Over the past week or so, there was rising alarm over reports that some neo-Nazi groups had called for a “Day of Hate” against the American Jewish community. While the day thankfully came and went with no reports of any incidents, it seems to me that there are several important takeaways from this frightening “non-event.”
The first, of course, is that we should never take the threat of anti-Jewish violence for granted. In the wake of the “Day of Hate” warning, there was increased security at synagogues and Jewish institutions in major cities throughout the US. This response was certainly understandable, particularly following the news of a recent shooting of two Jewish worshippers outside an LA synagogue.
At the same time, as I wrote last Friday to my congregation, I was particularly heartbroken to know that extra police presence at synagogues would surely cause many in our community – particularly Jews of color – to feel less safe in their own houses of worship. As Erika Gatson, a black-Jewish activist and writer recently wrote:
I very deeply understand the need for some sort of security at synagogue, but it does not make for a comforting expereince. As a Black Jew, if feels like I have to continue to worry about not being protected by those brought in to protect the community.
It should also be noted that authorities made a point of saying there was no evidence of any imminent threat to the Jewish community. The initial report of the threat came from a leaked internal memo by the New York Police Department’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism Bureau, originally stemming from a January 4 message left on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, by members of Crew 319, an Iowa-based white supremacist group whose most visible action to date had been a relatively minor flier campaign. Indeed, one ADL leader noted that “the activism of the day will most likely be limited to small demonstrations with banner drops or graffiti, rather than violent acts.”
It might well be said that under the circumstances, the strong Jewish community response was justified, However it can also be argued that it was overblown – that in the end, the attention given to this news was disproportionate to that threat and ultimately counterproductive. A report released yesterday by the Network Contagion Research Institute, in fact, came to this very conclusion:
The recent “National Day of Hate” event planned by an obscure Iowa-based white nationalist group received little attention (roughly 20 likes) within its own subcultural ecosystem on Telegram, yet received widespread amplification from mainstream media and organizations such as the ADL. There is little publicly available evidence to suggest larger white nationalist groups engaged with posts associated with the planned event or were planning to participate…
Sounding an undue alarm about low-signal extremist content can potentially elevate security risks and embolden bad actors, as they see the attention generated by their actions as a sign of success and validation, and may be motivated to carry out further extremist activities.
It is sobering to consider that the ADL and other similar organizations helped to drive up #DayofHate to over 100,000 tweets while a post on an underground site from a small and little-known hate group received 20 likes. It’s worth asking whether this kind of “undue alarm” may have boosted the profile of Crew 319 while simultaneously emboldening their followers. As Ben Lorber, an analyst at Public Research Associates tweeted in response, “Is this what keeping Jews safe looks like?”
And while we’re on the subject of Jewish communal response to the threat of antisemitism, this disconcerting mass email from the Jewish United Fund of Greater Chicago landed in my inbox just this morning:
Whatever we might think about the wisdom and effectiveness of the Jewish communal reaction to the “Day of Hate,” I would say it’s generally a good rule of thumb to avoid cynically capitalizing on a non-existent antisemitic event in order to raise money for your organization.
In the end, if there were any positive takeaways from this horrid affair at all, I found it in the numerous messages of heartening solidarity from our friends and allies in the greater community, including several that I received personally. I was particularly heartened by a message to my congregation from my friend and colleague Rev. Tom Gaulke of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Cicero, Illinois, who ended his remarks with these beautiful words: “As your family, we’ve got your back, come what may. Together, we’ve got a love that will conquer hate and a love that can only overcome.”
For the past two months or so, thousands of Israelis have been holding weekly protests against the extremism of the newly elected Israeli administration, focusing in particular on the new government’s proposals to gut the power of the Israeli judiciary. While many American Jewish institutions have been predictably loath to publicly criticize the new Israeli government, liberal Zionist organizations in the US such as J St., the New Israel Fund (NIF) and T’ruah have been openly supportive of the protests. But as heartening as these statements may seem on the surface, there is a deeply problematic contradiction at the heart of this new movement to “save Israeli democracy.”
This contradiction was in full force during a widely shared sermon recently delivered by Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of the Los Angeles synagogue, Ikar. In her stirring and passionately delivered remarks, Brous rightly criticized the American Jewish community for its silence over the policies proposed by the new Israeli administration. Calling for a “reckoning,” she went on to identify several “myths” about Israel/Palestine that the Jewish community “needs to smash.” With respect, however, I believe that Brous herself perpetuated numerous problematic myths herself during the course of her sermon.
These most prominent: the oft-invoked myth of the “endangered Israeli democracy.” This is, of course, a well-known Liberal Zionist trope and Brous drove it home early in her remarks when she stated “we believe not only in the legitimacy, but the necessity of a Jewish state….We believe in the vision of a state that is both Jewish and democratic, as envisioned by (Israel’s Declaration of Independence.)” She continued, warning that this “precious, beautiful dream” is currently under threat from extreme, undemocratic political forces in the current Israeli government.
Brous reinforced the “threat to Israeli democracy” myth when she curiously referred to the Israeli Supreme Court as the “great defender of the abuse of human rights” while there is ample evidence that demonstrates it is precisely the opposite. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has in fact, referred to the Israeli Supreme Court as “the Supreme Court of the Occupation” and has documented it’s systemic enabling of Israel’s ongoing human rights abuses in numerous reports:
When it comes to violation of Palestinians’ rights, Israel’s Supreme Court neither holds effective judicial review nor keeps the security forces in check. It is willing to sanction almost any injustice based on unreasonable legal interpretation, and systemically ignores the context: that the appellants come from an unrepresented population governed by a strict military regime for more than 50 years, denied political rights and excluded from basic decision-making. The court thereby sanctions not only violations – but the occupation itself.
Brous rightly went on to state that Israel’s “march toward illiberalism, ultra-nationalism and extremism has been building for decades.” However she undermined that very argument by claiming this march began when we “got comfortable with the language of ‘us and them.'” In truth, however, the rhetoric of “us and them” has been deeply rooted in the culture of the Zionist project since before the founding of the state. That is because the very idea of a Jewish state predicated on a demographic Jewish majority is itself inherently illiberal.
Similarly, Brous did well to raise the odious ideology of “Jewish Supremacy” inbred in Israeli culture. But this this ideology is not, as she put it, the product of a “marginal, fringe group” whose ideas have moved “into the mainstream.” Yes, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are most certainly extremists who espouse patently undemocratic ideas. But they are also expressing an inconvenient truth: that the notion of a majority Jewish nation state is itself intrinsically undemocratic – and that to maintain a Jewish majority, Israel has been ethnically cleansing and expelling Palestinians from their homes since its origin.
I was heartened when Brous later addressed the “myth of moral equivalency,” correctly stating that we cannot condemn the recent killing of Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem without also condemning the Israeli military’s killing of 35 Palestinians during the month of January (including a 6 year old boy and a 61 year old woman). I likewise appreciated the way she connected the dots between the young Palestinian gunman’s personal story to his grandfather who was murdered by a Jewish settler who has never held accountable (by yes, an Israeli court).
But while Brous invited us to “interrogate why there is so much violence,” she herself sadly failed in this regard when she neglected to interrogate the crucial role played by Israeli state violence and militarism in the structural oppression of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, she notably romanticized Israeli militarism earlier in her sermon when she spoke about the father of an Israeli friend who was “born with the state” and had served as “an IDF commander in two wars.” As she put it, “these are the ones who dedicated themselves to building the state so precious, so beautiful, so fragile. And they see it being transformed before their very eyes into something utterly recognizable.”
But perhaps the most problematic myth perpetuated by Brous was the Liberal Zionist trope of a “shared future.” She raised this issue at the end of her remarks when she concluded, “If you’re feeling helpless about what’s unfolding over there, the way forward is to follow the lead of Israelis and Palestinians in the streets who are speaking a language of shared destiny.”
This is, in fact, a complete misrepresentation of the current demonstrations. As Israeli journalist Haggai Matar has pointed out:
Palestinians, for their part, have so far mostly been sitting this one out. While many Jewish Israelis are mourning, terrified, or enraged over the barrage of illiberal legislation that they see as signifying the “end of Israeli democracy,” most Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line never saw the regime as a democracy to begin with. In the words of MK Ahmad Tibi, “this is a Jewish Democracy: democratic for Jews, and Jewish for Arabs.”
The current protests are thus intended to defend only the rights of Israel’s already privileged Jewish citizens, while ignoring the rights of the oppressed who lack citizenship and civil rights. The thousands of Israeli flags waved by protesters symbolize what is bad about these demonstrations: They are intended for Jews only.
It is indeed difficult to ignore the overwhelming preponderance of Israeli flags of these demonstrations, underscoring the reality that these protests are less about justice for Palestinians than they are about saving the Zionist enterprise. As Brous quoted her friend’s parents at the beginning of her sermon, “we have no other home, no other loyalty but to Zion.”
Moreover, Brous is crucially silent over the precise nature of this “shared future.” Is she advocating a two-state solution that even J St. admits is now all but impossible? Or is she promoting equal rights for all who live in the land – a move that would inevitably spell the end of her “precious, beautiful, miraculous dream?” As long as she refuses to address this critical question, I can’t help but view her call for a “shared future” as an empty and disingenuous gesture.
Brous ended her sermon by invoking the Torah portion Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites crossing over the Sea following their Exodus from Egypt. She powerfully and poetically compared the Exodus story to a birth moment, calling upon us all to “amplify the voices” of our “Palestinian and Israeli friends and their calls for a just and equal society, to remind them to breathe and push, to breathe and push and then to be with them on the other side, to join hands and sing together a song of freedom, of liberation, of justice and a song of love.”
Like Rabbi Brous, I also find a profound resonance to the Exodus story in this current moment – but it isn’t in the myth of Palestinians and Israelis joining hands and singing a song of liberation. Rather, it is through the painful admission, at long last, that Zionism represents a present day Pharaoh – and that we will only make it to the other side when we dismantle and transform Israel’s systemic oppression of the Palestinians into a truly Promised Land for all who live between the river and the sea.
Last month, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib spoke at an organizing seminar for Palestine solidarity activists. It was an in-house event, and it likely would not have garnered much attention except for one part of her speech:
It has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government. And we will continue to push back on and not accept this idea that you are “progressive except for Palestine.”
I’m opening with Rashida Tlaib’s words because I believe they’re deeply relevant to Yom Kippur. This is, after all, the day for facing up to hard truths, particularly the ones that affect our community. And I frankly cannot think of a more important, more critical moral challenge facing the Jewish community than the issue of Palestine-Israel.
As you might expect, after Rep. Tlaib made her remarks, the wrath of the titans rained down upon her. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, berated her on Twitter and accused her of being an antisemite. So did Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Scores of her Democratic colleagues condemned her for slandering the “Jewish and Democratic state of Israel.”
Tellingly, however, none of her critics actually responded to the essential claim of her comment – namely, that Israel is an apartheid state. None of them mentioned that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’tselem, the most prominent Israeli human rights organization, have all determined that Israel is an apartheid regime. B’tselem’s report concludes, in words that are powerfully appropriate for Yom Kippur:
As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot. The harsh reality described here may deteriorate further if new practices are introduced – with or without accompanying legislation. Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.
Fighting for a future based on human rights, liberty and justice is especially crucial now. There are various political paths to a just future here, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but all of us must first choose to say no to apartheid.
But you really don’t need to pore through human rights reports to grasp this reality. The bottom line is this: Zionism promotes a Jewish majority state in historic Palestine. In order to keep that majority, Israel must pursue policies that are patently undemocratic. It must create and enforce laws that fundamentally privilege Jews over non-Jews. It must dispossess and disenfranchise Palestinians. It must maintain what B’tselem calls “a regime of Jewish supremacy” from the river to the sea.
So yes, as Rashida Tlaib put it, you can’t be progressive and support apartheid. Unless you define the term “progressive” in a way that is devoid of any meaning whatsoever, you cannot support a Jewish supremacist state and claim to be a progressive. It’s interesting to note that virtually every one of Rep. Tlaib’s critics slammed her for creating a “litmus test” for progressives. But in truth, I don’t believe she was interested in creating a test for her colleagues. She was simply arguing for moral consistency.
When I read about this dustup, I was reminded of Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Whenever I hear so-called progressives defending injustice in the name of progressive values, I invariably think of King’s letter. It was written to liberal white clergy in Birmingham who had signed a public statement telling King to stay away and not make trouble in their city. At one point they wrote, “We feel that inflammatory and rebellious statements can lead only to violence, discord, confusion and disgrace for our beloved state.”
Now fast forward to 2022. This was Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s angry response to Rep. Tlaib:
Proud progressives do support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Suggesting otherwise is shameful and dangerous. Divisive rhetoric does not lead to peace.
In the end, it’s really just a distraction to make this a debate about what is or isn’t “progressive.” It’s an issue of basic morality. For the Jewish community it’s a challenge that goes to the very core of our spiritual and ethical tradition. I don’t believe you can identify as a Jew in the age of Zionism and dither on this issue. Every single day, Israel’s actions present us with this basic question: will we support apartheid, dispossession and militarism in our name or will we not?
I’m sure all of you know that the Tzedek Chicago membership voted last March to change our core values to articulate that we were an anti-Zionist congregation. Our decision followed a unanimous board vote and a month’s long series of congregational meetings. As those who attended will attest, these conversations were inspiring in their depth and thoughtfulness. No matter what their position, members who participated in this process shared their opinions openly, honestly, and with deep respect for one another.
In the end, 72% of our membership quorum voted in favor of the change. Yes, there were those who voted against, but I’m heartened that as far as I know, no members have left our congregation as a result of our decision. In fact, we actually gained several new members, many of whom said that this was the first time they had joined a synagogue – that they had wanted to be part of a Jewish congregation, but the issue of Zionism had consistently kept them at bay.
I can’t understate what a powerful statement we’ve made. Yes, we are one small congregation, but the bottom line is that as a result of our decision there is now a new fact on the ground. There is now a progressive (yes, progressive) Jewish synagogue that is openly and unabashedly promoting a Judaism beyond Zionism. Tzedek Chicago has taken a public, principled stand on the most important, most critical moral challenge facing the Jewish community today.
And by the way we don’t stand alone. At this very moment, the Mending Miyan, an anti-Zionist congregation in New Haven, is celebrating its first High Holidays with its new student rabbi, May Ye, who many of you will remember was Tzedek Chicago’s rabbinical intern in 2018. Just a few days ago, I was contacted by a friend who told me that a group of Jewish anti-Zionists, inspired by what we have done here in Chicago, had held their first Rosh Hashanah service together in Denver. And I have no doubt there are others – that this is only the beginning.
Our decision is also important because we are currently witnessing a very real and very dangerous campaign that seeks to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The Israeli government and the Jewish institutional establishment are clearly doubling down to stem the growing number of Jews in the US — particularly young Jews — who are openly identifying as non or anti-Zionist. This backlash has been fierce, and at times perverse, actually calling into question our very status as Jews. In a widely read essay last year, Natan Sharansky labeled anti-Zionist Jews as “un-Jews.” Last May, immediately following Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, a Reform rabbi in the Chicago area gave a sermon in which she called anti-Zionist Jews “Jews in name only” who must be “kept out of the Jewish tent.”
Given the tenor of the current moment, I believe the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists is more critical now than ever. Most importantly, Jewish anti-Zionists create cover for Palestinians, the ones who are most directly impacted by these accusations of antisemitism. Right now, public figures such as Rashida Tlaib, as well as scores of Palestinian activists on college campuses and communities across North America, are being subjected to withering attack. We know how devastating the accusation of antisemitism can be. It destroys careers and ruin lives. And right now, this accusation is being weaponized by Israel and its institutional supporters in profoundly harmful ways.
The most insidious thing about this accusation: when we equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, we effectively brand just about every Palestinian in the world as an anti-Semite. How could it be otherwise? The direct product of Zionism was the Nakba – the forced expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, creating what is today the largest refugee population in the world. The creation of an exclusively Jewish nation state in historic Palestine has led to the ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people that continues to this very day. How could we honestly expect Palestinians to be anything other than anti-Zionist? By this definition, Palestinians are guilty of being antisemites just for being Palestinian.
We can’t underestimate the power of this current backlash against anti-Zionism. After Tzedek Chicago made our announcement, we garnered, as you might expect, some “responses” from the Jewish institutional community. While we did get some positive and thoughtful press, there was the inevitable nastiness, particularly and inevitably on Twitter. I don’t have much to say about that, except for this: amidst all the horribleness and toxicity, I noticed an interesting common denominator. Over and over, our attackers made the claim that Zionism was essential to Judaism – and that our being anti-Zionist was tantamount to being anti-Jewish. This, I would like to address:
Of course, the claim that Eretz Yisrael is intrinsic to Jewish tradition is absolutely correct. It would be ignorant to claim otherwise. However – and this is a big however – the notion of creating a sovereign Jewish nation state was never part of the Jewish land tradition until the rise of political Zionism in 19th century Europe. And herein lies the central fallacy of the Zionism equals Judaism argument: for most of Jewish history, the yearning for Zion has been rooted in an idealized messianic vision. The very idea of a mass migration to the land in order to establish a 3rd Jewish commonwealth was commonly considered to be an anathema – a “forcing of God’s hand” – by traditional rabbinic authorities.
Those who say Zionism is central to Judaism consistently and conveniently neglect this point: political Zionism did not arise until relatively recently in Jewish history. Yes, Zionism is undeniably a Jewish movement, and a successful one at that. But it is also a quintessential movement of Jewish modernity that represented a conscious and radical break with traditional Judaism as it was understood and practiced until that time. While it has clearly been embraced by a majority of Jews in Israel and throughout the diaspora, the claim that Zionism is somehow intrinsic to Judaism is false and in fact, deeply disingenuous.
In the end, however, this struggle isn’t over what is or isn’t Judaism. Rather, it is over what kind of Judaism we want to affirm in the world. I don’t believe in essentializing Judaism – or any religion, for that matter. The fact that Zionism was “a modern movement that broke with traditional Judaism” is not in itself a bad thing. After all, modernity gave rise to a host of Jewish movements that broke with traditional Judaism. My own denomination, Reconstructionist Judaism is most certainly such a movement.
I often think of this when I hear liberal Christians respond to the hateful things said and done by white Christian nationalists by saying, “that is not Christianity.” No, in fact it is Christianity. The Christian church certainly has a great deal to live down from its history up until present day. But to the Christians who seek to promote humane Christianity, I would suggest that the answer is not to deny the more problematic or toxic manifestations of their tradition. The answer is to recognize that every religious tradition, every religious community has its good, its bad and yes, it’s ugly. And if we want the good to prevail, it seems to me, we must be ready to confront the all of our religious traditions.
The same goes for the Jewish community. Even if Zionists deny us our Jewishness, It’s not intellectually honest, nor is it particularly productive, to deny Zionists theirs’. The question before us is not who is the most “authentic” Jew? The real question is: what kind of Judaism do we want to lift up in the world, to live out, to bequeath to future generations?
This is why I feel so blessed to be a part of Jewish congregation that is ready to stand up and say we seek a Judaism beyond Zionism, beyond apartheid and settler colonialism. A Judaism that views the diaspora as the fertile ground for Jewish creativity, a Judaism that seeks the Divine wherever we may happen to live, that affirms the whole earth is filled with God’s glory. A Judaism that values spiritual power over physical power. A Judaism that makes its home in the margins, because that’s where our sacred sparks of creativity have always resided. A Judaism of solidarity, that knows our place is alongside all who are marginalized, demonized and oppressed for who they are.
So, this Yom Kippur and for every day forward, let this be our prayer:
May the dream of a world complete become reality soon, in our own day, that every land may be a Zion, every city a Jerusalem, every home a sanctuary offering welcome to all. May the world be rebuilt upon a foundation of compassion, equity and justice, as it is written, compassion and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Baruch atah adonai, boneh ha’olam b’tzedek v’rachamim – Blessed are you, who rebuilds the world in justice and compassion.
Last week, I was saddened to read that Anna Rajagopal (they/her), a Jewish activist and senior at Rice University, had been fired by Avodah: Jewish Service Corps after having just been hired as a Social Media Assistant. Their action followed – and seemed to be a result of – a relentless online campaign by the astroturf organization, StopAntisemitism.org, who demonized Anna as a “rabid antisemite” and urged its followers to deluge Avodah with demands to fire them.
After firing Anna, Avodah understandably received strong criticism from progressive Jewish quarters. In response, the organization then released its own statement on Twitter, insisting that they “did not and do not make decisions in response to actions or demands of any external group and … did not and do not make personnel decisions based on an individual’s politics related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Their statement also purported to stand in solidarity with Anna in the face of the horrid online attacks against them:
We’re angry & disgusted to witness this individual be subjected to vile racism, misogyny & even questioning of their Judaism. We condemn the demonizing & disparaging of anyone-especially the targeting Jews of Color who experience this type of hate & questioning regularly. We take seriously our commitment to Jewish pluralism and continue to work to ensure a respectful community for all.
Avodah’s claim that they did not fire Anna because of their views was contradicted in a leaked email from Avodah CEO Cheryl Cook, who wrote to a supporter, “We don’t believe (Anna’s) publicly-shared values align with ours, and we are parting ways.” Factoring in the fact that Cook is currently running for political office in Brooklyn, it seems fairly clear that Avodah did indeed “make a decision based on an individual’s politics on Israel/Palestine” – and that they did indeed capitulate to “the demands of an outside group.”
The issue in question centered on Anna’s use of strong, often scathing rhetoric as they criticized Israel and Zionism on social media. In this regard, their firing was similar to an incident that occurred almost exactly a year ago, when a Hebrew school teacher was fired from a Reform synagogue in Westchester, NY for publicly criticizing Israel’s “settler colonial violence” and referring to themself as an anti-Zionist. This most recent instance was particularly troubling, however, because Avodah is an Jewish institution whose primary focus is social justice.
Even more egregiously, the organization has now handed a victory to a new, privately-funded movement that seeks to promote a distinctly Islamophobic, anti-Palestinian narrative on antisemitism. Indeed, while StopAntisemitism.com describes itself on its website as a “grassroots watchdog organization,” it does not have non-profit status or a board of directors – and the source of its funding is exceedingly opaque. We do know that StopAntisemitism.com is a front project for Liora Rez, a right-wing Jewish activist and former social media influencer. Though her website claims SA.com was born “in response to increasing antisemitic violence and sentiment across the United States” her “Antisemite of the Week” list actually contains very few neo-Nazis or white nationalists. It is filled almost exclusively with Muslims, Palestinians and Palestinian solidarity activists – as well as popular celebrities such as Dua Lipa and Trevor Noah and, naturally, Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
As with previous attacks on individuals, StopAntisemitism.com’s campaign against Anna was exceedingly vile, giving rise to a torrent of toxic Twitter attacks questioning their status as a Jew (they are a convert to Judaism) as well as racist comments targeting them as a Jew of color. (Many of these horrid slurs still remain on Avodah’s comment board and Twitter feed.) This entire ordeal has understandably taken a huge emotional toll on Anna, who tweeted last Friday, “This week has been the most unimaginable hell possible. Being 21 years old and the incessant target of both right-wing extremists as well as institutional, racist abuse at the hands of grown adults…”
Anna’s firing is particularly painful when you consider just a few days earlier, Avodah publicly celebrated them thus: “We’ve got a new member of #TeamAvodah… Join us in welcoming Anna as our social media assistant! They’re joining us from Houston & have a background in digital literacy and advocacy, perfect for their role’s focus on racial justice and our Jews of Color Bayit.” By subsequently capitulating to StopAntisemitism.com’s toxic campaign, however, Avodah has effectively validated the very worst prejudices in our community against Jews of color and Jews by choice.
In some ways this episode illuminates the razor thin tightrope that many liberal Jewish organizations are walking as they reach out to younger generations of Jews who don’t toe the Jewish communal party line on Israel/Palestine. It’s worth noting that even as Avodah seeks to position itself on the Jewish vanguard of social justice, it also receives funding from the Schusterman Family Philanthropies, which also funds die-hard Zionist projects such as Birthright Israel and the Israel on Campus Coalition.
Avodah’s precarious position was dramatically underscored last year when 274 program participants and alumni sent a letter to Avodah leadership, calling on the organization to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, commit to Nakba education, support bills that would block or restrict military aid to Israel and end “official and unofficial gag rules that prevent corps members and staff from speaking freely about their support for BDS and Palestinian liberation.” To date, however, the organization has chosen not to take a public stand on the issue of Israel/Palestine.
In the end, Avodah’s action just further reinforces the line that there is no simply place for Jewish anti-Zionists like Anna Rajagopal in the Jewish institutional world. I’ve personally talked with several young people who have lost their jobs in the Jewish community in similar ways to Anna – and a number of others who feel they must stifle their moral/political convictions for fear of being fired. I truly believe these are among our brightest, critically thinking, and devoted members of our community – and that by excluding them, the Jewish communal establishment is only further hastening its irrelevance to the next generation of Jews.
As Rabbi Amy Bardack wrote in a powerful article for eJewishPhilanthropy.com earlier this year:
Our institutions have to wrestle with the reality that increasing numbers of passionate Jews do not support the State of Israel. Is it in our best long-term interest to be welcoming to everyone but them? I propose that we spend less time labeling all anti-Zionist Jews as antisemitic, and more time figuring out how to be truly inclusive.
I stand with Anna Rajgopal and all of the young anti-Zionist Jews who are, whether the Jewish establishment gatekeepers like it or not, the future of our community.
Keen observers have long noted that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is essentially a xenophobic Israel-advocacy organization masquerading as a Jewish civil rights organization. If there was ever any doubt, this became abundantly clear at the ADL’s National Leadership Summit on May 1, when CEO Jonathan Greenblatt delivered a prerecorded speech, ostensibly to discuss the mission of the organization in light of its just-released 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents. Instead, Greenblatt spent the majority of his time denouncing anti-Zionism (i.e., legitimate opposition to an ideology that promotes an exclusively Jewish state in historic Palestine) as antisemitism. In his speech, he specifically vilified three Palestine solidarity groups — Students for Justice in Palestine, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jewish Voice for Peace — terming them “hateful” and “extremist.”
Greenblatt’s doubling down was particularly notable because his message represented a change from the ADL’s official statement that “anti-Zionism isn’t always antisemitic.” Indeed, it was difficult to not be struck by the sheer amount of time he spent on the subject — and the vehemence with which he pressed his talking points:
To those who still cling to the idea that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism — let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can — anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
Anti-Zionism as an ideology is rooted in rage. It is predicated on one concept: the negation of another people, a concept as alien to the modern discourse as white supremacy. It requires a willful denial of even a superficial history of Judaism and the vast history of the Jewish people. And, when an idea is born out of such shocking intolerance, it leads to, well, shocking acts.
Greenblatt’s claims were particularly cynical because they actually flew directly in the face of the ADL’s own 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, which found that of the 2,717 incidents it recorded last year, 345 (just over 12 percent) involved “references to Israel or Zionism” (and of these, “68 took the form of propaganda efforts by white supremacist groups.”) Though he actually opened his speech by invoking his report, Greenblatt actively misrepresented its findings, choosing instead to vilify three organizations that legitimately protest Israel’s human rights abuse of Palestinians. Most outrageously, he actually equated anti-Zionists with “white supremacists and alt-right ilk who murder Jews,” as if the rhetoric of Palestine solidarity activists could in any way be comparable to the mass murder of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
By singling out these Palestine solidarity groups, Greenblatt was clearly employing a familiar strategy utilized by the Israeli government and its supporters: blaming the current rise in antisemitism on Muslims, Palestinians, and those who dare to stand in solidarity with them. The “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” trope has also been the favored political tactic of liberal and conservative politicians alike. It is most typically invoked to attack supporters of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Pro-Palestinian activists well know there is no better way to silence and vilify their activism than to raise the specter of antisemitism.
As journalist Peter Beinart has put it, “It is a bewildering and alarming time to be a Jew, both because antisemitism is rising and because so many politicians are responding to it not by protecting Jews but by victimizing Palestinians.” Of course, the rise in antisemitism is alarming, but as ever, the greatest threat to Jews comes from far-right nationalists and white supremacists — not Palestinians and those who stand with them. It is particularly sobering to contemplate that this definition essentially defines all Palestinians as antisemitic if they dare to oppose Zionism. But what else can Palestinians be expected to do, given that Zionism resulted in their collective dispossession, forcing them from their homes and lands and subjecting them to a crushing military occupation?
The growing crackdown on anti-Zionism can also be understood as a conscious effort to stem the growing number of Jews in the U.S. — particularly young Jews — who do not identify with the state of Israel and openly identify as anti-Zionist. The backlash against this phenomenon has been fierce — at times perversely so. In a widely discussed 2021 essay, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy lamented the growth of anti-Zionist Jews, by labeling them as “un-Jews.” Last May, immediately following Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, a Chicago-area Reform rabbi gave a sermon in which she called anti-Zionist Jews “Jews in name only” who must be “kept out of the Jewish tent.”
Beyond these extreme protestations, it bears noting that there has always been principled Jewish opposition to Zionism. While there are certainly individual anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites, it is disingenuous to claim that opposition to Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic. Judaism (a centuries-old religious peoplehood) is not synonymous with Zionism (a modern nationalist ideology that is not exclusively Jewish).
My congregation, Tzedek Chicago, recently amended our core values statement to say that we are “anti-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people — an injustice that continues to this day.” Our decision to articulate anti-Zionism as a value came after months of congregational deliberation, followed by a membership vote. As the Tzedek Chicago board explained our decision:
Zionism, the movement to establish a sovereign Jewish nation state in historic Palestine, is dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land. Since its establishment, Israel has sought to maintain this majority by systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes through a variety of means, including military expulsion, home demolition, land expropriation and revocation of residency rights, among others.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism. In a 2021 report, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state,” describing it as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a similar report, stating Israel’s “deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Given the reality of this historic and ongoing injustice, we have concluded that it is not enough to describe ourselves as “non-Zionist.” We believe this neutral term fails to honor the central anti-racist premise that structures of oppression cannot be simply ignored — on the contrary, they must be transformed. As political activist Angela Davis has famously written, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
While we are the first progressive synagogue to openly embrace anti-Zionism, there is every reason to believe we will not be the only one. At the very least, we hope our decision will widen the boundaries of what is considered acceptable discourse on the subject in the Jewish community. As Shaul Magid recently — and astutely — wrote:
[Israel is] a country stuck with an ideology that impedes equality, justice, and fairness. Maybe the true messianic move is not to defend Zionism, but to let it go. Maybe the anti-Zionists are on to something, if we only allow ourselves to listen.
Whether or not organizations such as the ADL succeed in their efforts to falsely conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism depends largely on the response of the liberal and centrist quarters of the Jewish community. Indeed, Greenblatt’s doubling down on anti-Zionism may well reflect a political strategy seeking to drive a wedge in the Jewish community between liberal Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews. Jewish establishment organizations, such as the ADL and American Jewish Committee view this moment as an opportunity to broaden their political influence, with the support of right-wing Democrats and Christian Zionists. The end game of this growing political coalition: an impenetrable firewall of unceasing political/financial/diplomatic support for Israel in Washington, D.C.
In the end, of course, the success or failure of this destructive tactic will ultimately depend on the readiness of Jews and non-Jews alike to publicly stand down Israeli apartheid and ethnonationalism — and to advocate a vision of justice for all who live between the river and the sea.
An Open Letter to the Jewish Community from the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council
We, the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace, stand by the recent reports which use the term ‘apartheid’ to describe Israeli rule over Palestinians. The past year’s reports by B’tselem, Human Rights Watch and now Amnesty International contain well-documented evidence describing how the State of Israel maintains a system of identity-baseddomination over Palestinians. This detailed evidence demonstrates the systemic and shocking human rights violations and extreme violence and cruelty unleashed upon Palestinians living both under Israeli military and civil jurisdiction.
Rabbi Brian Walt, one of the signers of this letter, grew up in South Africa under Apartheid. He writes: “The finding that Israel is an Apartheid state is shocking to me – and it should be to every Jew and person of conscience. Instead of demonizing these human rights organizations, we who care about our Jewish ethical and spiritual heritage must grapple with the harsh and deadly reality documented in these three reports.”
As people deeply committed to Jewish life and culture, we believe Jews should read these reports in the spirit of prophetic witness and atonement, like the texts we read on Yom Kippur, which challenge us to turn from violence and break the bonds of oppression so a new dawn can burst forth. Many of us have witnessed these realities on the ground for decades. The reports confirm what Palestinians have been telling us all along: Israel’s system of control is based on the idea of Jewish supremacy.
It is with deep sorrow that we once again witness leadership in Jewish institutional life ignore, dismiss or condemn the reports as antisemitic. On the day of the public release of Amnesty International’s report, leaders of the Reform movement issued an email calling on Reform rabbis and member congregations to condemn the report, claiming the decades-long research was “replete with discredited and inaccurate allegations, including a deeply wrong accusation of apartheid.”
Denial is a common response that surfaces when we are asked to face difficult realities that upend deeply held views. However, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International detail at length how Israel’s systemic policies, rooted in racism, have brought suffering to millions of Palestinian lives. Shouldn’t these claims cause us to at least read the reports and hear the direct testimony of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians?
We believe that we must face the moral challenge that these reports present to us. As Hillel said, “Go study!” We call on all people of conscience, including Jewish people in our communities, to read the reports carefully. Secondly, we call on the leaders of the Jewish community, rabbinic and lay, to facilitate open discussion on the reports, including inviting representatives of the organizations to talk about the report in your community and to answer questions. We also encourage rabbis and leaders to facilitate open and respectful dialogue and debate in our communities about the issues raised in these reports. We cannot work for healing justice if we live in denial of the reality Palestinians have been facing every day since 1948.
As Jews of conscience, Israel’s system of apartheid has created a moral emergency for us. We cannot turn away. Instead, we long for the kinds of conversation which accurately reflect the reality on the ground, a reality that B’Tselem calls Jewish Supremacy. The conclusion reached by these three well-respected human rights organizations that Israeli governance fits within the international definition of apartheid is a renewed calls to people of conscience. We must examine how the claims of these reports reveal the ways we are complicit in sustaining Israeli apartheid, and commit to repair for the systemic injustice choking Palestinian lives. May our study lead to active repair of the harms of apartheid. This is the only path to teshuvah.
When Amnesty International announced the release of a 278 page report entitled “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians,” you could already sense the storm clouds gathering. Even before it was actually released, the Israeli government publicly asked Amnesty to withdraw it, calling it “false, biased and antisemitic.” A group of six American Jewish organizations launched their own preemptive strike, claiming that the report was “unbalanced, inaccurate, and incomplete,” seeking only “to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”
When the storm finally broke on February 2, it didn’t take long for the outrage to come raining down. US politicians from both sides of the aisle issued fierce condemnations (DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, called it “baseless”, “biased” and “steeped in antisemitism.”) The Jewish institutional establishment likewise let loose: the Anti-Defamation League pronounced it “hateful,” inaccurate” and “irresponsible;” the American Jewish Committee called the report “a canard” and a “libel;” and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, claimed the report sought “to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”
The three of the major American Jewish religious denominations piled on as well: the Union for Reform Judaism expressed its “profound disappointment and explicit condemnation” of the report; the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism labeled it “outrageously dishonest” and “deceitful;” and the Orthodox Union condemned the report as an “ideologically driven polemic.” (As of this writing, the Reconstructionist movement has yet to release a statement.)
It’s doubtful that the authors of these terse and hastily released statements actually read the report, which is nearly 300 pages and took four years to research and publish. And not surprisingly, none of the statements directly addressed the specific findings of the report beyond the use of “A” word. Rather, they rolled out their tired and increasingly desperate-sounding pro-Israel talking points: that such claims “demonized” the state of Israel, that Israel is a thriving democracy that gives equal rights to its Palestinian citizens and that criticism of Israel only serves to inflame antisemitism against Jews.
By contrast, statements from Liberal Zionist organizations were less harsh, admitting the reality of Israel’s human rights abuses even as they disagreed with the report’s use of the term “apartheid.” J Street threaded the needle very carefully, affirming that “Israel as a democratic national homeland for the Jewish people is historically just and necessary” while calling out Israel’s “deepening de facto annexation of the territory it has occupied since 1967.” When it came to the report itself, however, J Street declined to “endorse its findings or the recommendations.”
The response released by Tru’ah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights condemned “the very real human rights abuses that Palestinians face every day,” but objected to “many of the report’s assertions, language choices, assumptions, and conclusions.” (They remained notably silent on the specifics of their objections.) In the end, Tru’ah’s true agenda was revealed by their call for a negotiated settlement for a two-state solution: an argument for essentially maintaining the status quo even as Israel’s human rights abuses continue unabated on the ground.
It’s worth noting that while both Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem released similar reports on Israeli apartheid last year, neither inspired the same level of collective vehemence as the Amnesty report. This is likely because as one of the most prominent and well-known human rights organizations in the world, Amnesty’s report makes it that much more acceptable to isolate Israel as an apartheid state. Israel and its supporters know full well that Amnesty’s use of a term such as this can move Israel more quickly down the road to international pariah status.
This report also differs from previous reports in terms of its conclusions, particularly its explicit support of Palestinian refugees right of return. And while it does not openly endorse BDS, the report does call on governments and regional actors to “immediately suspend the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer, including transit and trans- shipment to Israel of all weapons, munitions and other military and security equipment, including the provision of training and other military and security assistance.” It likewise encourages them to “institute and enforce a ban on products from Israeli settlements in (their) markets and “regulate companies domiciled in (their) jurisdiction in a manner to prohibit companies’ operation in settlements or trade in settlements goods”
In the end, human rights reports alone cannot themselves hold Israel accountable. They can, however, create space to make it more acceptable to publicly acknowledge the systemic roots of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. As journalist Maureen Murphy wrote in her excellent piece, What Makes Amnesty’s Apartheid Report Different?: “Amnesty’s report is a strong indicator that an analysis beyond the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is becoming mainstream.”
In the meantime, I hope that anyone concerned with justice in Israel/Palestine will do what the organizations above cynically failed to do: read, consider, discuss and share the content of this important and groundbreaking report.
At our December 2021 meeting, board of my congregation, Tzedek Chicago, voted unanimously to recommend amending our core values statement to state explicitly that anti-Zionism (rather than “non-Zionism”) should be articulated as one of our core values.
Recognizing the significance of such a step, the board also agreed unanimously that this decision should be processed, discussed and ultimately put to a membership vote. To this end, Tzedek Chicago is holding a series of town hall meetings and will send out an online ballot to members in March.
Here, below, is the text of a Q/A that the Tzedek board drafted and sent out to its members to explain its decision:
Why did Tzedek Chicago originally include “Non-Zionism” as part of our core values?
When our congregation was established in 2015, our founders developed a set of core values to provide the ideological foundation for our congregational life. In our final values statement, we included the following words in the section entitled, “A Judaism Beyond Nationalism”:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people—an injustice that continues to this day.
From the outset, our founders made a conscious decision to state that Tzedek Chicago would not be a Zionist congregation. Most Jewish congregations in North America are Zionist by default. Among other things, Tzedek Chicago was created to provide a Jewish congregational community for those who did not identify as Zionists—and who did not want to belong to congregations that celebrated Zionism as a necessary aspect of Jewish life.
Why is the board recommending the change from “Non-Zionist” to “Anti-Zionist?”
Zionism, the movement to establish a sovereign Jewish nation state in historic Palestine, is dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land. Since its establishment, Israel has sought to maintain this majority by systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes through a variety of means, including military expulsion, home demolition, land expropriation and revocation of residency rights, among others.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism. In its 2021 report, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state,” describing it as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a similar report stating Israel’s “deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Given the reality of this historic and ongoing injustice, we have concluded that it is not enough to describe ourselves as “non-Zionist.” We believe this neutral term fails to honor the central anti-racist premise that structures of oppression cannot be simply ignored; on the contrary, they must be transformed. As political activist Angela Davis has famously written, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
What about the claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitism?
While there are certainly individual anti-Zionists who are antisemites, it is disingenuous to claim that opposition to Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic. Judaism (a centuries-old religious peoplehood) is not synonymous with Zionism (a modern nationalist ideology that is not exclusively Jewish). Since the founding of the Zionist movement in the 19th century, there has always been active Jewish opposition to Zionism.
While Jewish anti-Zionists are still a minority in the Jewish community today, their numbers have been increasing, particularly among those under 30 years of age. Not coincidentally, we are witnessing increasingly vociferous calls from the Israeli government, Israel advocates and Jewish institutions to label anti-Zionism as antisemitism. There have also been public calls to categorize anti-Zionist Jews as “Un-Jews” and “Jews in name only.” Given the tenor of the current moment, we believe the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists is all the more critical.
“Anti-Zionist” describes what we oppose—but what are we positively advocating for?
While we affirm that Tzedek Chicago is an anti-Zionist congregation, that is not all we are. This value is but one aspect of a larger vision we refer to in our core values statement as a “Judaism Beyond Borders.” Central to this vision is an affirmation of the diaspora as the fertile ground from which Jewish spiritual creativity has flourished for centuries. Indeed, Jewish life has historically taken root, adapted and blossomed in many lands throughout the world. At Tzedek Chicago we seek to develop and celebrate a diasporic consciousness that joyfully views the entire world as our homeland.
Moving away from a Judaism that looks to Israel as its fully realized home releases us into rich imaginings of what the World to Come might look like, where it might be, and how we might go about inhabiting it now. This creative windfall can infuse our communal practices, rituals, and liturgy. We also believe that Jewish diasporic consciousness has the real potential to help us reach a deeper solidarity with those who have been historically colonized and oppressed. As we state in our core values:
We understand that our Jewish historical legacy as a persecuted people bequeaths to us a responsibility to reject the ways of oppression and stand with the most vulnerable members of our society. In our educational programs, celebrations and liturgy, we emphasize the Torah’s repeated teachings to stand with the oppressed and to call out the oppressor.
Does Tzedek Chicago expect every member to personally adhere to this new position?
As is the case with all of our core values, this position is not an ideological “litmus test” for membership at Tzedek Chicago. It is, rather, part of our collective vision as a religious community. We understand that every individual member of our congregation will struggle with these issues and must come to their own personal conclusions. The main question for all of Tzedek’s members is not “must I personally accept every one of these core values?” but rather, “given these values, is this a congregation that I would like to support and to which I would like to belong?”
What will this decision mean for our congregation going forward?
We believe the core value of anti-Zionism will open up many important opportunities for our community. It will guide us in the programs we develop, the Jewish spiritual life we create, the coalitions we join and the public positions we take. In a larger sense, we believe this decision will create space for other Jewish congregations to take a similar stand—to join us in imagining and building a Jewish future beyond Zionism.
In the end, we are advocating for this congregational decision in the hopes that it may further catalyze Jewish participation in the worldwide movement to dismantle all systems of racism and oppression. May it happen בִּמְהֵרָה בְּיָמֵינוּ—bimheira be’yameinu—soon in our own day.
As many of you know, in January of 2020 it was my great honor to become Tzedek Chicago’s full-time rabbi. Among my first orders of business at the time was to find an office and a more suitable facility for our congregation. As it turned out, my search didn’t last too long. Soon enough, along with the rest of the world Tzedek had to hunker down and make our home in the land of Zoom.
We weren’t at all sure what to expect in this strange new virtual world, but we certainly weren’t prepared for what happened next. In a word, we grew. We grew from two Shabbat services a month to weekly services, Torah studies, festival services and family programs. We instituted a weekly Wednesday afternoon gathering as a check-in for our members. We also held increasing numbers of adult educational opportunities and concerts. The pandemic truly transformed the life of our congregation in astonishing and unexpected ways.
It didn’t take us long to figure out why. It was a time of profound social isolation. We all felt it palpably, some of us more than others. The world craved connection – and in this strange new world, religious congregations had a particularly crucial role to play. Like so many other houses of worship, Tzedek served as a sacred virtual space where we could regularly gather and overcome our increasing separateness from one another.
But there was another way Tzedek grew as well: we grew geographically. Almost overnight, we gained regular members and attendees from around the country and around the world: from Canada, the UK, Germany and New Zealand, among many other places. Again, it didn’t take long to understand why. We’d always drawn our members from a wide swath of the Chicagoland area and even some surrounding states. We were never strictly a local congregation; from the very beginning we’ve been a community bound together by our convictions.
Those of us who founded Tzedek Chicago were very clear on this point: we really weren’t interested in creating another liberal Jewish congregation. We wanted to build a congregation on a foundation of core values. We emphasized “standing with the oppressed and calling out the oppressor.” We took “a stand against colonialism and militarism, especially when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.” We made a particular point of disavowing Zionism, stating that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this day.”
When we founded Tzedek, we drafted our core values even before we recruited a single member of our congregation. We wanted to make sure that those who joined us would join because they sought a Jewish community that shared their values. We just knew that there was a significant and growing constituency for the vision of Judaism we sought to promote.
It’s been so gratifying to see how our faith has been validated these past six years. Speaking personally, it’s been a blessing for me. When I left my former congregation, I really never thought I’d work as a congregational rabbi again. I’m so grateful that Tzedek has given me this opportunity – and I’ve never, ever taken it for granted.
Over the years, I’ve received regular emails from folks from across the country and around the world asking if there was a congregation like Tzedek in their home communities. I’d almost always have to say no, I didn’t think there was. But starting in 2020, of course, that question became moot. We became a global congregation in ways we never could have dreamed. As the world opens up (may it happen soon in our day!) we’ll certainly reinstitute more in-person services and programs. But our congregational leadership has made it clear that going forward, we’ll continue to be a primarily virtual congregation. The pandemic has changed us indelibly – and we welcome this change. We’re excited by the prospect of broadening our membership even further around the world to include anyone and everyone who shares our particular vision of Jewish community.
While I’m on the subject of vision, I’d like to return for a moment to our core values, and why they continue to be so critical – perhaps now more than ever. I mentioned that when we drafted our values, we wanted to be explicit about the fact that we weren’t Zionist. Unlike other congregations, we weren’t praying for a “just peace” or “coexistence” between both sides. We didn’t claim that our members held “a variety of views” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We stated quite explicitly that we opposed the very concept of Jewish nation-statism. On that point we were, and continue to be, unequivocal.
We weren’t the first progressive congregation to take this stance, but we were certainly among the very few. Over the past few years, the numbers of non and anti-Zionist communities has grown to a certain extent. Not long after our founding, Jewish Voice for Peace created a Havurah Network for spiritual communities such as ours, and we’ve been a proud, participating member of the network from the very beginning. Still, I confess to some disappointment that there still aren’t more congregations willing to take this kind of a public stand.
There’s no question that the narrative on Israel/Palestine is changing. Last May, the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, released the results of a poll in which 34% of US Jewish voters agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 20% said they preferred “establishing one state that is neither Jewish nor Palestinian.” As you might expect, when these findings are narrowed down to Jews under 40, they skew significantly higher.
It’s clearly getting harder and harder to ignore what Zionism has wrought. This past year was also the occasion of a report from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem entitled, “This is Apartheid: A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” The report ended with these astonishing, unprecedented words:
As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot…Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.
Tragically, last year was also the occasion of yet another devastating military assault on Gaza, killing 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. As with past Israeli attacks on Gaza, I found those weeks in May to be utterly unbearable. The massive loss of life. Entire families wiped out. Scores of Palestinians left grievously wounded and homeless. On top of that, of course, there was the appalling response of the Jewish community. Not just the organized Jewish community, whose craven support of Israel we’ve come to expect, but the so-called liberal, progressive Jewish community, who reacted to this moral outrage with equivocation – responding to war crimes committed in their name with rationalizations and hand wringing; with “yes, buts” or “both sides-isms.”
When we openly state that our congregation is not Zionist, that’s more than mere semantics. It is a statement that the Judaism we lift up will not and cannot include apartheid, settler colonialism and militarism. This is not merely a political position – it’s a spiritual statement of conscience about what it means to be Jewish and what kinds of Jewish communities we seek to create. I’ve personally come to the conclusion that among all the issues that divide the Jewish community today, the role of Zionism is far and away the most critical. Can we truly imagine any other ideological divide that is more important – more morally consequential – than this?
Lately, we’ve been hearing news of fairly prominent congregations that promote an “open tent” approach when it comes to Zionism – i.e., congregations that openly make room for the views of non and anti-Zionists along with liberal Zionists in their communities. As welcome as such a development is, however, I have to ask myself, is this so-called open-tent ultimately tenable? Is it sustainable? Is it even desirable: to build congregational communities in which members have such fundamentally different moral approaches to being Jewish? In which some congregational members cherish and celebrate Israel, while others view it as an apartheid, settler colonial state? However well meaning, I cannot view this as anything other than an untenable, unbridgeable divide.
In my very first sermon for Tzedek Chicago, I said the following:
I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.
Six years later, I feel this even more strongly: too often, liberal Jewish congregations wield the word “inclusion” to provide them with convenient cover for taking a stand. But sooner or later, there’s a point in which the value of inclusion must give way to moral conviction. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to come clean about what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm, what kind of Jewish spiritual communities we seek to build. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for Tzedek, a Jewish home in which I can speak my truth as a rabbi unabashedly and without compromise. I hope and trust it’s a community where youcan openly express your most consequential Jewish truths as well.
On Kol Nidre, we affirm the vows we make that we know we will not or cannot fulfill in the coming year. This Kol Nidre – and every Kol Nidre – let us also affirm the vows on which we will not and cannot compromise. Let us affirm that our Judaism does not depend upon the dispossession of others, but on the liberation of all. Let us continue building our congregation into a global community that is the living breathing embodiment of this vow.
Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – may we all go from strength to strength in the coming year and beyond.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, contains the well-known commandment:
“You must love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
While it’s often characterized as the most repeated commandment in the Torah – occurring a total of 36 times, that’s actually a bit of hyperbole – it actually appears only six times. The number 36 seems to have originated from a passage in the Talmud  but in the end, I’d suggest that the accuracy of this claim is really irrelevant. For liberal Jews in particular, this commandment looms large because it’s a powerful statement of collective empathy. The Jewish people, who have historically lived as “strangers in strange lands,” are as such commanded to love and protect all who know the experience of the stranger.
The Hebrew word for “stranger,” is ger – a legal term in the Bible for “resident non-citizen.” Throughout the laws of the Torah, there is a clear concern expressed for the legal status of gerim, who are often included in the ritual life of ancient Israel. In the commandment to keep the Shabbat, for instance, the “ger within your settlements” is included in the list of those who must cease from work. God also adjures Israelites repeatedly that there must be “one law” that governs the ger as well as the Israelites.
Given the Torah’s tolerant attitude toward the “stranger,” this commandment is popularly invoked by Jewish communal leaders, particularly in reference to the issues of immigrant justice and refugee rights. This statement from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism is a classic example, using the commandment to highlight the classic American dream of immigrant “opportunity.”
Our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today, and we affirm our commitment to create the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our own community not so many years ago.
Upon deeper examination, however, this use of the commandment to “love the stranger” is not as powerfully straightforward as it may first appear. This commandment – like all commandments in the Torah – is directed toward the Israelites as they prepare to assume a position of power. Even more critically, their position of power will be attained by means of conquest.
In fact, this week’s Torah portion – the very same one that contains this famously empathic commandment – also contains a divine command to the Israelites to brutally dispossess and destroy the peoples of Canaan:
You shall destroy the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity…The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic, until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.
(Deuteronomy 7:16, 22-24)
In this context, we would thus do well to ask ourselves, what does it mean for Jews – particularly white Jews – to invoke this Biblical verse as we dwell on land stolen by a settler colonial power from its indigenous population? Or to put it another way, before intoning the commandment to love the stranger, we might first ask ourselves, “who is the real stranger here?”
Indeed, we cannot deny the fact that the Biblical conquest tradition has historically been used – and continues to be used – to justify colonial dispossession, turning indigenous peoples into strangers in their own lands. In other words, the definition of who is a “citizen” and who is a “stranger” is – and has always been – determined by those who wield the power.
Where does this leave us, then? Is it even possible for Jews who cherish Biblical tradition to read the Torah through a decolonial lens?
I believe it is. I would suggest that the first step is to ask questions precisely such as these. To avoid the temptation to ignore or wish away these kinds of texts; to actively challenge and interrupt the Biblical conquest tradition head on. For there is no getting around it: the Exodus story is not only about a people liberated by God from slavery – it is also about a people commanded by God to conquer and annihilate the Canaanites before occupying the land they inhabit.
Reading the Torah through a decolonial lens also means coaxing out and amplifying the voices of the “strangers” in the text – the disenfranchised and colonized who might otherwise be voiceless to us. In this regard, I’ve learned a great deal from the pedagogy of commentators from outside Jewish tradition. One such teacher is the Indigenous Studies scholar Robert Warrior, who has written powerfully about the Biblical conquest tradition in his essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians:”
The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus stories with Canaanites eyes.
I find another important teacher in the work of black womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, whose book “Sisters in the Wilderness” lifts up the voice of the Biblical character Hagar as a role model for African-American women:
Hagar’s heritage was African as was black women’s. Hagar was a slave. Black women had emerged from a slave heritage and still lived in light of it. Hagar was brutalized by her slave owner, the Hebrew woman Sarah. The slave narratives of African-American women and some of the narratives of contemporary day-workers tell of the brutal or the cruel treatment black women have received from the wives of slave masters and from contemporary white female employers.
I realize that interpretations such as these are undeniably challenging for Jews who read the text literally, identifying Jewish experience exclusively with the experience of the Israelites. It is even more challenging for white Jews who benefit from power and privilege to reckon with the ways we are complicit in the European Christian legacy of colonization – a legacy that continues to do harm even now.
I would suggest that the commandment to “love the stranger” can never be truly honored if it comes from a position of power or noblesse oblige. It can only be honored when those in power step back and amplify the voices of strangers so that they may assume a rightful place of prominence in the narrative. In so doing, we may yet come to see that the decolonization of the text is in fact inseparable from the decolonization of the world in which we live.
 Exodus 22:20, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:19, Deuteronomy 24:17-18, Deuteronomy 24:21-22. Some versions of this commandment read “Do not oppress the stranger…”