Last Sunday, Israel revealed their list of 20 social justice groups from around the world it was henceforth banning from the country because of their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. For me, the list represented more than just another news item of the day. As staff person for one organization included on the list – the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) – this news struck home personally as well as professionally
As a rabbi who works for AFSC, I’m proud of the important historical connections between Jewish community and this venerable Quaker organization. As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum itself has noted, AFSC was at the forefront of efforts to help and rescue Jewish refugees after 1938, “ assisting individuals and families in need… helping people flee Nazi Europe, communicate with loved ones, and adjust to life in the United States.”
The USHM has also acknowledged that “the AFSC helped thousands of people in the United States transfer small amounts of money to loved ones in French concentration camps (and helped) hundreds of children, including Jewish refugees and the children of Spanish Republicans, come to the United States under the care of the US Committee for the Care of European Children in 1941–42.”
AFSC became involved with a different group of refugees – the Palestinians – several years later. At the end of 1948, while military hostilities in Palestine were still raging, the UN asked the AFSC to help spearhead the relief effort in Gaza, which was rapidly filling up with Palestinian refugees. Historian Nancy Gallagher has noted refugee relief was not the ultimate goal of their work in Gaza – rather, they “had accepted the invitation to participate in the relief effort with the expectation of assisting in the repatriation and reconciliation process.” (from “Quakers in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Dilemmas of Humanitarian Activism,” p. 97)
In March 1949, AFSC Executive Secretary Clarence Pickett offered a six-point plan to solve the refugee problem, urging “a substantial repatriation of Arabs into the State of Israel.” (p. 103) However, when it became clear that there was no international will for a political solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, AFSC formally stated that it wished to withdraw from Gaza, stating that “prolonged direct relief…militates against a swift political settlement of the problem.” (p. 104)
I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those who applaud the Quakers’ work on behalf of Jewish refugees, yet bitterly criticize them for applying the very same values and efforts on behalf of Palestinian refugees. In a recent article for Tablet, for instance, Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe, made the spurious accusation that AFSC “has gone from saving Jews to vilifying them,” claiming that AFSC’s experience in Gaza convinced them to “get out of the relief business altogether” in order to promote “progressive Israel-hatred.”
In light of such invective, it’s not surprising to learn that Romirowsky and Jaffe are both professionally connected to the Middle East Forum – a notoriously Islamophobic radical right organization led by Daniel Pipes that has been categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beyond the nasty rhetoric however, it bears noting that AFSC has never been solely a relief organization. From its inception 100 years ago in the wake of WW I, it has consistently promoted reconciliation and repatriation alongside direct service to peacefully address conflicts around the world. AFSC’s work in Gaza was/is no exception.
Romirowsky and Jaffe further reveal their prejudiced agenda when they suggest that Palestinian refugees only wanted “to be maintained at someone else’s expense until Israel disappeared.” In fact, the AFSC’s refugee relief efforts in Gaza took place while Palestinians were actively being driven from their homes and were being housed in hastily constructed refugee camps. It is patently outrageous to suggest that they were motivated by anything other than their desire to return to their homes. Under such circumstances, it was not at all unreasonable for the AFSC to advocate for their return and repatriation.
In their article Romirowsky and Jaffe also parrot the Israeli government’s accusation that the BDS movement is “opposed to Israel’s existence.” What they refer to as “the BDS movement” is in fact a response to a call issued by a wide coalition of Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies in 2005. The BDS call is a crie de cour from Palestinians to the world to use this time honored nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel to meet three essential demands:
To end the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the separation wall;
to recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
and to respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
Although BDS is an inherently nonviolent tactic, it is striking to note the lengths to which the government of Israel has devoted time, energy and resources in trying to defeat it over the past decade. It has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to this effort, enlisted a myriad of Israel advocacy organizations and has even created a new government ministry devoted exclusively to fighting BDS. And though demands of the BDS call are based in human rights and international law, it is routinely referred to as antisemitic “economic terrorism” that “delegitimizes the state of Israel.” The blacklist of organizations is thus only the latest in a long line of draconian, non-democratic responses to this rapidly growing non-violent resistance movement.
As such, AFSC’s support of BDS is fully in keeping with its 100-year-old mission. As their recent organizational statement put it:
All people, including Palestinians, have a right to live in safety and peace and have their human rights respected. For 51 years, Israel has denied Palestinians in the occupied territories their fundamental human rights, in defiance of international law. While Israeli Jews enjoy full civil and political rights, prosperity, and relative security, Palestinians under Israeli control enjoy few or none of those rights or privileges.
The Palestinian BDS call aims at changing this situation, asking the international community to use proven nonviolent social change tactics until equality, freedom from occupation, and recognition of refugees’ right to return are realized. AFSC’s Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel affirm each of these rights. Thus, we have joined others around the world in responding to the Palestinian-led BDS call. As Palestinians seek to realize their rights and end Israeli oppression, what are the alternatives left to them if we deny them such options?
Quakers pioneered the use of boycotts when they helped lead the “Free Produce Movement,” a boycott of goods produced using slave labor during the 1800s. AFSC has a long history of supporting economic activism, which we view as an appeal to conscience, aimed at raising awareness among those complicit in harmful practices, and as an effective tactic for removing structural support for oppression.
This past October I traveled with other AFSC staff people to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, for meetings with our staff there. Yes, our efforts in Israel/Palestine still continue. While we do not yet know this latest action will impact our work, we are well aware that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been denied entry into the land of their ancestors for decades. The AFSC, like the other organizations on Israel’s odious list, know that peace can only come to this land when the essential injustice that occurred 70 years ago is justly addressed, and the human rights of all are recognized and respected.
The festival of Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees, a Jewish priestly family from the Hasmonean dynasty, over the Seleucid Empire in 2nd century BCE. According to the Talmud, when the Maccabees entered the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem and attempted to relight the menorah, there was only enough oil for one day. But when they lit the fire, a miracle occurred and it lasted for eight full days.
What’s the meaning of this simple parable? Some say that the image of increasing light is appropriate to the dark winter season — a time in which many religious traditions celebrate festivals by kindling lights. Others say that this story underscores a powerful political/spiritual truth: Even in the bleakest of times, an oppressed people will somehow find the strength to continue the struggle.
When I light my Hanukkah candles this year, I plan to light an extra one each night for Gaza.
This year marks 10 years since Israel commenced its blockade of Gaza, turning this 140-square-mile strip of land into a virtual open-air prison. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead — a devastating military assault that killed 1,419 (including at least 308 children), wounded over 5,000 more and left more than 20,000 homeless. (The name of the operation, perversely enough, was a reference to a children’s Hanukkah song based on a poem by Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik: “My teacher gave a dreidel to me/A dreidel of cast lead.”)
Two months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Gaza as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). My visit left me with a myriad of impressions and emotions, foremost of which was a sense of awe at the ability of Palestinian Gazans to live with resilience and dignity under the most oppressive of conditions.
This is, of course, not to minimize their trauma nor to tokenize them as victims. A recent, presumably well-meaning article in Ha’aretz did precisely that, interviewing a volunteer psychologist for Physicians for Human Rights, who portrayed Palestinians in Gaza as overwhelmingly obsessed with sex and addicted to behavior-altering drugs. The psychologist claimed that due to Gaza’s devastating conditions, many Palestinians have “lost their humanity” and are unable to “see the other, his pain.” In an important rejoinder to the article, Palestinian activist Nada Elia responded pointedly:
I do not want to minimise the severity of daily life in Gaza. I am someone who has insisted the siege be recognised as genocidal. Nevertheless, I am appalled at the callousness of the interviewer as she asks for an elaboration of how people in Gaza have lost their “internal morality,” their very “humanity”.
I saw a great deal of humanity during my short stay in Gaza. I traveled there to participate in strategic planning meetings with AFSC staff colleagues, to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah, with our Gaza staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us traveled to Gaza to meet with our two full-time staff members there: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.
Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on public achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestine Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation — particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt, of course, by the youth of Gaza, who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140-square-mile strip of land.
When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was 18 years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically with the experiences of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.
It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather, it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not merely a youth service project; its ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard, this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance”: initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions; advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention; and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade. The latter program, “Gaza Unlocked,” seeks to educate the public about the reality of the blockade by sharing the stories — and the humanity — of the people who live there.
Here’s a sample of their testimonies:
College graduate Fidaa Zaanin, 27:
This is life. We should not give up. I will maintain my humanity and my dreams despite the siege. I believe in change, if not immediate then with time. I will be an example for my brothers and my sisters and whoever dreams of a future, for they are my hope for the future.
Freelance photographer Ezz Al Zanoon, 24:
We reject the images of us that are being shown to the world. We are humans. We are proud of our humanity. We are proud of our achievements despite the difficult circumstances. No one can achieve what we have done. Despite the blockade, the wars, the structured destructions, we continue to live and fight for a dignified life. We fight against the imposed restrictions, being triggered by our desire for life.
NGO project coordinator Shareef Hamad, 34:
I must challenge this situation. I don’t have any choice. This affects our daily lives and our emotional well-being. We are under all this pressure.
What inspires me is the faith that this situation is not eternal. I can change it or its consequences. I can at least limit its impact on me and those I love. According to history, no oppression lasts forever. This nation deserves better.
During our final night in Gaza, my colleagues and I walked through the streets of Gaza City on our way back from dinner. Because Gaza only receives four hours of electricity a day, the street lights and home windows around us were dark. The only light came from beachfront hotels that had their own generators. We were well aware that we were staying in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. But to paraphrase Shareef Hamad, I am inspired by the faith that no darkness is eternal.
During Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle of light that sustains us even when the world is at its darkest. This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting a candle for Gaza.
Memorials take many forms – some are grand and iconic like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC while others exude power through their very simplicity.
Here’s an example of the latter category:
During my trip Gaza last month, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches placed along the beachfront as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City. As we drove by, I noticed that some benches were empty; on another, a sole person sat gazing out to sea and another was filled with what seemed like an entire family. My AFSC colleague Ali Albari noted the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town that was forcibly depopulated by Zionist militias in 1948/49.
The majority of the almost 2,000,000 residents of Gaza are in fact, refugees – Palestinians who had originally lived in the central and northern regions of the country. After their dispossession they were herded into refugee camps in Gaza, fully expecting to return to their homes after the armistice. Now, almost seventy years later, they are still waiting.
It’s not difficult to grasp their sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Clearly, they have not forgotten.
Unlike most memorials, which commemorate that which was lost and never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their homes to be lost to them at all. On the contrary, I these benches testify to their faith that they will one day return.
Here is another report back from our AFSC staff trip to Gaza – this one by my colleague, Jennifer Bing. (Cross posted with Acting in Faith.)
As I drove with my Palestinian colleague to the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel—passing hundreds of children coming out of school, dodging donkey carts full of vegetables and fresh eggs, and hearing the call to midday prayers—I asked, “Is it just me, or is there a new spirit of hope in Gaza?” He replied, “Yes, there is a change since you were here two years ago, even in the last weeks.”
My AFSC colleague who listens to Fairuz in the morning and Um Kulthum in the afternoon—two legendary female vocalists in the Middle East—is unable to get a permit to attend meetings outside of Gaza. He has deeply felt the impact of the blockade, especially after his neighborhood of Sheja’iyeh was heavily bombed in 2014. Like the two million residents of Gaza, his family of five have adjusted their lives to the electricity power cuts, lack of clean water and medical care, and overcrowded schools.
“We have to have hope things will be better,” he told me as we said our farewells at the border crossing.
A few days before I arrived in Gaza, Palestinians filled the streets celebrating the beginning of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian political factions. On Oct. 12, a few days after I left Gaza, a national reconciliation pact was signed in Cairo, setting the stage for possible changes that may lead to improvements in the lives of Palestinians in Gaza who suffer from a decade of international blockade, years of internal political strife, and decades of Israeli military occupation.
“The streets support unity,” said one of the young participants in AFSC’s program, whom we met our first night in Gaza. “If unity will bring a better situation, a better future for youth, of course we support it.”
Today youth in Gaza have a bleak existence, facing with their families the lack of clean water and sanitation, electricity cuts, overcrowded schools, underfunded medical services, high unemployment (62 percent for youth) despite high levels of literacy, and restrictions on leaving Gaza.
“I just want the chance to travel abroad to learn from other cultures and get new ideas,” one youth told us. “I want people to know that Gaza is suffering, but also that we have talented, good creative people who live here—we are not just victims.”
One university researcher we met in Gaza told us: “Youth feel estranged in their own communities. Seventy-four percent of youth would emigrate from Gaza if given the chance. They don’t see that they have influence over their social or political lives and are not participating in collective ways such as unions or political parties.”
As Palestinians in Gaza focus on their daily survival—navigating power cuts and making sure families are fed (70 percent are now food aid dependent)—many don’t focus on challenging the structural violence of military occupation.
“We are happy to feel any kind of hope, but reconciliation must result in the liberation of Palestine.” This perspective was shared by a Palestinian fishermen who sat with us over morning coffee on the docks in Gaza City. Proud of their role in one of Palestine’s major industries, the fishermen told us that the blockade has dramatically reduced the quality and quantity of fish caught in Gaza’s seas. Israeli restrictions on the nautical miles they are allowed to fish, Israeli army attacks on fishing boats, high fuel prices, and raw sewage dumped daily into the sea due to electricity shortages have had devastating effects on the fishing economy.
One fisherman told us: “We want to work on our sea without danger, and feed our people who need to eat. We want a job with dignity. We need protection from Israeli and U.S. weapons.”
Another added, “We are the port to the world, but the blockade needs to end.”
As we drove through the streets of Gaza from the North to the South, we witnessed reconstruction efforts mainly funded through Gulf countries. Despite improvements, some buildings, such as a new hospital funded by Qatar, did not include funding for staff and equipment and thus is yet to open.
Border crossings in the North and South were empty. One of the Palestinian non-governmental employees we met said financial assistance to Gaza has been impacted by regional conflicts, and “donor fatigue” is an issue for reconstruction. “Some people are optimistic that the reconciliation talks will mean more funding will be available for Gaza and that the blockade will ease, bringing some measure of stability.”
Daily life goes on in Gaza despite the blockade. We saw farmers harvesting olives, mechanics repairing old cars, gold sellers meeting with prospective brides, merchants selling fresh dates at street corners, children playing tag in alleyways, women going to hair salons, bridal parties singing congratulations, and boys playing soccer on the beach. Walking on the dark streets of Gaza City at night—streets only lit by the hotel generators that power wedding parties into the late hours—I felt the energy of Palestinians desiring to live a normal existence.
Yet lives in Gaza are not normal, and the United Nations has predicted that the area will be “unlivable by 2020.” Children in Gaza are growing up in a world where they have never seen clean water come out of their faucets nor electricity continuously provided for a full day. A father of a small boy shared with us that he noticed that his small son would always be lying on the floor each morning rather than on his mattress. The father finally realized that the intense summer heat in Gaza was making his son roll out of bed in search of a cooler surface—the floor. “What kind of normal life is that?” he asked us.
“Your advocacy is crucial for us,” said a Palestinian we met with over coffee. “Tell our stories. We need to bring people to Gaza to see the life we lead. All the news cannot show the beauty of the people, nor how we can be destroyed in a blink of an eye.”
As we share the stories and hopes of Palestinians in Gaza through projects like Gaza Unlocked, we must continue to advocate for opening Gaza’s borders and giving Palestinians their right to freedom of movement so critical to the success of any negotiated agreement. As I passed through the long above-ground tunnel out of Gaza heavily fortified by the Israeli army, I was reminded by the highly weaponized border that the hopes for reconciliation and unity among Palestinians cannot succeed until the Israeli military occupation ends.
I’ve been writing a great deal on this blog about Gaza for over ten years but until this past week, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in person. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience Gaza as a real living, breathing community and I’m returning home all the more committed to the movement to free Gaza from Israel’s crushing blockade – now eleven years underway with no end in sight.
For the past ten days, I’ve been attending strategic planning meetings with staff colleagues of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah – with our Gazan staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us spent two days in Gaza, hosted by the two full-time members of the Gaza staff: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.
It’s extremely rare for Americans to receive permission from Israel to enter Gaza through the Erez Crossing. Permits are generally issued only for journalists and staff people of registered international NGOs. Though I was technically allowed to enter Gaza as an AFSC staff member, I wasn’t 100% sure it would really happen until the moment I was actually waved through the crossing by the solider at Passport Control in Erez.
Quakers have a long history in Israel/Palestine – dating back to before the founding of the state of Israel. The Ramallah Friends School for Girls was founded in 1889, and their School for Boys in 1901. The two schools subsequently merged into one; now well into the 21st century Ramallah Friends remains a important and venerable Palestinian educational institution. (The former head of the school Joyce Aljouny, was recently appointed AFSC’s General Secretary.)
AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, immediately following Israel’s founding and the start of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. Their efforts continued until the United Nations Relief Works Agency started its operations there a year later. Since that time, AFSC has retained its programmatic presence throughout the Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on Public Achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestinian Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation – particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt of course, by the youth of Gaza who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140 square mile strip of land.
When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was eighteen years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically from the experience of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.
It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not a merely a youth service project – it’s ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance:” initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade.
There’s so much more I could write about my experiences in Gaza. As I prepare now to head back to the States, I’m struggling to give voice the myriad of emotions that are flooding through me. At the moment, I’m thinking particularly of Ali and Firas, our Gaza staff members, who were not only gracious and wonderful hosts (although they were entirely that); but also talented and visionary organizers who teach us a great deal about how to do this work effectively in the most extreme of circumstances.
Even under the brutality of Israel’s blockade, we could not help but be struck by the beauty of this place and the dignity of its people and culture (which includes, I hasten to add, the deliciousness of its cuisine). As it happened, our visit occurred immediately after the beginning of reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by the Egyptian government. Most of the Gazans we spoke to expressed a guarded sense of hope that it might result in some easement of the blockade – particularly in regards to freedom of movement, drinkable water and electrical service. Of course this optimism occurs within a constant context of isolation and vulnerability. The next Israeli military assault is altogether possible at any moment – and every Gazan must contend with this horrible reality every moment of every day.
I’ve posted below some additional pictures (and one video clip) of memorable moments from our visit. My staff colleagues will be writing more about these moments and I will be sure to share their posts here. For now, I’ll end on a note of gratitude: to AFSC for giving me the opportunity to participate in this sacred work; to our gracious hosts in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza; and to my US staff colleagues who are true travel companions in more ways than one.
I took the picture at the top of this post during our final hours in Gaza. As we debriefed on a beautiful morning over coffee at a seaside cafe, three young boys who likely should have been in madrassa came down to the beach to hang out and have fun together. The loveliness of the moment was both very real and very illusory. There was no mistaking the beauty of the place and people with whom we were sharing this moment. At the same time, however, we were aware that we were in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. We were also well aware that not far from the place these boys were standing, Ismail Mohammed Bakr (9), Zakaria Ahed Bakr (10), Ahed Atef Bakr (10) and Mohamed Ramez Bakr (11) were murdered by Israeli naval fire while they played soccer on the beach on July 16, 2014.
There can be no illusions where Gaza is concerned. As I leave for home, I’m more convinced than ever that we are all complicit in this cruelty – and that we are the ones who must end it.
The North American Jewish establishment is furious with Israel – and has just let loose an astonishing fusillade of collective protest. The President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of an “unconscionable insult” and vowed not to be “still or silent.” The Executive Director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, promised that they “will continue to protest.” The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, was equally direct, saying, “We are going to be assertive in asking what’s next.
What on earth is going on? Has the Jewish institutional community finally broken their abject silence over Israel’s human rights abuses? Are Jewish communal leaders finally finding the courage of their convictions on the issue of Israel/Palestine?
Not so fast. This impressive display of communal indignation was in fact mobilized in response to Netanyahu’s recent announcement that his government was suspending a 2016 agreement that expanded the southern section of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer. This agreement followed years of protest, negotiation and maneuvering, led by the Women of the Wall and liberal Diaspora Jewish organizations seeking a joint prayer space at the Kotel.
Nothing, it seems, lights a fire in the belly of the Diaspora Jewish establishment more viscerally than the cause of liberal Jewish equality in the Jewish state. While Israel’s oppressive occupation now marks its 50th year and the cause of a just peace remains more remote than ever, our Jewish leaders are still more concerned about the rights of Jews than the rights of all who live in the land.
It’s a long-standing double standard –- and in her recent op-ed, “How Bibi Just Gave Liberal Jews the Finger – And What We Can Do About It,” Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner (perhaps unintentionally) cast a telling light on this phenomenon:
Recognize our more progressive, egalitarian form of Judaism, said the Diaspora, and we’ll have your back on military, defense and geopolitical concerns, even if that might violate our liberal values or put us in conflict with natural allies.
Could we ask for a better description of this patently immoral bargain that has long been struck between Israel and the Diaspora Jewish community? We will willingly violate our own values for you. Just give liberal Jews rights and we’ll remain silent on your unchecked militarism and oppression of the Palestinian people.
This silence is all the more egregious at the moment, given the humanitarian crisis Israel is currently inflicting on the people of Gaza. Now eleven years into its crushing blockade, the government announced this past month that it will start cutting electricity to the Gaza Strip, a move that could literally cause 21-hour blackouts just as the heat of the summer is gearing up.
Israel is making this latest maneuver in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, who, like Israel, seeks the ouster of Hamas from Gaza. It’s a cynical political ploy that will only harden the resolve of Gaza hardliners. As many have correctly observed, the rise of extremism can be directly tied to Israel’s cruel and draconian policies. In a recent article for the London Review of Books, Harvard scholar Sara Roy made this very point following her recent visit to Gaza:
Person after person told me that growing support for extremist factions in Gaza does not emanate from political or ideological belief – as these factions may claim – but from people’s need to feed their families. Many, perhaps most of the new recruits to Islamic State-affiliated groups are choosing to join because membership guarantees an income. At the same time, Hamas is desperate to secure enough funds to keep paying the salaries of its military wing, the al-Qassem Brigades, which is also reportedly seeing a swelling of its ranks. It seems that unemployed young men in Gaza increasingly face two options: join a military faction or give up.
While these these measures have the stated intention of toppling Hamas, it is much more likely that these measures will only “ignite an already combustible situation” and exacerbate “already-dire humanitarian situation on its doorstep,” as journalist Alex Kane wrote last week. Indeed, it is difficult even imagine an even greater humanitarian tragedy than the one that currently exists. According to Aimee Shalan, CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians:
Surgeries have already been cancelled, and hospitals forced to cut back on essential cleaning and sterilization services. Medical equipment is rapidly degrading due to constant fluctuations in electrical current. Any further cuts to electricity supply in Gaza will therefore have potentially disastrous effects. The lives of patients in intensive care, including approximately 100 babies, will be immediately endangered should supplies dwindle further.
The effect of the Israeli blockade upon children is a particularly tragic aspect of this crisis. Almost 50% of Gaza’s population is 14 or younger. According to UNICEF, the 2014 war took a heavy toll on Gaza’s children: “More than 500 were killed, 3,374 were injured – nearly a third of whom suffer permanent disability – and more than 1,500 were orphaned. Hundreds of thousands were left in trauma.”
I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in liberal Jewish establishment over these cruel human rights abuses? While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with Jewish rights in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live under its control. Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism: even the more “liberal” among us seem only to be able to express that tolerance selectively.
Roy, the Harvard scholar, noted that during her visit, she was asked again and again by Gazans: “Why is Gaza being punished in so heartless a manner, and what does Israel truly hope to gain by it?
Will Diaspora Jewish leaders ever find the courage to ask this question out loud?
I’m very happy to announce that the 2nd edition of my book, Wrestling in the Daylight, has just been published by Just World Books. This new edition changes the overall context of the book considerably: while the first edition of Wrestling is a record of a congregational rabbi who charted a path into Palestinian solidarity, the second edition includes two new chapters that bring the book up to date, reflecting my decision to leave full-time congregational work. You can purchase the book here. For a sneak preview, I’ve posted the new Preface below.
As always I’m enormously grateful to Helena Cobban and the good folks at Just World Books for their encouragement and support. I’ll be doing book readings around Chicago and the US, so please check the JWB event calendar over the next few weeks to see if/when I’ll be coming to your town.
When I wrote the posts presented in the first edition of Wrestling in the Daylight, I hoped they might somehow help widen the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the American Jewish community. In the five years since that edition was published, I’m encouraged to be able to say this discourse has indeed widened in significant ways.
To cite just a few examples: Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that openly supports Palestinian human rights and endorses the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), has experienced explosive growth in the past several years and has become a force to be reckoned with by the Jewish community. Open Hillel, an initiative initiated by Jewish college students to “promote pluralism and open discourse on Israel/Palestine and beyond” is increasingly active in campuses across the country. Another rapidly growing organization created by young Jews, IfNotNow, is challenging American Jewish communal support of Israel’s occupation through public acts of civil disobedience.
I do believe we are witnessing the growth of a very real Jewish movement of resistance to the status quo in the American Jewish community and Israel. Led largely by a younger generation, it is openly challenging Israel’s brutal occupation and in some cases, even the very premise of Zionism itself. Notably, it is growing and thriving outside the mainstream Jewish institutional world, finding common cause with other movements (i.e. Black Lives Matter) that struggle against systems of oppression.
As I write these words, Israel is currently ruled by the most right wing government in its history and is doubling down on its brutal occupation. In Europe, extreme nationalist parties are on the rise, and in the United States, the so-called “alt-right” has become politically normalized following the election of Donald Trump. White liberal Americans have suddenly been forced to confront the reality of institutional oppression that has been long familiar to black and brown people, gay, lesbian, queer and trans people, undocumented people and First Nation peoples – as well those who live at the intersection of those identities.
If my participation in the Palestine solidarity movement has taught me anything over the past several years, it is that the fight for justice in Palestine is inseparable from the fight for justice in Chicago, Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock and too many other places around the world. If I have any hope at all in this fearful political moment, it comes from all that I’ve learned from those who live every day with the reality of institutional oppression and the allies and accomplices who stand in solidarity with them. I take heart in the knowledge that there is an active Jewish presence within this new movement of resistance – and I’m immensely proud to be part of it.
This second edition of Wrestling in the Daylight contains a few editorial changes and updates the book with two new chapters: “Toward a New Model of Interfaith Relations” and “Tzedek Chicago.” The former chapter also contains some posts and comments that were written during “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s military assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014. Later that year I decided to resign from my congregation to devote myself to activism full time. In 2015, I founded a new non-Zionist congregation, Tzedek Chicago.
As it has turned out, Wrestling in the Daylight is now bookended by two ruinous “operations” waged by Israel against Gaza. Nearly ten years since the first words of this book were written, two million Palestinians (the majority of them children) remain imprisoned in a tiny strip of land, subjected to increasingly subhuman conditions and regular onslaughts at the hands of the Israeli military. If the past is any indication, it is only a matter of time before Israel launches its next assault.
It is our collective shame that the world allows this outrage to continue—and it is to the people of Gaza that I now dedicate this book.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler, because, “Even Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.” He later added the “clarification” that “[Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”
There are so many things that are so horribly wrong about Spicer’s comments, it’s difficult to know where to start. I’ll limit myself to four points (and I’m not even going to touch his inscrutable reference to “Holocaust centers”):
#1: Our own allies have used US-supplied chemical weapons.
During its 2008-2009 military assault on Gaza, Israel dropped white phosphorous – a chemical that burns flesh down to the bone and can cause fatal damage to the liver, kidneys and the heart – on densely populated civilian centers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) later issued a 71-page report, “Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” which provided numerous “witness accounts of the devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on civilians and civilian property.”
Israel initially denied its use of white phosphorous, but when faced with overwhelming evidence, it admitted it did indeed deploy this chemical, claiming it only used it as a smokescreen to protect its troops. This statement, too, was false. HRW’s Fred Abrahams pointed out:
In Gaza, the Israeli military didn’t just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops. It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren’t in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died.
HRW also noted that “all of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found were manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time.”
More recently, it was reported that Saudi Arabia appears to be using US-supplied white phosphorous in its war on Yemen. When asked about this, the State Department responded that it was “aware of these reports” and is “looking into them.”
#2: Spicer doesn’t seem to believe that Jews were Germany’s “own people.”
Whether consciously or not, when Spicer noted that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people,” he was suggesting that the 200,000 German Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were not Germany’s “own.” This is a time-honored anti-Semitic trope that stigmatizes Jews as alien elements in the nations in which they live.
It is also a meme that Donald Trump and his followers openly apply to immigrants, Muslims, people of color and any other group they deem “un-American.” As Michael Daly correctly observed in the Daily Beast:
When the Trumpians tell us that the president is only fulfilling his promises to The American People and doing what The American People want in the interest of The American People, you can be sure that they meant it in the same sense that Hitler spoke of The German People.
#3: We’ve heard this before.
Even if we chalk up Spicer’s comments to ignorance, this kind of insensitivity is part of a growing pattern of disturbing dog whistles Trump has repeatedly been sounding in relation to American Jews: his appointment of “alt-rightist” Steve Bannon as a close White House advisor; his reluctance to disavow his support from full-bore white supremacists, such as David Duke and Richard Spencer; his use of an anti-Semitic image in his campaign; his International Holocaust Day statement that made no mention of Jews; and his use of the “America First” slogan, which has historically anti-Semitic roots.
Some were hoping that given Trump’s fraught relationship with the American Jewish community, he would at least attend the White House Passover Seder, as Obama did on each of the eight years of his presidency. Alas, neither Trump, nor his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, chose to attend. (He did, however, issue a tweet wishing a happy Passover “to everyone celebrating.”)
#4: On Passover?!
Yes, it certainly added insult to injury that Spicer made these comments on the first day of Passover. However, let’s choose to make this a teachable moment. After all, one of the central themes of the Exodus story that is read on Passover is the danger of the Pharaohs who use xenophobia to single out Jews and other minorities for oppression.
So let’s take heart from the lesson that Exodus teaches us. As poet Kevin Coval so aptly puts it in his poem “all the pharaohs must fall”:
wake in this new day
neighbors are allies
we don’t have to compete with
we can ally and fight with them
there are more of us
who don’t drill or bomb or legislate
more of us who 3rd shift and wash dishes
more of us who forge papers and sneak over fences
more of us worried about unlawful arrests
and whose worry arrests in the night without sleep
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
This guest post was written by my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, currently a Professor of Religion at Temple University. Rebecca was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1976 and served on the college faculty and administration for several years thereafter. She is one of our most important scholars of Reconstructionist Judaism and is the co-author, with Rabbi Jacob Staub, of Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach – widely considered to be the definitive primer on Reconstructionism. Rebecca is the author of many other books and articles on Jewish history as well as religion and feminism, sexuality, and gender.
Rebecca wrote this essay as an answer to the question, “Can one be a Reconstructionist if one is not a Zionist?” Needless to say, as a non-Zionist Reconstructionist, this question has been posed to me a myriad of times, both from within and outside our movement. I am enormously grateful to Rebecca for this important response, which I believe deserves a readership far beyond Reconstructionist and Jewish circles.
When I was challenged with the question “Can there be Reconstructionism without (or against) Zionism?” I didn’t take it lightly. Zionism was central to Mordecai Kaplan’s philosophy of Judaism and has been an unquestioned pillar of the movement that developed from his teachings. But careful reflection on the contemporary state of both Reconstructionism and Zionism makes questioning that equivalence not only plausible but also necessary from my point of view. Zionism, unquestioned in the vast majority of the Jewish communal world, has come under deep scrutiny by the rest of the globe, including in the state of Israel. If concerns about Zionism could be examined anywhere in the Jewish community, Reconstructionist Judaism, with its history of taking courageous stances on difficult issues, should be the place. I would like to suggest that there can be Reconstructionism without Zionism, based both on my reading of Kaplan’s ideas about the topic and my own personal experience as a Reconstructionist.
How does one decide to identify as a Reconstructionist, and what does that identification mean today? Belonging to and participating in Reconstructionist organizations and communities is one means by which one can claim connection, and that is certainly where I begin. But is it only about belonging? Another connection is aligning one’s thinking with that of Reconstructionism’s founder, Mordecai Kaplan. Since its inception, being guided by Kaplan’s philosophy has been central to the Reconstructionist project (although Kaplan himself was most dubious about a movement dedicated to his ideas). Over time, however, the relationship to Kaplan’s ideas has changed. For example, Kaplan absolutely rejected the idea of the Jews as a Chosen People, removing all references to the concept from the liturgy he created. Today the Reconstructionist prayer book includes references to chosenness as an alternative option for prayer. Kaplan also had little knowledge of or interest in including Jews who felt disenfranchised (Jews of color, with disabilities, or who identified as LGBT). Today including those groups is a hallmark of Reconstructionist communities. Kaplan never imagined patrilineal descent and firmly believed in endogamy; today Reconstructionists welcome interfaith families and are very open minded on the question of Jewish belonging. Kaplan’s early followers were interested primarily in an intellectual approach to Jewish life. Today spirituality that is focused primarily on each person’s relationship to God flourishes in Reconstructionist circles.
Yet I would argue that despite these changes, the Reconstructionist movement is still Kaplanian. I myself remain a Reconstructionist not only through association with its organizations but because the movement still operates as Kaplan suggested would be necessary to keep Jewish life robust. First, Kaplan was committed to the evolving nature of Jewish civilization. This understanding that Judaism would change and new meanings would be created in every generation is Reconstructionism’s cardinal principle. Like Moses not recognizing the Bet Midrash of Rabbi Akiba, Kaplan might not recognize the priorities of the Reconstructionist movement as it has evolved in this generation. But the process of reconstruction as he outlined it demands an acceptance of those changes. All liberal Jews acknowledge that things change; Reconstructionism is predicated on embracing those changes. Kaplan also provided the means through which we are to go about making those changes (reconstruction, if you will) that he called “transvaluation.” Transvaluing was Kaplan’s term for investing Jewish concepts and practices that were not inherently sensible or appealing to his generation with new meanings. But he was also of the mind that some of the concepts were no longer ethical or viable. These ideas, like chosenness, could not be transvalued and would have to be set aside. The Reconstructionist movement, in following these principles through the process of values based decision-making, discussion and debate, remains under Kaplan’s influence no matter what the results of those conversations turn out to be. And Reconstructionist communities don’t all agree about those results, nor do they have to. The commitment is to the process and to welcoming a diversity of opinion.
Reconstructionism without Zionism in Theory
In that spirit, I would like to subject Zionism to this process, first looking at how the concept evolved in Kaplan’s thinking and then examining whether what it means today still comports with the best values of what Kaplan defined as ethical nationhood.
In the early twentieth century Zionism was not popular among American Jews, but Kaplan was among those American Jewish thinkers who early on embraced the idea of a national home in Palestine. Influenced by Ahad Ha-am, Kaplan saw in the creation of Jewish settlements in Palestine a potential for the renaissance of Jewish culture, language, literature, and art that would revitalize Jewish civilization. He saw the creation of a homeland in Palestine as part of his larger project—a reconceptualization of nationalism as ethical nationhood. Kaplan’s ultimate dream was a reconstitution of a trans-national Jewish people that would be a model for a different kind of world: based not on territorially or ethnically based sovereign states, but on national groups built on ethics and a mingling together of multiple cultures.
Unlike Herzl and his followers, Kaplan’s Zionism was not focused on an ingathering of Jews as a means to protect them from persecution, but part of his plan to revitalize Jewish civilization. Kaplan adamantly disagreed with political Zionists’ concept of sh’lilat ha-galut (negation of the diaspora) and the idea that all Jews should live together in one ethnonational territory based on ethno-cultural uniformity. In Judaism as a Civilization, he asserted, “The restoration of the Jews to national status will contribute to, rather than detract from, international-mindedness.” (p. 241) He envisioned a world congress of Jews, who, dispersed throughout the nations of the world, would create a new model of ethical nationhood based on trans-national reciprocity. He was not interested in a sovereign Jewish nation that would be like other nations, but believed that a new concept of nationhood would transform the world’s sovereign nations and, in particular, make American democracy effective for all its citizens through this example of stateless nationhood exemplified by the Jewish people. He wanted America to truly be a nation that fully accepted all of the different national groups in its midst. He was also concerned that the Jewish home in Palestine be a place where the non-Jewish population’s “claims and interests were carefully safe-guarded; and in the mandate for Palestine ample provision is made against any possible violation of the rights of the non-Jewish population.”1 Or so he believed would be the case.
Kaplan was not the only American or European Zionist who put forth ideas that did not involve establishing a sovereign Jewish state.2 But any variety of Zionism that was not based on the model of statehood became irrelevant after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The language of nationhood that Kaplan used to describe the international Jewish collective could no longer be differentiated from statehood. As a result Kaplan began to use the term peoplehood to describe the transnational spiritual and cultural unity of the Jews, and continued to insist passionately on the value and importance of the diaspora in its reciprocal relations with the state, in respectful disagreement with the efforts of Israel’s leaders to renounce any version of Zionism that did not insist exclusively upon Aliyah. Kaplan’s later writings all made clear that in his vision the establishment of the state was not Zionism’s end, but merely the first step in promoting the transnational people that was his ultimate goal.3 As (Recontructionst Rabbi) David Teutsch reflected, “the Israel of our reality is often in shocking tension with the Zionism of our dreams.”4
But in Reconstructionist circles, as in the wider Jewish community, Kaplan’s dream of worldwide Jewish nationhood beyond the established state has been put aside. Zionism today is only a code word for what Israel’s founders proclaimed it to be: support for the sovereign state. As Reconstructionists we must accept this reality as part of our belief that concepts and words evolve based on the needs and values of contemporary Jews. But the process of evolving also demands that we analyze whether this definition of Zionism meets our highest values. Does this transvaluing work, or must we reject the term? While for the majority of Reconstructionist Jews it probably meets that test, I am part of a minority for whom it does not. The tension between the reality of Israel and the Zion of our dreams is too great to allow for me to claim that these words are equivalent.
Reconstructionism without Zionism in practice
To be fair, I did not start out as a Zionist. I grew up in a secular Jewish home in the 1950s and 60s where my only knowledge of Israel was based on a report I wrote for my 7th grade Social Studies class. Neither Israel (nor the Holocaust for that matter) was part of the curriculum of the classical Reform synagogue I attended. It was a Christian friend who took me to a rally during the Six Day War that made me think more about my relationship to the state. Reading Martin Buber that summer convinced me that the kibbutz, at least, conformed to my ideal of how I-Thou relationships could be realized in community. Eager to learn more, I spent my junior year in college at Hebrew University in 1969-1970. The American Friends of Hebrew University, much like Birthright today, provided this free educational experience with the hope that it would make me love Israel and want to live there. And there was much that I loved–the beauty of the cities and towns I lived in and traveled to; the experience of being immersed in Jewish history and culture, of living in Jewish time and space. But it became clearer and clearer to me that I was not at home in Israel. I didn’t appreciate the assumption that as a Jew that was where I belonged. The young men with guns in the street made me uncomfortable. My American friends who were raised as Zionists seemed hopelessly naïve to me. And I had a real problem with the way Arabs (Jewish and not) were treated, and was appalled by the cavalier attitudes towards the refugee camps in Gaza we were taken to see for a reason I have yet to fathom. Ironically, I learned about Reconstructionism in Israel that year. A friend recommended Judaism as a Civilization as an alternative view; it was a panacea for me. Kaplan’s commitment to creating a viable American Judaism was exactly what I was looking for.
In rabbinical school in the 1970s I would probably still have called myself a non-Zionist if it had been possible. But by that point in time, Judaism equaled Zionism and not to call oneself a Zionist was simply unimaginable, so a Zionist I became, at least nominally. Immersed in that world, to contemplate that, as the enemies of Israel believed, “Zionism was racism” was beyond my comprehension. I was enraged by the Palestinian professor who taught in my Ph.D. program who would not allow Jewish students in his class because of his anger at Israel. But I always assumed the occupation would end, and Israel would make peace with the Palestinians and give them back the lands they began to occupy in 1967. To that end, I became a nominal supporter of groups like Breira, New Jewish Agenda, and Women in Black, but I did not get involved. The 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila changed that for me. I began to speak publicly about Israel’s complicity and power in the region; I began to feel an even deeper alienation and anger. From there I have never turned back. When the government of Israel acceded to the idea of creating a Palestinian state I was hopeful, but soon realized that would never come to pass as the reality of a greater Israel soon superseded it. While liberal Jews still cling to the idea of a two-state solution, and the image of Israel as a democracy, it became clearer and clearer to me that the majority of Israelis and the elected government of Israel favored the one-state solution that exists today, a theocracy in which anyone who is not Jewish is a second class citizen at best, and, at worst, a prisoner. This is the reality of the sovereign state of Israel. I still hope for a time when Israel/Palestine is transformed into a place where everyone can live in peace, where Jewish people and Jewish culture thrive alongside the region’s other peoples and cultures; much like what I believe Kaplan envisioned and what he meant by Zionism.
At this point in time, however, hoping is not enough. Zionism that is defined by support for the state of Israel (even when the support claims to be progressive and includes a call for the occupation to end and a commitment to a two-state solution) is not ethical nationhood. It can’t be transvalued while Israel continues to oppress the Palestinian population. I respect both the progressive Reconstructionist Zionists who believe that things will get better, even as I fail to understand how they can still assert that Israel is a democracy and not a theocracy. I also respect the Reconstructionist non-Zionists who are now focused on building an American Judaism and do not engage with Israel; Kaplan’s passion to create a vibrant Jewish life here is what attracted me to the movement in the first place. But progressive Zionism and even the non-Zionist option is no longer, for me, sufficient. The political Zionism that won the day in 1948 has destroyed the lives of generations of Palestinians, disregarded their attachment to the land, and disrespected their history and culture. It is not a viable option for me to support it.
Today I believe that to uphold Reconstructionist values I must stand, as a Jew, in solidarity with Palestinians and work with Jewish Voice for Peace to support non-violent Palestinian tactics of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction that, we hope, will persuade Israel to end the occupation. In the current climate in the Jewish world that makes me an anti-Zionist. But in my mind, it makes me, finally, a Zionist who is working for the Zion that Kaplan envisioned.
1. Judaism as a Civilization, 277. That is not to say that Kaplan did not share the prejudices of his colonial counterparts; in the same sentence he commented on “the political immaturity of its [Palestine’s] inhabitants” and the “civilizing” impact of European immigrants.
2. See Noam Pianko, Zionism: The Roads Not Taken Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kahn (Indiana University Press, 2010) for a full exploration of the varieties of pre-state Zionism that were popular.
3. Religion of Ethical Nationhood. 132
4. “Israel and the Diaspora: A Reconstructionist Reconsideration of Zionism” The Reconstructionist (Spring 1988) 50.
The weeklong Jewish festival of Passover is coming to a close, but like many Jews around the world I’m still digesting the myriad questions, answers and discussions that ensued as we retold the biblical story of the Exodus at our seder. While it’s a story our community returns to over and over again, I’m continually astonished at the ways it provides a frame for understanding struggles for liberation past and present.
This year, I’ve been contemplating one aspect of the story in particular: when a new pharaoh arises over Egypt “who did not know Joseph.” We immediately learn in no uncertain terms that this new ruler was considerably more xenophobic than his predecessor:
And (Pharaoh) said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” (Exodus 1:8-9)
To use contemporary parlance, Pharaoh clearly views the Israelites as a “demographic threat” to the Egyptians.
The demographic threat meme, of course, has been played out countless times since the age of the pharaohs. It has certainly been a deeply woven thread in the fabric of American culture from our very origins. To cite but one example: Centuries before Donald Trump started railing against Mexican “criminals” and “rapists,” Benjamin Franklin wrote a 1751 essay in which he bemoaned the influx of “Palatine Boors” into the colonies who would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”
So yes, as an American, I can’t read these words from the Exodus story without connecting it to an ignoble aspect of my own country’s legacy — one that is all too real even today.
And as an American Jew, I can’t help but connect it to another country that also purports to act in my name.
Indeed, ever since Israel’s establishment, Zionist leaders knew well that the future Jewish state would only be “viable” if it could create and maintain a demographic Jewish majority in historic Palestine. In the late 19th century, this must surely have seemed like a tall order, since Jews constituted but 2 to 5 percent of the population. By 1947, following decades of Zionist colonization and Jewish immigration, their number had swelled to 32 percent. Under the UN-sponsored partition plan, the percentage of Jews allotted to the new Jewish state would have been 55 percent.
During the 1948 war — known as the War of Independence by Zionists and the Nakba (“catastrophe”) by Palestinians — the issue of demographics was solved through the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and Israel’s refusal to allow them to return. However, the demographic stakes were raised once again in 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and began a military occupation that exists to this day.
In 2010, Jews officially become a minority population from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea; around the same time, it was determined that the Jewish majority in Israel proper was slowly diminishing. For some time now, Zionists have been warning that the Palestinians’ birth rate poses a “demographic threat” to the future of the Jewish state.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this rhetoric is that it doesn’t only come from Israel’s far right, but from liberal Zionists, who use the demographic argument to advocate for a two-state solution. Witness, for instance, the words of J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:
When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the two-state solution and the inexorable demographic threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state that remains the homeland for the Jewish people, our position is the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.
Leaving aside the issues of whether or not the two-state solution actually is the policyof the Israeli government, let’s unpack this statement for a moment. The liberal Zionist argument for a “democratic Jewish state” is predicated on a view of Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” As an American, if I referred to any other ethnic group in this country with such a term, I would surely be viewed as a bigot or a racist. But as a Jew, I can refer to Palestinians with this epithet and still remain a member in good standing of the liberal peace camp.
Thus the inherent contradiction of liberal Zionism: democracy and demographic engineering simply do not go hand in hand. At the end of the day, there is nothing liberal about supporting an ethno-national project predicated upon the identity of one group over another. The late Meir Kahane, revered by Israel’s ultra right, loved to make liberal Zionists squirm by repeatedly articulating this point: “A western democracy and Zionism are not compatible. You can’t have both.”
This, along with its massive settlement expansion has brought Israel’s demographic problem home to roost. The real decision before them is not between a one-state or two-state solution, but between two one-state solutions: an apartheid Jewish state or one state of all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
As I watch this tragic process unfold this Passover, I find myself returning to the universal lesson this festival imparts on the corrupt abuse of state power. Although the Exodus story is considered sacred in Jewish tradition, it would be a mistake to assume that the contemporary state of Israel must be seen as equivalent to the biblical Israelites.
On the contrary, any people who suffer under oppressive government policies are, in a sense, Israelites. And any state — even a Jewish state — that views a people in its midst as a demographic threat can become a Pharaoh.