For the past several days, Israeli politicians and military leaders have been publicly condemning last Sunday’s settler rampage in the West Bank village of Huwara. While the pogrom was well underway, in fact. Netanyahu publicly assumed the posture of the reasonable, measured moderate, pronouncing to the settlers, “Don’t take the law into your hands. I ask that you allow the IDF and security forces to do their work.” More recently, a top Israeli general said in an interview that the military had predicted the settler attack, but that they “didn’t predict a pogrom.”
It was indeed ironic that during the attack, Netanyahu beseeched the settler community to “let the IDF and security forces do their work” since the IDF and security forces had already done their work all too well. Israeli journalist Orly Noy reported that when the attack commenced, “the Israeli army shut down the two entrances to Huwara and allowed the settler mob to enter the town by foot, doing nothing to prevent the ensuing atrocity.” Noy added that “settlers were seen handing out food to the soldiers stationed at the town’s entrances, which the soldiers gladly took and warmly thanked them for.”
So don’t be fooled by the hand-wringing. The notion that one of the most powerful militaries in the world was unable to control a civilian mob is nonsense. Despite official protestations to the contrary, this was state-endorsed violence, full stop.
In this regard, it bears a chilling resemblance to the horrific 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Another Israeli reporter, Gideon Levy, aptly made this connection in a recent Ha’aretz op-ed:
Turning a blind eye in this way conjures up forgotten memories. The IDF also turned a blind eye in 1982 at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon, making it possible for Lebanese Phalangist militias to commit the terrible massacres there. There was no massacre at Hawara, not yet, but no one could have known in advance how things would turn out. If the rioters had also wanted to massacre the population, no one would have stood in their way on Sunday. No one stopped the Phalangists at Sabra and no one stopped the Phalangists at Hawara.
Indeed, when these kinds of events occur, we must never lose sight of the face that they occur within a context of constant state violence. These are not isolated “vigilante actions,” nor do they constitute a “cycle of violence.” Yes, the pogrom occurred in retaliation for the murder of two Israeli settlers – but we cannot forget that it also occurred within the context of a brutal military occupation in which the Israeli military has routinely been killing Palestinians on an almost daily basis.
It’s also critical to note that military violence against Palestinians in the West Bank has dramatically increased over the past few months – just last week at least 11 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 injured in an Israeli military raid on Jenin – and that observers have long been warning of a resurgent Palestinian uprising in response. But of course, none of this is new. Israel’s military oppression of West Bank Palestinians has been normalized and routinized for decades. If there is anything new now, it is that there are now Israeli politicians who are ready to proudly display their hated of Palestinians out loud, as Zvika Fogel, chairman of the Knesset’s National Security Committee did when he proclaimed on Monday, “A closed, burnt Huwara — that’s what I want to see…We need burning villages when the IDF doesn’t act.”
In the wake of the Huwara rampage, I’ve read some debate as to whether or not it should accurately be referred to as a “pogrom.” To my mind, most of these analyses miss the central point entirely. Yes, the pogroms waged against Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were carried out by local non-Jewish populations, but they were typically fanned and encouraged “with government and police encouragement.” Historically speaking, pogroms have generally been carried out by local actors, as a pretext for larger government designs.
When it comes to Jewish pogroms against Palestinian communities, some of the worst violence has historically occurred during the holiday of Purim. I’ve written about this sickening phenomenon before; Jewish pogroms against Palestinians have become an annual inevitability in Israel, when extremists have used the violence at the end of the Book of Esther as a pretense to terrorize and brutalize Palestinian communities. In particular, the settlers’ Purim parade in Hebron has become an annual tradition for the unleashing of anti-Palestinian pogroms.
As Purim eve arrives this Monday evening, I have no doubt that Palestinians in Hebron and throughout the occupied territories are bracing for more rounds of horrid, tragic violence. I fervently hope and pray that this will not be the case – and I hesitate to indulge in alarmism – but given the tenor of the current moment, I genuinely fear that Purim is arriving at the worst possible time.
Whatever may happen this year, I hope we will not be fooled by the hand-wringing protestations of hypocritical politicians, that we will summon the courage to call out state-sponsored violence when we see it, and that we are prepared to demand in no uncertain terms that the true perpetrators are held accountable.
For the past two months or so, thousands of Israelis have been holding weekly protests against the extremism of the newly elected Israeli administration, focusing in particular on the new government’s proposals to gut the power of the Israeli judiciary. While many American Jewish institutions have been predictably loath to publicly criticize the new Israeli government, liberal Zionist organizations in the US such as J St., the New Israel Fund (NIF) and T’ruah have been openly supportive of the protests. But as heartening as these statements may seem on the surface, there is a deeply problematic contradiction at the heart of this new movement to “save Israeli democracy.”
This contradiction was in full force during a widely shared sermon recently delivered by Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of the Los Angeles synagogue, Ikar. In her stirring and passionately delivered remarks, Brous rightly criticized the American Jewish community for its silence over the policies proposed by the new Israeli administration. Calling for a “reckoning,” she went on to identify several “myths” about Israel/Palestine that the Jewish community “needs to smash.” With respect, however, I believe that Brous herself perpetuated numerous problematic myths herself during the course of her sermon.
These most prominent: the oft-invoked myth of the “endangered Israeli democracy.” This is, of course, a well-known Liberal Zionist trope and Brous drove it home early in her remarks when she stated “we believe not only in the legitimacy, but the necessity of a Jewish state….We believe in the vision of a state that is both Jewish and democratic, as envisioned by (Israel’s Declaration of Independence.)” She continued, warning that this “precious, beautiful dream” is currently under threat from extreme, undemocratic political forces in the current Israeli government.
Brous reinforced the “threat to Israeli democracy” myth when she curiously referred to the Israeli Supreme Court as the “great defender of the abuse of human rights” while there is ample evidence that demonstrates it is precisely the opposite. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has in fact, referred to the Israeli Supreme Court as “the Supreme Court of the Occupation” and has documented it’s systemic enabling of Israel’s ongoing human rights abuses in numerous reports:
When it comes to violation of Palestinians’ rights, Israel’s Supreme Court neither holds effective judicial review nor keeps the security forces in check. It is willing to sanction almost any injustice based on unreasonable legal interpretation, and systemically ignores the context: that the appellants come from an unrepresented population governed by a strict military regime for more than 50 years, denied political rights and excluded from basic decision-making. The court thereby sanctions not only violations – but the occupation itself.
Brous rightly went on to state that Israel’s “march toward illiberalism, ultra-nationalism and extremism has been building for decades.” However she undermined that very argument by claiming this march began when we “got comfortable with the language of ‘us and them.'” In truth, however, the rhetoric of “us and them” has been deeply rooted in the culture of the Zionist project since before the founding of the state. That is because the very idea of a Jewish state predicated on a demographic Jewish majority is itself inherently illiberal.
Similarly, Brous did well to raise the odious ideology of “Jewish Supremacy” inbred in Israeli culture. But this this ideology is not, as she put it, the product of a “marginal, fringe group” whose ideas have moved “into the mainstream.” Yes, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are most certainly extremists who espouse patently undemocratic ideas. But they are also expressing an inconvenient truth: that the notion of a majority Jewish nation state is itself intrinsically undemocratic – and that to maintain a Jewish majority, Israel has been ethnically cleansing and expelling Palestinians from their homes since its origin.
I was heartened when Brous later addressed the “myth of moral equivalency,” correctly stating that we cannot condemn the recent killing of Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem without also condemning the Israeli military’s killing of 35 Palestinians during the month of January (including a 6 year old boy and a 61 year old woman). I likewise appreciated the way she connected the dots between the young Palestinian gunman’s personal story to his grandfather who was murdered by a Jewish settler who has never held accountable (by yes, an Israeli court).
But while Brous invited us to “interrogate why there is so much violence,” she herself sadly failed in this regard when she neglected to interrogate the crucial role played by Israeli state violence and militarism in the structural oppression of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, she notably romanticized Israeli militarism earlier in her sermon when she spoke about the father of an Israeli friend who was “born with the state” and had served as “an IDF commander in two wars.” As she put it, “these are the ones who dedicated themselves to building the state so precious, so beautiful, so fragile. And they see it being transformed before their very eyes into something utterly recognizable.”
But perhaps the most problematic myth perpetuated by Brous was the Liberal Zionist trope of a “shared future.” She raised this issue at the end of her remarks when she concluded, “If you’re feeling helpless about what’s unfolding over there, the way forward is to follow the lead of Israelis and Palestinians in the streets who are speaking a language of shared destiny.”
This is, in fact, a complete misrepresentation of the current demonstrations. As Israeli journalist Haggai Matar has pointed out:
Palestinians, for their part, have so far mostly been sitting this one out. While many Jewish Israelis are mourning, terrified, or enraged over the barrage of illiberal legislation that they see as signifying the “end of Israeli democracy,” most Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line never saw the regime as a democracy to begin with. In the words of MK Ahmad Tibi, “this is a Jewish Democracy: democratic for Jews, and Jewish for Arabs.”
The current protests are thus intended to defend only the rights of Israel’s already privileged Jewish citizens, while ignoring the rights of the oppressed who lack citizenship and civil rights. The thousands of Israeli flags waved by protesters symbolize what is bad about these demonstrations: They are intended for Jews only.
It is indeed difficult to ignore the overwhelming preponderance of Israeli flags of these demonstrations, underscoring the reality that these protests are less about justice for Palestinians than they are about saving the Zionist enterprise. As Brous quoted her friend’s parents at the beginning of her sermon, “we have no other home, no other loyalty but to Zion.”
Moreover, Brous is crucially silent over the precise nature of this “shared future.” Is she advocating a two-state solution that even J St. admits is now all but impossible? Or is she promoting equal rights for all who live in the land – a move that would inevitably spell the end of her “precious, beautiful, miraculous dream?” As long as she refuses to address this critical question, I can’t help but view her call for a “shared future” as an empty and disingenuous gesture.
Brous ended her sermon by invoking the Torah portion Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites crossing over the Sea following their Exodus from Egypt. She powerfully and poetically compared the Exodus story to a birth moment, calling upon us all to “amplify the voices” of our “Palestinian and Israeli friends and their calls for a just and equal society, to remind them to breathe and push, to breathe and push and then to be with them on the other side, to join hands and sing together a song of freedom, of liberation, of justice and a song of love.”
Like Rabbi Brous, I also find a profound resonance to the Exodus story in this current moment – but it isn’t in the myth of Palestinians and Israelis joining hands and singing a song of liberation. Rather, it is through the painful admission, at long last, that Zionism represents a present day Pharaoh – and that we will only make it to the other side when we dismantle and transform Israel’s systemic oppression of the Palestinians into a truly Promised Land for all who live between the river and the sea.
As I write these words, it’s been reportedthat Israeli troops have killed nine Palestinians, including an elderly woman, in the Jenin refugee camp. Another twenty have been wounded, at least four of whom are in critical condition.
This tragedy should not come as a surprise to us. Observers have noted that the Israeli military has been killing Palestinians with alarming regularity in recent months. According the UN, 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2006. 30 Palestinians have been killed in January alone – and the month isn’t even over yet.
Though it has not been widely reported, Israel has been dramatically escalating these deadly raidsagainst Palestinians in the West Bank. While the election of its radical right-wing government is garnering the lion’s share of attention these days, it’s important to note that these raids were initiated well before Netanyahu’s regime took power. As journalists Mariam Barghouti and Yumna Patel reportedlast October (before the election):
The past few weeks have witnessed a noticeable intensification of Israel’s crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank, targeting both ordinary civilians in their homes and villages, and armed resistance fighters and groups…
The current repression, and the resistance to it, are part of a larger, months-long campaign to quell growing Palestinian resistance, particularly armed resistance, which has seen a resurgence in areas of the West Bank.
While the Israeli government justifies this violence as “security measures to fight terrorists” and the mainstream media describes these events as “clashes,” I’d argue for a different power analysis: “this is state violence, full stop. The state of Israel was founded upon the dispossession of Palestinians and Palestinians have been resisting that dispossession ever since. Yes, some of that resistance is violent in nature. Such has been the nature of resistance struggles from time immemorial.
As I watch this current violence unfold, I’m mindful that we’re currently reading the Exodus story in our weekly cycle of Torah portions. At its core, this narrative has a very clear power analysis: it’s a story about resistance to violent state power. How else are we to regard Pharaoh, who responds to the demographic growth of the Israelites by subjecting them to avodah kashah (“brutal servitude”)? How else are we to understand a God who “hearkens to the cry of the oppressed?”
If we are to be true to this sacred narrative, I do not think we can dither on this point. Yes, as a Jew, I’ve obviously been conditioned to identify with the Israelites – but as I’ve learned about the history of liberation movements (including those inspired by this very story), I’ve come to understand that any people who suffer under oppressive state violence are, in a sense, Israelites. And any state — even a Jewish state — that builds its statehood on the backs of another people can become a Pharaoh.
To the One who demands justice… give us the strength to resist power wielded with fear and dread; fill us with the vision and purpose to build a power yet greater, a power rooted in solidarity, liberation and love.
Grant us the courage to dismantle systems of oppression – and when they are no more, let us dedicate our wealth and resources toward the well-being of all.
May we abolish all forms of state violence that we might make way for a world free of racism and militarization, a world where no one profits off the misery of others, a world where the bills owed those who have been colonized, enslaved and dispossessed are finally paid in full.
Last month, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib spoke at an organizing seminar for Palestine solidarity activists. It was an in-house event, and it likely would not have garnered much attention except for one part of her speech:
It has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government. And we will continue to push back on and not accept this idea that you are “progressive except for Palestine.”
I’m opening with Rashida Tlaib’s words because I believe they’re deeply relevant to Yom Kippur. This is, after all, the day for facing up to hard truths, particularly the ones that affect our community. And I frankly cannot think of a more important, more critical moral challenge facing the Jewish community than the issue of Palestine-Israel.
As you might expect, after Rep. Tlaib made her remarks, the wrath of the titans rained down upon her. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, berated her on Twitter and accused her of being an antisemite. So did Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Scores of her Democratic colleagues condemned her for slandering the “Jewish and Democratic state of Israel.”
Tellingly, however, none of her critics actually responded to the essential claim of her comment – namely, that Israel is an apartheid state. None of them mentioned that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’tselem, the most prominent Israeli human rights organization, have all determined that Israel is an apartheid regime. B’tselem’s report concludes, in words that are powerfully appropriate for Yom Kippur:
As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot. The harsh reality described here may deteriorate further if new practices are introduced – with or without accompanying legislation. Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.
Fighting for a future based on human rights, liberty and justice is especially crucial now. There are various political paths to a just future here, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but all of us must first choose to say no to apartheid.
But you really don’t need to pore through human rights reports to grasp this reality. The bottom line is this: Zionism promotes a Jewish majority state in historic Palestine. In order to keep that majority, Israel must pursue policies that are patently undemocratic. It must create and enforce laws that fundamentally privilege Jews over non-Jews. It must dispossess and disenfranchise Palestinians. It must maintain what B’tselem calls “a regime of Jewish supremacy” from the river to the sea.
So yes, as Rashida Tlaib put it, you can’t be progressive and support apartheid. Unless you define the term “progressive” in a way that is devoid of any meaning whatsoever, you cannot support a Jewish supremacist state and claim to be a progressive. It’s interesting to note that virtually every one of Rep. Tlaib’s critics slammed her for creating a “litmus test” for progressives. But in truth, I don’t believe she was interested in creating a test for her colleagues. She was simply arguing for moral consistency.
When I read about this dustup, I was reminded of Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Whenever I hear so-called progressives defending injustice in the name of progressive values, I invariably think of King’s letter. It was written to liberal white clergy in Birmingham who had signed a public statement telling King to stay away and not make trouble in their city. At one point they wrote, “We feel that inflammatory and rebellious statements can lead only to violence, discord, confusion and disgrace for our beloved state.”
Now fast forward to 2022. This was Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s angry response to Rep. Tlaib:
Proud progressives do support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Suggesting otherwise is shameful and dangerous. Divisive rhetoric does not lead to peace.
In the end, it’s really just a distraction to make this a debate about what is or isn’t “progressive.” It’s an issue of basic morality. For the Jewish community it’s a challenge that goes to the very core of our spiritual and ethical tradition. I don’t believe you can identify as a Jew in the age of Zionism and dither on this issue. Every single day, Israel’s actions present us with this basic question: will we support apartheid, dispossession and militarism in our name or will we not?
I’m sure all of you know that the Tzedek Chicago membership voted last March to change our core values to articulate that we were an anti-Zionist congregation. Our decision followed a unanimous board vote and a month’s long series of congregational meetings. As those who attended will attest, these conversations were inspiring in their depth and thoughtfulness. No matter what their position, members who participated in this process shared their opinions openly, honestly, and with deep respect for one another.
In the end, 72% of our membership quorum voted in favor of the change. Yes, there were those who voted against, but I’m heartened that as far as I know, no members have left our congregation as a result of our decision. In fact, we actually gained several new members, many of whom said that this was the first time they had joined a synagogue – that they had wanted to be part of a Jewish congregation, but the issue of Zionism had consistently kept them at bay.
I can’t understate what a powerful statement we’ve made. Yes, we are one small congregation, but the bottom line is that as a result of our decision there is now a new fact on the ground. There is now a progressive (yes, progressive) Jewish synagogue that is openly and unabashedly promoting a Judaism beyond Zionism. Tzedek Chicago has taken a public, principled stand on the most important, most critical moral challenge facing the Jewish community today.
And by the way we don’t stand alone. At this very moment, the Mending Miyan, an anti-Zionist congregation in New Haven, is celebrating its first High Holidays with its new student rabbi, May Ye, who many of you will remember was Tzedek Chicago’s rabbinical intern in 2018. Just a few days ago, I was contacted by a friend who told me that a group of Jewish anti-Zionists, inspired by what we have done here in Chicago, had held their first Rosh Hashanah service together in Denver. And I have no doubt there are others – that this is only the beginning.
Our decision is also important because we are currently witnessing a very real and very dangerous campaign that seeks to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The Israeli government and the Jewish institutional establishment are clearly doubling down to stem the growing number of Jews in the US — particularly young Jews — who are openly identifying as non or anti-Zionist. This backlash has been fierce, and at times perverse, actually calling into question our very status as Jews. In a widely read essay last year, Natan Sharansky labeled anti-Zionist Jews as “un-Jews.” Last May, immediately following Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, a Reform rabbi in the Chicago area gave a sermon in which she called anti-Zionist Jews “Jews in name only” who must be “kept out of the Jewish tent.”
Given the tenor of the current moment, I believe the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists is more critical now than ever. Most importantly, Jewish anti-Zionists create cover for Palestinians, the ones who are most directly impacted by these accusations of antisemitism. Right now, public figures such as Rashida Tlaib, as well as scores of Palestinian activists on college campuses and communities across North America, are being subjected to withering attack. We know how devastating the accusation of antisemitism can be. It destroys careers and ruin lives. And right now, this accusation is being weaponized by Israel and its institutional supporters in profoundly harmful ways.
The most insidious thing about this accusation: when we equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, we effectively brand just about every Palestinian in the world as an anti-Semite. How could it be otherwise? The direct product of Zionism was the Nakba – the forced expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, creating what is today the largest refugee population in the world. The creation of an exclusively Jewish nation state in historic Palestine has led to the ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people that continues to this very day. How could we honestly expect Palestinians to be anything other than anti-Zionist? By this definition, Palestinians are guilty of being antisemites just for being Palestinian.
We can’t underestimate the power of this current backlash against anti-Zionism. After Tzedek Chicago made our announcement, we garnered, as you might expect, some “responses” from the Jewish institutional community. While we did get some positive and thoughtful press, there was the inevitable nastiness, particularly and inevitably on Twitter. I don’t have much to say about that, except for this: amidst all the horribleness and toxicity, I noticed an interesting common denominator. Over and over, our attackers made the claim that Zionism was essential to Judaism – and that our being anti-Zionist was tantamount to being anti-Jewish. This, I would like to address:
Of course, the claim that Eretz Yisrael is intrinsic to Jewish tradition is absolutely correct. It would be ignorant to claim otherwise. However – and this is a big however – the notion of creating a sovereign Jewish nation state was never part of the Jewish land tradition until the rise of political Zionism in 19th century Europe. And herein lies the central fallacy of the Zionism equals Judaism argument: for most of Jewish history, the yearning for Zion has been rooted in an idealized messianic vision. The very idea of a mass migration to the land in order to establish a 3rd Jewish commonwealth was commonly considered to be an anathema – a “forcing of God’s hand” – by traditional rabbinic authorities.
Those who say Zionism is central to Judaism consistently and conveniently neglect this point: political Zionism did not arise until relatively recently in Jewish history. Yes, Zionism is undeniably a Jewish movement, and a successful one at that. But it is also a quintessential movement of Jewish modernity that represented a conscious and radical break with traditional Judaism as it was understood and practiced until that time. While it has clearly been embraced by a majority of Jews in Israel and throughout the diaspora, the claim that Zionism is somehow intrinsic to Judaism is false and in fact, deeply disingenuous.
In the end, however, this struggle isn’t over what is or isn’t Judaism. Rather, it is over what kind of Judaism we want to affirm in the world. I don’t believe in essentializing Judaism – or any religion, for that matter. The fact that Zionism was “a modern movement that broke with traditional Judaism” is not in itself a bad thing. After all, modernity gave rise to a host of Jewish movements that broke with traditional Judaism. My own denomination, Reconstructionist Judaism is most certainly such a movement.
I often think of this when I hear liberal Christians respond to the hateful things said and done by white Christian nationalists by saying, “that is not Christianity.” No, in fact it is Christianity. The Christian church certainly has a great deal to live down from its history up until present day. But to the Christians who seek to promote humane Christianity, I would suggest that the answer is not to deny the more problematic or toxic manifestations of their tradition. The answer is to recognize that every religious tradition, every religious community has its good, its bad and yes, it’s ugly. And if we want the good to prevail, it seems to me, we must be ready to confront the all of our religious traditions.
The same goes for the Jewish community. Even if Zionists deny us our Jewishness, It’s not intellectually honest, nor is it particularly productive, to deny Zionists theirs’. The question before us is not who is the most “authentic” Jew? The real question is: what kind of Judaism do we want to lift up in the world, to live out, to bequeath to future generations?
This is why I feel so blessed to be a part of Jewish congregation that is ready to stand up and say we seek a Judaism beyond Zionism, beyond apartheid and settler colonialism. A Judaism that views the diaspora as the fertile ground for Jewish creativity, a Judaism that seeks the Divine wherever we may happen to live, that affirms the whole earth is filled with God’s glory. A Judaism that values spiritual power over physical power. A Judaism that makes its home in the margins, because that’s where our sacred sparks of creativity have always resided. A Judaism of solidarity, that knows our place is alongside all who are marginalized, demonized and oppressed for who they are.
So, this Yom Kippur and for every day forward, let this be our prayer:
May the dream of a world complete become reality soon, in our own day, that every land may be a Zion, every city a Jerusalem, every home a sanctuary offering welcome to all. May the world be rebuilt upon a foundation of compassion, equity and justice, as it is written, compassion and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Baruch atah adonai, boneh ha’olam b’tzedek v’rachamim – Blessed are you, who rebuilds the world in justice and compassion.
If asked to pick one aspect of Jewish spiritual tradition that was the most important, the most valuable, the most genuinely impactful, it would be no contest. I’d answer without hesitation: it’s Shabbat.
Shabbat just looms so large and is so basic to the Jewish experience, I don’t think we stop enough to consider how revolutionary it truly is. Once a week, Shabbat arrives to overturn the status quo. While the High Holidays represents our annual spiritual shake-up, Shabbat provides us with this radical reboot opportunity every single week.
Jewish tradition gives us multiple rationales for keeping Shabbat: it’s a day of rest and renewal, a day to refrain from the creative work of the week, a day for drawing a distinction between the sacred and mundane. It’s also been called a weekly taste of Olam Haba – or “the World to Come.” The Talmud, for instance, teaches that Shabbat is one sixtieth of Olam Haba. A classic midrash relates that at the moment God gave the Torah to the Israelites, they asked, “Sovereign of the Universe, show us an example of the World to Come,” and God replied, “It is Shabbat.”
So, what exactly is this World to Come that we get to taste every Shabbat? The rabbis don’t give us any definite answers to this question. In classical Jewish sources, it’s a general term for the hereafter, a place where the souls of the righteous go after they die. In other instances, the World to Come is synonymous with the messianic age: a future time in which the dead will be resurrected and the world will be united under the rule of God.
But we do know this: whatever Olam Haba might look like, it will definitely be better than the world we’re living in now. In the Talmud, for instance, we read this classic description:
The World to Come is not like this world. In the World to Come there is no eating, no drinking, no procreation, no business negotiations, no jealousy, no hatred, and no competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence.
In recent years there’s been an emergent new reframing of Olam Haba, particularly in leftist and radical corners of the Jewish community. According to this new approach, the World to Come is viewed in the context of social and political transformation: a vision of a world in which systems of oppression have been dismantled and replaced by systems that work for the well- being of all.
I personally view this vision of Shabbat as being deeply informed by the contemporary abolitionist movement. Those who are active in this movement will immediately understand this. When abolitionist activists call for defunding the police and dismantling the prison industrial complex, we’re not merely advocating for specific political goals: we’re ultimately promoting a larger vision of the world as it should be. The great abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba, describes it this way:
Abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.
from “We Do This ‘Til They Free Us”, by Mariame Kaba, p. 2.
Like the traditional Olam Haba, abolitionist Olam Haba isn’t just an ethereal, aspirational concept: it’s meant quite literally. It doesn’t mean “the world we dream might be possible” or “the world we know is not possible but in the meantime maybe we can reform the world to make it a little less horrible.” When contemporary abolitionists talk about transforming oppressive systems, we are advocating for a vision that is practical and real. It’s rooted in the belief that we have the wherewithal to build a world that will work for all, not just a privileged few.
For those who view Shabbat this way, every seventh day is nothing short of a weekly revolution – a regular opportunity to live in the world we know is possible. Ana Levy-Lyons, describes it this way in her essay, “Sabbath Practice as Political Resistance:”
The goal of a Sabbath practice is not to patch us up and send us back out to the violent secular world, but to represent in the now what redemption looks like, what justice looks like, what a compassionate social order looks like. It is to reconstruct the rest of time from the viewpoint of the Sabbath as unjust and untenable.
While this is a compelling new understanding of Shabbat, it’s worth asking: what would such a Shabbat practice actually look like? What would it mean to observe it? Can we observe Shabbat in a way that honors these values of political resistance? I think it’s altogether appropriate to explore these questions tonight, on Yom Kippur – the day when we vow together that a better world is possible; a world free of injustice, oppression and violence. What better time than Yom Kippur to think seriously about what we must do to make the World to Come a reality?
I’ll start here: Shabbat challenges us to rethink the way we commodify time itself. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, famously wrote in his classic book, “The Sabbath,” on Shabbat we become attuned to the holiness of time rather than space. During the six days of the week, we find meaning in the creative endeavors of the material world – but when Shabbat arrives, we affirm the sanctity inherent in the rhythms of time.
But we can only do this if we are prepared to give up our futile attempts to dominate time. This is particularly challenging in a capitalist society, in which time itself has become monetized – in which our worth is literally determined by the amount of time we spend at work. Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi refers to the six days of the week as “commodity time.” “Commodity time,” he writes, “is the price we pay for organic time. In order to earn a living, this is the bargain you strike: you give your employer work, in return for which he gives you money. While you are working, your time belongs to your employer, and it’s used to create commodities of one sort or another.”
But on Shabbat, we’re commanded to resist the commodification of time. It’s a weekly reminder that when we attempt to control or profit from time, we will inevitably become enslaved by it. In the World to Come, time may not be sold, spent, measured or exploited. On the contrary, it must be valued and cherished and savored. On Shabbat we stop punching the time clock and live according to the organic rhythms of time, from sundown to sundown.
Is it even possible to imagine non-commodified work? Over the past two decades, there’s been increased social and economic theorizing about a world without jobs. As machines and robotics are able to do more jobs previously done by human beings, there’s been renewed advocacy of a future in which a universal basic income is guaranteed, a future in which people are free to spend their time doing what they find purposeful and meaningful. This vision has become even more relevant and critical in the age of COVID, as record numbers of Americans are working at low wage jobs and the cost of living continues to rise. The pandemic has given rise to a new and unprecedented discourse on the meaning of work – and we should welcome this conversation.
The Shabbat prohibition on commerce and transactions suggests another way to observe Shabbat as a form of revolution. When we engage in transactions with others, we do so with the expectation that we’re entitled to receive something in return. Shabbat, however, rejects the transactional in favor of the relational. These are the most sacred relationships: the ones that are based on the building of trust – that favor long-term fulfillment over immediate gain. This is why on Shabbat, the traditional focus is on the most basic forms of human interaction: on communal meals, prayer and study, on physical intimacy between lovers. In the World to Come, relationships will not be exploitative or negotiable – they will, rather, model devekut – sacred at one-ness and coming together.
A third suggestion: It’s been suggested that there are profound connections between Shabbat and the values of the disability justice movement. One of the centralPrinciples of Disability Justice, affirms that the labor of disabled people is too ofteninvisible to a system that defines labor by able-bodied standards. The disability justice movement makes this point very clearly and unabashedly: “our worth is not dependent on what and how much we can produce.”
This principle is rooted in one of the most basic values in Jewish tradition: that every human being is created in the image of God – b’stelem elohim. As Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a prominent Jewish disability justice activist has written,
Jewish tradition affirms that the measure of a person’s worth does not rest upon what they can do, how much they produce, or how quickly they think. For all that our tradition praises right action, our fundamental value as people does not depend on our accomplishments or achievements; it is rooted in our very being. We all of us mirror the image of God.
Another one of the Principles of Disability Justice has a direct connection to the values of Shabbat: the principle of sustainability:
We learn to pace ourselves, individually and collectively, to be sustained long-term. We value the teachings of our bodies and experiences, and use them as a critical guide and reference point to help us move away from urgency and into a deep, slow, transformative, unstoppable wave of justice and liberation.
This is Shabbat wisdom through and through. On Shabbat, we, all of us, learn to pace ourselves, to be sustained for the long term. And what better definition of the World to Come could there be than a “deep, slow, transformative, unstoppable wave of justice and liberation?”
A fourth and final suggestion: the traditional laws of Shabbat require us to cease our exploitation of the earth’s natural resources. There are many categories of forbidden work on Shabbat, for instance, that involve changing, transforming and extracting. In the World to Come, of course, the resources of the natural world will be nurtured to enhance life, not exploited for profit.
Jewish scholar Jonathan Schorsch, who has founded an initiative called the “Green Sabbath Project, has written extensively about this idea. As Schorsch puts it:
Shabbat can and must be a radical ritual within which we can digest anew the biblical prophets’ warnings against the corruption of the rich and powerful, the oppression of the poor and the self-centered pursuit of short-sighted pleasures, understanding how relevant such warnings are to the ecological devastation wrought by hypercapitalism. Sabbath properly practiced offers a weekly interruption of the suicidal econometric fantasy of infinite growth, a weekly divestment from fossil fuels, a weekly investment in local community.
These are but a few suggestions of where we might start to explore a new form of Shabbat observance – and I’m excited by the prospect of discovering more. At the same time, I realize that these approaches have inherent challenges. When we talk about the World to Come in this manner, we’re essentially talking about structural change – and I have no illusions that personal disciplines alone will themselves effect the wholesale changes we seek.
At the same time, however, I strongly believe that Shabbat has the genuine potential to motivate us to keep the struggle going – to inspire us to continue building the movement for the long haul. As I like to put it, when Shabbat arrives every Friday evening, these rituals invite us to cease the struggle and experience together the world we are ultimately struggling for. Shabbat can renew and replenish us so that ideally, when it ends on Saturday evening, we are that much more inspired to go out and make that world a reality.
I’m also aware that not everyone will have the ability to observe Shabbat in the ways that I have outlined here. I know full well that there are those who cannot afford to take every Saturday off to resist the commodification of their labor. There are those who do not have the luxury of weekends, who must work sometimes multiple jobs just to get by. And I also know how challenging it is in the digital age to leave work at work, in an era where our work mail follows us electronically 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But to my mind, this reality drives home the sacred importance of Shabbat all the more. Shabbat reminds us that we must continue to struggle for jobs that pay livable wages, for saner working hours, for the ability to live lives of purpose, for the right to spend our time in more meaningful and fulfilling ways.
I like to think of Tzedek Chicago as a spiritual laboratory where we can explore new ways of celebrating Shabbat as a revolution, where we can, on a regular basis, live in the world we know is possible. Those of you who have come to our Friday evening online services and candle lightings will know what I’m talking about. I’m fairly sure that not a Shabbat goes by when we don’t mention the World to Come – and try to make it real for one another. And I’m sure we’re not the only ones.
Those of you who join us for Shabbat services also know that I like to write contemporary Shabbat liturgy that evoke the spiritual reframing that I’ve described to you tonight. I’d like to end with one of them: a prayer for Havdalah – the service that ends Shabbat on Saturday evening. I offer it in honor of this Yom Kippur, the day in which we vision of the world that might yet be – and vow to do what we must to make it a reality:
Savor this eternal moment and hold it close, before you leave the world to come and re-enter the world as it is, before your sweet dream reverts back to hard truth.
For this much we know: long after the day is done the melody of this song will reverberate through our souls, driving us forward until the day that liberation is finally won.
One day very soon, the song will lead us to a dream fulfilled, to a place where light and gladness, joy and wonder, justice and salvation flow without cease.
But for now we’ll prepare ourselves for the work ahead – let’s light the fire, raise the cup and breathe in the sweetness of this moment. With strength renewed and spirit re-inspired it’s time to rejoin the struggle.
Blessed is the One who separates between inspiration and fulfillment, exile and return, struggle and liberation, hard work and sweet victory, between the world we know and the world we know is possible.
Hayom Harat Olam – “Today is the birthday of the world.” It’s one of the signature lines of Rosh Hashanah, and it might be the best, most basic definition of the holiday. Every new year, we celebrate the renewal of yet another cycle. Every Rosh Hashanah we anticipate a new round of possibilities for our lives and our world.
Judaism is deeply rooted in multiple cycles, actually: daily, weekly and yearly rhythms that revolve around each other simultaneously. We observe them as a way of maintaining our own personal balance and equilibrium – but also as an expression of our empowered faith. As Jewish tradition would have it, when we live according to these sacred cycles, it is said, we help maintain the equilibrium of the world itself.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow described this phenomenon beautifully in his classic book “Seasons of our Joy:”
Long ago our people believed that if we celebrated the cycle, the cycle was more likely to continue. The rains would come when they were due, the sun would shine more warmly in its season, the crops would grow – and die, and grow again.
And if we celebrated the cycle, we believed, our deliverance from slavery would come again. The spiral of history would keep on circling upward if we lived through the spirals of our past… And the cycle would also help us as individuals. It is intended to help us feel more deeply, more intensely, the cycle of feelings that make us fully human.
While I’ve always connected with this spiritual approach, I’ll confess it hasn’t come so easily to me in recent years. Over the past few Rosh Hashanahs, I’ve wondered: what does it mean to affirm a cyclical worldview in the era of global climate change? With each passing year, we render our planet that much less livable. Every Rosh Hashanah, we seem to inch ever closer to a deadline that represents the earth’s point of no return. How do we celebrate the birthday of the world when the world itself is literally unraveling before us?
It isn’t just an academic question. There’s a strong case to be made that the disruption of our planet’s rhythm is affecting the natural rhythm of our lives as well. In a sense, it’s flattening out our cyclical view of the world and making it more linear. We’re experiencing the world less in terms of cycles and more as “beginning, middle and end.”
There’s a time-honored word for this ominous concept, and I’ll put it plainly: it’s called apocalyptic thinking.
Now I know this is a religious term, but when I use it, I’m not just talking about theology. I’m interested in something deeper. I’m interested in the ways we ourselves engage in apocalyptic thinking – those of us who aren’t religious extremists, or even religious for that matter. I want to explore how end-of-days thinking has become culturally normalized in this 21st century moment to become part of the very oxygen we breathe.
Statistics seem to bear this claim out. It’s been reported that over the past two decades, there’s been a marked increase in the stockpiling of food, provisions and weapons in preparation for an upcoming cataclysm. According to one study, nearly three in 10 adults in the US think it’s likely that there will be an apocalyptic disaster in their lifetime. There’s also been increasing enrollment in survivalist courses; schools that train people in the practical skills they need to live in the wake of catastrophe. The owner of one such course recently commented on this phenomenon in the press: “I feel like people sense an impending doom … they feel like something’s about to happen, a shift in our society, a shift in our way of life – and they want to be prepared for whatever, be able to forage off the land, be able to do whatever it takes to get by.”
On a less quantifiable level, I believe that apocalyptic thinking is harbored even by those of us whoaren’thoarding food and drafting survival plans. I’m willing to wager that a growing number of folks are fantasizing about leaving it all behind to live off the grid – if not in anticipation of an upcoming disaster, then at least to move to higher ground. To escape to a place where they can keep the perils of 21st century life at bay.
It’s been observed that this attitude has become an indelible part of our cultural zeitgeist, reflected, among other things, in the explosion of post-apocalyptic movies, TV shows and video games. It’s certainly not difficult to understand the appeal of these dystopian fantasies. They function as a kind of cathartic outlet of our innermost fears, yet at the same time, they reassure us. They simplify the complex, overwhelming truth of our world. They give us the chance to start over again. After the apocalypse, life might be hard, but it would be simpler and more understandable. The good guys and bad guys would be clear and obvious. We’d have a straightforward sense of what we needed to do to survive.
While I enjoy a good zombie movie as much as anyone, I do think these entertainments are a reflection of something very deep in our collective subconscious. And that’s what scares me – even more than the zombies. Indeed, there’s something deeply conservative and reactionary at the core of these dystopian fantasies. They almost always look to a strong hero or a messiah to save the day. By definition, there is always an in-group and an out-group: those who will be included in the future world and those who must be annihilated. They always focus on the journey to a better, safer future for the survivors. At their core, these stories reflect a deeper desire to wipe the slate clean and recreate a kind of mythic idyllic past that never actually was.
More than anything, I think, these dystopian narratives reflect the fears of a privileged group that feels its power slipping away. Bear this in mind the next time you watch the armies of the undead coming to eat the flesh of the brave survivors. Just remember the rhetoric of many white Evangelicals and QAnon followers: how they utterly dehumanize and demonize those who don’t fit into their view of the world. As we indulge in our post-apocalyptic fantasies, we shouldn’t forget that there are increasing numbers of religious extremists in the US who are actively laying the political groundwork for the apocalypse in order to remake the world in their image.
On another level, when we engage in apocalyptic thinking, whether we realize it or not, we’re engaging in a form of surrender. We’re essentially admitting that it’s over – that we’ve lost. Apart from the abject defeatism of this attitude, I can’t help but think that it’s a profoundly privileged way of thinking. Because, quite frankly, there are millions of disenfranchised people in our own communities and around the world who are already livingthrough the apocalypse and have been for some time. Perhaps we need to stop fearing the future and pay closer attention to the cataclysm that’s going on right now.
This is, for me, the most insidious thing about apocalyptic thinking: it focuses on the future at the expense of the present. Even as there’s every indication that the climate-related apocalypse that so many fear has actually been well underway. As I speak these words to you, Puerto Rico is reeling from the devastation of yet another hurricane – one that left the entire island without power and most of its residents without running water. In Pakistan, heavy monsoons have washed away whole villages, displacing more than 33 million people. Last year, over 59 million people became involuntary migrants – most of them displaced by climate related disasters. Yes, there are millions in our own backyard and around the world who are already experiencing the apocalypse in a real way right now, in real time.
One of the most impactful books I read this past year was “The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival.” It was written by Chris Begley, an anthropologist, archaeologist and wilderness survival instructor who has studied the collapse of ancient civilizations throughout history. Begley convincingly argues that everything we assume about the coming apocalypse is wrong. He points out that most civilizational collapses were not the product of abrupt cataclysms. Rather, they were the result of extensive, multiple crises that had various causes that took place over a long period of time. In general, collapses of societies tend to be characterized less by sudden catastrophe than by change and transformation.
Begley also makes it clear that when it comes to global climate-change we need to accept that this process of change is, in fact, already underway. He writes,
From our data about the past, I imagine that the process of collapse has already started, with environmental problems as one cause and political and social issues – particularly inequities in wealth and power exacerbated by neoliberal policies over the last half century – as the other. How quickly the unraveling will proceed, and how long until we realize that the process is going on, are harder to devine. Some processes, like climate change, are understood sufficiently well that, while unknowns exist, evidence suggests it will create profound and negative changes on a global scale.
As a survival course teacher himself, Begley definitely advocates being prepared for emergencies – and he writes extensively about the skills that will likely be needed to survive the cataclysms that are most likely to occur in our lifetimes. But he also points out that survival skills are short term solutions, designed for the self-preservation of individuals. In the long term, he writes,
Adaptability and flexibility will be key to survival. Surviving and thriving after the next apocalypse will be all about community. None of us will be able to go it alone…If we are tempted to exclude people, we must find another route through the disaster. We must include everybody, or we are not in a sustainable pattern.
“Surviving and thriving after the next apocalypse will be all about community.” I can’t think of a better antidote to apocalyptic thinking. So often this mindset starts and ends with “how will I make it through?” “How will I protect myself and my loved ones?” But if or when a cataclysm occurs, our sustainability will ultimately depend upon our ability to cooperate for the long haul. We will have to accept that in the end, it must be all of us or none.
What does this mean in practical terms? One example comes immediately to mind: in the face of unprecedented climate migration, I strongly believe we must become unabashed advocates for a world beyond borders. On this particular subject, I’d like to quote to from another must-read book for Rosh Hashanah: “Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval,” by Gaia Vince:
Migration, whether from disaster to safety, or for a new land of opportunity, is deeply interwoven with cooperation – it is only through our extensive collaborations that we are able to migrate, and it’s our migrations that forged today’s global society. Migration made us. It is our national identities and borders that are the anomaly…
I’ve visited people in refugee camps in different countries across four continents, where millions of people live in limbo, sometimes for generations…As our environment changes, millions more risk ending up in these nowhere places. Globally, this system of sealed borders and hostile migration policy is dysfunctional. It doesn’t work for anyone’s benefit.
Here’s another practical example: those of us who live in the Global North, who are responsible for around half of all emissions since the Industrial Revolution, who produce a carbon footprint 100 times greater than that of the world’s poor nations combined,must continuethe fight to reduce the carbon emissions that are endangering life on our planet. And locally, we must keep fighting for emergency funding, for stronger infrastructure, for rapid response capacities, most particularly for our most vulnerable communities. According to Jewish tradition, pikuach nefesh – saving a life is sacrosanct. And even as we pass various doomsday deadlines, yes, even in the midst of an apocalypse, these kinds of policies and measures still have the very real power to save lives.
Finally, we would do well to remind ourselves that the most committed and inspired climate activists are those who are mostdirectly affected by climate change. Indigenous peoples in particular have long been on the front lines of this struggle. We would do well to learn about their efforts, support them, and most important, to follow their lead. Because if they have not succumbed to despair, then neither can we. In the words of the great Cherokee leader and activist, Wilma Mankiller, z”l: “The secret of our success is that we never, never, give up.”
When we engage in apocalyptic thinking, we reduce the climate crisis to a singular future cataclysm, while holding tight to the illusion that everything is still somehow “normal.” But if we resist the impulse to project our dread into the future, we can better recognize and respond to the transformative changes that are occurringeven as we speak. Particularly those of us who have the luxury to live in parts of the world that are relatively safe from the disastrous impact already being experienced by so many.
Accepting that it is already happening frees us up to discern more clearly what we can do right now. It allows us to live in the world and to respond to its changes with knowledge, creativity and compassion. When we admit that this transformation is already underway, we can stand down the fear and dread that is so prevalent in our culture. It gives us permission to move with these changes. It reminds us there is still a great deal we can – and must – do.
After all, as our liturgy will remind us, even in the midst of the most devastating of changes, our actions “ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeirah” – “avert the severity of the decree.” Or as Chris Begley puts it, “there are no natural disasters, only natural phenomena that we convert into disasters via our responses.” When you think about it, the essential message of the High Holidays is the polar opposite of apocalyptic thinking. On Rosh Hashanah, we are asked to look deep into the latest turn of the cycle and face the all of our world. Then, and only then, can we go forth and greet the new year.
So, this Rosh Hashanah, let us continue to dance to the rhythms of the cycle even when it becomes increasingly painful to do so. After all, it has ever been thus. Every new year, we pray these prayers that are filled with trepidation. We will say out loud that in the coming year there will be no guarantees – that some of us will live and some of us will die. But at the same time, we will affirm that this world is worth fighting for, no matter what may happen in the coming year and beyond. And most important we will affirm this all together. Because we know that however much time we have left, it must be all of us or none.
Shanah Tovah – may it be a healthy and liberating New Year for all. And may we commit together to making it so.
In August 2014, the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av arrived as Israel was waging a military onslaught on Gaza that would eventually kill 2,251 Palestinians, 1,462 of whom were civilians, including over 500 children. Tisha B’Av is traditionally observed a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and by extension, the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout its history. To mark the occasion of the festival in 2014, I wrote a new version of the first chapter of Lamentations (the Biblical book traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av). At the time, I suggested this new version be added to the ceremony to acknowledge the massive tragedy the state of Israel was inflicting on Palestinians in Gaza in the name of the Jewish people.
Now eight years later, the eve of Tisha B’Av 2022 arrives this evening amidst yet another grievous military assault on Gaza. As of this writing, 24 people have been killed and over 120 more have been wounded. The Israeli military reports it is preparing for a week long operation “that could take longer, if needed.” It is not currently engaging in any ceasefire negotiations.
As in 2014, Israel, its supporters and the mainstream media at large are selling this latest military onslaught by claiming “Israel has a right to defend itself” from Gazan rocket fire. But as I wrote about Israel’s actions in 2014, this is a cynical and empty posture. As was the case eight years ago, this new war on Gaza was openly and unabashedly provoked by Israel. The timeline leading up to this latest assault is a matter of public record that is available to anyone interested in reading past Israel’s hollow propaganda:
• This past May, it was reported that the Israeli military was expanding what it described as a “bank of targets” in the Gaza Strip it had identified since its most recent military offensive in 2021.
• On Monday, August 1, the Israeli military arrested Bassam al-Saadi, a senior member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), during a raid on the Jenin refugee camp. The PIJ issued threats in response but took no action.
• Concerned that the PIJ would attack in retaliation, the Israeli military directed authorities to close roads near the Gaza border.
• Yesterday, claiming that it was responding to an “imminent threat,” Israel unleashed a wave of airstrikes in Gaza, killing PIJ military commander Tayseer Jabari along with seven other people, including a 5 year old girl, Alaa Abdullah-Riyad Qaddoum.
• The PIJ retaliated by sending more than 100 missiles into Israel. The Israeli military reported that it had intercepted about 95 percent of the rockets. There were no reports of significant property damage.
• The US Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, stated that “the United States firmly believes that Israel has a right to protect itself.”
This is, in short, purposeful wanton aggression. That it is repeatedly committed against a blockaded, besieged population of 2,000,000 who literally have nowhere to run raises it to the level of atrocity. It is no less abominable to rationalize it away by with the bromide that “Israel has the right to defend itself” or to blame Palestinians themselves for their own destruction by invoking the allegation of “human shields” – a false claim that has been repeatedly disproved by human rights observers.
These rationalizations are particularly profane in the way they rob Palestinians of their basic humanity. I remember thinking of precisely this on Tisha B’Av 2014 – and how incongruous it felt to engage in a ceremony of grief over Jewish loss while a nation state purporting to act in the name of the Jewish people inflicted such unspeakable losses on another people.
According to Jewish tradition, the fall of the Temple was caused by internal sinat chinam – baseless hatred – that wracked the disempowered, besieged Jewish community of ancient Jerusalem. In the age of Zionism, it seems to me, we must be ready to acknowledge a different kind of sinat chinam – one that is wielded by a Jewish state power against a people it continues to disempower and besiege.
As in 2014, I will not be mourning the destruction of the Temple this Tisha B’Av. I will be mourning the losses of yet another merciless war waged by Israel against the Palestinian people. And as in 2014, this will be my lament:
For these things I weep: for the toxic fear we have unleashed from the dark place of our hearts for the endless grief we are inflicting on the people of Gaza.
“I Don’t Think I Can Celebrate this Holiday Anymore.”
As a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, I remember Yom Ha’atzmaut as the one day every year in which our city’s Jewish community would turn out en masse in celebration. I have vivid memories of our marching through the sidewalks of West LA, waving our Israeli flags, ending with a picnic at Rancho Park. As in many US cities, Yom Ha’atzmaut was the “go-to” day for expressing our Jewish communal pride.
In addition to this annual event, I also remember regularly celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious festival on the Jewish holiday calendar. Every year, usually on the closest Shabbat to May 15, our Reform Temple would acknowledge the occasion with special prayers and songs – including the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. In short, Yom Ha’atzmaut was not only an occasion to express our Jewish communal solidarity with the state of Israel – it was a day we invested with sacred meaning. When I became a rabbi many years later, I accepted it as common practice to acknowledge Yom Ha’atzmaut in this manner.
Over the years, however, as my own relationship to Israel and Zionism changed, I found the religious observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut increasingly problematic, even painful. In a 2009 blog post, I shared my struggle publicly:
I’ve decided not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut today. I don’t think I can celebrate this holiday any more.
That doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s independence – only that I can no longer view this milestone as a day for unabashed celebration. I’ve come to believe that for me, Yom Ha’atzmaut is more appropriately observed as an occasion for reckoning and honest soul searching.As a Jew, as someone who has identified with Israel for his entire life, it is profoundly painful to me to admit the honest truth of this day: that Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with its dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In the end, Yom Ha’atzmaut and what the Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba are two inseparable sides of the same coin. And I simply cannot separate these two realities any more.
By this point I had come to believe that Yom Ha’atzmaut was a paradigmatic of a deeper moral problem: that the creation of a Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that was in fact still ongoing. I could no longer regard it as something to celebrate, let alone invest with religious meaning.
“May Our Eyes See the Complete Redemption of Israel”
The creation of a Jewish religious holiday by government legislation is, needless to say, unprecedented in Jewish history. Its origins date back to the period immediately following Israel’s birth, when the Knesset officially established the 5th of the Jewish month of Iyar1 as its permanent date. At the time, Knesset members were unanimous that this holiday should have “traditional Jewish significance” and the new government subsequently created a committee to consult with Israel’s new Chief Rabbis in order to determine the precise nature of its religious observance.2 In a subsequent letter to their Rabbinate council, Israel’s Chief Rabbis Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel framed the day as a celebration of divine deliverance and redemption:
The fundamental turning point in God’s compassion on us, the declaration of our independence in the Land, which saved us and redeemed our souls, obligates us to uphold and keep this day of the fifth of Iyar, the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, for all generations, a day of joy of the beginning of the redemption for all of Israel.3
Over the next few months, Israeli religious authorities held extensive debates over how the new holiday should be acknowledged liturgically. Many of these questions focused on the recitation of Hallel – a series of Psalms of praise traditionally added to the morning worship service for festivals. The first formal Jewish liturgy developed specifically for Yom Ha’atzmaut was a new version of Al Hanisim (“For the Miracles”), a traditional prayer recited on the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah praising God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from their enemies. While it was not approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and did not gain universal acceptance upon its introduction, the practice of reciting Al Hanisim on Yom Ha’atzmaut has since grown in popularity and the prayer has appeared in many different forms throughout the decades.
The first Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut was written in 1949 by Biblical and Talmudic scholar Rabbi Ezra Zion Melamed and later published by the Kibbutz Hadati (the Religious Kibbutz Movement):
For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the deliverance and for the wars that You did for our fathers and for us in those days at this season.
You, O God, awakened the heart of our fathers to return to the mountain of Your inheritance, to settle there and to rebuild it from the ruins, and its land. And when an evil regime stood over us and shut the gates of our land to our brethren who were fleeing from the sword of a cruel enemy, and they sent them back in ships to the islands of the sea and to distant shores, You in Your might toppled his throne and freed the land from his hand. And when enemies rose against us and plotted to destroy us, You in your might sent upon them fear and panic, and they abandoned all their goods, and fled in confusion and haste beyond the borders of our land.
And when seven nations rose up against us to conquer our land and to make us as bonded servants, You in Your mercies stood by the right hand of the Israel Defense Army and delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, and evildoers into the hands of the righteous. And with Your outstretched arm you helped the young men of Israel to expand the boundaries of our settlement, and to bring our brethren up from the concentration camps.
For all this we thank You, O Lord our God, with bowed head; and on this, our day of festivity and joy, we stretch our hands before You and beseech pray on behalf of our dispersed brethren and say: Please, our Father, our Shepherd, gather them quickly to Your holy habitation, and may they dwell there in peace and calm and tranquility and security. Expand the borders of our land as You promised our forefathers, to give to their seed from the River Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt. Build your holy city Jerusalem, capital of Israel, and reestablish there your Temple as in the days of Solomon. And as we have merited to see the beginning of our redemption and the liberation of our souls, so may we live and may our eyes see the complete redemption of Israel and renew our days as of old. Amen! 4
Using unabashedly Biblical language, this new prayer rendered the Zionist colonization of Palestine as an “awakening” and “return” to the Jewish peoples’ “inheritance.” The British Mandatory authorities were referred to as “an evil regime.” The Zionist militias’ dispossession of Palestinians from their homes (still ongoing at the time of its writing in the spring of 1949), was ascribed to divine intervention, using imagery that evoked the conquest of the Biblical Canaanites. Similar framing was used to describe the Arab armies that joined the war in 1949; the term “seven nations” was a pointed reference to the Canaanite nations dispossessed from the land by the Biblical Israelites in the book of Joshua.5
The final stanza of the prayer contained a reference to kibbutz galuyot (the “ingathering of the exiles”), God’s promise to return the Israelites to their land following the Babylonian exile.6 The term was used here according to the tenets of religious Zionism, which viewed the establishment of a Jewish state in the land as a necessary precursor to the coming of the messiah.7 The prayer concludes by looking forward to a return to the widest Biblical borders of Israel (from the Euphrates to the Nile) and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem.
“To Serve God in the Joy of Victory”
In due time, American Jewish denominations would formally adopt the observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday as well. The Conservative movement included its own version of Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its 1961 Weekday Prayerbook8 and later in its 1985 prayer book SiddurSim Shalom:
In the days when Your children were returning to their borders, at the time when our people took root in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword. When enemies from within the land, together with seven neighboring nations, sought to annihilate Your people, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You have revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world, achieving great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day.9
While considerably shorter than the original version, the Conservative movement Al Hanisim retains many of its central themes – particularly the Biblical concept of return and kibbutz galuyot. It also deletes the dated references to British Mandate authorities, firmly identifying Palestinians (“enemies from within the land”) and “seven neighboring nations” as the primary enemies of the Jewish people.
Given the Zionist narrative of Israel’s establishment, it’s not difficult to understand why Al Hanisim became a popular prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut. The traditional version for Purim recalls the account in the Book of Esther in which ancient Persia “rose up against them and sought to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all of the Jews, young and old…” On Hanukkah, the prayer extols how God “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure…” In a sense, the Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut combines both of these narratives. Indeed, Israel’s “miraculous” victory over its Arab foes would become central to Zionist mythology following 1948 – and even more so after the Six Day War in 1967.
While the American Reform movement did not originally include prayers for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its Union Prayer Book (almost certainly due to that denomination’s historically anti-Zionist orientation), the Central Conference of American Rabbis eventually established Yom Ha’atzmaut as “a permanent annual festival in the religious calendar of Reform Judaism” in 1970. Five years later, the movement’s prayer book, “Gates of Prayer” included an extensive service for the holiday, including a partial Hallel.10 The most recent Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah (2007), contains a seven-candle lighting ceremony for Yom Ha’atzmaut, featuring a variety of prayers, poems and songs (including Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem). The service also references kibbutz galuyot with this passage from the Biblical book of Jeremiah 23:3, 8: “And Myself will gather the remnants of the flock from all the lands…And I will bring them back to their pasture. And they will dwell upon their own soil.” 11
The Reconstructionist movement prayer book, Kol Haneshama includes a similar Yom Ha’atzmaut service12 that includes Hatikvah as well as the famous “valley of the dry bones” prophecy from Ezekiel 37:13-14. Here, Israel’s founding is juxtaposed with God’s promise to “resurrect” and restore the Israelites to the land of Israel following their exile in Babylonia: “Behold, I am opening your graves, and I shall raise you up from where you lie, my people, and shall bring you to the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am The Eternal One, I who open up your graves and raise you up, my people, from your place of burial!” 13
In addition to these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies, many prominent American Jewish scholars and leaders frame the day as a sanctification of sovereign state power. In his popular book “The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary,” Rabbi Michael Strassfeld suggests, “as our religious perspective on Israel deepens, Yom Ha’atzmaut will become more and more a reflection of a vision rather than the simple birthday party of a nation.” 14
For Strassfeld, that vision involves a dialectic between the “Torah of Sinai” and the “Torah of Jerusalem.” The former, he posits, reflects the revelation that “took place outside of the land of Israel at Sinai” that has become “familiar to us as the life of our people during the 2,000 years of the Diaspora.” The latter emphasizes “sovereignty and independence” and “finds its symbols in the place itself – the site of the ancient temple of sacrifices and the political capital of King David.” 15 As Strassfeld explains:
We need both, for with only Israel and its Torah, it would be easy to make an idolatry of nationalism. We would end up reveling in earth, blood, and power. But with only the Torah of Sinai, we could continue to revel in abstractness and powerlessness, constructing worlds, as the Talmud does, made of oxen that fall into pits and gore each other.16
In his book “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” Rabbi Irving Greenberg goes even farther, suggesting that Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrates “a new Exodus” and represents “a call to power to end the tradition of suffering, to serve God in the joy of victory.” 17 Noting Israel’s early tradition of military parades on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Greenberg writes,
Diaspora Jews who still live with the ideals and illusions of powerlessness are often embarrassed by this phenomenon. Yet a military parade is a most appropriate symbol for an era whose central theme, set in motion by the Holocaust and the creation of the state, is the emergence of Jews from powerlessness.18
Among other things, these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies and commentaries attest to the deep influence of Religious Zionist ideology on American Jewish life. It is indeed troubling to consider: the prayers of every American Jewish denomination frame Israel’s military dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in the context of holy war and ascribe explicitly messianic meaning to Zionist colonization of the land.
Thus, to return to the questions I asked in my 2009 blog post, I ask again: how should we reckon with the knowledge that Jewish communities the world over offer prayers of joy and praise that essentially celebrate the Palestinian people’s collective tragedy? Might it be possible, to use Edward Said’s term, to view Zionism from “the standpoint of its victims?” If so, what might a Jewish ritual acknowledgement of this event actually look like?
“Beyond Fear and Omnipotence, Beyond Innocence and Militarism”
American Jews – and young American Jews in particular – are starting to ask this very question. In 2013 New Voices, a journal published by the Jewish Student Press Service, published an article that featured Jewish student essays debating whether to “celebrate, commemorate or mourn” on Yom Ha’atzmaut. More recently, the relatively mainstream Jewish newspaper, the Forward featured a debate between two of its regular columnists entitled “Should American Jews celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut?” As one writer observed:
It seems to me that the elevation of Yom Ha’atzmaut to the level of a religious holiday…is an attempt not to provide American Jews with holidays that celebrate our identities as we are, but to construct our identities politically.
As well, some liberal quarters of the American Jewish community now make a point of acknowledging the Nakba in relation to Yom Ha’atzmaut. The Reconstructionist volume, “Guide to Jewish Practice: Shabbat and Holidays,” for instance, includes the following commentary:
The creation of Israel came with a real cost of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being displaced from their homes. Yom Ha’atzmaut may be a joyous day for us, but the Nakba reminds us that this joy, as on Passover, has its limits.19
Similarly, in 2015, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, led a session for American rabbis entitled, “Yom Ha’atzmaut: Between Redemption and Nakba.” In his session he noted that the increasing awareness of the Nakba means that Israelis and Jewish Zionists can no longer “control the narrative” of Israel’s establishment, adding tellingly: “If we have to ‘sell’ and get people excited about the redemption narrative, we have to make room for the fact that ‘something happened.’”
In the end, however, these mild interventions fail to address the heart of the conceptual/ethical issue at hand, as they ultimately seek to strengthen and uphold the Jewish redemption narrative. Is it possible to commemorate this occasion with a fundamentally different Jewish narrative? One that stands down this redemptive view of militarism and state power?
In my own search for answers to this question, the work of several Jewish scholars has become particularly important to me. One such figure is Marc Ellis who has written extensively about the theological dynamics of Jewish empowerment in the wake of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel:
In the formation, sustenance and expansion of Israel, Judaism and Jewish identity has likewise been actively employed, indeed has been militarized and, yes, infected with atrocity. Because once religion and identity become accomplices to atrocity it must disguise that atrocity and twist it to conform to an innocence and redemption that is now visited, as a form of oppression, on the Other, in this case the Palestinian people.
For Ellis, the onset of Jewish state power has resulted in an era of “Constantinian Judaism,” comparable to the elevation of Christianity to the religion of empire in the 4th century. In the current age, Ellis suggests, “dissenting Jews must learn how to practice their Judaism in the shadow of Constantinian Judaism.” 20 He refers to these dissenting Jews as “Jews of Conscience” who, he writes, “are fighting a high stakes battle against the final Jewish assimilation to unjust power which, in their view, articulated in overt Jewish language or not, signals the end of Jewish history.”
Likewise, Sara Roy, whose work has detailed the devastating effect of Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza on Palestinians, has written, in an essay entitled “A Jewish Plea:”
I have come to accept that Jewish power and sovereignty and Jewish ethics and spiritual integrity are, in the absence of reform, incompatible, unable to coexist or be reconciled. For if speaking out against the wanton murder of children is considered an act of disloyalty and betrayal rather than a legitimate act of dissent, and where dissent is so ineffective and reviled, a choice is ultimately forced upon us between Zionism and Judaism.
Roy then asks, powerfully:
As Jews in a post-Holocaust world empowered by a Jewish state, how do we as a people emerge from atrocity and abjection, empowered and also humane, something that still eludes us? How do we move beyond fear and omnipotence, beyond innocence and militarism, to envision something different, even if uncertain?
“A Full Accounting of the Wrongdoing that was Committed in Our Name.”
In response to challenges such as these, we are now witnessing the tentative emergence of new alternative approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut/Nakba Day as an occasion for reckoning and remembrance rather than joy and celebration. One such example is the “Joint Nakba Remembrance Ceremony,” an annual gathering sponsored by the Israeli organization Combatants for Peace and co-sponsored by a variety of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. According to organizers, this ceremony seeks
to bring attention to the Nakba and acknowledge the great pain it brings, through the understanding of the Nakba’s importance in the Palestinian collective memory and in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ceremony’s message is that we must face our past with honesty, integrity, and empathy in order to bring a future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides.
My own synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, has been exploring ways to develop a Jewish observance of Nakba Day with a service of combining prayer, readings, poetry and survivor testimonies. Here, for instance, is my “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day,” which I wrote to be a centerpiece of our ritual:
Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah, to the One who desires return:
Receive with the fulness of your mercy the hopes and prayers of those who were uprooted, dispossessed and expelled from their homes during the devastation of the Nakba.
Sanctify for tov u’veracha, for goodness and blessing, the memory of those who were killed in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin and so many other villages and cities throughout Palestine.
Grant chesed ve’rachamim, kindness and compassion, upon the memory of the expelled who died from hunger, thirst and exhaustion along the way.
Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah, the soft wings of your divine presence, those who still live under military occupation, who dwell in refugee camps, those dispersed throughout the world still dreaming of return.
Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz from the four corners of the earth that their right to return to their homes be honored at long last.
Let all who dwell in the land live in dignity, equity and hope so that they may bequeath to their children a future of justice and peace.
Ve’nomar and let us say, Amen.
Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah, to the One who desires repentance:
Inspire us to make a full accounting of the wrongdoing that was committed in our name.
Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba and its ongoing injustice that we may finally confess our offenses; that we may finally move toward a future of reparation and reconciliation.
Le’el malei rachamim, to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain that compelled our people to inflict such suffering upon another – dispossessing families from their homes in the vain hope of safety and security for our own.
Osei hashalom, Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place of healing and wholeness that the land may be filled with the sounds of joy and gladness from the river to the sea speedily in our day.
Ve’nomar and let us say,
In this prayer, I use the Hebrew word “teshuvah” according to two of its meanings: both “return” and “repentance.” The first half of the prayer acknowledges the historical reality of the Nakba. The phrase “gather them from the four corners of the earth” is an explicit reference to kibbutz galuyot – “the ingathering of the exiled,” applying it here to the Palestinian right of return. The second half of the prayer uses the word teshuvah/repentance in the context of the collective Jewish responsibility to confess Jewish complicity in the depopulation, destruction and replacement of Palestine, looking forward to a future of “reparation and reconciliation.”
It should be noted that as as Jewish community in the diaspora, our service differs in crucial ways from the Israeli-Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Ceremony noted above. For Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living in a Jewish nation-state, the vision of a “future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides” has a very specific political meaning. For Jews who seek liberation in a diasporic context, this goal must necessarily exist within the vision of a greater transformation.
In the end, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. From a Jewish diasporist perspective, the aspiration for a just future in Israel/Palestine cannot help but be bound up with the prophetic vision of justice and liberation for marginalized and colonized communities everywhere.
The diasporic position … is the condition for the prophetic: standing at the boundaries between society and the reins of governance, the prophet demands justice from the governing, while giving voice to the unheard who suffer at the hands of the regime.
My own personal struggle with the legacy of Yom Ha’atzmaut has led me to explorations I could never have imagined when I wrote that blog post in 2009. While these new Jewish approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut are obviously in a nascent stage, we may reasonably expect them to develop and evolve, particularly as demographic studies of the American Jewish community indicate an increasing detachment of American Jewish connection to the state of Israel. As the Forward article cited above notes: “When you interview young American Jews who disaffiliate, the politics of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations come up as a major reason why.”
As the American Jewish community continues to transform, we can only hope we will witness the further transformation of this festival as well: from a day celebrating political nationalism and colonial dispossession to a Jewish observance rooted in solidarity, memory and repentance.
1 This day corresponded to May 15, 1948 – the date the state of Israel was declared one year earlier. As Yom Ha’atzmaut is determined according to the lunar Jewish calendar, it falls on different days during the months of April or May.
2 Katz, Shmuel, “Establishing a Holiday: The Chief Rabbinate and Yom HaAtzma’ut,” in The Koren Mahzor for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016 p. 188.
3 IBID, p. 190.
4 Seder Tefillot le-Yom ha-Atzmaut, 2nd edition, Tel Aviv: Hotza’at Ha-kibbutz ha-Dati, 1969, p. 101, (translation mine).
5 There were actually five – not seven – Arab nations involved in the 1948-49 war. The number seven seems to be used here to directly equate them with the seven Biblical Canaanite nations.
6 See Deuteronomy 30:1-5, Isaiah 11:11-12, Jeremiah 29:14 and Ezekiel 20:41-42. Kibbutz galuyot would later come to be understood in messianic terms – see for instance, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 11:1-2.
7 This precept is also cited in the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel,” written in 1948 by Israel’s Chief Rabbis, which described the establishment of the state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”
8 Weekday Prayer Book, New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1961, pp.64-65.
9 Siddur Sim Shalom, Harlow, Jules, ed., New York: Rabbinical Assembly/United Synagogue of America, 1985, p. 183.
10Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, Stern, Chaim, ed., New York: CCAR Press, 1975, pp. 590-611.
11Mishkan T’filah: Services for Shabbat, Frishman, Elyse D., ed., New York: CCAR Press, 2007, p. 542.
12Kol Haneshamah: Limot Hol, Teutsch, David, ed., Pennsylvania: The Reconstructionist Press. 1996, pp. 456-471.
13 IBID, p. 460.
14 Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, New York: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 66.
15 IBID, p. 65.
17 Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, New York: Summit Books, p. 387.
18 IBID 396.
19 A Guide to Jewish Practice Volume 2: Shabbat and Holidays, Pennsylvania: RRC Press, 2014, p. 693.
20 Marc H. Ellis, Toward a Theology of Liberation, 3rd expanded edition, Waco:Baylor University Press, 2004, p. 206.
As I’ve written previously, this past March my synagogue Tzedek Chicago, following a long process of membership deliberation, announced our decision to articulate anti-Zionism as a congregational core value. As I/we fully anticipated, the response to our move has been powerful, ranging from deep appreciation to vicious denunciation – with very little in between.
Needless to say, the issue of anti-Zionism has become something of a third rail in the Jewish community over the past few years. There have been increasingly vociferous calls from the Israeli government, Israel advocates and Jewish institutions to label anti-Zionism as antisemitism; just this past week, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt devoted an entire speech to this issue at the ADL’s National Leader’s Summit. In truth, our congregation’s decision to affirm anti-Zionism was partly motivated by this phenomenon. As our board statement explained, the tenor of the current moment has made the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists all the more critical.
The response to our decision on social media was, to put it charitably, “lively” – particularly on Twitter. But beyond the nastiness of toxic trolling, I couldn’t help but notice that much of the negative blowback contained a familiar and recurring trope: namely that Zionism is intrinsic to Judaism. Thus, our critics claimed, opposing Zionism is tantamount to opposing to Judaism itself.
This claim has long been a common line of attack against anti-Zionists. This past Wednesday, as a matter of fact, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt used this very line of reasoning in this (highly recommended) New Yorker interview:
Zionism, a desire to go back to Jerusalem, the longing for Zion, isn’t something that David Ben-Gurion came up with. It isn’t something that Theodor Herzl came up with. It has been embedded in the faith and the traditions of Judaism for thousands of years. You can’t open a Torah on a Saturday morning for your daily prayer, you can’t go through a holiday, without seeing these references.
Greenblatt is correct, of course, to say that the longing for Zion has long been embedded in the faith of Judaism. Eretz Yisrael is undeniably intrinsic to Jewish tradition – and yes, it is ubiquitous throughout the Torah, liturgy and rabbinic tradition in general. However – and this is a big however – the notion of creating a sovereign Jewish nation state was never part of the Jewish land tradition until the rise of political Zionism in 19th century Europe.
And herein lies the central fallacy of the Zionism = Judaism argument: for most of Jewish history, the yearning for Zion has been rooted in an idealized messianic vision. The very idea of a mass migration to the land in order to establish a 3rd Jewish commonwealth was commonly considered to be an anathema – i.e., a “forcing of God’s hand” – by traditional rabbinic authorities.
This does not mean that the land is not important in Jewish tradition – quite the contrary. Following the destruction of the Temple in 73 CE, diaspora Jewry uplifted the land tradition as a spiritualized ideal. But the yearning to return to Zion was a characteristically framed as messianic aspiration – not a political program. This aspiration was expressed in a number of ways: through prayers expressing a desire to rebuild the Temple, through Biblical laws that centered Eretz Yisrael, even as they were adapted for observance in the diaspora, through festivals and through Torah readings that invoked God’s promise of the land to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah to name but a few.
It is important to understand that Zionism – i.e., the political ideology and movement to create a sovereign Jewish state in historic Palestine – did not arise until relatively recently in Jewish history. Yes, Zionism undeniably a Jewish movement, and a successful one at that. But it is also a quintessential movement of Jewish modernity that represented a conscious and radical break with traditional Judaism as it was understood and practiced until that time. While it has clearly been embraced by a majority of Jews in Israel and throughout the diaspora, the claim that “it has been embedded in the faith and the traditions of Judaism for thousands of years” is false and in fact, deeply disingenuous.
It is even more disingenuous to claim that the current rise of anti-Zionist sentiment among Jews is in any way anti-Jewish or antisemitic. On the contrary, many Jews – including increasing numbers of young Jews – embrace anti-Zionism not as a matter of traditional messianic belief, but as a deeply held matter of Jewish conscience. Those of us who identify as Jewish anti-Zionists recognize the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism: i.e., the creation of a Jewish majority state through the dispossession and oppression of another people.
I completely understand the outrage of Zionist Jews by such a suggestion. But as an anti-Zionist Jew, I will never yield an inch to the misguided, cynical suggestion that opposition to Zionism is tantamount to opposition to Judaism itself.
In the end, this struggle is not over what is or isn’t Judaism. Rather, it is over what kind of Judaism we will ultimately seek to affirm.
Keen observers have long noted that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is essentially a xenophobic Israel-advocacy organization masquerading as a Jewish civil rights organization. If there was ever any doubt, this became abundantly clear at the ADL’s National Leadership Summit on May 1, when CEO Jonathan Greenblatt delivered a prerecorded speech, ostensibly to discuss the mission of the organization in light of its just-released 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents. Instead, Greenblatt spent the majority of his time denouncing anti-Zionism (i.e., legitimate opposition to an ideology that promotes an exclusively Jewish state in historic Palestine) as antisemitism. In his speech, he specifically vilified three Palestine solidarity groups — Students for Justice in Palestine, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jewish Voice for Peace — terming them “hateful” and “extremist.”
Greenblatt’s doubling down was particularly notable because his message represented a change from the ADL’s official statement that “anti-Zionism isn’t always antisemitic.” Indeed, it was difficult to not be struck by the sheer amount of time he spent on the subject — and the vehemence with which he pressed his talking points:
To those who still cling to the idea that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism — let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can — anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
Anti-Zionism as an ideology is rooted in rage. It is predicated on one concept: the negation of another people, a concept as alien to the modern discourse as white supremacy. It requires a willful denial of even a superficial history of Judaism and the vast history of the Jewish people. And, when an idea is born out of such shocking intolerance, it leads to, well, shocking acts.
Greenblatt’s claims were particularly cynical because they actually flew directly in the face of the ADL’s own 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, which found that of the 2,717 incidents it recorded last year, 345 (just over 12 percent) involved “references to Israel or Zionism” (and of these, “68 took the form of propaganda efforts by white supremacist groups.”) Though he actually opened his speech by invoking his report, Greenblatt actively misrepresented its findings, choosing instead to vilify three organizations that legitimately protest Israel’s human rights abuse of Palestinians. Most outrageously, he actually equated anti-Zionists with “white supremacists and alt-right ilk who murder Jews,” as if the rhetoric of Palestine solidarity activists could in any way be comparable to the mass murder of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
By singling out these Palestine solidarity groups, Greenblatt was clearly employing a familiar strategy utilized by the Israeli government and its supporters: blaming the current rise in antisemitism on Muslims, Palestinians, and those who dare to stand in solidarity with them. The “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” trope has also been the favored political tactic of liberal and conservative politicians alike. It is most typically invoked to attack supporters of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Pro-Palestinian activists well know there is no better way to silence and vilify their activism than to raise the specter of antisemitism.
As journalist Peter Beinart has put it, “It is a bewildering and alarming time to be a Jew, both because antisemitism is rising and because so many politicians are responding to it not by protecting Jews but by victimizing Palestinians.” Of course, the rise in antisemitism is alarming, but as ever, the greatest threat to Jews comes from far-right nationalists and white supremacists — not Palestinians and those who stand with them. It is particularly sobering to contemplate that this definition essentially defines all Palestinians as antisemitic if they dare to oppose Zionism. But what else can Palestinians be expected to do, given that Zionism resulted in their collective dispossession, forcing them from their homes and lands and subjecting them to a crushing military occupation?
The growing crackdown on anti-Zionism can also be understood as a conscious effort to stem the growing number of Jews in the U.S. — particularly young Jews — who do not identify with the state of Israel and openly identify as anti-Zionist. The backlash against this phenomenon has been fierce — at times perversely so. In a widely discussed 2021 essay, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy lamented the growth of anti-Zionist Jews, by labeling them as “un-Jews.” Last May, immediately following Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, a Chicago-area Reform rabbi gave a sermon in which she called anti-Zionist Jews “Jews in name only” who must be “kept out of the Jewish tent.”
Beyond these extreme protestations, it bears noting that there has always been principled Jewish opposition to Zionism. While there are certainly individual anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites, it is disingenuous to claim that opposition to Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic. Judaism (a centuries-old religious peoplehood) is not synonymous with Zionism (a modern nationalist ideology that is not exclusively Jewish).
My congregation, Tzedek Chicago, recently amended our core values statement to say that we are “anti-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people — an injustice that continues to this day.” Our decision to articulate anti-Zionism as a value came after months of congregational deliberation, followed by a membership vote. As the Tzedek Chicago board explained our decision:
Zionism, the movement to establish a sovereign Jewish nation state in historic Palestine, is dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land. Since its establishment, Israel has sought to maintain this majority by systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes through a variety of means, including military expulsion, home demolition, land expropriation and revocation of residency rights, among others.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism. In a 2021 report, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state,” describing it as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a similar report, stating Israel’s “deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Given the reality of this historic and ongoing injustice, we have concluded that it is not enough to describe ourselves as “non-Zionist.” We believe this neutral term fails to honor the central anti-racist premise that structures of oppression cannot be simply ignored — on the contrary, they must be transformed. As political activist Angela Davis has famously written, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
While we are the first progressive synagogue to openly embrace anti-Zionism, there is every reason to believe we will not be the only one. At the very least, we hope our decision will widen the boundaries of what is considered acceptable discourse on the subject in the Jewish community. As Shaul Magid recently — and astutely — wrote:
[Israel is] a country stuck with an ideology that impedes equality, justice, and fairness. Maybe the true messianic move is not to defend Zionism, but to let it go. Maybe the anti-Zionists are on to something, if we only allow ourselves to listen.
Whether or not organizations such as the ADL succeed in their efforts to falsely conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism depends largely on the response of the liberal and centrist quarters of the Jewish community. Indeed, Greenblatt’s doubling down on anti-Zionism may well reflect a political strategy seeking to drive a wedge in the Jewish community between liberal Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews. Jewish establishment organizations, such as the ADL and American Jewish Committee view this moment as an opportunity to broaden their political influence, with the support of right-wing Democrats and Christian Zionists. The end game of this growing political coalition: an impenetrable firewall of unceasing political/financial/diplomatic support for Israel in Washington, D.C.
In the end, of course, the success or failure of this destructive tactic will ultimately depend on the readiness of Jews and non-Jews alike to publicly stand down Israeli apartheid and ethnonationalism — and to advocate a vision of justice for all who live between the river and the sea.