find each other, build power, and make demands. All the conversations and confrontations about the organization’s platforms, over the years, served as a space for analysis to happen, for people to show up and say, “We need to have a position about Jews of color, we need to have a position about economic privilege in the Jewish world.” That’s why that letter from Carol Haddad is so powerful: somebody taking the time to write a letter like that is offering a gift! It’s upsetting to learn that you’ve contributed to someone else’s marginalization, of course, but when people speak up about dynamics that need to change, that’s how we transform.

BL: If there’s one central legacy that NJA can leave to a new generation of progressive Jewish activists, what does that legacy look like?

EBN: As the keynote speaker at one of Agenda’s national conferences, Adrienne Rich asked, “If not with others, how?” Having all of our politics in the same room matters, having a space to show all the facets of ourselves matters. Being able to say “I’m Jewish and queer,” “I’m Jewish and feminist,” “I’m Jewish and working-class,” “I’m Jewish and wealthy,” matters. The ability to create that wholeness inside oneself and together in a room — that matters.

At our Seattle event, one veteran of Agenda  said that “the wins were momentary wins, and the challenges were ongoing — we were always in debt, we were always overwhelmed by the problems of democracy on a large scale.” Why, given that, did the organization last for a dozen years? The thing that was consistent, from chapter to chapter, was that people were in community with each other. They were doing life-cycle events, they were doing holidays with each other, their kids were friends with each other, they were partnering romantically and creatively —  people were in community together. That enabled them for a dozen years to handle the other things that were ongoing, and that was what weathered the storm.

Readers can learn more about New Jewish Agenda and its legacy at www.newjewishagenda.net, where Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book can be purchased.