If there’s one thing that virtually all Zionists can agree upon, from the political right to left and everywhere in between, it is their abject unwillingness to accept the Palestinian right of return.
There is an almost visceral quality to this rejection, which is invariably presented as an existential necessity, rather than a political argument. Read here, for instance, the comments of the relatively moderate Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi:
The right of return is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic assault: Overwhelmed with bitter Palestinian refugees raised on hatred, the Jewish state would implode.
Amos Oz, poet laureate of the Israeli peace movement, used identical rhetoric in a 2013 NY Times interview:
The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question.
Since Palestinian civil society issued its call for Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, which includes the goal of “respecting, protecting and promoting” the Palestinian right of return, many now claim that supporting BDS – a nonviolent call for equality, freedom and human rights – is itself tantamount to calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. The progressive American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart has written versions of this position repeatedly over the years:
(BDS) calls not only for boycotting all Israeli products and ending the occupation of the West Bank but also demands the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes — an agenda that, if fulfilled, could dismantle Israel as a Jewish state.
Conveniently lost amidst all the rhetoric, however, is the fact that the right of return is a legitimately claimed right that is enshrined in international law. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Beinart’s point actually makes it very clear: the choice we ultimately face is one between a Jewish state vs. international law, justice and human rights for all.
“The Old will Die and the Young will Forget”
Between November 1947 and October 1948, 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes by Jewish militias, an event Israel refers to as the War of Independence and Palestinians call collectively the Nakba (“catastrophe”). In December of 1948, as Palestinian refugees languished in camps waiting to return to their homes, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 by a majority of 34 countries, including the United States.
Article 11 of the resolution stated:
Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity.
The government of the newly declared state of Israel, however, refused to allow dislocated Palestinians to return to their homes. Over 400 villages were completely destroyed, many of which had new Jewish settlements built upon them. In towns and cities, new Jewish immigrants moved into empty Palestinian houses that had been appropriated by Israel. And to this day, “the earliest practical date” for the return of Palestinians to their homes remains unrealized.
According to the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights, there are currently 7.9 million Palestinian refugees worldwide – the largest refugee population in the world. Yet almost 70 years later, the Palestinian people continue to hold their right of return as sacrosanct – as both a collective dream and as an inalienable right. At the same time, virtually all Israelis and Israel advocates have dismissed the right of return as a pipe dream – a political non-starter that will never come to pass.
“The old will die and the young will forget.” This quote is often attributed David Ben-Gurion, who reportedly made it while commenting on the future of Palestinian refugees. While there is no documentary evidence that Ben-Gurion actually uttered these words, it is clear that the prediction has not come to pass. Quite the contrary: the children and grandchildren of the 1948 refugees have not forgotten. If anything, the right of return has become an increasingly indelible aspect of Palestinian culture, famously represented by the original keys to homes in Palestine which are passed down from one family generation to the next.
As for me, I can state openly and unabashedly that I support the Palestinian people’s right of return. I believe it is their inalienable right – not a “euphemism” or cynical political ploy that can be wished, threatened or rationalized away. And I do believe that there will never be a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians until Israel honestly faces the injustices it has perpetrated against the Palestinian people and honors the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
“The Jewish Character of the State”
To those who claim that the return of refugees would “imperil the Jewish character of the state of Israel,” I would respond that there is a serious problem when the character of a country is dependent upon the denial of basic human rights to an entire people. When we speak of the “Jewish character of the state,” we should be clear on what we actually mean: a form of ethnic nationalism that necessarily privileges Jews over non-Jews.
In order to maintain this national character, Israel has created a system that allows any Jew in the world to become an immediate citizen of the Jewish state upon arrival – while millions of people who actually lived in the land (or have ancestors who did) are unable to set literally foot there for no other reason than they are not Jews. The bottom line: the Palestinian right of return raises the prospect of one democratic state of all its citizens – which for Israelis and Israel advocates means “the dismantling of the Jewish state.”
The real reason so many Zionists treat the Palestinian right of return as a non-starter is that it shines a bright light on the inner paradoxes of Zionism itself. Israel’s identity as a Jewish state has always been dependent upon its ability to maintain a demographic majority of Jews in the land. This ipso facto presents the presence of non-Jews in the land as a problem to be dealt with. While this problem appeared to be “solved” following the Nakba, seven decades later it remains as intractable as ever.
Liberal Zionists have attempted to resolve this problem by advocating a peace process that would result in a negotiated settlement for a two state solution. These negotiations have failed for many reasons, not least of which has been Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank. Another critical reason has been Israel’s adamant refusal to even consider the Palestinian right of return during negotiations. Their consistent treatment of this right as a non-starter doomed the various iterations of the peace process over the years. For as many have pointed out, the right of return is not a right that can be negotiated collectively – it belongs to each and every individual Palestinian refugee.
“They Would Throw Us Into the Sea”
Many Zionists articulate the fear that a return of refugees would existentially endanger the Jews of Israel. Upon their return, the argument goes, “Palestinian refugees raised on hatred” would undoubtedly throw the Jews into the sea.
This is a patently racist argument that essentializes Palestinians as incorrigibly violent. In the end, we cannot honestly discuss Palestinian violence against Israel without recognizing the context of the daily violence in which Palestinians have been living for almost seven decades. Palestinian violence is not a product of their upbringing – it is a response to Israel’s violent expulsion of their families from their homes and the violence of brutal, ongoing oppression.
I have no doubt that there will be those who will respond to me by saying it’s all well and good for me to preach to Israelis that they must live side by side with Palestinians from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States, when it is the Israelis who will have to live with the consequences. It’s a fair question – and in good Jewish fashion I’ll answer it with another question: what will ensure the long term safety of both peoples: the continuance of an oppressive status quo that will only guarantee a future of violence or an process of authentic reparation and repatriation as well as mutually agreed upon guarantees of security for Israelis and Palestinians?
Obviously we are a long way from an “honestly negotiated settlement.” But before we even get to the practical considerations of how the Palestinian right of return might be implemented, that right must first be acknowledged and honored on its own merits. We cannot yet say how this right will be practically realized – this can only come through mutual agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But in the meantime, the Palestinian right of return cannot be summarily dismissed by shrugging our shoulders and assuming “all nations are created this way.”
What would it look like in a practical sense? The general parameters are actually fairly straightforward: those who choose to remain in the Palestinian diaspora would remain. Those who choose to return would be repatriated to their homes. Where not possible, there would be a negotiated settlement with those individual refugee families or with a collective body they each agree represents them.
Over the past few years, the organizations Zochrot and Badil have done valuable work envisioning ways that the Palestinian right of return might be implemented. As they note in their preliminary report:
(This) project builds on the deep respect in international law for the right of return,1 and its widespread affirmation as the only acceptable durable solution, and starts to address how refugees will return to properties and homes from which they were forcibly displaced, and how such a return can be implemented in a practical, fair, and efficient manner that protects the legitimate interests of all stakeholders involved.
I wish all Jews could read this report, even those who might not be ready to go to such places as yet. For myself, I find it to be extremely liberating to participate in this kind of visioning. Once we grasp that the inner paradox that a Jewish state can only be achieved by violating the rights of another people, we may well come to understand that the right of return does not mean the “dismantling of the Jewish state” – rather, it leads us to a place where are free to envision a future of equity, justice, return and reconciliation.
“Exchange of Populations”
Many who reject the Palestinian right of return make a kind of “tit for tat” argument between the Palestinian refugees in 1948 and the 856,000 Jews of Arab countries who were either expelled, immigrated or brought to Israel around the same time. It is not uncommon for Israel advocates to equate the two, and claim that the events of 1948 resulted in an “exchange of populations.”
It’s a spurious argument on several levels. In the first place, while the actions of the governments of Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Syria cannot be excused for their violence against their Jewish populations, Jews from Arab countries (or Mizrahi Jews) did not become refugees – they were absorbed into Israel and became citizens, fulfilling the state’s demographic need for a Jewish majority. Palestinians experienced the exact opposite: in 1948 they were forced from their homes and turned into refugees.
Moreover, the two expulsions did not occur at the same time. The Jews from Iraq and other Arab countries occurred after the Nakba and both occurred under very different circumstances. There is absolutely no documentary evidence to prove Israeli leadership intended an “exchange of populations” when they made the decision to prevent expelled Palestinians from returning to their homes.
Another important difference: while the right of return is almost universally cherished by all Palestinians, there is no equivalent call for return from Mizrahi Jews. If anything, the lion’s share of Mizrahi protest has been directed toward discriminatory treatment at the hands of Israel’s Askenazic elite and its erasure of their Arab cultural identity. Throughout the years, in fact there have been a number of Arab Jewish movements of solidarity with Palestinian Arabs, from the Israeli Black Panthers of the 1960s and 70s to the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition that formed in the 1990s, to the current efforts of Mizrahi activists who are seeking to join the Arab Joint List party in the Knesset.
Ironically enough, it was recently reported that the calls to define Mizrahi Jews as “refugees,” have now been taken up by the Israeli government, presumably in order to somehow politically equate them with Palestinian refugees. By so doing, however, this cynical maneuver actually contradicts a central Zionist dictum: that all Jews are welcome and to become citizens of the Jewish state. It’s also profoundly insulting to Mizrahi Jews themselves, as scholar Zachary Smith explains:
Mizrahi Jews came sometimes of their own free will and sometimes not of their own free will—a clear distinction in a complex history of Jewish immigration to Israel.Mizrahim were, for the most part, individual agents and actors making decisions about Zionism and Israel. Denying them this Zionist impulse does not just hurt Mizrahi collective identity by portraying them as helpless. It also hurts Israel, because refugees, as is apparent in the Palestinian case, demand to return home.
No, history cannot be turned back, but Israelis and Palestinians can go forward together. The repatriation of refugees is not a pipe dream – it is a very real and practical concept for which we have ample historical precedent. The real question is not whether or not return is possible. It is rather: does Israel have the political and moral will to own the injustice it inflicted (and continues to inflict) on the Palestinian people and accept their inherent right to return to their homes?
As for me, I believe this acceptance is the necessary first step toward a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.
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.
My official kick-off will take place on Monday evening May 15: a joint appearance at Chicago’s Volumes Bookcafe with Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh, whose awesome new book, White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine was also recently published by JWB.
Preface to the 2017 Edition
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.
(Crossposted with Truthout)
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
In a recent op-ed for the Forward, Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner expressed unease at the prospect of synagogues getting involved in growing Sanctuary Movement. “Unease” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt upon reading it.
The crux of Eisner’s argument: this “nascent movement of churches, mosques and synagogues to become sanctuaries, to aid and house undocumented immigrants (represents) a further politicization of religious life.”
While I appreciate and even admire the moral compulsion of synagogues willing to go so far as to break the law in this particular case, what about others? What about the houses of worship that have politics I don’t agree with — the ones that exhibit an equal moral passion to, in their words, protect the unborn? Or resist accommodating trans people? Or same-sex marriage?
In other words, Eisner believes it is problematic for progressive houses of worship to engage in acts of civil disobedience in the furtherance of justice because conservative faith communities might well use the same tactics for their own causes.
Eisner’s argument against religiously-motivated civil disobedience is essentially an argument for neutrality. I can’t help but wonder how she would have responded when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, led a religious call for civil rights in this country. Would she have felt stymied by the masses of southern whites in states that actively resisted federal laws against segregation and voter suppression? Would she have likewise counseled King to “consider the consequences?”
Of course, we cherish the separation between church and state. At the same time, however, religious life in this country has always been “politicized” – and progressives need not hesitate in celebrating this fact. If religion hadn’t been politicized, we wouldn’t have had the abolitionist movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement or the original sanctuary movement of the 1980s. Each and every one of these movements helped to further the cause of justice and equity in this country – and thank God for that (pun intended).
Eisner correctly observes that “(religion) has flourished in America because it is independent from the state, and able to serve as a prophetic voice against government corruption and cruelty.” But her logic fails her when she concludes, “that standing comes from respecting the law and working within the system.” On the contrary, prophets were not particularly well-known for “working within the system.” As Thoreau, Ghandi, King, Mandela and others have taught us, civil disobedience is a tactic rooted in the conviction that there are laws that need to be broken. It does not purport to merely protest unjust systems but to dismantle them.
In this regard, Eisner’s hypothetical citation of those who engage in civil disobedience to “resist accommodating trans people or same sex marriage” is little more than a red herring. In such instances, civil disobedience would be used in order to maintain the unjust systems that exclude and oppress vulnerable minorities in this country. The sanctuary movement, on the other hand, seeks to dismantle an unjust immigration system that literally treats human beings as illegal, rips families apart, and often sends people back into countries of origin where they will face certain persecution or death.
When Eisner writes that she would feel “more comfortable about the sanctuary movement if it had a specific policy aim,” she betrays an egregious blindness to our current political moment. In Trump’s America, the goal of sanctuary is not political immigration reform, but triage. In my work supervising immigrant justice programs at the American Friends Service Committee throughout the Midwest, I can attest that the threats facing undocumented immigrants in our country have reached emergency levels. While Eisner frets that “resistance from a few renegade churches and synagogues may only alienate…reasonable Americans,” she might do better to worry about the fates of individuals and families who are living with the daily fear of incarceration and deportation.
When I read Eisner’s words, I couldn’t help but think back to the liberal clergy to whom MLK addressed his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: well-meaning religious leaders who “appealed to white and negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and good sense.” In response to them, King famously wrote:
Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
The laws that oppress undocumented immigrants in the US are degrading and unjust – and will become even more so very soon. If we want to be on the right side of history, it’s time for our synagogues to find the courage of their convictions and get “politicized.”
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.
Cross-posted with Truthout
It is a tragic irony that the festival of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday that commemorates an ancient uprising against an oppressive Assyrian ruler, is being observed as we hear the unbearably tragic reports coming from an uprising in modern-day Syria. Though the historical contexts of these two events are centuries apart from one another, I can’t help but ask what lessons the Hanukkah story might bring to bear on the sorrows of contemporary Syria.
Aleppo has just fallen to Syrian government forces after a brutal years-long battle with rebel groups. The carnage in Aleppo is only the latest tragedy in a war that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and has created millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians. The beginning of the war can be traced back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted in southern Syria. Government security forces opened fire, killing several protesters. Soon there were nationwide protests demanding the President Assad’s resignation. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.
As the violence escalated, the country descended into civil war. Rebel groups were formed to battle Syrian government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. While many committed to the fall of the Assad regime continue to view this war as a revolution against an oppressive ruler, others characterize it as a sectarian civil war between forces that serve as proxies of larger world powers — i.e., Russia and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of certain rebel forces. The crisis is further complicated by the presence of jihadi elements in various rebel groups.
So now to return to my original point: What on earth could this contemporary geopolitical crisis have to do with events that took place in the Assyrian Seleucid empire circa 168 BCE?
Some background: According the Books of the Maccabees, the uprising of the Maccabees began when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion in Judea, precipitating a rebellion led by Judah Maccabee, who belonged to a Jewish priestly family from the village of Modi’in. Many contemporary scholars point out that while the Hanukkah story is traditionally considered to be struggle against religious persecution, it was just as much a civil war between the fundamentalist Maccabees and the assimilated Hellenized Jews, with whom Antiochus eventually threw his support. (The Books of the Maccabees are replete with vivid descriptions of the violence committed by Judah Maccabee and his followers against the Hellenized Jewish community, including forced circumcision.)
The rabbis of the Talmud were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees — secular stories of a violent war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.
Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was resurrected by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in a military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book “The Jewish State,” Zionist founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!” Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.
In more recent years, however, there has been a reconsideration of the Hanukkah story by many contemporary rabbis, Jewish educators and academics. Typically referred to as “the real story of Hanukkah” some advocates of this new pedagogy assert that the Maccabees were actually a kind of “Jewish Taliban” — and that if they were around today they would not look too kindly on the practice of liberal American Jews.
The evolution of the Maccabean legacy brings to mind the age-old adage, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” While some Jewish observers do not hesitate in referring to them as “religious fanatics,” others insist they were simply “legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do.” In the end, there are no easy answers to this debate. At the very least, we might say that the story of Hanukkah invites us to struggle deeply and honestly with the messy nature of uprising and revolution.
Indeed, perhaps these are the central questions we are asked to confront on Hanukkah. To Zionists who glorify the Maccabees as courageous freedom fighters for national liberation we might well ask: Should not we then view the Palestinians as Maccabees as well? And to those who dismiss the Maccabees as religious extremists, we might pose the challenge: Would we deny them their resistance against an imperialist Seleucid empire that outlawed the practice of Judaism on pain of death?
I would submit that these kinds of questions are just as germane to the tragic, years-long crisis in present day Syria. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the Assad regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, has committed well-documented atrocities against its civilians as it strikes back against rebel groups. However, these factions have carried out their share of indiscriminate attacks on civilians as well. There has also been fierce sectarian fighting between rebel groups themselves — most notably between Daesh and Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
The US, along with its Gulf state allies, continue to insist that regime change is the only acceptable outcome to these hostilities. However, as has historically been the case with US-sponsored “regime changes” in the Middle East, we know that these interventions invariably lead to more, rather than less instability. Others insist we cannot ignore the fact that this rebellion still constitutes an uprising against a brutal totalitarian dictator. Yet this resistance has become profoundly splintered — and as the US and its allies attempt to support it, they are now utterly unable to distinguish between moderate and jihadist rebel groups.
These are the questions that are resonating for me as I retell the Hanukkah story once again this year. And while I don’t pretend to have conclusive answers, I do have some thoughts I believe we would to well to consider as the crisis in Syria continues on its tragic course:
As citizens of the US, our primary responsibility is to hold our government accountable for its decisions and actions. And we must also hold it accountable for its covert and overt military meddling in Syria at least as far back as 1949 (when the CIA engineered a coup replacing the democratically elected president Shukri-al-Quwatli and replaced him with a dictator — a “convicted swindler” named Husni al-Za’im).
We must also acknowledge that the Obama administration is most certainly not insisting on regime change out of the goodness of its heart and its concern for the welfare of the Syrian people. As ever, it has much more to do with the military designs of Western empire. As journalist/reporter Gareth Porter recently pointed out:
The US decision to support Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their ill-conceived plan to overthrow the Assad regime was primarily a function of the primordial interest of the US permanent war state in its regional alliances. The three Sunni allies control US access to the key US military bases in the region, and the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and the Obama White House were all concerned, above all, with protecting the existing arrangements for the US military posture in the region.
Indeed, our government’s insistence on regime change has motivated the CIA to work with odious allies to help the transfer of weapons to rebel groups about whom they had little, if any knowledge. It also led later to the Pentagon’s decision to provide formal training and arms transfers to these groups. Our meddling with Syria rebel groups has become so confused that we have actually created a situation in which CIA armed militias and Pentagon armed groups are now fighting against one another.
Those of us who are part of the Jewish community must also hold accountable the state to purports to act in our name — and in this regard, it is clear Israel is shamefully exacerbating the Syrian civil war for its own political interests. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is openly supporting Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime, his government is also aiding Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham:
Examining the al-Nusra-Israeli alliance in the region, it’s clear that the bonds between the two parties have been exceedingly close. Israel maintains a border camp for the families of Syrian fighters. Reporters have documented Israeli Defense Forces commandos entering Syrian territory to rendezvous with Syrian rebels. Others have photographed meetings between Israeli military personnel and al-Nusra commanders at the Quneitra Crossing, the ceasefire line that separates the Syrian-controlled territory and the Israeli-occupied territory in the Golan Heights.
In other words, as Americans and as Jews, our community faces a genuine reckoning over our complicity in the tragedy that is befalling Syria.
One final historical note that is particularly relevant to Hanukkah this year: For centuries and until relatively recently, Aleppo was home to one of the most notable and culturally rich Jewish communities in the world. J. Rolando Matalon, rabbi of New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — and a descendent of Allepan Jewry — recently wrote this poignant reminiscence:
I grew up in Buenos Aires amidst a community of Syrian Jews. My grandparents had left Aleppo decades earlier, but Aleppo never left them. Our lives were infused with Aleppo’s sumptuous tastes and smells, with its music, its language, its social norms, and the memory of its streets and glorious synagogues. Aleppo was to us simultaneously remote and intimately close, exotic and familiar.
One particularly celebrated aspect of Allepan Jewish history dates back to the 15th century, when the Jews of Spain were expelled following the Alhambra Decree of 1492. This exodus of Sephardic Jews initiated a migration and settlement throughout the Ottoman empire, including Syria. A significant number of exiled Jews were welcomed into Aleppo, and in gratitude they began a ritual of lighting an extra candle on Hanukkah — a ritual that Jews of Allepan/Syrian heritage observe even to this day.
This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting an extra candle as well — in protest against those who have been exploiting the violence in Syria for their own cynical gain, in gratitude to those who have opened their homes and communities to receive the uprooted, and in memory of the present-day Syrians who have been killed in this cruel and needless war.
I’d like to begin my remarks today where I left off on Rosh Hashanah:
Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.
“Jews must embrace anti-racism as a sacred value” – it must be a mitzvah if you will. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve actually articulated this as one of our congregation’s core values. If you go to our website, you will read: “We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.”
Like all of our other values this one has very practical implications. It will necessarily guide the choices we make as a community: the issues we work on, the groups we stand with, the public statements we make. And in general it will mean we must always foreground the question: “what does it mean, as a Jewish congregation observe anti-racism as a sacred value?”
I’m sure most liberal Jews wouldn’t find this question all that controversial. After all, American Jewry has a long and venerable history of standing up for racial equality, particularly when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement. But I’d suggest this question presents an important challenge to the Jewish community of the 21st century. And it was actually put to the test this past summer, when a the Movement for Black Lives released their policy statement, “Vision for Black Lives.”
I’m sure many of you are very familiar with Movement for Black Lives. It’s a coalition of over 50 organizations from around that country that focus on issues of concern to the black community. One year ago, their Policy Table began an extensive process, convening national and local groups, and engaging with researchers and community members. This summer they published their Vision for Black Lives: a comprehensive policy platform that focuses on six main areas: Ending the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.
I will say unabashedly that I believe the Vision for Black Lives platform is one of the most important American policy statements of our time. It’s both an unflinching analysis of the institutional racism against black people in country as well as a smart policy statement about what can be done (and in some cases already being done) to dismantle it.
What makes Vision for Black Lives platform particularly unique is that it wasn’t produced by the usual method, namely by a think tank or special interest group. Rather, it was developed by a coalition of national and grassroots organizations that reflect the communities most directly affected by these particular issues. Moreover, it serves both as an ideological manifesto as well as a practical hard-nosed policy statement that lays out a path toward achieving very specific legislative goals. In so doing, as many have observed, it is moving Black Lives Matter from a structureless network of local organizations toward becoming a genuine political movement.
To quote from their introduction:
We want this platform to be both a visionary agenda for our people and a resource for us. We take as a departure-point the reality that by every metric – from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices – the U.S. is a country that does not support, protect or preserve Black life. And so we seek not reform but transformation…
Our hope is that this is both an articulation of our collective aspirations as well as a document that provides tangible resources for groups and individuals doing the work. We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
This platform is also important because it doesn’t limit its concern to issues facing the black community alone. It understands that the systemic racism impacting people of color in this country is but a part of many interlocking systems of oppression that affect communities the world over. As the platform puts it: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”
If you haven’t read Vision for Black Lives yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll warn you it’s not easy. It’s very long and heavily referenced, so really reading and integrating it will take commitment. I’ve read it three times now and every time I did, I discovered something new and challenging that I hadn’t considered before. But in the end, I found it profoundly inspiring – and that is not something you often say about policy platforms. I would go as far as to call it a prophetic document. As I quoted earlier, it seeks “not reform but transformation.”
Like me, I’m sure many of you have read innumerable books and articles that analyze the institutional racism inflicted on people of color in this country. Usually they leave us pent up with frustration or else just a sense of abject hopelessness. The problem is just so vast and pervasive – how on earth can we ever hope to dismantle it? But this is first time I’ve read such an analysis along with extensive prescriptions toward political solutions. It lays out the problems then it puts forth real solutions. But it has no illusions about the daunting task ahead. As the report says. “We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.” (When I read this, I can’t help but recall the famous ancient dictum by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”)
Is Jewish community ready to observe anti-racism as a sacred value? I think one important test would be to judge by its response to the release of the Vision for Black Lives platform. And in this regard, I’m sorry to say that the American Jewish establishment failed the test miserably.
Almost immediately after its release, every mainstream Jewish organization responded with statements that ranged from critical to outright hostility. Why? Because in the Invest/Divest section there is one section that advocates diverting financial resources away from military expenditures and investing in “domestic infrastructure and community well being.” And in that section there were some brief references to Israel – one that referred to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and another that called Israel “an apartheid state.” And as you might expect from a section entitled Invest/Divest, there was a statement of solidarity with the nonviolent Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The first official Jewish response to Vision for Black Lives came from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Committee, just two days after it was released. The Boston JCRC said it was “deeply dismayed” by the report and denounced the use of the word genocide and its support for BDS. It had nothing more to say about this voluminous, wide-ranging platform. It spent seven paragraphs on this one issue – and most of that was devoted to this one word.
Over the next few weeks, one Jewish organization after another denounced the platform for its statements about Israel with only a glancing nod to its analysis, its conclusions and its policy recommendations. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League called its reference to Israel “repellent” and added patronizingly, “let’s work to keep our eyes on the prize.” Even liberal Jewish organizations such as J St., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah, an American rabbinical organization devoted to human rights, responded with criticism and chastisement.
These responses tell us all we need to know about the Jewish communal establishment’s commitment to the value of anti-racism. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jewish institutional community hasn’t been in real solidarity with black Americans and people of color for decades. Most of what we call solidarity is actually nostalgia. For far too long we’ve been championing the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, invoking the memory of Jewish martyrs such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and Jewish heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But those days are over – and it is disingenuous of us to wield its memory as some kind of entitlement when it comes to issues of racism in the 21st century.
There was a time that being a Jew in America meant being part of a discriminated minority, but that has no longer been the case for generations. Today, white Jews are part of the white majority – and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, since white Jews are racialized as part of the majority, we enjoy all of the privileges that come along with it.
I know for many American Jews, particularly young Jews, it might seem downright silly to ask whether or not white Jews are white. But it is actually a subject of debate – at least among white Jews. In fact it’s become a something of a cottage industry. (If you doubt me, just Google “are Jews white?” and see how many hits you get.)
There’s actually a very simple way to answer this question: ask a Jew of color. Let Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, who recently wrote a powerful article on the subject explain it to you:
With all due respect to my white Jewish friends and colleagues, people of color in the United States don’t need to take a course on critical race theory to understand the nuances of race. Anti-Semitism exists, and I’ve received a fair amount of it from fellow people of color, but its impact and extent doesn’t compare to the systematic racism of American society. White Jews simply don’t face the criminalization that black and brown people in this country do. They are not locked up or deported in record numbers. Nor is their demographic growth or struggle to not be capriciously murdered by police considered a threat by a large and reactionary part of our population.
It should be mentioned that thankfully, there were some Jewish organizations that did in fact welcome and endorse the Visions for Black Lives. Not surprisingly, all of them came from outside the Jewish institutional establishment – organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. For me, the most trenchant and powerful response came from the Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP. Among the many important points made in their statement was this one that was sent directly to the Jewish communal establishment:
Recent statements by the Boston JCRC, Truah: the Rabbinic Council for Human Rights, and The Union for Reform Judaism condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel…
We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians. US Black relationships to Palestine and Israel have never been monolithic, but there are deep historical ties between Black and Palestinian struggle that go back to the Black Power Era. Any attempt to co-opt Black struggle while demeaning these connections, is an act of anti-Black erasure.
Their reference to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s is critically important. This marks the time in which white Jews were leaving cities for the suburbs to become part of the white majority. It also marks the time, following the Six Day War, in which Israel began to become central to American Jewish identity. For many white American Jews, this new relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation movements was experienced as a betrayal of former allies. Many American Jews looked to Zionism as the “liberation movement of the Jewish people” and considered it downright anti-Semitic to claim that Israel was actually a settler colonial project that militarily expelled and displaced indigenous people.
Of course, many American Jews still identify deeply with Israel. And that is why the Jewish institutional responses to the Vision for Black Lives resonate with a strong sense of betrayal. That is why the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt wrote we must “keep our eyes on the prize.” There is this yearning for a coalition that no longer exists – and a refusal to accept, as the Movement for Black Lives does, that Israel is part of this system of oppression.
So many otherwise liberal American Jews will insist: Israel is different. Don’t compare Israel to the racist system that oppresses blacks and people of color in this country. Don’t compare Israel to apartheid South Africa or any other state where one ethnic group wields power over another. It’s not the same thing.
Of course every nation is different in many ways from one another – but it’s time to admit that when it comes to systems of oppression, Israel is not different. And this is precisely the place that so many in the Jewish community, even those who are otherwise progressive in every other way, are simply unwilling to go. To admit that in the end, Israel is by its very nature an oppressor state: a system that privileges one ethnic group over another. And that this system is fundamentally connected to a larger system of oppression.
In fact it plays a very integral role in that system. The very same tear gas canisters that are used daily against Palestinians are the ones that were used against protesters in Ferguson. The same security apparatus that is used on the West Bank separation wall is the one that is used on the border wall that the US is building on our southern border with Mexico. The same stun grenades that Israeli soldiers use against demonstrators in Bil’in or Nabi Saleh are the very same ones used by American SWAT teams in Cincinnati and Oakland and St. Paul.
Here in Chicago, as in so many cities around the country, there is a new recognition of how the militarization of police departments is being used in ways that target communities of color. Those who say that we can’t compare this systemic racism to Israel should know that Chicago’s Jewish Federation regularly sponsors “police exchange programs” – trips that take the CPD to go to Israel to learn the latest military techniques from the IDF.
Regarding these exchange programs, the JUF’s Executive VP Jay Tcath has said this:
Helping connect and thereby improve the work of both Israeli and Chicago police is a natural role for JUF, committed as we are to the safety of the entire Chicago community and the Jewish State. From advising us on ways to enhance the physical security of our Jewish community’s institutions to helping us ensure the safety of JUF events – everything from dinners to pro-Israel rallies – we are grateful for the extraordinary commitment of CPD, Cook County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management and our other public law enforcement partners. These missions to Israel both reflect and help deepen these valued relationships.
So we can’t have it both ways. The Jewish establishment cannot simultaneously empower the systems that oppress people of color in this country and at the same time say we stand in solidarity with them. If we are going to be anti-racist, we can’t make an exception for Israeli militarism or rationalize away its critical place in these systems.
Some of us have already made it clear where we stand. But sooner than later all of us in Jewish community will have stop dancing around this issue and make a decision. When it comes to Israel, we cannot continue to cling to a two state solution that Israel has already made impossible. As I’ve said before, the real choice we will have to face is a choice between two one-state solutions: one apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules the non-Jewish majority or a state where all have equal rights and citizenship, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
But on still deeper level, we must also reckon with the separatist assumptions behind the “two state solution.” What are we really doing when we advocate for a Jewish state that must have a demographic majority of Jews in order to exist? The same liberal Jews who cling to the notion of a two state solution would recoil at the suggestion of solving Jim Crow by separating black Americans from white Americans. That the only way two peoples living in the same country can co-exist is to physically segregate them from one another.
So to return once again to my original question: how can we, as Jews, embrace anti-racism as a sacred Jewish value? I’d like to offer a few suggestions in conclusion:
1. It would mean that the white Jewish establishment must embrace the concept of solidarity. Specifically, that means we cannot make it about us. The objects of oppression are the ones who must dictate the terms of their struggle. If we have issues with how they articulate their vision, we must raise these issues with them face to face in genuine relationship – not through public chastisement.
2. It would mean letting go of our reverence of a civil rights era that is long past and take an honest look at our complicity in the current reality in which white Jews are part of the privileged white majority. Anti-Semitism does exist in the US today, but it is not institutionally imposed upon us the way it is upon communities of color.
3. It would mean letting go of the old paradigm of “Black-Jewish relations” – a term that utterly erases the presence of black Jews from our community. Any new anti-racist paradigm we formulate must reject Jewish white supremacy and center the experience of Jews of color.
4. It would mean subjecting Israel to the same analysis we use when it comes to our own country. Israel is not separate from the systems that oppress people of color at home and abroad. We must be willing to identify these connections and call them out as we would any other aspect of institutional racism.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, it would mean to letting go of a Zionist dream that never really was. To recognize that the Zionist dream was realized on the backs of Palestinians – just as the American Dream was realized on the backs of indigenous peoples and blacks who were brought to this country in chains. Yes, it painful to give up on dreams, but it is even more painful to hold onto them until they turn into a nightmare for all concerned.
After all, on Yom Kippur we vow to let go of the dreams of what might have been, but have led us down the wrong path. But it is also the day in which we can dream new dreams. We can dream of a world in which systems of exploitation and oppression are no more. As Sarah Thompson reminded us in her guest sermon last night, we must begin the year by focusing on the end – even if we know that by the end of the year we will not have arrived at the ultimate end we seek. To paraphrase the Vision for Black Lives, we recognize that some of these dreams will not happen today – or even in our lifetime. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
May we realize this dream bimheyra beyameynu – speedily in our day.