Rabbibrian's Blog

A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

Beyond Liberal Zionism

Posted by rabbibrian on February 7, 2011

In 1987, I delivered a Yom Kippur sermon, “A Generation of Occupation,” about the corrosive moral effects of twenty years of Occupation on Jews and Judaism. This sermon cost me my first position as a congregational rabbi. Back then, as a liberal Zionist, I saw the injustice to Palestinians within Israel and under Occupation as moral perversions of the progressive Zionist vision — “warts” that needed correction.

Over the twenty-three years since then, I have seen many disturbing instances of blatant discrimination against Palestinians and my view has fundamentally changed. I have seen a Palestinian home being demolished and have stood on the demolished ruins of Palestinian homes. I have walked down streets restricted to Jews in what was once a bustling Palestinian neighborhood. I have replanted trees uprooted by settlers knowing they would be uprooted again. These and many more disturbing personal encounters with discrimination led me to the painful understanding that political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethnic nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews.

This is an excerpt from an article of mine, Reflections of a Liberal Zionist, just published by Tikkun magazine.  To mark their 25th anniversary, Tikkun asked many of their authors to share a short article about their thinking and social activism that was most relevant to the next generation and to Tikkun‘s goal of helping heal, repair, and transform the world.  In Reflections of a Liberal Zionist I articulated very briefly how my own faith as liberal Zionist/Jew has been transformed over the past 23 years since I gave that Yom Kippur sermon.

The critique of liberal Zionism is painful as from the time I was very young I have seen myself as a progressive Zionist/Jew.  It was the world I lived in and defined the work that I did.  In many ways it still is.  Many dear colleagues, friends and family are dedicated liberal /progressive Zionists.   I also have such a deep spiritual and emotional connection to Israel and my many friends there.   Most of my colleagues and friends don’t see the contradiction that I believe lies at the heart of liberal Zionism and the impossible goal of building a democratic Jewish state.  They also don’t agree that some of the actions of  liberal Zionist/Jewish organizations prolong the injustice in Israel/Palestine at the same time as claiming to be clearly opposed to this injustice.  It is my hope that the article opens a dialogue and conversation and I invite your response or questions.  You can read the complete article here.  I also recommend the many important articles published as part of the 25th anniversary of Tikkun.  Tikkun has been an important part of my own journey and understanding and I encourage you to subscribe and support the magazine.


16 Responses to “Beyond Liberal Zionism”

  1. I especially appreciate your point that Moral anguish about Israel is not going to help anyone. I also appreciate your point that it’s easy for progressive American Jews to demonize the settlers in the West Bank as though they were the root problem, when in truth the root problem is much deeper and much more painful. Thank you, as always, for your willingness to speak the truth as you understand it.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks, Rabbi Rachel. What a blessing it is to welcome you as a rabbi!

      I think what most progressive Jews don’t realize is that by squelching debate in America, by the church, by grassroots (such as B.D.S. movement) and by not challenging American governments unconditional support and enormous aid to Israel, we are complicit in the oppression of Palestinians. Israel relies on American support to continue the oppression of Palestinians. It is only a vibrant grassroots American challenge to this policy that may force America to hold Israel accountable. Liberal Jews and liberal Jewish groups such as J Street, Rabbis for Human Rights, Ameinu, The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Union of Reform Judaism and many others join with the most extreme right wing groups such as N.G.O. monitor, the Israel Project, CAMERA etc in vilifying those in America who dare to suggest that America should cut aid, that corporations should divest from the Occupation. By doing so, we reveal our true loyalty which is to our people above our ethics. Right now two of our most prominent liberal rabbis are playing a major role in the 6 million dollar campaign launched by Federation against the “deligitimizers” of Israel. I am pretty sure that I and several of my colleagues fit into this category from their point of view. As liberal Jews, why don’t we just focus on ending those Israeli policies that deligitimize Israel and endanger American lives and Jews around the world? Why do we invest our resources, using our credentials as “peace loving Jews” in silencing those in America who are a moral voice for accountability by Israel and justice for the Palestinians?

  2. Reggie Gray said

    Rabbi Brian, I find your words relieving to read. It is so very difficult to support Israel and hold my core (Jewish) values. I have come to the same conclusion –that we need to work in the US to correct our policy in relation to Israel. From the trip with RHR and experiencing the complexities of the situation it was clear to me the best I could do is work here for what I believe is right. I do not know The Answer but I do know what I believe and the most I can do is act on that. I was in Israel again last October and experience “the other side of the story” as my relatives showed me around Israel to see what I did not on the ’08 trip. It is a miracle in the desert but built on repression and cannot endure. It is very useful to read your blog. Reggie Gray, Boulder CO

    • Y. Ben-David said

      The US was built on repression of the Indians and the slaves and other people, yet seems to be enduring fine. So will Israel, who needs you a lot less than you need Israel, even if you don’t realize it at the moment.

      • rabbibrian said

        I won’t reply for Reggie but for me the U.S. is not doing so well. We are also the source of much oppression in the world, on a scale much greater than Israel. I am as opposed to those American policies just as I oppose the policies of the Israeli government.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks, Reggie. It was the RHR trip that you and I shared that led me to the beliefs I currently hold. I hope to write more about this. Thanks for your kind comment.

  3. Steve France said

    Dear Brian,

    I was moved by your statement and I feel certain that you will earn the gratitude of the Jewish people, as well as the Palestinians, for taking this stand. You certainly have mine.

    Take care,


  4. Rabbi Brian,

    While I agree with most of what you say, one must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Soviet Union was indeed an evil empire, but socialism is still not such a bad idea. How many anti-Communist started out on the left and ended up as leaders of neo-conservatism? Many! And while the fall of the Soviet Union was on balance a good thing, it set the stage for globalization, the resurgence of right-wing capitalism and the set back of the left in most of the world. (Think “New Labour” in Britain or of Bill Clinton or Obama as about the most left America can imagine itself now-a-days. Pale comparisons to FDR, LBJ or even Eisenhower.)

    Since you (and I) value “the rebirth of Hebrew culture in Israel and I still believe Jews desperately needed safety after the Holocaust” we must be careful in stating not just what we oppose – the occupation and chauvinism/racism within Israel proper and within the territories – we must also say what we support – peace, justice, equality, and a thriving Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael. There used to be a perfectly good word for this: “Cultural Zionism” – and its proponents: Ahad Haam, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Hannah Arendt, and even arguable Albert Einstein and Mordechai Kaplan where not without influence and following in the Jewish community.

    I believe it would be more accurate, and more likely to attract support in the Jewish (and even non-Jewish) community – to use the label “Cultural Zionist” then the label “religious American Jew in solidarity with justice for the Palestinian people.” Of course the two ideas do not contradict each other and neither, I am sure, do either described you (or anyone) fully. Its a matter of labels and the impressions and messages they convey.

    Nor do I agree – and I may have misunderstood you here – that “Working in solidarity with Palestinians toward any political settlement — one state, two states, a federation, or any other political arrangement — that ensures the equal human rights of all Israelis and Palestinians should be the SINGULAR goal of our work.” Israel/Palestine is no doubt the biggest moral challenge facing the Jewish people today, but it is not the only challenge, and for me – and I believe for you – it lives along side and within the larger (from a Jewish perspective) issues of revivifying the Jewish People and Judaism and planting them firmly on the side of justice, fully realizing human potential, and spiritual and social progress.

    All this may be a small quibble – but then what else is there to say, than Yshar Koach.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thank you, Sydney, for your important and helpful response. I agree that we should emphasize what we value in Israel: the rebirth of Hebrew culture and the safety it provided for Jews after the Holocaust. Zionism has been defined as political Zionism with all it’s costs, moral and physical. I am inspired by Buber, Magnes, Ahad Haam and others who emphasized the spiritual/cultural element of Zionism and I am deeply committed to revivifying Judaism, especially Prophetic Judaism. I don’t think there is any chance of revivifying Judaism without confronting the negative effects that Zionism and decades of oppression have had on our tradition. We also need to look very carefully at ideas in our tradition and sacred texts that are connected to the privileging of Jewish lives over the lives of others, particularly, but not only in the land of Israel. The task at hand is of transforming Judaism and separating it from Zionism.

      Thanks so much for your comments.

  5. Michael Lehner said

    Rabbi Brian, thank you so much for your explanation. God Bless you for your courage. I live in the midwest and It is oh, so easy to ignore this conflict. I am now inspired to stop looking the other way and to better understand the truth of this. Thanks again.

  6. Y. Ben-David said

    I find this whole discussion to be rather surrealistic. You all hold out the “1-state solution” to be some sort of possible, “reasonable” outcome to the efforts you are claiming to be pushing. Well, there are approximately six million Jews in Israel today, which is approaching half of the total of world Jewry. These Jews in Israel are overwhelmingly supportive of Zionism (as is the majority of world Jewry) and view the “1-state solution” as being a euphemism of “Throwing the Jews into the Sea”. You see, we here in Israel remember all the bloody wars, including the horrible suicide bombings of the last decade, and all the accompanying hate in the official and unofficial propaganda of the Palestinian Authority and HAMAS regime in Gaza, in addition to that of the surrounding Arab countries. It leaves an impression when you see steet parties being thrown in the wake of the 9/11 attacks or a “successful” suicide bombing of a bus or synagogue courtyard, as indeed happened.
    I followed RabbiBrant’s recent pilgrimage to the Palestinians. Someone wrote a comment on his site saying “if only the Israelis knew how nice the Palestinians really are, there would have been peace long ago”. This statement seems to come from outer space. No doubt there are Palestinians who truly are willing to make an accomodation with Israel and no doubt RabbiBrant’s delegation was carefully directed to meet with Palestinians who would express such views, but we Israelis view the situation as being more complex than that and realize that such opinions are not those of the official PA or HAMAS leaders.

    So the question now arises, what are you Jewish Progressives who are so tormented about the situation of the Palestinians going to do about it? Are you going to try to convince us Israelis to dismantle our state in the name of rather abitrary “progressive values” which even the mainstream Israeli Left rejects? Add to this the fact that the “peace camp” Left in Israeli has suffered a sharp decline over the years. Progressive synagogue movements in Israel have a negligible presence in the country so your religious movements can’t really add anything to Israeli’s internal discourse.
    Thus, we see the battlefield has to shift to countries outside Israel. What are your options? BDS (sanctions, boycotts)? There have been proposals to use this as a weapon against the Judea/Samaria settlements, but your goal is much more ambitious….getting the state of Israel to dissolve itself entirely and to reject Zionism. Thus your BDS has to include putting the entire state under sanctions. Do you see any chance of this happening? In the US, the large majority of NON-JEWS support Israel, so even if you somehow get the majority of liberal Jews to go along with you, you will not have really made a major dent in American support.
    So what else can you do? Get Congress to cut off aid? Israel doesn’t need the aid it gets from the US, it is given for political reasons. Another option-get American Jewry to cut off all contact with Israel–stop sending funds to Israeli institutions, stop visiting Israel, stop sending young people on Taglit-Birthright trips or for longer periods of study or work? Most Israeli would view this as essentially a declaration of war against Israel and it would lead to a cutoff of communication between the progressives in the US and Israel. This seems to be what is happening now with the so-called “Jewish Voice for Peace” which is perceived in Israel as a hostile anti-Israel organization, and not as other progressive organizations who portray themselves as “progressive Jews concerned about Israel and its well-being which mandates a change in Israeli policy”.
    In any event, Israelis are aware that Jewish progressives are in a state of long-term decline in the US so it is unclear how much influence they will have in the long-run, in spite of their claims that more and more young progressive Jews are turning against Zionism, something that I an not convinced is necessarily true on a large scale, Peter Beinart not-withstanding.

    So there you are. It is your decision whether you are going to cut yourself off from Israel and much of world Jewry in your struggle against Zionism and in favor of the Orwellian “1-state solution”. I suggest you do as the Torah says and “choose life” and keep your bonds with Eretz Israel and world Jewry. Any other choice leads to spiritual self-destruction.

    • Naomi Paz Greenberg said

      This post is in response to Y. Ben-David’

      It seems to me that you are the one who has turned against Zionism: Zion means excellence, not your political perspective, Mr. Orwell, or is it Ms?


  7. Donna O'Keefe said

    Rabbi Walt: I am delighted with your article in Tikkun. I just returned from a trip to the Holy Land. It was an organized journey with 24 or so persons from across the U.S. and my first visit. The title of the tour was In the Footsteps of Jesus: An Alternative Tour of the Holy Land. It was enlightening and daunting, and I don’t live in Palestine. I thank you for your clear challenge to the community of your people about your awareness and transformation.

    Your writing helps me feel connected with others who are searching for a peaceful solution to the difficulties there. Thank you again. Rev. Donna O’Keefe, Edmond, OK

  8. Andy Mager said

    Thanks for the clear and articulate weaving together of your personal journey and political understanding. It has been clear to me for many years that this was the case, yet saying so openly is so heretical. I’d welcome your thoughts about how we seek to crack open the very closed organized Jewish community to get people to think in new ways. Or do you think our primary work should be interfaith/intercultural work to change US policy without worrying about the organized Jewish community?

  9. Naomi Paz Greenberg said

    Dear Rabbi Brian,

    Thank you for sharing this perspective. I am touched by the amount of personal sacrifice you have made. I use the word sacrifice as I believe it was intended, not to convey suffering but rather to convey that which you truly have made sacred in your life: your work as a Rabbi.


  10. I was referred here by a posting by Y Ben David at the Realistic Dove blog.

    I think your reasoning and motivation are well-meaning, but imprecise and lacking backbone and conviction in ways.

    Specifically, I take great issue with your declaration that Israel cannot be Jewish AND democratic. There are MANY national states that are …. and democratic. There is always a tension, always a requirement that those that bear a compassion for all created beings, all people/s, express that in a national state to keep the “and democratic” alive.

    To declare that “Jewish and democratic” is an oxymoron is also to declare that that is the case in Seattle, in San Francisco, in New York, as well as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hebron.

    Jewish and democratic. It is possible to have Jewish community, even if because of the intense focus of Jews to other Jews, other communities feel put off or even excluded. It is acceptable to self-associate, and in the case of a state to self-govern.

    I fear that you are endorsing a pendulum swing, rather than a balance. Rather than urging reform, you are participating in revolution.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the film “The Mission” (with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons). The story is of a reformed slave catcher in Brazil (played by De Niro) who determines to become a Jesuit, and serves at a mission deep in the South American jungle on land that is desired by imperial Spain and Portugal. De Niro’s character is so offended by the treatment of the Indians, that he adopts armed resistance.

    In contrast, Irons’ character, continues to only serve as a priest. A statement of conviction that is independant of conditions.

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