Category Archives: American Jewish Community

On Avodah and Anna Rajagopal: Is there a place for anti-Zionist Jews in our community?

Photo Credit: Very Good Light

The Jewish communal war on its own continues.

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.

Yom Ha’atzmaut and the Nakba: Jewish Religious Responses

“I Don’t Think I Can Celebrate this Holiday Anymore.”

As a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, I remember Yom Ha’atzmaut as the one day every year in which our city’s Jewish community would turn out en masse in celebration. I have vivid memories of our marching through the sidewalks of West LA, waving our Israeli flags, ending with a picnic at Rancho Park. As in many US cities, Yom Ha’atzmaut was the  “go-to” day for expressing our Jewish communal pride.

In addition to this annual event, I also remember regularly celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious festival on the Jewish holiday calendar. Every year, usually on the closest Shabbat to May 15, our Reform Temple would acknowledge the occasion with special prayers and songs – including the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. In short, Yom Ha’atzmaut was not only an occasion to express our Jewish communal solidarity with the state of Israel – it was a day we invested with sacred meaning. When I became a rabbi many years later, I accepted it as common practice to acknowledge Yom Ha’atzmaut in this manner.

Over the years, however, as my own relationship to Israel and Zionism changed, I found the religious observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut increasingly problematic, even painful. In a 2009 blog post, I shared my struggle publicly:

I’ve decided not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut today. I don’t think I can celebrate this holiday any more.

That doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s independence – only that I can no longer view this milestone as a day for unabashed celebration. I’ve come to believe that for me, Yom Ha’atzmaut is more appropriately observed as an occasion for reckoning and honest soul searching.As a Jew, as someone who has identified with Israel for his entire life, it is profoundly painful to me to admit the honest truth of this day: that Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with its dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In the end, Yom Ha’atzmaut and what the Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba are two inseparable sides of the same coin. And I simply cannot separate these two realities any more.

By this point I had come to believe that Yom Ha’atzmaut was a paradigmatic of a deeper moral problem: that the creation of a Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that was in fact still ongoing. I could no longer regard it as something to celebrate, let alone invest with religious meaning.

“May Our Eyes See the Complete Redemption of Israel”

The creation of a Jewish religious holiday by government legislation is, needless to say, unprecedented in Jewish history. Its origins date back to the period immediately following Israel’s birth, when the Knesset officially established the 5th of the Jewish month of Iyar1 as its permanent date. At the time, Knesset members were unanimous that this holiday should have “traditional Jewish significance” and the new government subsequently created a committee to consult with Israel’s new Chief Rabbis in order to determine the precise nature of its religious observance.2 In a subsequent letter to their Rabbinate council, Israel’s Chief Rabbis Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel framed the day as a celebration of divine deliverance and redemption:

The fundamental turning point in God’s compassion on us, the declaration of our independence in the Land, which saved us and redeemed our souls, obligates us to uphold and keep this day of the fifth of Iyar, the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, for all generations, a day of joy of the beginning of the redemption for all of Israel.3

Over the next few months, Israeli religious authorities held extensive debates over how the new holiday should be acknowledged liturgically. Many of these questions focused on the recitation of Hallel – a series of Psalms of praise traditionally added to the morning worship service for festivals. The first formal Jewish liturgy developed specifically for Yom Ha’atzmaut was a new version of  Al Hanisim (“For the Miracles”), a traditional prayer recited on the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah praising God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from their enemies. While it was not approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and did not gain universal acceptance upon its introduction, the practice of reciting Al Hanisim on Yom Ha’atzmaut has since grown in popularity and the prayer has appeared in many different forms throughout the decades.

The first Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut was written in 1949 by Biblical and Talmudic scholar Rabbi Ezra Zion Melamed and later published by the Kibbutz Hadati (the Religious Kibbutz Movement):

For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the deliverance and for the wars that You did for our fathers and for us in those days at this season.

You, O God, awakened the heart of our fathers to return to the mountain of Your inheritance, to settle there and to rebuild it from the ruins, and its land. And when an evil regime stood over us and shut the gates of our land to our brethren who were fleeing from the sword of a cruel enemy, and they sent them back in ships to the islands of the sea and to distant shores, You in Your might toppled his throne and freed the land from his hand. And when enemies rose against us and plotted to destroy us, You in your might sent upon them fear and panic, and they abandoned all their goods, and fled in confusion and haste beyond the borders of our land. 

And when seven nations rose up against us to conquer our land and to make us as bonded servants, You in Your mercies stood by the right hand of the Israel Defense Army and delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, and evildoers into the hands of the righteous. And with Your outstretched arm you helped the young men of Israel to expand the boundaries of our settlement, and to bring our brethren up from the concentration camps.

For all this we thank You, O Lord our God, with bowed head; and on this, our day of festivity and joy, we stretch our hands before You and beseech pray on behalf of our dispersed brethren and say: Please, our Father, our Shepherd, gather them quickly to Your holy habitation, and may they dwell there in peace and calm and tranquility and security. Expand the borders of our land as You promised our forefathers, to give to their seed from the River Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt. Build your holy city Jerusalem, capital of Israel, and reestablish there your Temple as in the days of Solomon. And as we have merited to see the beginning of our redemption and the liberation of our souls, so may we live and may our eyes see the complete redemption of Israel and renew our days as of old. Amen! 4

Using unabashedly Biblical language, this new prayer rendered the Zionist colonization of Palestine as an “awakening” and “return” to the Jewish peoples’ “inheritance.” The British Mandatory authorities were referred to as “an evil regime.” The Zionist militias’ dispossession of Palestinians from their homes (still ongoing at the time of its writing in the spring of 1949), was ascribed to divine intervention, using imagery that evoked the conquest of the Biblical Canaanites. Similar framing was used to describe the Arab armies that joined the war in 1949; the term “seven nations” was a pointed reference to the Canaanite nations dispossessed from the land by the Biblical Israelites in the book of Joshua.5

The final stanza of the prayer contained a reference to kibbutz galuyot (the “ingathering of the exiles”), God’s promise to return the Israelites to their land following the Babylonian exile.6 The term was used here according to the tenets of religious Zionism, which viewed the establishment of a Jewish state in the land as a necessary precursor to the coming of the messiah.7 The prayer concludes by looking forward to a return to the widest Biblical borders of Israel (from the Euphrates to the Nile) and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“To Serve God in the Joy of Victory”

In due time, American Jewish denominations would formally adopt the observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday as well. The Conservative movement included its own version of Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its 1961 Weekday Prayerbook8 and later in its 1985 prayer book Siddur Sim Shalom:

In the days when Your children were returning to their borders, at the time when our people took root in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword. When enemies from within the land, together with seven neighboring nations, sought to annihilate Your people, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You have revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world, achieving great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day.9

While considerably shorter than the original version, the Conservative movement Al Hanisim retains many of its central themes – particularly the Biblical concept of return and kibbutz galuyot. It also deletes the dated references to British Mandate authorities, firmly identifying Palestinians (“enemies from within the land”) and “seven neighboring nations” as the primary enemies of the Jewish people.

Given the Zionist narrative of Israel’s establishment, it’s not difficult to understand why Al Hanisim became a popular prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut. The traditional version for Purim recalls the account in the Book of Esther in which ancient Persia “rose up against them and sought to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all of the Jews, young and old…” On Hanukkah, the prayer extols how God “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure…” In a sense, the Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut combines both of these narratives. Indeed, Israel’s “miraculous” victory over its Arab foes would become central to Zionist mythology following 1948 – and even more so after the Six Day War in 1967.

While the American Reform movement did not originally include prayers for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its Union Prayer Book (almost certainly due to that denomination’s historically anti-Zionist orientation), the Central Conference of American Rabbis eventually established Yom Ha’atzmaut as “a permanent annual festival in the religious calendar of Reform Judaism” in 1970. Five years later, the movement’s prayer book, “Gates of Prayer” included an extensive service for the holiday, including a partial Hallel.10 The most recent Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah (2007), contains a seven-candle lighting ceremony for Yom Ha’atzmaut, featuring a variety of prayers, poems and songs (including Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem). The service also references kibbutz galuyot with this passage from the Biblical book of Jeremiah 23:3, 8: “And Myself will gather the remnants of the flock from all the lands…And I will bring them back to their pasture. And they will dwell upon their own soil.” 11

The Reconstructionist movement prayer book, Kol Haneshama includes a similar Yom Ha’atzmaut service12 that includes Hatikvah as well as the famous “valley of the dry bones” prophecy from Ezekiel 37:13-14. Here, Israel’s founding is juxtaposed with God’s promise to “resurrect” and restore the Israelites to the land of Israel following their exile in Babylonia: “Behold, I am opening your graves, and I shall raise you up from where you lie, my people, and shall bring you to the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am The Eternal One, I who open up your graves and raise you up, my people, from your place of burial!” 13

In addition to these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies, many prominent American Jewish scholars and leaders frame the day as a sanctification of sovereign state power. In his popular book “The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary,” Rabbi Michael Strassfeld suggests, “as our religious perspective on Israel deepens, Yom Ha’atzmaut will become more and more a reflection of a vision rather than the simple birthday party of a nation.” 14

For Strassfeld, that vision involves a dialectic between the “Torah of Sinai” and the “Torah of Jerusalem.” The former, he posits, reflects the revelation that “took place outside of the land of Israel at Sinai” that has become “familiar to us as the life of our people during the 2,000 years of the Diaspora.” The latter emphasizes “sovereignty and independence” and “finds its symbols in the place itself – the site of the ancient temple of sacrifices and the political capital of King David.” 15 As Strassfeld explains:

We need both, for with only Israel and its Torah, it would be easy to make an idolatry of nationalism. We would end up reveling in earth, blood, and power. But with only the Torah of Sinai, we could continue to revel in abstractness and powerlessness, constructing worlds, as the Talmud does, made of oxen that fall into pits and gore each other.16

In his book “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” Rabbi Irving Greenberg goes even farther, suggesting that Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrates “a new Exodus” and represents “a call to power to end the tradition of suffering, to serve God in the joy of victory.” 17 Noting Israel’s early tradition of military parades on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Greenberg writes,

Diaspora Jews who still live with the ideals and illusions of powerlessness are often embarrassed by this phenomenon. Yet a military parade is a most appropriate symbol for an era whose central theme, set in motion by the Holocaust and the creation of the state, is the emergence of Jews from powerlessness.18

Among other things, these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies and commentaries attest to the deep influence of Religious Zionist ideology on American Jewish life. It is indeed troubling to consider: the prayers of every American Jewish denomination frame Israel’s military dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in the context of holy war and ascribe explicitly messianic meaning to Zionist colonization of the land.

Thus, to return to the questions I asked in my 2009 blog post, I ask again: how should we reckon with the knowledge that Jewish communities the world over offer prayers of joy and praise that essentially celebrate the Palestinian people’s collective tragedy? Might it be possible, to use Edward Said’s term, to view Zionism from “the standpoint of its victims?” If so, what might a Jewish ritual acknowledgement of this event actually look like? 

“Beyond Fear and Omnipotence, Beyond Innocence and Militarism”

American Jews – and young American Jews in particular – are starting to ask this very question. In 2013 New Voices, a journal published by the Jewish Student Press Service, published an article that featured Jewish student essays debating whether to “celebrate, commemorate or mourn” on Yom Ha’atzmaut. More recently, the relatively mainstream Jewish newspaper, the Forward featured a debate between two of its regular columnists entitled “Should American Jews celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut?” As one writer observed:

It seems to me that the elevation of Yom Ha’atzmaut to the level of a religious holiday…is an attempt not to provide American Jews with holidays that celebrate our identities as we are, but to construct our identities politically.

As well, some liberal quarters of the American Jewish community now make a point of acknowledging the Nakba in relation to Yom Ha’atzmaut. The Reconstructionist volume, “Guide to Jewish Practice: Shabbat and Holidays,” for instance, includes the following commentary:

The creation of Israel came with a real cost of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being displaced from their homes. Yom Ha’atzmaut may be a joyous day for us, but the Nakba reminds us that this joy, as on Passover, has its limits.19

Similarly, in 2015, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, led a session for American rabbis entitled, “Yom Ha’atzmaut: Between Redemption and Nakba.” In his session he noted that the increasing awareness of the Nakba means that Israelis and Jewish Zionists can no longer “control the narrative” of Israel’s establishment, adding tellingly: “If we have to ‘sell’ and get people excited about the redemption narrative, we have to make room for the fact that ‘something happened.’”

In the end, however, these mild interventions fail to address the heart of the conceptual/ethical issue at hand, as they ultimately seek to strengthen and uphold the Jewish redemption narrative. Is it possible to commemorate this occasion with a fundamentally different Jewish narrative? One that stands down this redemptive view of militarism and state power?

In my own search for answers to this question, the work of several Jewish scholars has become particularly important to me. One such figure is Marc Ellis who has written extensively about the theological dynamics of Jewish empowerment in the wake of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel:

In the formation, sustenance and expansion of Israel, Judaism and Jewish identity has likewise been actively employed, indeed has been militarized and, yes, infected with atrocity. Because once religion and identity become accomplices to atrocity it must disguise that atrocity and twist it to conform to an innocence and redemption that is now visited, as a form of oppression, on the Other, in this case the Palestinian people.

For Ellis, the onset of Jewish state power has resulted in an era of “Constantinian Judaism,” comparable to the elevation of Christianity to the religion of empire in the 4th century. In the current age, Ellis suggests, “dissenting Jews must learn how to practice their Judaism in the shadow of Constantinian Judaism.” 20 He refers to these dissenting Jews as “Jews of Conscience” who, he writes, “are fighting a high stakes battle against the final Jewish assimilation to unjust power which, in their view, articulated in overt Jewish language or not, signals the end of Jewish history.”

Likewise, Sara Roy, whose work has detailed the devastating effect of Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza on Palestinians, has written, in an essay entitled “A Jewish Plea:”

I have come to accept that Jewish power and sovereignty and Jewish ethics and spiritual integrity are, in the absence of reform, incompatible, unable to coexist or be reconciled. For if speaking out against the wanton murder of children is considered an act of disloyalty and betrayal rather than a legitimate act of dissent, and where dissent is so ineffective and reviled, a choice is ultimately forced upon us between Zionism and Judaism.

Roy then asks, powerfully:

As Jews in a post-Holocaust world empowered by a Jewish state, how do we as a people emerge from atrocity and abjection, empowered and also humane, something that still eludes us? How do we move beyond fear and omnipotence, beyond innocence and militarism, to envision something different, even if uncertain?

“A Full Accounting of the Wrongdoing that was Committed in Our Name.”

In response to challenges such as these, we are now witnessing the tentative emergence of new alternative approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut/Nakba Day as an occasion for reckoning and remembrance rather than joy and celebration. One such example is the “Joint Nakba Remembrance Ceremony,” an annual gathering sponsored by the Israeli organization Combatants for Peace and co-sponsored by a variety of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. According to organizers, this ceremony seeks

to bring attention to the Nakba and acknowledge the great pain it brings, through the understanding of the Nakba’s importance in the Palestinian collective memory and in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ceremony’s message is that we must face our past with honesty, integrity, and empathy in order to bring a future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides.

My own synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, has been exploring ways to develop a Jewish observance of Nakba Day with a service of combining prayer, readings, poetry and survivor testimonies. Here, for instance, is my “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day,” which I wrote to be a centerpiece of our ritual:

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:

Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:

show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,

guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,

Amen.

In this prayer, I use the Hebrew word “teshuvah” according to two of its meanings: both “return” and “repentance.” The first half of the prayer acknowledges the historical reality of the Nakba. The phrase “gather them from the four corners of the earth” is an explicit reference to kibbutz galuyot – “the ingathering of the exiled,” applying it here to the Palestinian right of return. The second half of the prayer uses the word teshuvah/repentance in the context of the collective Jewish responsibility to confess Jewish complicity in the depopulation, destruction and replacement of Palestine, looking forward to a future of “reparation and reconciliation.”

It should be noted that as as Jewish community in the diaspora, our service differs in crucial ways from the Israeli-Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Ceremony noted above. For Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living in a Jewish nation-state, the vision of a “future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides” has a very specific political meaning. For Jews who seek liberation in a diasporic context, this goal must necessarily exist within the vision of a greater transformation.

In the end, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. From a Jewish diasporist perspective, the aspiration for a just future in Israel/Palestine cannot help but be bound up with the prophetic vision of justice and liberation for marginalized and colonized communities everywhere.

In the words of scholar Susannah Heschel:

The diasporic position … is the condition for the prophetic: standing at the boundaries between society and the reins of governance, the prophet demands justice from the governing, while giving voice to the unheard who suffer at the hands of the regime.

My own personal struggle with the legacy of Yom Ha’atzmaut has led me to explorations I could never have imagined when I wrote that blog post in 2009. While these new Jewish approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut are obviously in a nascent stage, we may reasonably expect them to develop and evolve, particularly as demographic studies of the American Jewish community indicate an increasing detachment of American Jewish connection to the state of Israel. As the Forward article cited above notes: “When you interview young American Jews who disaffiliate, the politics of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations come up as a major reason why.”

As the American Jewish community continues to transform, we can only hope we will witness the further transformation of this festival as well: from a day celebrating political nationalism and colonial dispossession to a Jewish observance rooted in solidarity, memory and repentance.

 Footnotes:

1 This day corresponded to May 15, 1948 – the date the state of Israel was declared one year earlier. As Yom Ha’atzmaut is determined according to the lunar Jewish calendar, it falls on different days during the months of April or May.

2  Katz, Shmuel, “Establishing a Holiday: The Chief Rabbinate and Yom HaAtzma’ut,” in The Koren Mahzor for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016  p. 188.

3 IBID, p. 190.

4 Seder Tefillot le-Yom ha-Atzmaut, 2nd edition, Tel Aviv: Hotza’at Ha-kibbutz ha-Dati, 1969, p. 101, (translation mine).

5 There were actually five – not seven – Arab nations involved in the 1948-49 war. The number seven seems to be used here to directly equate them with the seven Biblical Canaanite nations.

6  See Deuteronomy 30:1-5, Isaiah 11:11-12, Jeremiah 29:14 and Ezekiel 20:41-42. Kibbutz galuyot would later come to be understood in messianic terms – see for instance, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 11:1-2.

7 This precept is also cited in the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel,” written in 1948 by Israel’s Chief Rabbis, which described the establishment of the state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”

8 Weekday Prayer Book, New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1961, pp.64-65.

9 Siddur Sim Shalom, Harlow, Jules, ed., New York: Rabbinical Assembly/United Synagogue of America, 1985, p. 183.

10 Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, Stern, Chaim, ed., New York: CCAR Press, 1975, pp. 590-611.

11 Mishkan T’filah: Services for Shabbat, Frishman, Elyse D., ed., New York: CCAR Press,  2007, p. 542.

12 Kol Haneshamah: Limot Hol, Teutsch, David, ed., Pennsylvania: The Reconstructionist Press. 1996, pp. 456-471.

13  IBID, p. 460.

14  Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, New York: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 66.

15  IBID, p. 65.

16  IBID

17  Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, New York: Summit Books, p. 387.

18  IBID 396.

19  A Guide to Jewish Practice Volume 2: Shabbat and Holidays, Pennsylvania: RRC Press, 2014, p. 693.

20 Marc H. Ellis, Toward a Theology of Liberation, 3rd expanded edition, Waco:Baylor University Press, 2004, p. 206.

ADL CEO Misrepresents Report on Antisemitism to Attack Palestinian Groups

photo: John Cherry/Getty Images

Cross-posted with Truthout

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 expulsionhome demolitionland 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.

“Israeli Apartheid and the Path to Teshuvah” – A Statement by the JVP Rabbinical Council

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.

– The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Amnesty International’s Apartheid Report: Parsing the Jewish Communal Outrage

photo: The Guardian

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.

A Jewish Congregation Considers Affirming Anti-Zionism as a Core Value

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 expulsionhome demolitionland 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 beyameinu—soon in our own day.

Building a Global Congregation of Conscience: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5782

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 you can 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.

Who is the Stranger Here? Reading the Torah through a Decolonized Lens

Photo credit: 
Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald

Cross-posted with Jewschool.

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.”

(Deuteronomy 10:19)  

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.[1]  The number 36 seems to have originated from a passage in the Talmud [2] 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.”[3] 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.[4] God also adjures Israelites repeatedly that there must be “one law” that governs the ger as well as the Israelites.[5] 

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.[6]

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. 


[1] 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…” 

[2] Baba Metzia 59a

[3] The word ger would later be defined by rabbinical tradition to mean “proselyte” or “righteous gentile.”

[4] Exodus 20:10

[5] Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:15

[6] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (New York: Orbis, 1993, 2013), p. 2. 

Judaism Beyond Zionism: Toward a New Jewish Liturgy

Introduction

In the spring of 2015, I helped to establish a Jewish congregation, Tzedek Chicago, motivated in part by a desire to create a religious space for those in the Jewish community who did not consider themselves to be Zionists. The founders of the congregation articulated this intention openly, in a core value we called “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.

In the contemporary Jewish community, of course, identification with the Zionist narrative has become the sine qua non of Jewish identity. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the process by which Zionism – a 19th century European nationalist ideology that represented a radical departure from traditional Judaism – became normalized in the American Jewish community, it is fair to say that since the founding of the state of Israel, Zionism has become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of American Jewish life.

There are signs, however, that the linkage between Zionism and Judaism has begun to loosen in the Jewish community – particularly among younger Jews. According to a widely read 2013 Pew Research Center Study, 27% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 do not feel “very attached” to Israel and another 11% feel “not at all attached.” In a 2017 study commissioned by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco reported that among Bay Area Jews, 22 % of the respondents reported that a Jewish state’s existence is “not important” or were “not sure.”

Beyond individual attitudes, the nascent beginnings of a “Judaism beyond Zionism” are organically developing outside the bounds of the Jewish communal establishment. As Atalia Omer has written,” we are witnessing the emergence of a “grassroots movement that seeks…to transformatively reimagine American Jewish identity outside the Zionist paradigm.” 1 Though still a distinct minority, the growth of American Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, #IfNotNow, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and Open Hillel attest to burgeoning desire for a Judaism that unabashedly challenges Jewish communal support for Israel’s occupation – and in some cases, the very concept of Jewish statehood itself. 2

Another important indication of this shift occurred when Jewish Voice for Peace – an organization that promotes Jewish solidarity with Palestinians and “unequivocally opposes Zionism” – broadened its mission to include the goal of “Jewish Communal Transformation.” In 2011, JVP created its Rabbinical Council to provide “a prophetic Jewish voice inside the Palestine solidarity movement (and) create meaningful ritual, tradition and culture accessible to our growing membership.” JVP subsequently established its own Havurah Network, which it described as “an emergent network that gathers, supports and resources anti-zionist, non-zionist and diasporist Jews and Jewish spiritual communities across the country yearning for a vibrant Jewish life beyond nationalism that condemns and challenges white supremacy within and outside Jewish communities.”

1 Atalia Omer, Days of Awe: Reimagining Judaism in Solidarity with Palestinians, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019, p. 68.

2 Another important sea change occurred in July 2020, when prominent Jewish journalist Peter Beinart, a long-time Liberal Zionist, wrote the New York Times op-ed, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.”

Jewish Diasporism

This newly emergent Judaism beyond Zionism is increasingly being described in positive terms as Jewish diasporism. While this term may seem redundant, we cannot underestimate the extent to which the importance of the Jewish diaspora 3 has been undermined in the era of Zionism. In an age when the idea of Jewish statehood has become thoroughly normalized, however, it is well worth remembering that Rabbinic Judaism originally emerged as a spiritual response to the experience of Jewish dispersion. 

Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ACE, Judaism was a land-centered, Temple-based sacrificial system that was splintering into several competing sects. When the Temple was destroyed and the center of Jewish life shifted from land to diaspora, the rabbis adapted to this new reality accordingly, developing a religious system that could be observed anywhere in the world.

In truth, thriving Jewish diaspora communities existed well before the destruction of the Temple. When Cyrus the Great allowed the exiled Jewish community of Babylon to return to the land in 538 BCE, scores remained in Persia where they enjoyed relative economic stability, “unswayed by the promises of a distant homeland they had never seen.” 4 There were also significant diaspora Jewish communities throughout the Hellenistic world. Between the third century BCE and the end of the first century CE, Alexandria, Egypt became one of the most populous Jewish communities in the world, numbering at least several hundred thousand.

Judaism’s foundational Jewish text – the Talmud – was itself composed and compiled in Babylonia. In a similar way, the myriad of lands in which Jews have lived have provided fertile soil for Jewish spiritual creativity throughout the centuries. Indeed, the most important Jewish religious figures clearly reflect their specific cultural time and place: the great 10th century Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon, the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature, integrated Jewish theology with the Hellenistic Greek philosophy of his day; Maimonides’ classic philosophical treatises were deeply influenced by the neo-Aristotelian philosophy of medieval Spain; Franz Rosenzweig’s work clearly reflects the ideas of modern German liberalism.

This is not to say that the land of Israel ceased to become important in Jewish tradition. The symbolism of the major Jewish holidays is deeply rooted in the seasonal/agricultural rhythms of the land. A great deal of rabbinic debate in classical Jewish writings focused on how Biblical laws specifically pertaining to the land might be observed in a diasporic setting. There was also extensive theological speculation as to whether or not the land itself was inherently holy or whether it’s holiness derived from the commandments that were fulfilled there. 5

The rabbis also debated whether or not it was a mitzvah (religious obligation) for individual Jews to emigrate to the land. 6 At the same time, however, rabbinic authorities were virtually united in their opposition to the political reestablishment of a Jewish commonwealth. While a yearning for the restoration of Zion is undeniably central to rabbinic Judaism, this ideal was expressed within a decidedly messianic context. Jewish tradition is replete with strong warnings against the creation of a sovereign Jewish state via human agency. 7

When political Zionism arose in the 19th century, it consciously sought to overturn the diasporic focus of Jewish life. A central Zionist dictum known as shlilat hagalut (“negation of the diaspora”) viewed the diaspora as an inherently inhospitable place for Jews; only through the establishment of a Jewish state in their “ancient homeland” would the Jewish people normalize and safeguard their existence among the nations.

Many classical Zionist figures were so vehement in their rejection of the diaspora that their descriptions of European Jewry reflected a palpable sense of internalized antisemitism. Zionist writer/journalist Micha Josef Berdichevski opined for instance, that the Jews of the pale were “not a people, not a nation, not human.” 8 Hebrew poet/author Joseph Chaim Brenner called diaspora Jews “Gypsies and filthy dogs” 9 and the Labor Zionist icon A.D. Gordon wrote that diaspora Jewish life was the “parasitism of a fundamentally useless people.” 10 The views of Revisionist Zionist founder Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was clearly influenced by European fascist ideology, infamously referred to religious diaspora Jews as “ugly, sickly Yids” and Zionist settlers as “Hebrews.” 11

Now six decades after the founding of the state of Israel, however, it might be claimed that the Jews who live there are experiencing a new form of exile. 12 On the eve of its establishment, the celebrated Jewish German political theorist Hannah Arendt presciently warned that the new Jewish state would be “secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.” 13 Today, Israel is one of the most militarized nations in the world, a virtual garrison state with a traumatized national culture. More tragically, the movement that ostensibly sought to end Jewish exile ended up exiling another people in the process. The state of Israel was created through the expulsion of the Palestinians, who today live under military occupation, as second-class citizens in their own land, or else in a diaspora of their own – as refugees or citizens of other countries – and are forbidden to return to their homes.

The Jewish population of the world is currently split almost in half between Israel and the diaspora. Where does this leave those in the diaspora who choose not to center our Judaism on the state of Israel; who refuse to celebrate a Judaism that glorifies ethnic Jewish nation-statism? Is there a place for Jews who want to celebrate the diaspora as dynamic and fertile ground for a new kind of Judaism? One that embraces Jewish existence among diverse nations as a multi-ethnic, multi-racial peoplehood? One that advocates for the universal redemption of all peoples?

Over the past two decades, prominent Jewish scholars have been reclaiming and reframing the concept of Jewish diaspora in compelling ways. Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, for instance, has advocated a conscious celebration of the diaspora as part of a larger project of Jewish empowerment:

Celebrating dispersion, Diasporism challenges the Edenic premise: once we were gathered in our own land, now we are in exile. What if we conceive of diaspora as the center: an oxymoron, putting the margin at the center of the circle that includes but does not privilege Israelis?… Jews worldwide number only about 13.3 million, a tiny minority except in Israel. Diasporism means embracing this minority status, leaving us with some tough questions: Does minority inevitably mean feeble? Can we embrace diaspora without accepting oppression? Do we choose to be marginal? Do we choose to transform the meaning of center and margins? Is this possible? 14

Daniel Boyarin has argued that the Babylonian Talmud itself is a “diasporist manifesto,” imagining its own community and sense of portable homeland:

The Talmud in its textual practices produces Babylonia as a homeland, and since this Babylonia is produced by a text that can move, that homeland becomes portable and reproduces itself over and over. The Talmud, I would submit, is not only the only classical work of the rabbinic period produced outside the Land of Israel; it is a diasporist manifesto, Diasporist Manifesto Number 1. 15

More recently, Susannah Heschel has suggested the concept of diaspora as a prophetic alternative to the traditional Jewish “embrace of exile:”

As prophetic, the diasporic Jew is never entirely at home, never content or complacent in a world of injustice. Diaspora transforms exile into Jewish creativity, as has happened for over two millennia. The prophet is a diasporic exemplar, leaving home and journeying to the urban seat of the political, military, and economic power to demand an end to corruption, exploitation, cruelty, and indifference. The prophetic position cannot exist by trying to end exile with statehood or by embracing exile as the essential mentality of Jewishness. To abandon diaspora in favor of exile is to walk away from the prophetic; to reject exile while embracing diaspora is to retain the prophetic passion for justice.

In short, we are currently witnessing the emergence of a new Jewish diasporism: one that neither stigmatizes existence outside the land nor romanticizes the experience of exile, but rather seeks to center the diaspora as the essential locus of Jewish life, creativity and purpose.

3 While I use the term “Jewish diaspora” here for the sake of clarity, it might be more accurate to refer to Jewish “diasporas,” as Jewish life throughout the world has existed in very different social, cultural and political milieus and throughout unique, distinct periods of world history.

4 H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 168.

5 See Mishnah Kelim 1:6: “What is the nature of (the land’s) holiness? That from it are brought the omer, the firstfruits and the two loaves, which cannot be brought from any of the other lands.”

6 From Talmud Ketubot 110a: “Whoever lives outside of Israel may be regarded as one who worships idols.” From Ketubot 111a: “Whoever returns from Babylon to Israel transgresses a positive commandment of the Torah.”

7 The classic rabbinic prohibition against reestablishing the Jewish commonwealth before the coming of the Messiah is known as the “Three Oaths.” See Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b, Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 8:11.

8 Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel, New York: Schocken, 1972, p. 61.

9 IBID.

10 IBID.

11 Alan Wolfe, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014, p. 17. For more on Zionist ideals of Jewish masculinity, see Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

12 See Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon, Exile Within Sovereignty: Critique of “The Negation of Exile” in Israeli Culture, from “The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept,”edited by  Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Sefanos Geroulanos, Nicole Jerr, pp. 393-420, New York, Columbia University Press, 2017.

13 Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings, New York: Schocken, 2007, p. 396.

14 Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism, Indiana: Indiana University  Press, 2007, p. 200.

15 Daniel Boyarin, A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, p. 32.

Jewish Diasporism at Tzedek Chicago

Since its founding, Tzedek Chicago has become a practical laboratory for the development of this new Jewish diasporism, particularly through the creation of rituals that explicitly celebrate the idea of “diaspora as homeland.”

During the holiday of Sukkot, for instance, instead of the traditional lulav and etrog – the four species native to the Biblical land of Israel – we use symbolic species indigenous to the prairie of the Midwestern United States. 16 We are exploring diasporist approaches to other Jewish holidays as well. On the festival of Tu B’shvat, which typically falls in late January/early March, I offered this teaching to the Tzedek Chicago community:

In the land of Israel, the “harbinger of Spring” festival of Tu B’shvat is marked at this time of year by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms through the central and northern parts of the land. However, those of us who live in the diaspora of the American Midwest, often celebrate Tu B’shvat surrounded by several inches of white snow and leafless trees. Is this any way to celebrate a harbinger of Spring?

I’ll suggest that it is. I actually find it very profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the depths of a Chicago winter. It reminds me that even during this dark, cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees – although this fructification process might not be as visually spectacular as the proliferation of white almond blossoms exploding across the countryside, I believe this invisible life-giving energy is eminently worth acknowledging – and celebrating.

It is true, of course, that the Biblical land of Israel was central to Judaism centuries before the ideology of political Zionism emerged. As such, some might well claim that the decentering of land-based symbolism represents a kind of “radical surgery” to Jewish tradition. If, as I noted above, Judaism originally spiritualized the concept of homeland, might we still retain its land-centric aspects for their symbolic, mythic power?

Such a question fails to confront the radical way Zionism has transformed Judaism itself and how deeply it has influenced Jewish attitudes toward the diaspora. Just as radically, diasporic Judaism seeks to re-right this imbalance by lifting up and centering the idea of Jewish home wherever we happen to live in the world. In Kaye Kantrowitz’s words, “Where Zionism says go home, Diasporism says we make home where we are.” 17 For those of us who affirm that the entire world is and has been our actual Jewish homeland, these new, reframed rituals seek to celebrate the Jewish people’s adaptability – and the unique nature of the homes we have created for ourselves throughout the diaspora.

Another, related issue is the concept of “Zion” itself, an idea that is undeniably, indelibly imprinted upon Jewish tradition and Jewish liturgy. How might a diasporic Judaism understand this concept, whose meaning has been thoroughly literalized by political Jewish nationalism?

As stated above, the idea of the Jewish return to Zion was traditionally understood in messianic terms. This belief is particularly embodied in the concept of kibbutz galuyot (“ingathering of exiles”), which emerged during the Babylonian exile as expressed in the Biblical books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. 18 In Jewish liturgy, this concept is prominent in a number of prayers, including the Daily Amidah and Ahavah Rabbah (“Abounding Love”), a prayer that is traditionally read before the Shema during the morning service and ends with the line, “May we be glad, rejoicing in your saving power, and may you reunite our people from all corners of the earth, leading us proudly to our land.”

Zionism lifted kibbutz galuyot out of its messianic context and reframed it in explicitly nationalist terms. It is notably referenced in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as well as the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, both written in 1948 to explicitly celebrate the literal “exilic ingathering” of modern Jewry to the state of Israel. The Zionist interpretation of kibbutz galuyot has been internalized in American Jewish life as well. In many synagogues, for instance, it is even customary to sing the line “may you reunite our people” in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer to the melody from Hatikvah – the Israeli national anthem.

How might kibbutz galuyot be reimagined in a diasporist context? At Tzedek Chicago, our version of Ahavah Rabbah is rendered thus, “May it lead us toward your justice, toward liberation for all who dwell on earth; that all who are exiled and dispossessed may safely find their way home.” Our new reading replaces Jewish particularism and exceptionalism with a universalist, decolonial ethic. As such, it is neither messianic nor Zionist. In this post-modern diasporist reimagining, Zion is not unique to the Jewish people and does not exist in any particular place. So too, kibbutz galuyot does not refer to the Jewish exiled alone but to all who have been – or continue to be – dispossessed throughout the world.

16 In 2018, a small group of radical Jews published a zine that offered “reflections, tips, and resources about creating your own diasporic lulav,” explaining, “Our lulavs – both the ritual object and the ritual acts – are situated in diaspora, and explicitly reject the colonization of Palestine and the mandate to use the “four kinds” (“arbah minim”) of plants associated with the biblical Land of Israel.”

17 Kantrowitz, p. 199.

18 See Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 56:8, 66:20, Jeremiah 16:15; 23:3, 8; 29:14; 31:8; 33:7 and Ezekiel 20:34, 41; 37:21. The term itself was coined in the Talmud (see Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12a) and was later connected to the coming of the Messiah by Moses Maimondies (see Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Kings,” 11:1-2).

Jewish Anti-Militarism

In addition to re-centering diaspora, any attempt at promoting a Judaism Beyond Zionism must reckon seriously with the culture of militarism that thoroughly pervades the ideology of Zionism and Israeli society. As Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb has pointed out, “During the past sixty years, the assumption that a highly militarized Jewish state ensures Jewish security has become entrenched as an article of faith… To critique Israeli militarism is to critique Zionism in the minds of many contemporary Jews.” 19

Prior to the onset of Zionism, Jewish tradition promoted nonviolence and quietism over the glorification of war, 20 a doctrine generally traced to the aftermath of the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135 CE). As Reuven Firestone has written, in the wake of this catastrophic event, “Jewish wisdom would teach that it is not physical acts of war that would protect Israel from its enemies, but rather spiritual concentration in righteousness and prayer.” 21

The rabbis were also painfully aware that the Hasmonean revolt centuries earlier had ended disastrously for the Jewish people. This uprising, chronicled in the Books of the Maccabees and commemorated by the festival of Hanukkah, was waged by the Maccabees, a priestly family who led a rebellion against the religious persecution of the Seleucid empire. Their victory resulted in the establishment of the Hasmonean Kingdom – the second Jewish commonwealth – in Palestine in 164 BCE. 

The militarism of the Hasmoneans however, would eventually prove to be its downfall. Following the Maccabean victory, their brief period of independence was wracked by internecine violence, anti-rabbinic persecution and ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In 63 BCE, the Hasmonean Kingdom was conquered by the Romans (with whom they had previously been allied). In the end, the last period of Jewish political sovereignty in the land lasted less than one hundred years. 22

The rabbis of the Talmud were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees – secular stories of a violent civil 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 the Hanukkah menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. 23 Notably, the rabbis chose the words of Zechariah 4:6, Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was revived by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in their own military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book, The Jewish State, Zionist movement founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!” 24 Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.

This Zionist sacralizing of militarism and conquest represented a radical overturning of these central tenets of traditional Judaism. The term kibush ha’aretz (“conquest of the land”) was one of the terms used by Zionist settlers to describe their colonization of Palestine. 25 As noted above, many Zionist ideologues promoted the ideal of the muscular, heroic “New Jew” in contrast with Diaspora Jewry. Zionists were also instrumental in helping to form the Jewish Legions that fought against the Ottomans in Palestine in World War 1. During the British Mandate, Zionists created armed militias such as the Haganah (which later became the Israeli Defense Force after the founding of the state) as well as the more militant Irgun and Lehi.

In 1948-49, during what Jewish Israelis refer to as their War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba (the “catastrophe”), these armed forces engaged in the widespread ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from villages and cities throughout Palestine. Notably, these military operations often used names associated with Biblical history and Jewish religious tradition. For instance, a joint force of the Haganah and Irgun dispossessed 61,000 Palestinians from Haifa on eve of Passover 1948, in a campaign known as “Operation Biur Chametz,” (“Operation Cleaning Out the Leaven”) – a reference to the commandment to remove leaven from Jewish homes before the onset of the festival. 26 Another campaign, waged in the southern Negev desert and the coastal plain was given the name “Operation Ten Plagues.” 27

The Zionist movement and the fledgling state of Israel notably looked to the Biblical conquest tradition – and in particular, the Book of Joshua – as a model for its own conquest of historic Palestine. Though largely secular, Israel’s founders utilized the Bible as a canvas for promoting a national myth of a glorious military past. As scholar Nur Masalha has pointed out, “The Book of Joshua provided Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and muscular Zionism with the militaristic tradition of the Bible: of military conquest of the land and subjugation of the Canaanites and other ancient people that populated the ‘promised land.” 28 Ben Gurion himself viewed the book of Joshua as the most important book of the Bible; in 1958 he convened a study group at his home where Israeli generals, politicians, and academics discussed the book of Joshua against the founding of the modern state of Israel. 29

19 Lynn Gottlieb, Trail Guide to the Torah of Nonviolence, France: Earth of Hope Publishing, 2013, p. 19.

20  Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

21 IBID, p. 62.

22 For more on the history of the Hasmonean Kingdom, see Kenneth Atkinson, A History of the Hasmonean State: Josephus and Beyond, London: T&T Clark, 2016.

23 See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b.

24 Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea, Canada: Atheneum, 1959, p. 225.

25  Firestone, pp. 181-182.

26  Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 186-211.

27  IBID, p. 462.

28 Nur Masalha, The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Israel-Palestine, London: Zed Books, 2007, p. 24.

29 See Rachel Haverlock, The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Jewish Anti-Militarism at Tzedek Chicago

At Tzedek Chicago, our core values clearly and unabashedly condemn the glorification of war and violence. This is both a return to the traditional rabbinic approach as well as step beyond it. Our vision of Jewish nonviolence does not emerge from quietism but rather from the value of solidarity: the conviction that security for Jews is irrevocably bound up with security for all.

As we state in our core values:

In our education, celebration and communal observances, we honor those aspects of our tradition that promote peace and reject the pursuit of war as a solution to our conflicts. We openly disavow those aspects of our religion – and all religions – that promote violence, intolerance and xenophobia.

Our activism is based upon a vision of shared security for the world; we support the practices of nonviolence, civil resistance, diplomacy and human engagement. Through our advocacy, we take a stand against militarism and colonialism, particularly when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.

Liturgically, we express this value in a variety of ways. For instance, in our poetic rendering of the prophetic portion for Hanukkah (Zechariah 2:14-4:7), the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees is reframed as a dedication to ideals of nonviolence and justice for all people:

Let loose your joy for
your prayers have
already been answered;
even in your exile
the one you seek has been
dwelling in your midst
all along.

Quiet your raging soul
and you will come to learn:
every nation is my nation
all peoples my chosen
anywhere you choose to live
will be your Holy Land,
your Zion, your Jerusalem.

Open your eyes and
look across the valley
look at this ruined land
seized and possessed
throughout the ages.

Look upon your
so-called city of peace
a place that knows
only debasement
and desecration
at your hand.

Turn your gaze to the heavens
and there you will find
the Jerusalem that you seek:
a city that can never be conquered,
only dreamed of, yearned for, strived for;
a Temple on high that can never be destroyed.

No more need for priestly vestments
or plots to overrun that godforsaken mount –
just walk in my ways
and you will find your way there:
a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple
in any land you call home.

Enter the gates to
this holiest of holy places,
lift up its fallen walls,
relight the branches of the lamp
so that my house will truly
become a sanctuary
for all people.

Yes, this is how you will
restore the Temple:
not by might, not by power
but by the spirit
you share with every
living, breathing soul.

These values are also reflected in our Prayer for Reparation and Restoration. which we read in lieu of the congregational Prayer for Peace or Prayer for the Welfare of the Government. (Compare our prayer below for instance, with the Reform Movement’s “Prayer for Peace and Strength:”)

To the One who demands justice:
inspire us to become rodfei tzedek,
pursuers of justice
in our lives and in our communities.

Give us the strength to resist power
wielded with fear and dread;
fill us with the vision and purpose
to build a power yet greater,
a power rooted in solidarity,
liberation and love.

Grant us the courage to dismantle
systems of oppression –
and when they are no more,
let us dedicate our wealth and resources
toward the well-being of all.

May we abolish all forms of state violence
that we might make way for a world
free of racism and militarization,
a world where no one profits
off the misery of others,
a world where the bills owed those who have been
colonized, enslaved and dispossessed
are finally paid in full.

Inspire us with the knowledge
that real justice is indeed at hand,
that we may realize
the world we know is possible,
right here, right now,
in our own day.

May our thoughts and our hopes,
our words and our deeds
guide us toward a future of reparation,
of restoration, of justice,
al kol yoshvei teivel
for all who dwell on earth,
amen.

As a response to the issue of domestic militarization, the prayer below was delivered at a Tisha B’Av vigil, co-sponsored by Tzedek Chicago, at an immigrant detention center in Kankakee, IL. The text is an adaptation from the Biblical book of Lamentations, traditionally read on the festival of Tisha B’Av:

We are beyond humiliation
beyond shame
we incarcerate children without pity
we deport parents without a thought
and build systems that destroy families indiscriminately
now we truly know what it means to be dishonored
our so-called glorious past is now seen
for the sham that it was
the way of life we celebrate is but a privilege
for the few and the powerful
we can’t see that our own might
will be our downfall.

We venerate leaders
who should be tried for their crimes
we never dared imagine a power
greater than our own
like so many before us
we conquered the land then drew borders
as a testament to our fear and dread
now we build higher walls
to keep out those who seek shelter
we built massive checkpoints
we lined up human beings
like cattle in cages
now children cry out for parents
who will never answer their calls
their voices echo endlessly
through the camps but there
is no one left to hear.

We ask one another with bewilderment
have we ever seen such cruel violations
yet in truth we ourselves have inflicted
such cruelties on children here
and around the world
we sentence minors to life in prison without parole
we remain silent as a cruel occupation
abducts and imprisons children in military prisons
convicts them in military courts
and yet we dare to act surprised when
we hear news of children thrown into cages
at our southern border.

Our silence betrays us
these walls will soon encircle us all
soon there will be no one left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
one day we will know the sorrow
of the dispossessed.

We who never heard the cries of migrants
and their children will know what it means
to be uprooted detained and discarded
those who we scorned and abandoned
will bitterly welcome us to the world
of the dispossessed
the enemies we created
through our own fearful actions
will surely come back for us all.

Let us hope and pray
there is still time
let the cries of our children
pour into our hearts like water
the cries of any who have been forced
from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden
forgotten forsaken
let their cries compel us
to take down oppressive systems
built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful.

Let their cries remind us
that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no ICE no police
a place where we no longer need to struggle because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely.

From the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
we beseech you chadeish yameniu
renew our days
that we may build the world
that somehow still might be
kein yehi ratzon – may it be your will
and may it be ours.

Jewish Solidarity with Palestinians

At Tzedek Chicago, we understand solidarity with Palestinians not merely as a political position, but a sacred imperative. As we state in one of our core values, that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people.” Accordingly, we reject the ways that the establishment of the state of Israel has become sacralized as redemptive in most American synagogues.30 Needless to say, for those Jews who consider the Nakba to be an historic – and ongoing – injustice, the birth of the Jewish state has a decidedly different religious meaning.

We express our sacred solidarity with Palestinians in a variety of ways. One Passover, for instance, we invited Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, to our congregation to speak about BDS as a liberation movement. In our advertising, we described the program thus: “Taking our cue from the season of Passover we will engage in a deep exploration of this important call for Palestinian liberation, and explore its profound challenge to all people of conscience.”

Tzedek Chicago also expresses Jewish solidarity with Palestinians through the use of sacred ritual. For instance, while most American synagogues celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) as part of the Jewish religious calendar, we observe this occasion through our recognition of Nakba Day – the day Palestinians mark as the day of their catastrophic dispossession. In our “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day” we use traditional Jewish liturgical/theological imagery to reflect our observance of this day as an occasion for mourning, remembrance and repentance:

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:
Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

In another example of communal Palestinian solidarity, we dedicated a portion of our 2018 Yom Kippur Service to the Palestinians who were then being killed weekly by the Israeli military in Gaza’s Great Return March. In the introduction to this ritual, we stated:

 It is traditional at the end of the Yom Kippur morning service to read a Martyrology that describes the executions of ten leading rabbis, including Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael, who were brutally executed by the Roman Empire. This liturgy is included to honor those who have paid the ultimate price for the cause of “Kiddush Hashem” – the sanctification of God’s name.

At Tzedek Chicago, we devote the Yom Kippur Martyrology to honor specific individuals throughout the world who have given their lives for the cause of liberation. As we do, we ask ourselves honestly: what have we done to prove ourselves worthy of their profound sacrifices? And what kinds of sacrifices will we be willing to make in the coming year to ensure they did not die in vain?

This year, we will dedicate our Martyrology service to the Palestinians in Gaza who have been killed by the Israeli military during the Great Return March. This nonviolent demonstration began last spring with a simple question: “What would happen if thousands of Gazans, most of them refugees, attempted to peacefully cross the fence that separated them from their ancestral lands?”

Since the first day of the march last spring, demonstrators have consistently been met by live fire from the Israeli military. To date, 170 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded and maimed, most of them unarmed demonstrators, including children, medics and bystanders.

30 This sacralization is reflected in a myriad of ways, whether it be through the placement of the Israeli flag next to the ark containing the sacred scrolls of the Torah, the regular recitation of the “Prayer for the State of Israel” (which refers to its establishment as “the first flowering of our redemption,”) or the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) alongside traditional Jewish festivals.

Decolonial Judaism

As we have explored the meaning of Judaism beyond Zionism, we have quickly come to realize that many of these issues are rooted in more foundational concerns. For instance, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. As we grapple with issues of militarism we must invariably confront the connections between state violence and structural racism. Solidarity with Palestinians cannot be viewed in isolation from the larger legacy of settler colonialism and the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples in the US and around the world.

These connections have, in turn, given rise to critical questions, such as:

• In North America, white Jews are participants in the ongoing colonization of stolen land. How can we celebrate diaspora in a way that respects the land upon which we live and the Indigenous Peoples for whom it remains sacred? 

• In the United States, 12 to 15% of the American Jewish community are Jews of color, many of whom have their own history of colonization and enslavement. How will white Jews center their experience and stand down the culture of White supremacy in the American Jewish community? 

• If we view atonement as a sacred imperative, how can we, as a Jewish congregational community advocate and participate in a process of reparations and rematriation for the members of Indigenous Nations and descendants of enslaved people? 

As a response to questions such as these, Tzedek Chicago has convened an internal task force “to explore how Tzedek as a community can best participate and support reparative justice efforts, especially regarding the harms of slavery and colonization.” We are also exploring ways to address these questions through Jewish ritual. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated a Sukkot festival celebration jointly sponsored with Chi-Nations Youth Council – a Chicago-based group that organizes on behalf of Native Youth in the region. Our celebration included the prayer, “Earth Shema,” written for Tzedek Chicago by poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales:

There is no earth but this earth and we are its children.  The earth is our home, and there is only one.  The ground beneath our feet was millions of years in the making. Each leaf, each blade, each wing, each petal, each hair on the flank of a red fox, each scale on the sturgeon, each mallard feather, each pine needle and fragment of sassafras bark took millions of years to become, and we ourselves are millions of years in the making.

The earth offers itself and all its gifts freely, offers rain and sunlight, and the shimmer of moon on its lakes, offers corn and squash, apples and honey, salmon and lamb, and clear, cold water and all it asks in return is that we love it, respect its ways, cherish it.

We shall love the earth and all that lives with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our intelligence, with all our might.   

Wherever we walk, wherever we sleep, wherever we eat, wherever we pray upon the face of the earth, we shall uphold the first peoples of that place, those who have loved it longest and know its ways most deeply.  We shall listen to them, learn from them, follow their lead, defend them, and join with them to protect each other and our world, and of every two grains in our bowls, we will give one to the first peoples who sit beside us at the earth’s table. 

The names of those who were here before us are syllables of the earth’s name, so know them and speak them, and speak the first names for the places where you dwell, the water you drink, the winds that bring you breath.  Say the name of this place, which is Shikaakwa, and say the names of its people: Myaamiaki, Illiniwek who are also the Inoca, the Asakiwaki and Meskwaki, people of the yellow earth and the red earth, the Hochagra, and the Bodewadmi who keep the hearth fires, for the land held many stories before we came and the places that were made for us were made by shattering their worlds.

Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day.  Cherish this land beneath your feet. Cherish the roots and the waterways, the rocks and trees, the ancestor bones in the ground and the people who dance on the living earth and make new paths with their feet, with their breath, with their dreaming.  Love and serve this world, this creation, as you love the creator who gifted it to us.  Defend it from those whose hunger for riches cannot be filled, who devour and destroy, bringing death to everything we love. 

Fight for the earth and protect it with all your heart and soul and strength, and hold nothing back, so that the rains fall in their season, the early rain and the late, and we may gather in the new grain and the wine and the oil, the squash and beans and corn, the apples and grapes and nuts, so that the grass grows high in the fields and feeds the deer and the cattle, so that the water flows clean in river and lake, filled with abundant fish, and birds nest among the reeds, and all that lives shall eat its fill. 

Do not be lured into the worship of consumption, comfort, convenience. Do not suck on the drinking straws of extraction, or bow down to the hoarders of what is good. For if we do, the breath of life that is in all things will empty the skies of clouds, and there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its blessings, but will be laid waste.

So summon all the courage which is in you and in your people, stretching back to the dawn of time and remember this promise by night and by day, with every breath, whatever you are doing.  Let nothing stand in your way.  Put your hands into the soil of this moment and plant good seed that we and all our children may live long in the land and be a blessing. 31

31  This prayer was written as part of Morales’ Rimonim Liturgy Project, a network of which Tzedek Chicago is a participating member. Rimonim seeks the creation of new liturgies that reflect, among other things, “a full integration of the lives and experiences of Indigenous Jews and Jews of Color of all backgrounds, diaspora-centered Judaism that is rooted in global Jewish cultures, and explicitly replaces Zionist content in our liturgy… and acknowledgement and accountability to Indigenous peoples on whose land non-Indigenous Jews are settlers.”

 Conclusion

In her analysis of Tzedek Chicago, Omer referred to our congregation as a “prefigurative Jewish community.” 32 I believe this to be an extremely apt description: Tzedek Chicago is part of a nascent movement that is consciously attempting to build and model a future Jewish community guided by the transformative core values of justice that we hold sacred. In the end, however, it is not only the Jewish world we seek to transform – it is the world at large.

This idea is perhaps most prominently expressed during our Shabbat celebrations, when we liturgically welcome the Sabbath as a weekly taste of olam ha’ba (“the “world to come.”) 33 As opposed to the traditional messianic view of this concept, we define it as “the world as it should be” – i.e., the very real world of equity and justice for which we work and strive and struggle during the week. When Shabbat arrives, our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to experience this world, so that when Shabbat ends, we will be reinspired, replenished – and ready to continue the sacred work that will bring it that much closer to reality.

With this vision in mind, I will conclude with one final prayer – Tzedek Chicago’s poetic rendering of Psalm 92 (The Song for the Sabbath Day):

Tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.

They said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.

Memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.

See how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.

So tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.

32  Omer, p. 155.

33  From the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b: “Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come.”

Punishing Gaza: When Narratives Collide

I delivered this sermon yesterday at Second Unitarian Universalist Church of Chicago:

When Reverend Jason invited me to give the sermon to you today, I had some idea of what I wanted to talk to you about. My original thought was to address the idea of collective narrative. To explore the stories communities tell about themselves – and the often unintended impact those stories have on our lives and on our world.

I think it’s important to understand the way collective narratives can blind us to the narratives of others. It’s particularly critical for communities of power and privilege to understand how the stories tell about themselves affect their actions toward disenfranchised communities. Or more to the point, the communities they disenfranchise.

I think it’s safe to say that white America is starting to challenge the dominant narratives that are told about the birth of this country – and the harm they continue to cause to this very day. In a very similar way, increasing numbers of us in the Jewish community are now starting to confront the Zionist narrative that has been instilled in us for the past 73 years. Much like the American narrative, it is also rooted in colonialism and racism – i.e., the story of about a nation created on the backs of a dispossessed and disenfranchised people. 

However, given the terrible, tragic events that are still ongoing now in Palestine/Israel, I’ve decided to address this issue in a more immediate way – and a more personal way. In particular, I want to talk to you about Gaza. I’ve chosen this subject because that’s where the greatest and most tragic violence is occurring right now. I also believe Gaza epitomizes the ways Israel’s national narrative has inflicted harm on Palestinians – and how it continues to inflict such unthinkable harm even as we speak.

The subject of Gaza also has a special place in my own heart. In 2008, Israel launched a military operation on Gaza known as “Operation Cast Lead” not unlike the one we are witnessing at this very moment. This event became a pivotal turning point in my own relationship to Israel/Palestine – and to Zionism in general.

By the end of this “operation,” the Israeli military killed over 1,300 Palestinians, including 300 children. Beyond my anguish over these horrific casualties, it was the response of many in my Jewish community that shook me to my core. The rationalizations. The moral equivocation. The inability to face with the wider context in which these actions were occurring. The vilification of those – including many reputable human rights organizations – who suggested that Israel’s actions constituted war crimes and even crimes against humanity. 

Then it happened again in 2014: the Israeli military killed over 2,000 Palestinians were killed, 495 of whom were children. And now today: Israel is once again unleashing overwhelming military firepower against a population of 2,000,000 whom they’ve blockaded in a tiny strip of land and who literally have nowhere to run. This is not a difficult moral calculus for me anymore – as a rabbi, as a Jew, and as human being of conscience. 

Like many American Jews, my identity growing up was profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. The redemptive nature of this narrative assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it did for many American Jews of my generation and older.

Politically speaking, I identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I connected in particular with Israel’s Labor Zionist origins and generally aligned myself with positions advocated by the Israeli left and the Israeli peace movement. When it came to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, I’d invariably intone a familiar refrain of liberal Zionists: “It’s complicated.”

2008, however, was a tipping point for me. I read about the bombing of schools, whole families wiped out, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated to me anymore. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.

My relationship to Gaza deepened yet further in 2017, when I visited Gaza as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee to meet with our programmatic staff there. I don’t know any other way to say it other than that I now take Gaza very, very personally. I have been indelibly transformed by my experience of there and by the friendships that I cherish to this day. As a result, it has given me an even deeper sensitivity into a narrative about a place that has become hideously twisted, even by the most well-meaning of people.

Too often, I believe, we tend to fetishize Gaza and Gazans, describing them alternatively as murderous terrorists, helpless pawns of Hamas or poor, passive victims. And since most people only tend to think of Gaza when the bombs are falling, this is generally about as far as its public image tends to go. Gaza becomes an objectified symbol of people’s fears, their political agendas and their own internalized prejudices.

So for some time now, it’s been something of a personal mission of mine to try and expand the one-dimensional narratives that are routinely told about Gaza. To contextualize Gaza’s history with information that is generally unknown to most of the world but is absolutely critical if we want a deeper understanding of the events currently unfolding there. I also see it as a mission to shine a light on the moral and religious challenge that Gaza presents to the Jewish community – and to all people of conscience. 

First, a brief geography tutorial: what we call the “Gaza strip” constitutes a 140 square mile piece of land on the southeastern Mediterranean coast. While we generally think of “Gaza” as this one little crowded land mass, this term historically refers to a much larger territory that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In ancient times it enjoyed extensive commerce and trade with the outside world and was a major port and an important stop along the spice and incense route. As such, it was located at a significant cultural crossroad, connecting a wide variety of different civilizations over the centuries.

Of course if folks associate Gaza with anything today, it’s with violence, refugees and refugee camps. But it’s important to bear in mind that this is a relatively recent phenomenon in its history. The so-called “Gaza strip” was created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of Palestinian refugees from cities and villages who had been expelled from their homes by Zionist militias. Before the outset of war, the population of this small strip of land numbered 60 to 80,000. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees were crowded into what we call today the Gaza Strip. The borders of this area were drawn arbitrarily, determined by the position of Egyptian and Israeli forces when the ceasefire was announced. It ended up being smaller by at least a third than the entire area of the Gaza District during the British mandate.

At the time, most of the refugees fully expected to return home – some could even see their own towns and villages through the barbed wire fences. Those who crossed the border to gather their possessions or harvest their crops were considered “infiltrators” by Israel and shot on sight. Eventually, it became all too clear there would be no return. Over the years the tents turned into concrete buildings that grew ever higher in that narrow corridor. The population of that once sparse territory has now grown to almost 2,000,000 people.

Given this context, it was natural that Gaza would become a center for the Palestinian resistance movement. We know from history that when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression. And yes, sometimes that resistance will be violent in nature.

As early as the 1950s, groups of Palestinians known as “fedayeen” crossed over the border to stage violent attacks in the surrounding settlements. One of these attacks offers an important insight into the course of Gaza’s history in ways that reverberate for us even today. In 1956, a group of fedayeen entered a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz and killed a kibbutznik named Roi Rotenberg. The famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan spoke at his funeral – and he expressed himself himself in his eulogy with remarkable candor:

Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us?  For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation.

It’s now 73 later and Israel continues to rule with a barbed wire fence and the barrel of a gun. Just as importantly, the descendants of the original Gazan refugees have lost none of their ancestors’ desire for return. Most of them know full well where their ancestral homes and fields are located – in some cases just a few short kilometers from where currently live. 

As in other parts of Palestine, the memory of home and the desire for return are a palpable part of Gazan culture. I experienced this in a simple yet powerful way during my visit there. One afternoon, while we were traveling north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches along the beachfront. My colleague Ali explained that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town where Gazans lived prior to 1948. 

It’s not difficult to grasp the sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Unlike most memorials, which commemorate what was lost and is never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their home cities and villages to be lost at all. On the contrary, I believe these benches testify that these places are still very real to them. And to their faith that they will one day return home.

When we consider the narrative of Gaza, I believe we must keep this critical piece of context in mind: long before there was a Hamas, Palestinians in Gaza have been resisting their oppression – and Israel has been retaliating brutally against their resistance. Of course, when we do the moral calculus, we can argue about the strategic sense and morality of the rockets Hamas fires into Israel – as many Palestinians do.  But if we truly seek to understand Gaza’s narrative, we must honestly ask ourselves – what would we ourselves do in their situation?

As I noted earlier, many white Americans are starting to reckon seriously with the colonial narratives instilled about the birth of this country. The narratives of the powerful and the privileged have great power. But when they collide with the narratives of those they’ve disenfranchised, the impact can sometimes create a spark of transformation – it can indeed, lead to the construction of a new and more just narrative. The Black Lives Matter protests that were born last summer are a powerful example of this phenomenon. I think we’ve all been astonished and inspired by a new narrative struggling to be born in this country.

I fervently believe there is a potential for a similar transformation in Israel/Palestine. It will not happen easily, or painlessly, but I do believe it can happen. In a very real sense, it has to happen. 

May we commit ourselves to this transformation – and may it happen soon in our day.