In the waning days of the Trump presidency, it’s become painfully clear that this administration is engaged in a political scorched earth campaign – i.e., doing everything it can to ram through its most harmful policies before Inauguration Day – and to do so in ways that will make them difficult to undo by the incoming Biden administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the West Bank yesterday, where he unabashedly unveiled the Trump administration’s “parting gifts to the Israeli right,” is the latest case in point – and a particularly harmful one at that.
Speaking from the illegal West Bank settlement of Psagot, Pompeo announced two new policies. The first was the State Department’s designation of products made in West Bank settlements as being “Made in Israel,” which now paves the way for US approval of Israel’s formal annexation of Area C of the West Bank.
As we have made clear, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. The United States is, therefore, committed to countering the Global BDS Campaign as a manifestation of anti-Semitism.
Pompeo’s statement further directed the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism “to identify organizations that engage in, or otherwise support, the Global BDS Campaign… to ensure that their funds are not provided directly or indirectly to organizations engaged in anti-Semitic BDS activities.” In a joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Pompeo put a finer point on his intentions:
“Look, we want to stand with all other nations that recognize the BDS movement for the cancer that it is. And we’re committed to combating it. Our record speaks for itself. During the Trump administration, America stands with Israel like never before.”
While there is clearly much to parse here, I’d like to unpack Pompeo’s pronouncement that “Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism.”
When considering the implications of this new policy, it’s essential to note that Mike Pompeo himself is a fervent Christian Zionist who adheres to an eschatological ideology that seeks a Jewish return to the Holy Land as a precursor to the apocalypse and the Second Coming of the Messiah. Pompeo has in fact, made no secret of his extreme religious beliefs. In 2015, when he was a congressman, he uttered these immortal words from the pulpit of a Kansas church:
We will continue to fight these battles. It is a never-ending struggle. Until that moment … until the Rapture be part of it, be in the fight.
I’ve written a great deal about Christian Zionism and it’s influence within the Trump administration before, so I won’t go into great detail here about this dangers of this extreme religious ideology. For now, I’d just like to contextualize Pompeo’s presumptuous equation of Anti-Zionism = Antisemitism with a few points:
• Zionism does not equal Judaism. In fact, Zionism is not an exclusively Jewish movement. It is rather, a fundamentally interfaith movement “that has informed and propelled Christian Zionists into the very halls of power.”
• There are far more Christian Zionists in the world than Jewish Zionists (or Jews for that matter). There are 9 million members of the organization Christians United for Israel alone. While American Jewish attachment to Israel is declining, Evangelical Christian support is growing significantly.
• Christian Zionism is itself an antisemitic religious ideology that objectifies the Jewish people as pawns in a cosmic drama that seeks to further the coming of the Christian messiah.
• There has always been principled Jewish opposition to Zionism.
We should make no mistake: even if they are no longer in the administration, the threat of this Christian extremist movement will remain very real. But as ever, for Palestinians and those of us who stand in solidarity with them, the struggle will continue – no matter who happens to live in the White House.
On Rosh Hashanah I addressed the powerful feeling of uncertainty that pervades our lives and our world at this unprecedented moment. I want to return to this theme for this Yom Kippur – to speak to a parallel level of uncertainty that I know has been weighing deeply on us all. More specifically, I’d like to address the current political moment in our country; one that is more fraught, dangerous – and frankly more terrifying – than any of us have ever seen in our lifetimes.
I know this isn’t a pleasant topic to talk about. Frankly, this was not a particularly pleasant sermon to write. I know that most of us feel beaten down by political events as they’ve unfolded over the past four years. I know it’s become something of a routine in our social gatherings to set a strict time limit on discussing the latest outrage committed by our President and his administration – or to even declare such talk off limits entirely. And I get this. I know how depleting the past four years have been on our own emotional and psychological well-being. I’m all too familiar with the ways we instinctively compartmentalize the news of the outside world for purposes of self-preservation.
But even so, painful though it may be, I believe we need to talk about it. Our avoidance, while understandable, has come with a cost. On a certain level, I think our denial and incredulity reflect an unwillingness to admit to ourselves that what is happening is really happening. In a very real way, I think this unwillingness has kept us from meeting the challenges of this unprecedented moment.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is an immensely critical period, spiritually and existentially speaking. It’s said that during the days between these two festivals the gates of heaven are at their widest; the time in which God is most open and receptive to our prayers. It is, if you will, “time out of time:” a liminal, marginal period during which we’re given the unique power to change the course of our lives and our world. There’s no other time on the Jewish calendar when it feels as if there is so much at stake.
I’d suggest that politically speaking, we’re in a very similar place. Indeed, there seems to be a kind of synchronicity between the ten days and the current political moment – as if the confluence of this High Holiday season and this particular election season is demanding us to take stock in a deeper and more fundamental way than ever before. And I believe we’d be remiss if we didn’t take this opportunity to step out of time and honestly face up to what is at stake in our country.
Now that the gates are open, there’s no time for denial. It’s time to say some painful things out loud. It’s time to name the hard fact that we are sliding steadily into an age of authoritarian rule in this country. It has become clearer and clearer with each passing day, even if it’s difficult for us to fully accept. And it’s even harder to contemplate what we must know in our hearts to be true: that if this president gets the opportunity to serve for another four years, authoritarian rule will take hold in our country in ways that will be truly frightening to behold.
From the moment our President first announced his candidacy, there actually were observers who warned us about precisely this. While most of them were dismissed as alarmists, their words now ring with chilling kind of prescience. Here’s one such warning, written by anthropologist and journalist Sarah Kenzidor just two weeks after the 2016 election:
It is increasingly clear, as Donald Trump appoints his cabinet of white supremacists and war mongers, as hate crimes rise, as the institutions that are supposed to protect us cower, as international norms are shattered, that his ascendancy to power is not normal.
This is an American authoritarian kleptocracy, backed by millionaire white nationalists both in the United States and abroad, meant to strip our country down for parts, often using ethnic violence to do so.
This is not a win for anyone except them. This is a moral loss and a dangerous threat for everyone in the United States, and by extension, everyone abroad.
I have been studying authoritarian states for over a decade, and I would never exaggerate the severity of this threat. Others who study or who live in authoritarian states have come to the same conclusion as me.
And the plight is beyond party politics: it is not a matter of having a president-elect whom many dislike, but having a president-elect whose explicit goal is to destroy the nation.
But for all of these warnings, I think the most compelling words came from the President himself. There are so many examples to choose from; I’ll quote a 2014 interview with Fox News, when he was asked how he would solve the problems with the US economy:
You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell, and everything is a disaster, then you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be, when we were great.
If we’re going to be completely honest, however, our current moment didn’t begin with the election of this particular President. It has been unfolding over a period of many years: the erosion of our voting rights, the creation of the surveillance state, the incarceration of human bodies for profit, the deporting of our immigrants, the rise of a kleptocratic billionaire class in our country. And it’s not incidental that this gutting of our democracy and civil rights has disproportionately harmed black and brown and poor people in our country. In truth, our descent into authoritarianism has actually been decades in the making. The election of this President has only accelerated the process much faster than any of us dared anticipate.
We should also note that this phenomenon isn’t unique to the United States – it is, in fact, a global reality. It’s no accident that our President routinely praises and curries favor with the strongmen leaders of countries like Russia, North Korea, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and yes, Israel. As American Jews, we should have no illusions about this.
So here we are. Our President has been systematically dismantling and plundering the institutions of our government in broad daylight and now he’s openly committing election fraud before our very eyes. We know what is happening: his dismantling of the US Postal service, his baseless claims of voter fraud, his clear intention to sow as much chaos as he can to cast doubt on the election. Most recently, he’s been announcing unabashedly that he has no intention to concede this election, no matter what the outcome.
In American political life, the period between the election on November 3 and the Presidential inauguration on January 20 is called the “interregnum.” This term originally referred to the period between the reign of monarchs. Longer, more complicated interregna have invariably been accompanied by widespread unrest, civil wars and succession battles. Historically, failed states would often fail during an interregnum.
In the US, we’ve taken for granted that there will be an orderly transition of power from one to the other whenever we elect a new President – but I wonder if we’ve ever understood how technically fraught this in-between period really always been. We’re currently on the verge of an interregnum like none other we’ve ever experienced in our lifetimes – and I fear we’re waking up to this reality too late.
But I also believe there is much we can still do. That we must do.
The medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides famously interpreted the call of the shofar as a wake-up call. The blast of the shofar, he wrote, is meant to say to us “Sleepers, wake up from your slumber! Examine your ways, return, and remember your Creator!” This new year, I’d suggest that this wake-up call is resonating for us with profound urgency: to awaken from our incredulity, our denial, our comforting belief that “it could never happen here.”
And it’s also calling us to wake up on a deeper level: to face up to the very real possibility that this President could be staying in the White House for another four years. And while we might say that prospect is too frightening to contemplate, we must contemplate it. No matter how unthinkable, we must accept in our hearts and our guts that God forbid, it might well happen. It’s calling us to accept that if this does happen, it will not be the end. It will mean the onset of a new fight. And we will need to be prepared to fight it.
So now that I’ve said this out loud, let me say this: we are not there and we don’t have to be there. There is a little over a month until the election – and while we may have been late in our awakening, it is not too late. There is still much we can do, and I know so many of you are doing these things already: registering voters, preparing get out the vote campaigns, fighting against voter suppression on every level.
Yes, we need to vote. We need to vote because it’s clearly the most potent force we have at our disposal at this particular moment. But at the same time, we cannot view politicians as our saviors. We shouldn’t forget that our current situation was caused in no small part by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Too often we assume that politicians are the only change agents in the world – and that political change only happens on the electoral level. Too often we underestimate the historic role of social movements and the power of people to move politics and politicians. In the end, elections are but one tactic among many. More often than not, voting serves more as a form of harm reduction than a means for progressive change. We are most certainly in one of those moments right now.
Even if we fight like we’ve never fought before during this election, we can’t be sanguine about the morning after. We must be prepared for the chaos that is sure to follow. Fomenting chaos is one thing this President knows well and it’s clearly his primary strategy in this election. If there was ever any doubt consider this: last June an organization called the “Transition Integrity Project” convened a group of more than 100 bipartisan experts to simulate what might happen the day after Election Day — a kind of electoral “war game.” They simulated four different scenarios, and each one but one – a Democratic landslide victory – indicated significant levels of post-election chaos, with both sides contesting the election until inauguration day.
What will we do if this happens? In all likelihood, we’ll need to do what citizens of every other authoritarian nation have done when their elections are stolen from them. We’ll have to be prepared to take to the streets and stay in the streets. While this is certainly daunting to contemplate, we would do well to learn from the history of popular protest. We’d also do well to learn from the history that is unfolding as we speak. Indeed, if there’s anything the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us these past several months it’s that sustained popular protest has the very real power to make real change.
I know that given the pandemic, each of us will clearly need to make our own personal health decisions when we consider participating in any form of mass demonstration. And those who do must certainly be prepared for a violent response that will inevitably follow. Whether it comes from armed forces mobilized by the government, from white supremacist militias, or agent provocateurs, we know what will be coming. Even though the overwhelming majority of the recent racial justice protests have been non-violent, the backlash against them has been brutally violent. The unleashing of state violence against public protest is, of course, a hallmark of authoritarianism, and we’ve witnessed it ourselves throughout our country these past several months. We should have no illusions about this.
Beyond mass demonstrations, there are other forms of civil disobedience such as general strikes, boycotts and other acts of noncooperation large and small citizens have historically organized in moments such as this. We know that these kinds of tactics have the potential to succeed when carried out with unity, a clear strategy, and widespread participation. If campaigns of mass resistance are indeed mobilized, we’ll all need to be ready to help organize and participate in them, at whatever level is possible for us.
Whatever comes, the most basic form of resistance will be our readiness to show up for one another. To participate and support mutual aid initiatives in our communities. To learn about and support the areas of greatest need. To stand in particular with those who are most vulnerable, most at risk, those who have always been the first to be impacted by a government that views their lives as disposable. Such is as it’s always been in resistance movements throughout history: in ways large and small everyone has a part to play. There is still a great deal of love and freedom in our world and there is still a myriad of ways we can make a difference. And we must never forget this.
OK. If you haven’t turned off your computer by now, thank you for going to this place with me. I know, as I said earlier, that none of this is easy to hear out loud. This is an enormously frightening moment. Personally, I’m scared shitless. But when I went over the things I felt I should talk about this Yom Kippur, I frankly couldn’t imagine anything more critical to our current moment. And I wouldn’t have said any of this if I felt things were hopeless. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, true hope is in our readiness to act precisely when things feel hopeless. Not to passively hope for the best, but to find courage in each other to fight on, no matter what may happen.
At sundown tonight, they say, this sacred interregnum of the ten days will conclude – and soon enough, another will begin. But this time, it seems to me, we won’t passively ask to be saved. No, this time we’ll have to demand that the gates open and remain open. We’ll need to take responsibility for writing our own names and the names of our neighbors in the Book of Life. If we’re going to be sealed for life, it is we who must affix that seal.
And so, in that spirit I’d like to end now with a prayer I wrote a few years ago. We’ll be saying it at the end of Yom Kippur, at our Neilah service later tonight. But I’d like to offer it now as a prayer for our upcoming interregnum – with the hope it might awaken us all to the possibility of new life in the year to come:
when the final tekiah sounds anyone still sleeping will have to rise up and join the strategizers and schemers the marchers and rabble rousers to chant that final neilah prayer ki fana yom there’s no time left it’s time to storm the gates.
we’ll blow away the wasted years the work undone the dreams denied the lazy thinking and careless complicity so that we may clearly see the road leading to a world we always knew was possible.
yes finally we’ll break the insatiable unquenchable appetites threatening to consume everything we’ve ever known our hunger will turn into desire our hollow emptiness into wide open spaces that roll on without end.
when that final tekiah sounds the barrier walls and security fences will come crashing down no one will be forced to wait in line no one turned away at the border no unseen hands opening and closing the gates on a whim.
so let every shofar send forth one unbroken call quick while the sun is setting we’ll gather together and march forward under cover of darkness in the halls of the most high we’ll make sure there’s room for all.
It’s fair to say that Peter Beinart’s recent article for Jewish Currents, in which he publicly announced his abandonment of the two-state solution, represents something of a milestone in American discourse on Israel-Palestine. As a well-known political thinker and commentator, Beinart’s ideas carry a great deal of weight in the liberal Jewish establishment. His 2010 article in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” and his subsequent book, “The Crisis of Zionism” were widely read and touted as critical cautionary manifestos for the American Jewish community. For years he has positioned himself on the left edge of the Liberal Zionist camp, and has regularly sounded warnings about the increasingly illiberal nature of Israel’s actions. It is thus hugely significant that he has now officially crossed a red line (his term) by so publicly and openly declaring the two-state solution to be dead.
Indeed, many are saying that his article is a game changer. Mondoweiss editor Phil Weiss, pointing to Beinart’s “prominent stature in liberal Jewish communal life,” wrote that he now “joins a list of liberal Zionists who have abandoned the two-state solution,” predicting that “his joining that list means it is only going to grow.” Liberal commentators are likewise singing its praises;` the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg called it “brave and persuasive” and Vox editor Matt Yglesias claimed it has now “widened the boundaries what is acceptable on Israel/Palestine.”
In his Jewish Currents article, (which the New York Times published today in a much shortened version under the headline, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State“), Beinart begins by describing how central Zionism has been to his Jewish identity. With sadness, he notes that “with each passing year, it has become clearer that Jewish statehood includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank.” He continues:
The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.
Beinart does not formally break with Zionism, however. He claims that the “essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel,” but rather, “a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world.” Unfortunately, Beinart writes, such a “Jewish home” is impossible under the classic two-state solution model, which he now declares “dead” because it “requires subjugating another people.” It’s time, he says, to explore new one-state options, “from a confederation to a binational state.”
To drive his point home, Beinart invokes the history of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, in 70 CE, changed the paradigmatic nature of Judaism itself from animal sacrifice to prayer/study after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. So too, Beinart writes, “our task in this moment is to imagine a new Jewish identity, one that no longer equates Palestinian equality with Jewish genocide. One that sees Palestinian liberation as integral to our own.”
Beinart then goes on to write a long, impassioned and impressively researched essay on how this new one-state paradigm might be realized, quoting a number of Palestinian activists and thinkers including Ali Abunimah, Walid Khalidi, Edward Said and Yousef Munayyer. He ends up advocating for a binational state using Belgium and Northern Ireland as potential models: a “democratic Israel-Palestine” that would ” protect not merely individual rights but national rights as well,”
He concludes his essay with this moving paragraph:
Imagine a country in which, at sundown on the 27th of Nissan, the beginning of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—Jewish and Palestinian co-presidents lower a flag in Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem as an imam delivers the Islamic du‘a’ for the dead. Imagine those same leaders, on the 15th of May, gathering at a restored cemetery in the village of Deir Yassin, the site of a future Museum of the Nakba, which commemorates the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled during Israel’s founding, as a rabbi recites El Malei Rachamim, our prayer for the dead.
I agree with those who believe that this article is powerful and significant. It may well represent a tipping point – and to the extent that his primary audience is his fellow Liberal Zionists, this is all to the good. But without denying what Beinart’s article represents, I remain troubled by his essential analysis. In the end, I believe the very framing of his essay ultimately compromises his brave vision of “a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.”
Beinart’s article is at its heart a political argument. And as such, it locates the central issue of the “conflict” as the failures of the peace process, which he largely places at the door of successive Israeli governments. However, while the injustices of the peace process were undeniable, nowhere does Beinart mention a deeper and more fundamental injustice: i.e., the Nakba itself. In fact, throughout this long and powerfully argued manifesto, Beinart never once states that Jewish statehood resulted in the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people – a dispossession that is in fact ongoing even now.
In a very telling sentence, Beinart writes “averting a future in which oppression degenerates into ethnic cleansing requires a vision that can inspire not just Palestinians, but the world.” Whether inadvertently or not, he treats ethnic cleansing as something we must forestall in the future, not something that has been very much ongoing since 1948. And therein lies the problem: such an attitude betrays a mindset that views this issue as a political conflict to be solved, not a moral injustice to be confronted.
In the end, however, both of these things are intrinsically connected. There can be no political solution without a restorative/reparative process through which Israel ends its oppression of the Palestinian people and formally admits to the historic wrongs it has committed against them. For a contemporary model, we have to look no farther than South Africa and the creation its Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It would have been unthinkable to pretend apartheid could have been dismantled without such a process. And while it was by no means perfect or completely successful, South African leaders understood that there would never been any hope for reconciliation if white South Africans did not engage in some form of political confession and repair.
I am struck that Beinart chose to end his article with poetic images of reconciliation, in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis mourn the dead of the Nakba and the Holocaust respectively. But it is deeply problematic to leap to such a vision without honoring the difficult and painful process of restorative justice that would make it at all possible. Even more problematic is Beinart’s juxtaposition of the Nakba – a wrong perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians – with the Holocaust: a wrong committed against European Jewry that had nothing to do with the Palestinian people. To be sure, the legacy of the Holocaust is a complex and painful one – but it is difficult in the extreme to share Beinart’s hope in this restorative vision if he is unable to admit the need for a restorative process at all.
I know that for Liberal Zionists, defining Israel’s birth with the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of another people is very likely a bridge too far. It might well be that Beinart made a conscious calculation that if he was to reach his desired audience, he would not be able to go there in this particular essay. But in the end, if there is to be a just and sustainable peace in Israel/Palestine, this essential injustice will sooner or later have to be confronted.
In the end, Liberal Zionists will not only have to give up on the two-state solution, but on the myth of innocence at the heart of political Zionism itself. I’m not sure that this is a place Liberal Zionists, including Beinart, will ever be able to go – but if and when that happens, what a brave step that would be.
The day of Israel’s annexation of major West Bank settlement blocs has now come and gone. But while it didn’t actually happen, it’s not quite time to breathe a sigh of relief. The Israeli government has made it clear that annexation plans are continuing apace and has now moved the deadline to later this month.
There’s so much to say about Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty over major portions of the West Bank. For my part, I anticipated the response of the American Jewish communal establishment with particularly morbid fascination. How would these organizations, hardwired to defend Israel’s actions at all costs, possibly respond to what most would consider to be a patently immoral and undemocratic political move? As it would turn out, their contortions were truly something to behold.
The American Jewish Committee, true to form, doubled down unapologetically. In an article for the Times of Israel, AJC’s Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer openly stated that when annexation came to pass, “we will make the strongest possible case for a decision reached by an elected Israeli government and supported by Israel’s (and anyone’s) most powerful partner, the United States.” In its FAQ sheet, the Jewish Federations of North America attempted to explain the nuanced differences between “annexation” and “applied sovereignty.” And the Anti-Defamation League, in a leaked internal memo, tellingly agonized over how they might “find a way to defend Israel from criticism without alienating other civil rights organizations, elected officials of color, and Black Lives Matter activists and supporters.”
In the end, the tortured moral/political posturings of these Jewish establishment institutions didn’t really surprise me all that much. They are who they are. But it was much more troubling to read the responses of the “liberal” institutions of the American Jewish community, who continue to enable Israel’s institutional oppression of Palestinians by trotting out their increasingly meaningless talking points of “Jewish and democratic” and “two-state solution” while consistently expressing little to no concern for the well-being of Palestinians themselves.
The Union for Reform Judaism began its statement by announcing its bona fides as “a proud Zionist movement.” It went on to express concern that annexation would “create significant diplomatic risks for Israel, jeopardize Israel’s security, jeopardize North American strategic interests,” and “repudiate the two-state solution.” In a particularly delicate turn of phrase, the URJ mentioned its potential “deleterious impact on the Palestinian people.” Even here, however, the issue was not Palestinian human rights per se, but Israel’s “moral standing,” which depended on “its commitment to ensuring that Palestinians do not live as second-class citizens.”
Another statement, signed by the ten members of the “Progressive Israel Network” (a coalition that includes J Street, the New Israel Fund, Truah, Americans for Peace Now, and my denomination, Reconstructing Judaism) pointed out that annexation would be counter to international law, endanger the well-being of the Palestinian Authority and harm the US-Israel relationship. Carefully avoiding use of the word “apartheid,” the statement expressed concern that annexation “would enact an institutionalized, formal system of discrimination between two ethnic-national populations, both living in the same territory, with each governed by a separate set of laws.”
I’ll confess that when I first heard of the unity government’s plans for annexation, I had a glancing thought that we’d finally arrived at a “moment of truth” for the American Jewish community. I immediately thought better of it, of course. As a former liberal Zionist myself, I’m very familiar with the “window is closing on the two-state solution” trope. It’s a desperate and hollow ploy, designed to avoid facing (or distract attention away from) the hard truth that one-state apartheid has been the reality in Israel/Palestine now for decades. Palestinian activist/scholar Yousef Munayyer put it well in a recent post for +972mag: “Contrary to the popular narrative, annexation will not kill the two-state solution — you cannot kill something that has long been dead. Rather, annexation is dragging and displaying the two-state solution’s corpse before the world.”
So here’s the thing: for years I’ve harbored the assumption that one day the time would come when these liberal Zionists organizations would finally say enough is enough. There is no way Israel can possibly be “Jewish and democratic.” The two state solution is a pipe dream that will only enable further oppression on the ground. The only answer is to give up on the notion of Jewish political nation statehood and advocate for full equality for all who live between the river and the sea.
But no more. I cannot honestly imagine any political event in Israel that would cause these so-called “progressive” Jewish institutions to ever cross this rubicon. Does anyone honestly believe the URJ, who defines itself as a “proud Zionist movement” will ever advocate for one democratic state of all its citizens in Israel/Palestine? Can we truly envision J Street or Americans for Peace Now, organizations that stake their very existence on a “Jewish and democratic” state of Israel, pulling their support for a Jewish state because it has finally become too undemocratic for them?
I have no doubt that when Israel does finally announce its formal annexation, these organizations will move the goalposts yet further down the road. They will studiously avoid use of the word apartheid while implying it could still happen if Israel does not change its ways. It will continue its warnings that Israel’s democracy is under threat, even as its institutional oppression of Palestinians continues to remain so tragically obvious for the world to see.
Consider this: while these organizations agonized over the issue of annexation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) released a report that revealed the Israeli military had demolished at least 70 Palestinian buildings in the West Bank during the first two weeks of June, displacing 90 Palestinians. This represented a 250% increase over the weekly average of home demolitions since the beginning of 2020. It was also reported that the during this period the Israeli military forced 20 Palestinian households in East Jerusalem to knock down their own newly-built homes themselves.
This, to put it plainly, is annexation. Annexation is an institutional process by which Israel dispossesses Palestinians so that it can maintain a demographic advantage on land it has long sought to control. Annexation is not a line to be crossed by the Israeli government sometime down the road. It has been happening since 1948 and it is happening right now. And it will continue to happen until the racist system that enables it is finally dismantled.
I know this sounds harsh – perhaps terrifyingly unthinkable – to many in the American Jewish community. But in this powerful political moment, it should be clearer than ever that equity, justice and rights for all people will only happen when we honestly reckon with the legacy of institutional racism. So yes, let’s protest annexation. But let us also commit to fundamentally changing the structures that have been enabling it for far too long.
Remarks delivered by Maya Schenwar (editor of Truthout and author of “Locked Down, Locked Out” and the upcoming “Prison by Any Other Name”) at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 14, 2020.
A few months ago, which feels like a few centuries ago, Brant and I discussed the idea of me saying something at this seder about the difference between reform and liberation. I’d been writing about how popular prison reforms such as electronic monitoring, drug courts, and psychiatric institutions are actually entrenching the prison-industrial complex. I thought, what better occasion than Passover to talk about how we shouldn’t be pursuing fake liberation, and how we don’t want nicer-looking reforms that are still forms of oppression? What better occasion to affirm that we have to demand all-out freedom and stick with it?
Now, in these terrifying new times, it feels even more imperative to make vast, sweeping demands—demands that rise higher than we might think we can dream. In the midst of a worldwide plague that, in one way or another, engulfs us all, it’s time for that all-out freedom call.
What do I mean by “all-out freedom”? I’m thinking about the refrain that “no one is free while others are oppressed.” I’m thinking about Audre Lorde saying, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” The COVID-19 crisis has deeply and horribly impacted our own communities — and communities everywhere. Marginalized people have, of course, been disproportionately impacted. (Consider that approximately 70% of people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Chicago are Black.)
Right now, we are coming to understand that none of us are healthy while others are sick. As long as anyone is in peril, more will be in peril. And liberation for only some is not liberation.
Yet, in a lot of different arenas, we’ve come to accept small offerings from our political representatives and leaders—a bailout mostly geared toward banks and corporations, a slight reduction in drug prices, a few people freed from prisons, some limits on carbon emissions. We say, “Well, something is better than nothing,” even when the something is far from enough, and when the something leaves many people to die.
Even in the face of coronavirus, the health care plan of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee would leave many millions of Americans uninsured. At this moment in which all of our lives are threatened, it’s time to call for Medicare for All—and much more. We need comprehensive cost-free mental and physical health services, including treatments that go well beyond doctors and hospitals. We need to recognize that plentiful nutritious food, housing, sleep, free time, relaxation, and self-determination are also part of health and survival—and part of liberation. This is the moment to demand universal housing, universal food access, and drastically improved labor practices, which are key to building the kind of freedom that sacrifices no one.
And, at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing and the climate crisis is amplifying the effects of COVID, where is our Green New Deal? Where is our jobs guarantee, our income guarantee for those who don’t work—and our guarantee that our leaders will do everything in their power to confront the climate emergency, which is on track to kill billions? These aren’t far-off dreams or hypotheticals; they are steps that it makes sense to implement now to directly address the public health and economic crises enveloping our country.
At a time when we’re witnessing a shortage of life-saving equipment – ventilators and protective gear – we can issue a pragmatic call for the end of the war industry. In fact, we can challenge the existence of the military-industrial complex as a whole. Has there ever been a clearer moment to say no to the machinery of death, and to demand a mass shift of funds away from the Pentagon and toward public health?
It’s not a time for compromise—not a time to save some and not others.
Moses abided by this philosophy in his dealings with Pharaoh. He said to Pharaoh, “Let us go into the wilderness and worship our own God!” In response, Pharaoh proposed compromises—little reforms, fake liberations.
Pharaoh’s first compromise proposal was for the Jews to stay in Egypt, but worship their own God there. Some people might have said, “Take what you can get! Stop there, Moses! It’s better than nothing.”
But Moses declined the compromise, which was a little better than nothing—but it wasn’t freedom.
So then some plagues happened, as we know, and Moses asked again. Pharaoh scrounged up another compromise: He would let the men go off into the wilderness, but the women and children would have to stay in Egypt. Of course, women and children were groups that were more vulnerable—multiply oppressed, within the oppressed group. And in this compromise, they’d be thrown under the bus.
This compromise reminds me of the “moderate” reforms we see all over the political stage right now, reforms that modestly benefit some people, while throwing other people entirely under the bus:
For example – the proposal that a few more people can have health care, but there will still be millions and millions who are uninsured. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!
And there are the proposals to let some people with nonviolent first-time drug offenses out of prison, while millions of others will be left in cages. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!
And of course, there’s the compromise that younger people with no criminal record will temporarily not be deported, while older people and people with criminal records are condemned to deportation. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!
These are reforms that throw people away. Liberation refuses to throw anybody away.
Moses said no to the compromise, and we have to say no to the politics of disposability, too.
So then there were more plagues, and Pharaoh issued a final compromise: The Jews, including the women and children, could go into the wilderness – but they’d have to leave their animals behind. Basically, they’d have to be released from captivity with barely any resources.
There’s no freedom without some means to survive, and even thrive. A country where many millions are without health care in the middle of a pandemic is not a free country. A country in which people are starving because they’ve suddenly lost their jobs and have no safety net is not a free country. A country in which a few people are released from jails because of a pandemic, but are released into homelessness, is not a free country. In fact, a country in which people experience homelessness is not a free country.
My longtime pen pal and friend Lacino Hamilton, who is incarcerated in Michigan, wrote me a letter about the experience of the pandemic behind bars. He is hoping to be released soon: After 26 years in prison, his challenge to his conviction appears to be on the verge of being recognized. But, Lacino wrote, “I’m worried that I’ll leave here and materially my life will worsen.” He wrote, “Returning citizens are supposed to be happy with dead-end opportunities, the kind that offer only a ‘piece of a life.’ I want a whole life.”
Everyone should have a whole life. Without that, it’s not real liberation.
So, Moses said “no” to the no-animals compromise, because it was not freedom at all.
Eventually, after the most gruesome and horrifying plague of all, the one we hate to talk about, Pharaoh agreed to the whole package.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. Pharaoh tried to prevent the actual implementation of the plan, necessitating some miracles from God to allow the Jews to truly leave.
Some miracles are probably necessary now, too, because the forces of power are never going to agree to full liberation. But I personally don’t think those miracles will be bestowed by a powerful God (who, to be honest, sometimes comes across in parts of the Torah as another angry dictator). I think we have to make those miracles ourselves.
What would it look like for us to create miracles, in the uniquely brutal time we’re currently living through? A couple of weeks ago, Arundhati Roy wrote a beautiful piece about the COVID-19 crisis, in which she talked about this time as one that forces us into a kind of magic. She wrote,
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
I love that passage, and it speaks to something important. I don’t think the miracle of a full-scale societal transformation that allows for the possibility of liberation will come from above. As far as I know, God cannot unilaterally snap their fingers and provide a universal health care plan or a Green New Deal, or end white supremacy or incarceration, or provide a home for every human being. We will need to grow these things. And I believe that we can, if we remember that no one is safe and healthy until everyone is safe and healthy, and that liberation cannot mean throwing anyone away.
There are many ways to take action right now to pursue liberatory goals, from mutual aid efforts that address urgent needs and build organizing infrastructure for the world we want to live in, to critical housing and labor campaigns, to racial justice movements working to release people from jails and prisons, to environmental campaigns that are drawing connections between this moment and the looming climate emergency, to the ongoing battle for Medicare for All, and much more. Brant is going to share some links in the chat for this Zoom call that will point you toward ways to get involved. These are only a smattering of the many crucial efforts currently underway.
I don’t think we need to drop horrible plagues on our enemies in order to refuse harmful compromises. Instead, we need to unite against horrible plagues – including the plagues of injustice, inequity, and mass violence – and for mass liberation.
I believe that we can enter the portal and fight for that new world, if we are prepared to do it together.
The central story commemorated on Hanukkah comes from books 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tells of a small group of Jews in the land of Israel that fought to liberate their community from the increasingly oppressive reign of the Seleucid empire. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the empire had imposed their Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish community; in 167 BCE, Antiochus intensified his campaign by defiling the temple in Jerusalem and banning Jewish practice. The Jewish band known as the Maccabees subsequently waged a three-year campaign that culminated in the cleaning and rededication of the temple and ultimately, the establishment of the second Jewish commonwealth.
The meaning of Hanukkah has historically been understood and interpreted in many different ways by Jewish communities throughout the centuries. For the rabbis of the Talmud, who sought to downplay the militarism and violence of the story, the holiday is emblematic of God’s miraculous power, symbolized famously by the Talmudic legend (quoted above) of a miraculous cruse of oil in the rededicated Temple that lasted for eight days. The Zionist movement and the state of Israel celebrate Hanukkah as a nationalist holiday, glorifying the Maccabees’ military struggle for political independence. In many nations throughout the Jewish diaspora, the festival is often understood as an expression of Jewish minority pride and a celebration of religious freedom.
More recently, some American Jewish religious leaders have been reinterpreting Hanukkah as a holiday of sacred environmental concern, framing the legend of the oil as a lesson about the importance of energy sustainability. Jewish environmental activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow, for instance, has proposed observing “Eight Days of Environmental Action” during Hanukkah, suggesting that the legend “is a reminder that if we have the courage to change our lifestyles to conserve energy, the miracle of our own creativity will sustain us.” The website of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) now devotes an entire section to “Green Resources for Hanukkah.” The Jewish environmental organization Hazon also offers extensive resources for the holiday, including “10 Ways to Make your Hanukkah More Sustainable.”
While these new approaches are certainly meaningful as far as they go, it is worth questioning why the environmental dimensions of Hanukkah must begin and end with green personal behaviors. Given that the festival celebrates a struggle for liberation, Hanukkah also offers us a powerful opportunity to highlight and celebrate the emergent global movement for environmental justice.
This connection is particularly relevant since this struggle is unfolding in critical ways in the land where the Hanukkah story actually took place. In fact, the state of Israel has a well-documented history of monopolizing and exploiting the natural resources of historic Palestine — all too often at the expense of the Palestinian people themselves. If we are truly serious about celebrating Hanukkah as a “green holiday,” we should also use these eight days to shine a light on the myriad environmental injustices being committed in Israel/Palestine — and further, to rededicate ourselves to the movement for environmental justice there and around the world.
“Green Colonialism” in Israel/Palestine
Environmentalism has always been central to the myth of Zionist pioneers who described themselves as having “greened the barren desert” of Palestine. Like many of my generation who came of age in American Jewish religious schools, I well remember being taught that helping the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plant pine trees in Israel was an act of almost sacred significance. Like generations of Hebrew school students before and after us, we were encouraged to regularly put coins in the iconic blue-and-white JNF collection boxes and were given certificates as gifts whenever a tree was planted in our honor or for a special occasion.
The reality beneath this mythos, however, reveals a much more problematic and troubling history. We didn’t learn the crucial colonial goal behind the JNF’s forestation policy throughout Palestine — that the widespread planting of pine groves and forests was instrumental in the dispossession of Palestinians. We certainly didn’t learn about Yosef Weitz, director of the JNF from 1932 to 1948, who was a primary architect of the Zionist policy of Palestinian Arab “transfer,” often advocating for this policy openly and unabashedly.
At a meeting of the Transfer Committee in 1937, for instance, Weitz stated:
The transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim — to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to advocate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs and thus to release it for Jewish inhabitants.
It is now known that pine forests planted by the JNF were widely used as national and recreational parks to hide the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages and neighborhoods that were depopulated by force in 1948. According to scholars Ilan Pappé and Samer Jaber, “covering ethnic cleansing with pine trees is probably the most cynical method employed by Israel in its quest to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible.” The Israeli organization Zochrot estimates that “more than two-thirds of [JNF] forests and sites — 46 out of 68 — conceal or are located on the ruins of Palestinian villages demolished by Israel.”
In a recent conference call sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), journalist/activist Naomi Klein referred to this practice as “green colonialism,” pointing out that “the use of conservation and tree planting and forest protection as a tool of settler colonialism is not unique to Israel” and that “the creation of state parks and national parks (in North America) are seen by Indigenous people in these settler colonial contexts in similar ways.” According to Klein, “there is a long and ongoing history of conservation … where the land is declared a park and the traditional inhabitants and users of the land are locked out.”
The cumulative environmental impact of nonindigenous pine trees throughout historic Palestine has been devasting. European pines, which were consciously planted to evoke the memory of the forests familiar to Zionist settlers, have largely failed to adapt to the local soil, requiring frequent replanting. As they have aged, non-native pines also have demanded more and more water, rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Moreover, falling pine needles have acidified the soil, inhibiting the growth of native species.
This practice, coupled with the steadily soaring temperatures in the region, has increasingly led to devastating forest fires such as the Carmel wildfire in 2010, estimated to be the worst in Israel’s history. Given its grievous environmental impact, the 2010 fire subsequently precipitated a widespread reassessment in Israel of early Zionist tree-planting policies. In 2011, Yisrael Tauber, director of forest management for the JNF, grudgingly admitted, “Planting is still important, but in many cases we have to make a kind of change in our consciousness.…We are now building sustainable forestry after these pioneering pines did a wonderful job for the first generation.”
Of course, given the rising threat of the global climate crisis, this admission arrives as too little, too late. Increasingly dangerous conflagrations are now a regular occurrence throughout Israel; this past summer, three simultaneous wildfires necessitated the evacuation of hundreds of residents across the country. This trend is particularly ominous given that this region is among the hardest hit by the climate crisis. At the UN Climate Conference in Madrid this month, the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a report listing a number of devastating projections, including an expected rise in the risk of natural disasters.
“Water Apartheid” in the West Bank
The struggle over water resources is another important example of historic and ongoing climate injustice in Israel/Palestine. Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region, a monopoly the human rights group Al-Haq refers to as “water apartheid.” According to Amnesty International, Palestinian consumption in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is about 70 liters a day per person (well below the 100 liters per capita daily recommended by the World Health Organization) whereas Israeli daily per capita consumption is about 300 liters. In some rural communities, Palestinians survive on 20 liters per day.
Those who visit the West Bank cannot help but be struck by the sight of Israeli settlements, with lush, well-watered lawns looming over Palestinian towns and villages surrounded by rocky soil and sparse vegetation. This is largely due to the fact that Israel uses more than 80 percent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the only source of underground water in the West Bank, as well as all of the surface water available from the Jordan River, which is completely denied to Palestinians.
As a result of this inequitable system, some 180,000 to 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access to running water. In towns and villages which are connected to the water network, water rationing is common, many Palestinians have no choice but to purchase additional supplies from mobile water tankers which deliver water of often dubious quality at a much higher price. (The Mountain Aquifer, one of the most valuable natural resources in the region, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line, a key factor in Israel’s inexorable annexation of the West Bank.)
Over the years, Israel’s over-pumping of underground aquifers has lowered the groundwater table below sea level and caused saline water intrusion in many areas. The average flow of the Jordan River has been decreasing dramatically and has become so polluted by Israeli settlement and industry run-off that it was declared unsafe for baptism by Friends of the Earth Middle East in 2010 (known today as EcoPeace Middle East). The Dead Sea has shrunk into two separate and rapidly evaporating bodies of water, increasingly polluted by Israeli companies that pump out its salts for cosmetic products.
Environmental Injustice in Gaza
When it comes to Gaza, Israel’s crushing 12-year-old blockade has almost completely depleted the supply of drinkable water for the nearly 2,000,000 Palestinians who live in this small strip of land. Gaza’s only water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population, and Israel does not allow the transfer of water from the West Bank to Gaza. In the meantime, the aquifer has been steadily depleted and contaminated by over-extraction and by sewage and seawater infiltration, and 97 percent of its water has been contaminated and unfit for human consumption.
Stringent restrictions imposed in recent years by Israel on the entry into Gaza of material and equipment necessary for the development and repair of infrastructure have caused further deterioration of its water and sanitation situation. For the past several years, sewage has been flowing into the Mediterranean at a rate of 110 million liters a day. At present, 97 percent of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption and only 10 percent of Gaza’s residents have access to safe drinking water.
However, as is invariably the case with issues of environmental injustice, what goes around comes around. This past June, EcoPeace Middle East reported that the collapsing environmental situation in Gaza was creating a “national security risk” to Israel, warning that “the collapsing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure in the Gaza Strip pose a material danger to (Israel).” In a particularly perverse example of victim-blaming, the Israeli military recently urged the World Health Organization to condemn the “ecological catastrophe” caused by the burning of tires by Palestinians on the border during the weekly Great March of Return protests.
In addition to water pollution, there have also been reports of rapidly increasing soil contamination due to Israel’s regular military assaults on Gaza. According to a report by the New Weapons Research Group, Israeli bombings in Gaza Strip have left a high concentration of toxic metals, such as tungsten, mercury, molybdenum, cadmium and cobalt in the soil. These metals can cause tumors and problems with fertility, and they can have serious and harmful effects on newly born babies.
Hanukkah and Global Climate Justice
What does this current environmental reality bode for the future of the Jewish state? British journalist Robert Cohen powerfully concludes that the climate crisis, coupled with Israel’s steady over-exploitation of resources, has functionally rendered Zionism “obsolete.”
“How,” writes Cohen, “can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round…? When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land.”
Cohen’s point can certainly be applied to the world at large. The climate crisis clearly knows no borders. But while no one will ultimately be safe from its devastating effects, we can be sure that the more powerful will increasingly seek to safeguard themselves and their interests at all costs at the expense of the less powerful. Such is the harsh reality of “green colonialism”: as the climate crisis renders more and more of the world uninhabitable, we are clearly witnessing increased state efforts at border militarization, population control and the warehousing of humanity.
What then, is to be done? In a recent op-ed for The Nation, journalist Ben Ehrenreich offered this compelling prescription: “it is time to shout, and loudly, that the freedom of all the earth’s people to move across borders must be at the center of any response to the climate crisis.… If we are to survive as a species, we must know that no boat can save us except the one we build together.” In her JVP presentation, Naomi Klein echoed this challenge in similarly powerful terms:
What is clear is that the space for humanity to live well is contracting…. So, the core question is what kind of people are we going to be as we live in greater density? And if we look to Israel/Palestine, we see a really terrifying example of how to lose your humanity and how to fail to share land — and the monstrousness it requires to fail to share….
This is a global process that is happening now … so we’re going to have to start practicing solidarity and mutual aid. And we’re going to have to practice love and show each other what love looks like in public more and more. Because a lot of people have lost faith that they can do it.
There can be no better Hanukkah message for the 21st century. Given the realities of our current age, the nationalist dimensions of the holiday are not merely irrelevant, but dangerous. In the words of poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales, “this time it’s all of us or none.” If Hanukkah is to be a true celebration of environmental justice, it must become a “rededication” to fight for a more universal vision of liberation, for a world of solidarity, mutual aid and open borders.
Or to put it another way, the Maccabees’ struggle must now be broadened to represent the universal struggle of all who are committed to showing what love looks like in public, for the sake of all humanity. For the age of global climate crisis, the stakes could not be higher.
It’s certainly been a strange and surreal week for the American Jewish community. As is all too painfully well known by now, this past Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump would sign an Executive Order that would “interpret Judaism as a race or nationality” to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities that failed to protect Jewish students from the threat of BDS activism. This news caused an almost immediate upheaval, with vociferous protest emanating from a wide swath of the Jewish community concerned that this order could easily enable the antisemitic canard of Jewish “dual loyalties.”
While I certainly shared the outrage upon hearing this news, I harbored a deeper concern that I shared on my congregation‘s Facebook group page: i.e., that the Jewish community was making this issue exclusively about us, ignoring the fact that Trump’s order was ultimately aimed at silencing Palestinians and those who stand in solidarity with them. “As ever,” I wrote:
I would suggest the most important response we can make to this latest cynical maneuver is to redouble our solidarity with the Palestinian people and to rededicate our support of the BDS movement – not merely for the sake of “free speech” but for a free Palestine. We must recommit ourselves to the central goals of the BDS call from Palestinian civil society itself: for a land where all who live between the river and the sea are full and equal citizens.
As it turned out, the New York Times report turned out to be false. The actual text of the Executive Order, which Trump signed at a bizarre White House Hanukkah reception, did not explicitly define Jews as a nationality (though it did rely on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin” but not religion). Upon hearing this news, many in the Jewish community seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Others dismissed the order itself, saying it was just a reaffirmation of the Obama administration’s policy and that “it wouldn’t change much at all.”
Whatever else this might mean, we certainly shouldn’t downplay the threat posed by this cynical Executive Order, which essentially puts into law what Israel advocates and their allies in Congress were unable to do with the stalled, ill-fated “Antisemitism Awareness Act.” Going forward, agencies and departments charged with enforcing Title VI can now “consider” using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which was never intended to be used to be enforce standards on college campuses.
There are a myriad of problems with the IHRA definition. In one oft-quoted line, for instance, it prohibits “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” However, as journalist Paul Waldman recently pointed out in the Washington Post, while “someone might apply double standards to Israel out of antisemitism, the idea that doing so is inherently antisemitic is preposterous. We can decry double standards, but people use them all the time in policy debates without being defined as bigoted.” Moreover, Waldman wrote, “‘saying criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country’ is not antisemitic would mean criticisms of Israel would have to meet a higher standard than criticism of other countries or else they’re antisemitic.”
Additionally, the IHRA definition deems it antisemitic to “deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” This is a muddy and subjective standard that comes dangerously close to making the fallacious claim that anti-Zionism is synonymous with antisemitism. In fact, there are many different definitions of self-determination other than political nation-statism. It could well be argued (as I have on several occasions) that the Jewish people have no more inherent “right” to create a political nation state in a specific piece of land than any other people might have – and it is certainly not antisemitic to say so. On the other hand, it would be immensely antisemitic to suggest that Jews do not have a right to self-determination as minority communities of the nations in which they live.
I certainly realize that how events of this past week may have conjured up the the deepest fears of American Jews. And I know full well that we cannot and must not be sanguine about the threat of resurgent antisemitism. But I would also suggest that is critically important that we remember where this threat is actually coming from – and where it is not. Indeed, it is critical to note that while the American Jewish community was tying itself up in knots around the issue of the so-called “antisemitic threat” of BDS on college campuses, four people, including two Jews, were killed in a kosher market in Jersey City, an incident the police is now investigating as a hate crime.
In an age where Jews are being regularly targeted and murdered by extremists, it is not only disingenuous of our government to spend so much time, energy and resources on combatting BDS – a nonviolent movement rooted in human rights for all – it is downright dangerous. It is time to stand down the false and pernicious equation of antisemitism coming from both the “right and the left.” We know full well where the most dangerous and deadly antisemitism is truly coming from – and we need to make this clear to the world in no uncertain terms.
In the end, I believe the most telling commentary on the events of this past week came in an op-ed by Kenneth Stern, one of the authors of the definition of antisemitism used in Trump’s Executive Order. I’ll let him have the last word:
Rather than champion the chilling of expressions that pro-Israel Jews find disturbing, or give the mildest criticism (if any) of a president who repeatedly uses antisemitic tropes, why weren’t those Jewish officials who were present when Trump signed the executive order reminding him that last year, when he demonized immigrants and called them “invaders”, Robert Bowers walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue because he believed Jews were behind this “invasion” of brown people as part of a plot to harm white people, and killed 11 of us?
One of the signature moments on Rosh Hashanah is the sentence traditionally proclaimed after the shofar is sounded: “Hayom Harat Olam” (“Today is the birthday of the world.”) On Rosh Hashanah, tradition tells us, we celebrate a world reborn, joyfully acknowledging the order and balance of God’s creation and the awesome power embedded deep within it. What better way to celebrate the potential for our own renewal in the year ahead than by looking to a world that renews itself every year according to the sacred rhythms of birth and rebirth?
While I personally find this idea to be among the most profound of this season, I’ll confess, I’ve been struggling with it in recent years. With the hard reality of the global climate crisis hitting home deeper and deeper every year, I find myself asking, what does it mean to gather every Rosh Hashanah to reaffirm creation even as we are literally undoing it? How can we honestly celebrate the power embedded in God’s world, even as human power is steadily destroying it? Even as the world is literally on fire? To be completely honest, in this era of global climate crisis, I’m not sure the traditional understanding of Rosh Hashanah really makes much sense any more.
And it is indeed a crisis. Many are suggesting, in fact, that we’ve moved beyond crisis and have entered the category of emergency. And we can’t say we haven’t been warned. As far back as 1992, 1700 scientists around the world issued a famous statement called a “warning to humanity,” declaring that we were on a “collision course” with the natural world if we did not “fundamentally change” the way we lived upon it.
More than 25 year later, almost all of their chilling predictions are now in full swing. Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the first in a series of three reports that describe in vivid detail the effects of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the world. The first of three reports, which came out last October, warned that we have only a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. If we go up even half a degree beyond this, we will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
However, this was not merely a prediction: the report made it clear that this crisis was already well underway. The world is currently 1.1 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is already the hottest of any five-year period on record. The Amazon rainforest, even as I speak now, is still burning. It’s been estimated that we’ve already lost 50% of the planet’s biodiversity in the past four decades. 20% of the earth’s coral reefs have died. The Antarctic ice sheet has lost three trillion tons of ice in the last 25 years. In roughly that same amount of time, the rate of global ocean warming has doubled. Many, if not most, of these losses are irreversible.
And these losses are increasing exponentially.
Every new half degree will cause rapidly increasing and irreversible chain
reactions: growing species extinction, greater food insecurity, the
disappearance of coastal cities and island nations, increased migration and
social conflict, more wildfires and hurricanes, the destruction of polar ice,
the loss of entire ecosystems.
It’s important to note however, that the IPCC report did not conclude that all is lost. The scientists repeatedly stressed that it was still possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. But they also made it clear it will take a radical global effort to achieve this goal. Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group put it this way: “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”
Unprecedented indeed. Given our voracious dependance upon fossil fuels – and the economic interests in the companies that produce them – the hard truth is that we have only twelve years to reverse the growth of global capitalism itself. This is not a radical statement – I’d argue it’s actually quite reasonable under the circumstances. Those who dismiss advocate structural proposals such as the Green New Deal as naive, “pie in the sky” ideas routinely miss this one essential point: we need radical solutions if we are to take on the unfettered economic greed that has brought us to this terrifying moment in human history.
Now I know that many, if not most of you have heard these facts and figures before. But even so, as I pondered what to talk about this Rosh Hashanah, it felt enormously important to me that the findings of the IPCC report be spoken out loud. We need to say them out loud. Otherwise, I’m really not sure if the rest of our prayers really make much sense.
I realize how depressing, how enormous – how terrifying – it is to
contemplate all of this. But as we gather for Rosh Hashanah, I really can’t
think of a more important issue for us to talk about. And so this
morning, I’d like to push a brief pause on our celebration of creation’s power
and face the ways we are willfully degrading that power. I’d like to offer a
few thoughts on how we might reframe our understanding of this crisis so that
we might avoid the inevitable overwhelm, paralysis and despair that comes with
it. Ultimately, I suppose, what I’d really like to do is offer a measure of
hope in the face of an increasingly hopeless reality. To take our cue from the
new year and imagine a world reborn – so that we might feel that much more
ready to go forth and actually make it so.
When most of us confront the overwhelming reality of the global
climate crisis, I think we tend to do what comes naturally: we compartmentalize
it. We silo it into its own separate category the way we do with so many other
complex social issues. We view it as one issue among many in the desperate hope
that if we isolate it, we might be able to find a way to somehow address
But in truth, the climate crisis isn’t one issue. In fact, I would say it is in many ways the issue. It’s the one universal issue that connects all others. The changes we are causing to the earth’s temperatures have direct causal relationships to immigration, to human rights, to poverty, to housing, to war, to so many examples of social and political upheaval worldwide.
So yes, addressing this crisis means we must advocate for policies that will keep global temperatures from reaching the 1.5 mark. But it cannot only mean that. It must also mean that we must stand with the scores of people around the world who are already suffering from the effects of the climate crisis. In the end, there is really no contradiction between working for justice and climate activism. They are, in fact, intimately intertwined.
We know full well that the primary brunt of the
global climate crisis is being borne by the poor and communities of color. It
has been estimated that the global climate crisis could push more than 120
million more people into poverty by 2030. Even if we do manage to increase to
only 1.5 degrees by 2100, extreme temperatures in the global south will leave
disadvantaged populations increasingly food insecure, with less incomes and
worsening health. Increasing numbers of people will have to make the agonizing
choice between starvation or migration.
Here in the US, we can see the connection between the climate crisis and structural racism all too well. Polluting facilities are routinely built in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which means that people with marginalized identities experience more asthma, a greater likelihood of heart attacks and premature death. The disadvantages that come with those health issues create a cycle of poverty and lack of access to opportunity for people of color and the poor in the United States.
It’s a sad irony that the ones least responsible
for the climate crisis are bearing the brunt of it – and have the least
capacity to protect themselves. This phenomenon has been referred to as
“environmental racism” or “climate apartheid” – in which the wealthy have the
means to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is
left to fend for itself.
We witnessed climate apartheid in full swing when the devastating Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas earlier this month. In advance of the hurricane, the ultra-wealthy homeowners on Abaco Island hired local workers to board up their vacation houses, while they escaped to their primary homes in the US or Europe. The Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club hired a private security team, equipped with helicopters and assault rifles, to protect their property. The rest of the island’s residents, made up mostly of undocumented Haitians, had nowhere to go and had to ride out the storm in shanty towns and church shelters. Within hours, the community was almost completely flattened. Dozens of poor residents were killed and thousands more are still missing.
As Jews, we need to acknowledge that climate apartheid is deeply enmeshed throughout Israel/Palestine as well. Since the Middle East is among the hardest hit by global warming, the issue of justice in Israel/Palestine is directly related to the control of water resources – and Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region. The so-called Mountain Aquifer, the most critical water source in Israel/Palestine, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line. This goes a long way to explain why Israel has not and likely will never give up the West Bank – as doing so would mean surrendering its most valuable water source.
The environmental situation in Gaza is even more dire, due largely to Israel’s crushing blockade. At present, 97% of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption, and only 10% of Gaza’s two million people have access to safe drinking water. As a result of Israel’s regular military assaults, 110 million liters of raw and untreated sewage are pouring directly into the Mediterranean every day, creating a massive sanitation crisis.
But, as is invariably the case in all forms of climate apartheid, what goes around comes around. This past June, Ha’aretz reported on the effects of Gaza’s toxic pollution on Israel. The headline read: “Collapsing Environmental State of Gaza Poses Threat to Israel’s National Security, Report Warns.” Tellingly, even as it maintains total control over natural resources, Israel cannot escape the devastating impact of the growing climate crisis.
My friend and colleague, Robert Cohen, a writer and blogger from the UK, recently wrote a post in which he argued that “the climate emergency makes Zionism obsolete.” In it, he made this very compelling argument:
How can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round. In a region already fraught with conflict, climate analysts expect temperature rise to have a multiplier effect that exacerbates and accelerates wars and mass migrations. Promoting Zionism starts to look like an invitation to Jews to jump from the metaphorical frying pan into the literal fire.
When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land. Climate change is staunchly apolitical, ahistorical and agnostic.
Of course, climate change won’t make antisemitism go away. But like much else that’s wrong and unfair about the world, the Climate Emergency compels us to look at things differently, consider the root causes, and understand the interconnectedness of injustice. As well as terrible threats, climate change forces upon us the possibility of a profound ethical revolution.
I believe Robert hits the nail on the head with this analysis. In
a way, the Israel/Palestine issue is a microcosm of a much larger, universal
issue. In the face of global climate crisis, nationalism will not save us.
Stronger borders will not save us. Sooner or later this crisis will come for us
all. In the meantime, however, we can be sure that those who have more power
will do everything they can to protect themselves from its effects until the
very bitter end – at the expense of everyone else.
This is where, as Robert Cohen puts it, the “profound ethical
revolution” comes in. Yes, to address the climate crisis, we must be advocating
for policies and practices that decrease our global carbon output – but it must
mean standing in solidarity with those most affected by the crisis as well. There
can be no separation between the two. And in this regard, we all have a part to
The first step, I believe, is to resist the temptation toward
overwhelm and despair. This is, quite frankly, a luxury we cannot afford. While
it can be tempting to adopt a fatalistic, “all is lost” attitude, we would do
well to remind ourselves that some of the most committed, inspired climate
activists are those who are most directly affected by it. If they have
not succumbed to despair, than neither can we.
In fact, the movement for climate justice is being led by members of indigenous nations worldwide. This past April in Brazil, an estimated 4,000 indigenous peoples from various tribes gathered for three days in that nation’s capital to protest for their rights, demonstrate their traditions and confront congressional leaders. This nonviolent mobilization, called Free Land Camp, has taken place every year since 2004 and is organized by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil — an alliance of indigenous communities and organizations from several regions of the country.
Closer to home, the resistance by at Standing Rock has been at the vanguard of the fight for climate justice in this country. And as this movement is increasingly youth led, we need to be lifting up the work of indigenous youth activists – young people such as 15 year old Autumn Peltier, of the Wiik-wem-koong First Nation in Northern Ontario who recently spoke at the UN and 19 year old Naelyn Pike, of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona, who had this to say in her speech at a youth leadership gathering in 2017:
I’m saying no! And many people, millions of people in this world, are saying no! We have so many sacred lands that are going to be desecrated, so many fights to protect Chaco Canyon, to protect Bears Ears, to protect Indigenous land, food, water, the right to live, our identity. We’re fighting against so many pipelines. And the thing is that these generations behind us had told us this prophecy.
But there’s another prophecy: That the youth is going to stand. And that’s us today. That’s us here and now.
In addition to Indigenous-led movements, there are any number of growing climate justice movements that deserve our attention and support – and I know many in this room have long been active in these efforts: the Sunrise Movement, the Climate Strike, +350 and Extinction Rebellion, to name a few. And as I mentioned earlier, given everything that is at stake, we need to wage an all-out political fight against the economic interests that make greater profit through increased greenhouse gas emissions. In this country, this fight is primarily being waged nationally via the Green New Deal, but it is also being fought on state and local levels as well. As I said before, there is a part we can all play. The main thing is to connect the dots, to understand that the climate crisis is at heart a justice issue – and that all struggles for justice are ultimately bound up with the movement to roll back the climate crisis.
So what can Rosh Hashanah mean at this moment in human history, in this unprecedented time when the very future of our world is literally hanging in the balance? I want to suggest that we can no longer celebrate the new year – the birthday of the world – without explicitly spelling out what is at stake. Yes, it is a day of hope, but this hope must be celebrated together with a hard and sober realism.
We know that the task ahead of us will be
daunting. We know that some of the effects of climate
change can yet be turned back. But we also know that some of the damage we’ve
inflicted upon the earth is permanent. We do have a window of time in which we
can stop or decrease global temperatures, but it will take a Herculean
world-wide effort to achieve this. We’ve been told by scientists that we have
12 years before the social and economic fabric we take for granted starts to
unravel beyond the point of no return. We need to admit this and say it out
loud if these New Year’s rituals are to retain any meaning for us whatsoever
In the end, it may well be that the High Holidays will hold more
meaning than ever before. After all, when the new year is through, when we move
toward Yom Kippur, our prayers will literally evoke a world that hangs in the
balance. We will ask “who shall live and who shall die?” We will plead to be
written into the Book of Life. We will ask ourselves honestly, how can we
change our ways to ensure it shall be so? It seems to me that these prayers
have never had more universal, global meaning than right now.
One of the things I love most about Judaism and Jewish culture in
general, is that it invites us to work toward the world to come, the world as
it should be. Yes, this work can be a struggle, but it can also be filled with
joy and celebration. And there are yet times during the struggle when we create
a microcosm – when we get a glimpse of the world to come. These moments remind
us we must continue to live with a spirit of joyous resistance, even if we know
full well that world we seek may never be at hand.
How do we possibly do this? How do we find the strength to fight a fight we know we may not win? And to so joyfully? Let me share with you the words of indigenous activist and organizer, Kelly Hayes, who offers us as eloquent a manifesto for the new year as I can imagine:
I would prefer to win, but struggle is about much more than winning. It always has been. And there is nothing revolutionary about fatalism. I suppose the question is, are you antifascist? Are you a revolutionary? Are you a defender of decency and life on Earth? Because no one who is any of those things has ever had the odds on their side. But you know what we do have? A meaningful existence on the edge of oblivion. And if the end really is only a few decades away, and no human intervention can stop it, then who do you want to be at the end of the world? And what will you say to the people you love, when time runs out? If it comes to that, I plan on being able to tell them I did everything I could, but I’m not resigning myself to anything and neither should you. Adapt, prepare, and take the damage done seriously, but never stop fighting. Václav Havel once said that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” I live in that certainty every day. Because while these death-making systems exist both outside and inside of us, so do our dreams, so long as we are fighting for them. And my dreams are worth fighting for. I bet yours are too.
This new year, let us commit to fight like hell for the world of
our dreams, for a world reborn anew. Let us fight with joy, commitment and
solidarity, knowing full well that this is a fight for the survival of the
world as we know it. And let us fight not with the certainty that we will
ultimately be victorious, but with the faith that it is worth waging no matter
Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be our will this new year – and every new year from this time forward.
Last Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass an anti-BDS bill with the strong support of progressive democrats (including “squad” member Ayanna Pressley). I know there are many who are asking how and why did this happen? As I see it, the answer, as always, is pure politics.
Just a bit of history: the genesis of the bill known as H. Res. 246 dates back to the AIPAC convention last March, when a number of liberal Jewish groups, including J Street, Ameinu, National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for Progressive Israel and Reconstructing Judaism (my own denomination), met informally to give their preliminary approval to this prospective bill. As they saw it, this was a strategic move. The bill was designed to give cover to liberal Democrats who had previously voted against anti-constitutional bills that virtually criminalized BDS. This new bill would allow them to vote on the record for a non-binding bill that criticized BDS without curtailing freedom of speech or labeling it as antisemitic. It would also give Democrats aligned with liberal Zionist groups the opportunity to reaffirm their support for the two state solution.
Like I said, pure politics.
Still, no matter how much liberal Democrats might rationalize their support for H. Res. 246, (Rep. Pressley explained on Twitter that her vote affirmed to her “constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist”) no amount of explaining can wash away the fact that this resolution is a cynical political move that unfairly and incorrectly attacks a genuinely non-violent movement for human rights – and will do little to advance the cause of real justice in Israel/Palestine.
• While the resolution mentions “rising anti-Semitism,” it is completely silent on anti-Palestinian oppression and the threat of Islamophobia. Even the simple term “occupation” is nowhere to be found.
• The resolution claims that the BDS “seeks to exclude the State of Israel and the Israeli people from the economic, cultural, and academic life of the rest of the world.” In fact, this is not the goal of BDS; the very suggestion reduces the entire movement to an essentially nefarious aim. Rather, the Palestinian civil society call for BDS advocates for non-violent economic activism as a tactic toward three rights-based goals: an end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a recognition of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
• The resolution claims that BDS “undermines the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations.” The three goals of BDS above are not “concessions” – they are basic rights enshrined in international law that have been patently ignored or denied in previous negotiations. There is nothing in the BDS call that “rejects negotiations.”
• The resolution quotes BDS leader Omar Barghouti (who addressed Tzedek Chicago on the eve of Passover this year) thus: “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” While this quote is genuine, it crucially omits the first part of his statement: “A Jewish state cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically, as we would opposed a Muslim state or a Christian state or any kind of exclusionary state…”
Here, Barghouti calls into question whether an exclusively Jewish state – as opposed to one state of all its citizens – can ever be truly democratic. This is an important question that deserves genuine consideration and debate. This egregiously truncated quote, however, only serves to imply Barghouti and the BDS movement seeks nothing more than the “destruction of the Jewish state.”
• The resolution states that the BDS movement ” targets … individual Israeli citizens of all political persuasions, religions, and ethnicities, and in some cases even Jews of other nationalities who support Israel.” This is a false and spurious accusation that the resolution offers with no evidence whatsoever. The targets of BDS campaigns have always been institutions, not individuals. (The government of Israel and Israel advocacy organizations, however, routinely target individuals with blacklisting websites such as Canary Mission and by barring entry of Palestine solidarity activists into the country.)
• The resolution states “BDS does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” There is no universal consensus that self-determination for any group of people must ipso facto mean the establishment of an independent nation state on a particular piece of land. Self-determination goes by many definitions and takes many forms. There are millions of Jews around the world who are happy to enjoy individual self determination in the nations in which they live. (It’s also worth noting that the Israeli government recently passed a law declaring that only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel.)
• The resolution states that BDS “leads to the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and others who support Israel.” Here again, the resolution is putting out a damaging claim without offering any evidence whatsoever. What can be stated however, is that however uncomfortable some Jewish students may be made to feel by pro-divestment campaigns on their campuses, pro-Israel activist students enjoy significant support from college and university administrations. By contrast, Palestine solidarity activists (including many Jewish students) experience routine suppression of their freedom of speech. Palestine Legal reports that “seventy-six percent of the incidents Palestine Legal responded to in 2018 were campus related” and that they “responded to 51 administrative complaints against Palestine activists, double the number from 2017.”
• The resolution states “in contrast to protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change, the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel is not about promoting coexistence, civil rights, and political reconciliation but about questioning and undermining the very legitimacy of the country and its people.” To this, I can only say, see bullet point #2 above. In fact, the BDS call is actually very much akin to “protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change.” Nowhere does it “delegitimize” the state of Israel. Anyone who take the time to read the actual call will see it focuses exclusively on the basic, essential rights that Israel routinely denies Palestinians.
To this final point, it was quite sobering to contemplate that on the very day that the House voted to condemn a nonviolent Palestinian call for human rights, House members were notably silent in response to Israel’s massive demolition of homes in East Jerusalem that took place at the very same moment.
In the end, despite the cynical politics behind this particular bill, I cannot personally view this as merely a political issue alone. As a Jew and a person of faith, I view the BDS call as nothing short of a religious imperative. I said as much in an address I was honored to deliver at the American Academy of Religion two years ago:
I realize there may be some in this room who cannot bear to hear me say these words, but I – and increasing numbers of people around the world – believe them to be true, no matter how painful it feels to hear them. Israel is oppressing Palestinians. And when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression – yes sometimes violently.
In this case, however, a nonviolent call for popular resistance has been placed before us. Thus, for those of us that believe God hears the cry of the oppressed and demands that we do the same, the BDS call represents a direct challenge to our faith. Will we be like God, and hearken to their cries, or will we be like Pharaoh and ignore them?
As a Jew, as an American, as a person of conscience, I would suggest this call presents us with nothing less than the most consequential spiritual challenge of our time.
Blessed are the ones who hearken to the cry of the oppressed.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, created something of viral sensation last week when, during a speech in the Security Council, he dramatically brandished a Bible and declared “This is the deed to our land.”
He then continued:
From the book of Genesis; to the Jewish exodus from Egypt; to receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai; to the gates of Canaan; and to the realization of God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel; the Bible paints a consistent picture. The entire history of our people, and our connection to Eretz Yisrael, begins right here.
Danon’s use of an ancient religious text as justification for the State of Israel’s right to the land was likely an astonishing moment for many. What on earth was a secular Israeli doing lecturing the UN on “God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel?” For those familiar with Zionist pedagogy however, his comments were neither unusual nor unprecedented.
When I heard about Danon’s Biblical tutorial, I immediately recalled a famous story about a 1937 meeting between David Ben-Gurion and Lord Peel, who was then heading the British Royal Peel Commission of Inquiry into the potential partition of Mandate Palestine. According to the story, Lord Peel asked Ben-Gurion where he was born and Ben-Gurion replied that he was from Plonsk, Poland. Lord Peel responded that the Arab leaders with whom he had met were all born in Palestine and most of the Jewish leaders were from Eastern Europe. Peel noted that the Arab people had a kushan (Ottoman land deed) that entitled them to the land – and asked Ben-Gurion if he also had a document that proved the land belonged to him.
At that point, Ben-Gurion became aware of the Bible upon which he had just sworn as a commission witness. He grabbed it, held it up and exclaimed, “Here is your kushan. It is the world’s most highly respected book and I believe that you British regard it with much respect too. We must have this land!”
This phenomenon – that of otherwise secular Israeli Jews proclaiming “God gave this land to us” – is not particularly uncommon. It is actually rooted in the unique form of nationalist ideology that gave rise the state of Israel. If we are to grasp this mentality properly then, we must first understand the early ideological trends that motivated Israel’s original settlers and eventual founders.
Many scholars have pointed out that Zionists – particularly those from Russia and Poland – were markedly influenced by the ideas of European Romantic nationalism (also known as “ethnic nationalism,” “organic nationalism” or “integral nationalism”) an intellectual movement that spread across Europe in the mid-19th century. The early seeds of this ideology were planted in the ideas of Rousseau, Hegel and particularly the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who posited that “each nation is separate, distinguished by climate, education, custom, tradition, and heredity.”
These ideas were a powerful part of the ideological fabric of 19th century Europe from which Zionism emerged. In his book “The Founding Myths of Israel,” Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell notes that “Herder’s thinking had tremendous importance in Eastern Europe” during the 19th century and that these ideas were formative for important Labor Zionists such as A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion. Sternhell’s work compellingly demonstrates how otherwise secular socialists could espouse an ideology that articulated a deeply spiritual – and at times almost mystical connection of the Jewish people to land, history, language and ritual:
A cultural-organic conception of the nation necessarily included religion, which it saw as an inseparable part of national identity. This was the case in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe, in France and Spain. French integral nationalism was no less Catholic than Polish nationalism, and religion played the same role in it as it did in Poland or Romania. It was a focus of unity and identity, over and beyond social divisions. In integral nationalism religion had a social function, unconnected with its metaphysical content. Generally, it was a religion without God; in order to fulfill its function as a unifying force, religion required only external symbols, not inner content (p. 56, emphasis mine.)
In other words, the settlers and eventual founders of the Jewish state instrumentalizedreligion, emphasizing its social function to unify the people under one national identity. Indeed, the idea of a “religion without God” can be clearly discerned in the words of many pivotal Zionists. Thus Gordon, the father of Labor Zionism, could in one breath excoriate traditional Judaism with incredible vehemence while claiming that “the greatness of nationalism is its cosmic dimension” (p. 62). Sternhell also describes the venerable Labor Zionist figure, Berl Katznelson, as “a kind of secular rabbi whose strength lay in a direct contact with a sect of believers” (p. 135).
As my anecdote above demonstrates, Ben-Gurion’s world view was also deeply motivated by this mindset. Decades after lifting a Bible before Lord Peel, Ben-Gurion famously convened a study group of archeologists, academics and military officers to read and discuss the Biblical book of Joshua. It was well known that Joshua, which describes the Israelite conquest of Canaan in vivid detail, was Ben-Gurion’s favorite book of the Bible. In keeping with the ways of Romantic nationalists, he considered the Bible to be the Jewish people’s “national epic,” connecting them to a glorious ancient past as well as the a justification for their contemporary settlement of the land.
As American scholar Rachel Haverlock has noted:
Similar to other national movements, Zionism appealed to the glories of an ancient past and brought biblical words and phrases into spoken Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible served as a linguistic source and literary template in the prestate Yishuv and early decades of the State of Israel…
Ben-Gurion saw the biblical war narrative as constituting an ideal basis for a unifying myth of national identity. Not only could modern Israelis relate to the processes of conquest and settlement, but through the prism of Joshua they could also understand them as reenactments of the biblical past (“The Joshua Generation: Conquest and the Promised Land ” p. 309.)
The use of the Bible as national epic was not the exclusive provenance of Labor Zionists. Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism (the ideology of the present-day Likud party) wrote the 1927 novel, “Samson the Nazirite,” which portrays Samson as a Jewish national hero. Though Jabotinsky was a passionate opponent of Labor Zionism, he and his socialist Zionist compatriots clearly shared a deep attachment to the trappings of Romantic nationalism.
Since the founding of the state (when the Bible was invoked in its Declaration of Independence), these romantic mythic narratives have since exerted an indelible hold over Israeli socio-political culture. Well before Danon’s UN pronouncement one could choose from a myriad of examples. To offer but one more: Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before Congress, in which invoked the Biblical book of Esther to drive home the “threat” of present day Iran to the state of Israel. (“Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”)
With the political ascendency of the settler movement, it might be said that the Romantic nationalism Israel’s of socialist founders has found common cause with religious Zionists who use the Bible to make unabashedly fundamentalist claims on the land. Thus, an extreme nationalist Israeli politician like Ayelet Shaked can be accurately described as “a secular woman from left-leaning Tel Aviv (who has) become the most successful spokesperson for the religious-nationalist party and the settlement movement it strongly supports.” In a sense, we might say that the trajectory of contemporary Zionism has hopelessly conflated secular nationalism and religious ideology into one Biblically-based claim to historic Palestine.
In the end, however, whether it is used by Labor Zionists, Revisionist Zionists or right wing West Bank settlers, the use of the Bible as the “Jewish people’s deed of sale” to the land of Israel represents a radical break with Jewish history, throughout which Jews regarded this text as a religious – not a political – document. It is also a profoundly fraught enterprise, particularly when you consider that the Zionist national epic includes God’s command in the book of Joshua for the Israelites to take the land by force and dispossess its Canaanite residents.
In an era that is currently witnessing the rise of romantic/ethnic (read “white”) nationalism throughout the world once more, it is critical that nations honestly assess what it is that truly binds them together. Is it one people’s “organic right” to a particular land or a commitment to the individual rights of all who dwell upon it?