The Trauma of the Jew of Conscience

(originally published in Jewschool)

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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.

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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. 

Conclusion

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.”

Zionism is not ‘not Judaism’

‘Zionism is not Judaism!’

We hear this every day from Palestine solidarity activists, Jewish and non-Jewish. Usually it is said with good intentions, a way to designate Zionism, as a political movement and ideology with modern genealogy and sensibilities, from Judaism, as a centuries-old religious peoplehood tradition. And indeed, it is important and correct to make this distinction, to challenge the commonly held notion that Zionism and Judaism are two words for the same phenomenon, that the modern state of Israel is organically rooted in Judaism, the end goal of Jewish thought, yearning and practice ‘since time immemorial’.

And yet, too often ‘Zionism is not Judaism!’ is presented as the end of the story in Palestine solidarity circles. It is imagined that some unchanging, tranquil essence called ‘Judaism’ has been hijacked by an utterly foreign, sinister, parasitic entity called Zionism. Judaism fell from grace, and waits to be redeemed from the narrow clutches of nationalism. Those Jews who center their Zionism firmly in their Judaism, it is reasoned by many Palestine solidarity activists, must simply be confused or misinformed about their own Jewishness, or otherwise just plain racist. In truth, this popular notion that ‘Zionism is not Judaism- end of story’ betrays a shallow and surface-level understanding of Jewish history and consciousness.

Judaism/Jewishness (here, I use the two words interchangeably) is not simply a static set of rituals, practices and a belief system. It is also the embodied, lived experience and narrative of a people, unfolding in history and time. Jewishness is no more or less than the totality of whatever the Jewish people are doing at any given moment in history. On a concrete level, the upbuilding of the state of Israel is a major part of what the Jewish people have been doing on the planet over the last 100 years. It is an unavoidable fact that, especially over the last half-century, the Zionist project has taken center stage in the hearts and minds of most Jews on the planet. The state of Israel- as an idea, and as an actual living society-  has served as the site where some of the most pressing questions of Jewish peoplehood- universalism vs particularism; secularism vs. religiosity; assimilation and its discontents, and more- have played out.

It is important to say, again and again, that ‘Judaism is not Zionism’- that Judaism and Jewishness possesses incomparably more cultural, religious, ethical and historic content than a 100-year-old political project such as Zionism can possibly contain. Nonetheless,  to stare the Jewish people in the face today, after Israel has so clearly played a central role in the collective imaginary of normative Jewish peoplehood,  and to say ‘Zionism is not Judaism, duh’ is to betray a colossal naivete, willful ignorance or worse. Zionism is a part of Judaism.

Often, the ‘Zionism is not Judaism’ argument in Palestine solidarity circles runs something like this- ‘Judaism is a religion; Zionism is a nationalism; while it appears the latter has hijacked the former, in reality, the two have no relationship to each other, so to accuse us of attacking Judaism when we critique the state of Israel, is absurd’. They usually mean well, and indeed, it is important to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism. But as an actual analysis of Jewishness, they miss the mark, viewing Judaism reductively through the lens of Christian hegemony as merely a ‘religion’ separate from the concrete genealogical, ethnic and/or ‘national’ experiences of the people that lived, clung to and evolved that religion across history. Judaism is not simply a ‘faith’, like Christianity or Islam, but also a people. To excise the ugly ‘national/peoplehood’ component in order to fit what remains in a Western (Christian) framework- whether done by the early Reform movement, or by modern activists trying to distinguish the historical actions of the Jewish collective (such as Zionism) from the ‘religion’ of Judaism- is to mangle and amputate Jewishness itself.

Moreover, when Jewish anti-Zionist activists adopt ‘Zionism is not our Judaism!’ as the principle posture by which we relate to Jewish peoplehood, we are more often than not choosing sloganeering over the hard work of meeting our people where they are at and, with care and commitment, dedicating ourselves to transforming our collective reality. We are saying to the millions of Jews who are actively or passively Zionist- ‘you are ugly and shameful to us, and until you change, we are going to delegitimize your identity, and work to separate ourselves from you’. We are deploying a rhetorical gesture that imagines a Judaism purified of its offending elements, sanitized, purged of the stench of nationalism and particularism- a Judaism of the ideal, a fantasy projection of a Judaism that might have turned out differently.

At its best, the proclamation ‘Zionism is not our Judaism!’ is the subversive assertion of a new Jewish identity that destabilizes the normative sense of Jewishness, broadens our imagination and allows us to envision new alternatives and futures. At its worst, it feels more like a performative gesture towards the non-Jewish Left, a way for Jewish activists to signal to their comrades ‘don’t worry, we’re Jews but we’re not those awful ugly Zionist Jews, please don’t associate us with them’. Either way, it cannot be a roadmap for dealing with actually existing Jews, in the flesh, with their current self-identities and political configurations.

The disavowal embedded in ‘Zionism is not our Judaism’ runs two parallel risks. On the one hand, the proclamation, similar to liberal cries of ‘Not my president!’ in the Trump era, can disassociate us as individuals from imagined complicity in an ongoing legacy of anti-Palestinian oppression in which, in various ways, we remain deeply complicit. On the other hand, this rhetorical gesture can serve to distance us from the bulk of our people, segment ourselves off, alienate us from the hearts and minds that, now more than ever, we need to build bridges with. If ‘Zionism is not our Judaism’, we might reason, then it is no longer our problem; we can leave it to others to disentangle the two for those Jews who have been led astray, while we focus on uplifting our exalted, purified anti-Zionist Judaism.

The truth is that Zionism is our Judaism in the sense that we inherit it; it is ours to reckon with; it is part of the unfolding story of our people. We cannot simply turn away, draw sharp lines of demarcation (you can’t pick and choose which parts of an inheritance you inherit), build anti-Zionist Jewish communities on the fringes, burn bridges with the mainstream, hold firm to the fervency of our convictions, and wait for the entire cursed edifice to fall. Were this to constitute the entirety of our Jewish communal transformation strategy, we would abdicate the position in which history has placed us, we would renounce our responsibility to dwell with and actively transform our people, in the present. It smacks of escapism, of a politics more concerned with demonstrating the purity of our radical position than with getting our hands dirty.

When Zionist Jews hear superficial ‘Zionism is not Judaism’ takes, they perceive it as an assault upon, or at least a misunderstanding of, their Jewish identity- and from their angle, they are correct. Zionism is part of their Judaism, not because they pray to a shrine of Theodore Herzl every day, nor because their Jewish identity solely or even primarily consists in defending Israel’s policies at every twist and turn- but because for them, Judaism and being Jewish is an inherently collective, politicized peoplehood that includes the lived collective experiences, in the modern age, of Israel and Zionism. Judaism for them is not just a faith, a set of rituals to worship a G-d they may not believe in; it is the experiences of deep suffering and national rebirth etched into our collective soul over the long 20th century, in traumatic and uplifting events many of us actually lived through. Judaism for them is the conviction that the complex, tangled set of emotions inherited from these experiences- hope, pride, desire, vulnerability, fear, righteous anger, concern for safety and survival- are inseparable from the need, in our own time, for a Jewish state.

Zionism for them, accordingly, is not support for any specific policy so much as it is a name given to this emotional reservoir underneath, one bound tightly with the living memories of Jewish peoplehood and embedded, for now at least, with the living soil of the Jewish state. Jewish Zionisms, and their emotional underpinnings, are as ‘Jewish’ as any other part of the hodgepodge of our modern Jewish identities, and must be treated, in this light, not with scorn, vitriol and performative distancing, but with compassion and care.

To be sure, Zionism emerged out of real Jewish life and real Jewish needs and conditions, but it is crucial to emphasize that it was not the only or ‘destined’ direction Jewish life could have taken in the 20th century. Zionism was the winner of a decades-long political battle within the Jewish community, over what self-determination and autonomy might look like. The forces of political nationalism emerged victorious, after more liberal and leftist Jewish ideologies- from the Bund in Eastern Europe to the Jewish communist movements in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa- were drowned in the floods of fascism, McCarthyism and other global transformations and catastrophes. But none of this was inevitable or predestined, and if Zionism holds sway over the hearts of so many Jews today, this does not mean it is ‘correct’ or meant to be- this is simply the condition in which history has placed our people, up to this point.

But to deny, as a Jew, that Zionism contains valid and legitimate parts of our people’s experience, is to compartmentalize our very identity, to amputate and suppress parts of our inheritance, to lock away, in a box in the closet labeled ‘Racism’, the tears, fears, hope and pride of a generation that lived through quite possibly the most terrifying events in our people’s history. Non-Jewish Palestine solidarity activists who only learn about Zionism from a BDS 101 presentation, miss this rich emotional depth, minimize and belittle it, hopefully unintentionally; when they proceed to lecture Jewish Zionists about the ‘true nature’ of their Zionism using BDS 101 talking points, they are goysplaining, and it is no wonder that many Jews don’t listen.

We anti-Zionist Jews, who want to build a better future for our people, cannot disavow the conditions that have created the present, rather we must own them, grapple with them head-on. We cannot compartmentalize the Jewish past into tidy boxes labeled ‘fallen’ and ‘righteous’, ‘problematic’ and ‘redeemed’, ‘ours’ and ‘not-ours’. ‘Owning up’ to Zionism is not just calling out and condemning, but also understanding and accepting. It is reckoning in a holistic way with the totality of our always messy, often beautiful, sometimes dark inheritance. In many ways, this is a more intellectually and emotionally difficult task, for it does not admit of easy binaries, tidy distinctions between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’, an ‘enlightened’ vs a ‘racist’ Judaism. It is also difficult to make room for complexity when, too often, calls for ‘complexity’ and ‘nuance’ have the effect, sometimes intentional, of derailing much-needed condemnation of and action against Israel’s human rights abuses.

This is not to say that we Jewish anti-Zionists must become Zionists, avoid articulating reasoned, unapologetic critiques of Zionism, or refrain from uplifting what Zionism looks like from the eyes of Palestinians, Mizrahi Jews and other minoritized groups on the ground (hint- it’s racism). This is our mandate! But in developing alternative identities, and relating to those Jews who don’t agree with us, let us not use our symbols, our fantasies, our hopes for the Jewish people as blinders, obscuring our ability to look squarely where we are, to see the “real movement of Jewish history”, to grasp the real conditions of Jewish life in the present. Let us not separate our hearts, like the Wicked Child of the Passover Seder, from our people. We will change hearts and minds not by ceaselessly disassociating from them, but by really diving in with them, and reaffirming that, at root, we are one people who are in this mess together, and must emerge from it together into our collective future.

Interview- Rescuing Jewish culture from Zionism

(originally published in Socialist Worker)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m A Jew And A Member Of JVP. Israel Just Banned Me.

(Originally published in the Jewish Daily Forward)

In 2011, I visited the land of Israel on a trip for American Jews, organized by an orthodox yeshiva- kind of like Birthright, only more religious. I remember how holy it felt to dunk in the mikvah (ritual bath) used by the Arizal, Isaac Luria, legendary 16th-century Kabbalist, in the holy city of Tzvat. I remember how blessed I was, to pray in Hebron at the graves of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I remember when I burst into tears, chanting the Mourner’s Kaddish for my grandfather, on his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his passing), at the Western Wall.

As I gradually became aware of the great injustices, past and present, committed in that holy land, my prayers came to include prayers for justice. ‘May the Palestinians ethnically cleansed from Tzvat,’ I prayed, ‘now exiled in refugee camps and around the world, be able one day to return home.’ ‘May the deep, deep structures of inequality and dominance be lifted from Hebron, this holy place.’ ‘May the brutal military occupation end, here at the Kotel and across Israel/Palestine.’

I trusted there was something deeply human, and deeply Jewish, about those prayers. When I returned to America, I decided, in the words of Heschel, to “pray with my feet”. I put those prayers into action, as a member and, later, a staff person at Jewish Voice for Peace. And now, for doing so, I am banned from visiting the land of Israel by its current government.

My first reaction to hearing news of the ban was shock, then sadness. Will I ever be able again to kiss the stones of the Kotel, to pray at the graves of rabbis and holy men? And I know this sadness pales in comparison to my Palestinian friends in Chicago, who dream of being able to visit or return to their homeland, whose families still hold the keys to the homes from which they were expelled.

While it did not, as of yet, turn me into an Orthodox Jew, my first trip to the holy land made a lasting impression on my spiritual life, as such pilgrimages have for Jews over centuries. I know that one day, I will be able to make such a pilgrimage again. Only next time, there will also be Palestinians on that plane. As I step off the plane and kiss the ground of the holy land, they too, will kiss the ground- because they are finally, truly, home. Next time, when I pray at the Kotel or Hebron, it will be a just place, where no homes are raided, no children are caged, no races or creeds are profiled, no people must live at the mercy of a checkpoint or under the barrel of a gun.

It is this vision of freedom and dignity for all, that is so threatening and terrifying to present-day Israel. And like all great visions, it cannot be banned, legislated, or intimidated out of existence. Israel will not succeed, with this ban, in intimidating American Jews away from joining JVP and supporting the BDS movement for justice and equality. Nor will it succeed in stifling the Palestinian call for justice, or in bullying people of conscience the world over from supporting that call.

Next time I visit Israel/Palestine, its laws will be as just as its land is holy. And until then, I think of the classic meditation of Rebbe Nachman, that I learned on my yeshiva trip. “The whole world is a very narrow bridge,” he said, “and the main thing, is not to be afraid at all.”

No, Zionists, Jewishness does not stagnate in diaspora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanukkah Today- Resisting Complicity in Empire

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Today, what Hellenization looks like for the Jewish people is Zionism, and complicity in Empire and white supremacy.

The notion that the Land of Israel is real estate, that the Torah is our deed of ownership, that the Jewish people were, for over 2,000 years, little more than a nation-state in waiting, and that now, with the state of Israel and its capital Jerusalem, we have blossomed into our true stature as ‘a nation like all other nations’;

The notion that militarism represents our pride and glory as a people, and that Jewish identity requires little more than cheering on the state of Israel, as one would a football team;

The notion that our self-determination and safety as a people can be won through allying with the Trumps of the world, the might and power of American empire, the white evangelical movement, and the forces of Christian hegemony more broadly-

These, and so much more, are the creeping forces of modern-day Hellenization that have worked to fundamentally warp our identities, our institutions, our communities. This worship of power, of Edom, of survival at all costs; this readiness to forego solidarity, to forget our histories, to mimic the oppressors of the world and inflict oppression upon the powerless.

Unlike the Maccabees, let us not zealously demand a return to any ‘fundamental’, true or pure Judaism- these notions of authenticity are ultimately as oppressive as those which we struggle against.

But like the Maccabees, let us not be afraid to name, call out, uproot and smash the forces of assimilation, self-deception, falsehood and corruption that threaten to destroy the body and soul of the Jewish people, from within.

May we ensure that this self-replenishing flame of justice and internal critique burns brighter in our day, and in days to come, and may the forces of wickedness be banished from the earth!

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