Rabbi Brian Walt Imagines a Judaism Without Zionism

My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt just posted a transcript of his talk, “Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity Without Zionism” – a breathtaking piece that deserves the widest possible audience. I don’t know exactly how describe it except to say it’s at once an intensely personal confession, spiritual autobiography, political treatise and most of all, an anguished cri de coeur.

I finally had to admit to myself what I had known for a long time but was too scared to acknowledge: political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethno-nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews. As such political Zionism violates everything I believe about Judaism. While there was desperate need in the 1940s to provide a safe haven for Jews, and this need won over most of the Jewish world and the Western world to support the Zionist movement, the Holocaust can in in no way justify or excuse the systemic racism that was and remains an integral part of Zionism.

In the past I believed that the discrimination I saw – the demolished homes, the uprooted trees, the stolen land – were an aberration of the Zionist vision. I came to understand that all of these were not mistakes nor a blemishes on a dream – they were all the logical outcome of Zionism.

As a Jew, I believe in the inherent dignity of every human being. As a Jew, I believe that justice is the core commandment of our tradition. As a Jew, I believe that we are commanded to be advocates for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. Zionism and the daily reality in Israel violated each of these core values. And I could no longer be a Zionist. I will always be a person with deep and profound connection to Israel and my friends and family there, but I was no longer a Zionist.

I’m sure many readers will not agree with Brian’s conclusions. I’m even surer he will be attacked viciously by many for such “apostasy.”  As for me, I salute the courage it took for him to venture out onto such a precarious limb by sharing his thoughts.

Whatever your reactions, I hope you will be open to the challenge he lays before us.

15 thoughts on “Rabbi Brian Walt Imagines a Judaism Without Zionism

  1. The fact that the need for a place of refuge is no longer such a necessity for the Jews in the modern world doesn’t mean that there is a valid reason for not maintaining the state that was built when there was. The underlying causes of the migration of Europeans to the New World also no longer exist, – ditto for Oceania. But the countries created by these migrations still endure..

    He might say that Israel should endure but change. But if so, then into what? A state where the fate of the Jews will depend on the kindness of other peoples in the area who have yet to demonstrate any confidence-inspiring working models in the countries adjacent to Israel that they control – or indeed in the countries they control throughout the region?

    The “uprooted trees” and “stolen land” are the result of a hardening of attitudes of Zionists brought about in turn by events ranging from the Hebron massacre and Western Wall massacre, to the denial of access to Jewish holy places and the persecution of Jews in Arab countries, etc. That these events may themselves have been the Arab reaction to Zionism is irrelevant. They were an illegitimate reaction, and it was these hostile acts that hardened the hearts of all too many Zionists.

  2. Reading through this, I feel as though I might finally be able to come home, and that there is a Judaism with a place for me. Thanks to Rabbi Walt for drawing a circle within which I can stand.

  3. David,
    The “uprooted trees”, “stolen land” (I am not sure why these are in quotation marks) and the demolition of houses, separate roads, vast settlement expansion etc. are not primarily in response to Palestinian violence against Jews. Stolen land, demolished houses, villages, are all a logical outcome of the decision to create a Jewish state on land inhabited by another people against their will. Ben Gurion and all the Zionist leaders, except for a few involved in Brit Shalom, understood that the establishment of a Jewish State necessitated the forced transfer of the vast majority of Palestinian inhabitants and the complete destruction of their villages. To blame Palestinians for the violence wrought against them is so cruel, blaming the victim for their victimization, a charge many anti-Semites made against Jews.
    Brian Walt

    • Dear Rabbi Brian. I have noted in another correspondence with a colleague on your article how you have chosen to adopt the Palestinian narrative wholesale and chosen to reject the Jewish narrative completely. There is no balance in this approach and for me, therefore, it lacks intellectual integrity. Your article completely ignores historical realities and critical facts. In your myopic view of Israel there is no (and has never been) Arab aggression towards the Jews and Israel, there is no Palestinian terror, there was no UN Vote, there was no war of independence, there was no need for a Jewish State, there were no opportunities missed by Palestinians for a State of their own, there have been no Israeli attempts for peace, there has been no value brought by the State of Israel to the Jewish people etc. That Palestinians choose this narrative for themselves is understandable. That Jews would choose it is deplorable. Regards Lance Katz

    • “Stolen land, demolished houses, villages, are all a logical outcome of the decision to create a Jewish state on land inhabited by another people against their will.”

      Not true. The land was sparsely populated and the Jewish immigrants tended to gather in certain areas away from the indigenous population (except municipal Jerusalem, which had a Jewish majority since the 1870’s).

      The problem was that the very economic success of the Zionist immigration created complications. As the immigrants arrived and settled in certain areas, these areas themselves became more attractive because of increased work and trade opportunities. Thus Arabs were drawn to these areas. This had the potential for good as long as their was no mutual enmity, but after the Ottoman’s were defeated, Faisal of Iraq repudiated his correspondence with Weizmann and the pan-Arab national movement withdrew its support for Zionism. This meant that the only solution was separation.

      I was not blaming the indigenous Arabs for injustices inflicted upon them and well you know it. My argument was that Zionist attitudes towards the Arabs who now call themselves “Palestinians” evolved over time and the injustices were a reflection of these EVOLVED attitudes, not of Zionism per se. I added, obiter to my main argument, that the evolution of Zionist attitudes was in turn a response to actions by local Arabs against the Jews.

      Finally I refer you to my original point that if Zionism is to be replaced it will have to be replaced by something workable. When it is safe (LONG TERM) for Jews to live in existing Arab countries, it will be safe for Israel to abandon Zionism. I do not foresee that day looking on on the horizon.

  4. I agree with Brian that Israel was built and continues to be built on the backs of the Palestinians. I agree that Israel will never be a perfect democratic state. But I can’t abide the revolutionary idealism expressed in this piece. I don’t agree that the solution is to dismantle Israel. The solution is to work for a two-state solution and democratic reforms within Israel.

  5. As a Jew, I believe in every Jew’s innate connection to Zion. As I Jew I believe in every Jew’s innate connection to every other Jew. As a Jew, I believe in the right of ALL Jews to live in Eretz Israel. As a Jew, I believe in the Jewish people’s inherent RIGHT to set up and maintain a sovereign Jewish state in Eretz Israel that is open to ALL Jews to immigrate to from wherever they are. As a Jew, I believe that the Jewish state in Eretz Israel should be committed to strengthening Jewish values and Jewish tradition both inside and outside Israel for all Jews. As a Jew, I believe that the Jews in Eretz Israel have an inherent right to protect themselves form violence and agression from any source both inside Israel and outside. As a Jew I believe that although the Torah mandates that Jews treat all people in the world with respect and to honor their rights, a Jews’ PRIMARY concern is with the welfare of his own Jewish people , just as all the other people in the world identify primarily with their own nationality or ethnic group. As a Jew , I believe that any Jew who works against the security or welfare of Jews inside Israel or outside or against the interest of the Jewish state has essentially cut himself off from the rest of the Jewish people and has made himself or herself a historical irrelevancy.

    • Ike, your last sentence reveals the most chilling aspect of political Zionism: the way it is used as some sort of extra halachic criterion for determining who is truly Jewish. It is extremely sad to see a religion that has always had such a strong tradition of religious and cultural diversity being reduced to this.

      “As a Jew I believe that although the Torah mandates that Jews treat all people in the world with respect and to honor their rights, a Jews’ PRIMARY concern is with the welfare of his own Jewish people , just as all the other people in the world identify primarily with their own nationality or ethnic group.”

      You may struggle to believe it, but no, not everyone thinks this way. Ethnic and national categories are very fluid; we can see this from the nation-state itself, which is a relatively new concept. I am not about to let something as artificial as the colour of someone’s passport determine the level of concern and love that I show for them. Thankfully we do have it in us to be bigger than that.

  6. There isn’t a human being alive who, were he or she raised on an island populated only by his or her parents, would not come to adulthood without the slightest attachment to any “people”, any faith, or any group but Mom and Dad. The “blank slate” idea has been discredited in that we do have innate mental characteristics, but we are not bound to be in any political/religious/philosophical group simply because we possess a brain. So we are born free in that regard.

    But we are so malleable in youth that, once adulthood is achieved, one would think people are genetically Jewish, Baptist or Buddhist, and far more specifically some particular variant of these, to the point where we can kill each other over these completely acquired identities, going so far as to talk of it as being in the blood. We rush to acquired identities with such passion, such need to quiet anxiety!

    Shouldn’t we all consciously attempt to take ourselves away from the specific and toward what is indeed the generic – our humanity? Shouldn’t we question most deeply, and continuously the inculcation we received when we were in no mental state to question it? Shouldn’t what Mom and Dad and the Tribe filled us with be the most suspect part of our mindset, particularly because Mom and Dad were subject to the same indoctrination and might well have automatically passed it on to us?

    It seems to me this is the direction in which Rabbi Walt is moving to his credit, as do all people of good will. What would be the next step…maybe to ask whether the positives that he believes are contained in Judaism are not positives that stand alone without the need of Judaism to support them?

    Isn’t it possible that there is a philosophy of what is good for humans, as humans, that would naturally finds support from any human who has broken free of indoctrination, a philosophy to be found without running for refuge to the specific “beliefs” of me and mine?

  7. The responses from Jews like David Kessler, Lance Katz and i_like_ike52 are the reason Jews like me have left the Jewish community. Judaism is not about God or morality for most Jews. For them it is all a national country club with an exclusive membership list. I have sadly come to the conclusion that Judaism isn’t really a religion like Christianity, but a mechanism to preserve Jewish National/ethnic identity. And I could care less about such a racialist concept.

    • Eric – I’m so sorry you feel this way. Judaism has so much to offer. I hope you will explore the aspects the Judiasm that resonate with you.

      • Steve – Your response is kind, but I no longer believe that there is much power in Judaism. The religion definition was just away to fit into modern Western Society. The Judaism of most Jews I have encountered in the mainstream of the community is really Jewism, not Judaism.

        Everything in Jewish Civilization exists to insure the survival of the Jewish nation/ethnicity. God, ethics, spiritualism, values, human rights, responsibility for our actions: all of these are secondary to and valued as a means to an end….Jewish survival. I’m not sure that the survival of a group of people who share my DNA should trump the existence and rights of any other group to survive.

        The early Reformers tried to do the right thing ideologically, if not ritually, by trying to make Judaism into a religion of ethical monotheism and not a culture of a nation. But zionism has now taken over Judaism to such an extent that most of us can’t even imagine that the God of our Prophets might actually be on the side of the Palestinians. But in order to feel that way one’s Judaism must be based on values not blood.

        We use our narrative of victim-hood like a badge of righteousness instead of seeing it for the pathology that it is. I once heard a Holocaust survivor say that there are two conflicting messages Jews can learn from our history of being oppressed. One is that this will never happen again to us. The alternative is that this will never be allowed to happen to anyone. I know which message I embrace.

        But can the Jewish community ever place the lives and rights of Palestinians (both as individuals and a corporate community) alongside our own. Can we say that they are as important as us and that they have legitimate grievances that were immorally caused by Jews. Can we stop seeing ourselves as just victims long enough to recognize that we can also be victimizers. God only knows.

    • Eric-
      I am surprised at your missing the irony in your own statements…on the one hand you say Jews are too worried about survival, yet you want the Jews to live up to what you define as the religion of “our (Jewish) Prophets”.
      If there aren’t any Jews around who is going to bring the world the message of our (Jewish) Prophets? Have you forgotten that just 70 years ago it was a capital crime to be a Jew on a large part of the earth? Even before and after that period a large percentage of the Jews faced random, sometimes murderous violence? Why do you think Zionism was able to resonate with the majority of the Jews in the world?

      In addition , your claim is that everything in Judaism, as you see it, is subordinated to “survival”. This is simply untrue, Jewish loyalty to G-d and his Torah has led many Jews to give up their lives willingly, out of a desire to serve G-d. But, on a day -to -day level, don’t most people, and I mean the vast majority of people spend their time worrying about and ensuring the survival of themselves and their families? Don’t soldiers spend their time worrying about the survival of their nation? It is a natural thing. Also , your claim that the Jewish Prophets “would be on the side of the Palestinians” indicates to me that you have not read thoroughly the Books
      of the Prophets in the TANACH (Bible). They teach us that the Jews have an eternal right to Eretz Israel. This is predicated on ethical behavior of the Jews towards their fellow Jews and to resident non-Jews ON THE CONDITION THAT THESE NON-JEWS RECOGNIZE JEWISH SOVEREIGNITY and are willing to live in peace with the Jews. The Prophets never sided with non-Jews who were at war with the Jews nor did they recognize sovereign rights of non-Jews in Eretz Israel.

      • i_like_ike52, Jewish survival is no more important morally than, Irish survival and individuals are more than just a part of a nation. To I care whether Jews survive…sure; but I’m more concerned about what kind of human beings we are then whether we are authentic in not letting non-Jews pour Kedem wine. And while you seem so knowledgeable about “TANACH (Bible)” I’ll let you in on a little secret. It says whatever you think it says. If you think values like peace and unity of all people is important, it says it. If you think Jews are chosen by God and are better than “the Goyim”, it says it. Because what it says has always been more of an issue in how one chooses to read it.

        It says it, because it is a redacted work created by primitive and pre-modern human beings (and a few more morally sensitive than we are today) in search of truth through their own particularistic understanding. And many of them had very conflicting ideas. Using it as an excuse to support any agenda is about as meaningful as using Shakespeare to suggest the English language is the preferred form of literary expression. But feel free to go on pretending OUR God gave us this magic book and a magic land. I’ll go on pretending God cares about the weak and the oppressed. And I’ll take my idolatry over your idolatry any day of the week, and twice Erev Shabbat.

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