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.