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A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism: A Personal Spiritual Ethical Journey

Posted by rabbibrian on May 16, 2012

A month ago, I was invited by American Jews for a Just Peace to give a talk in Boston in memory of Hilda Silverman z’l, a friend, congregant and passionate advocate for justice for Palestinians.  In honor of Hilda, I wrote a talk that described my journey from liberal Zionist to a belief in a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism.  The talk is long but it describes the journey as well as paying tribute to one very courageous and visionary friend.  I welcome comments and responses.  

“Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism:

A Personal Spiritual/Ethical Journey”

Talk in memory of Hilda Silverman z’l

Boston April 17,2012

Hilda Silverman was a personal friend and congregant of Rabbi Walt’s congregation (Mishkan Shalom) when she lived in Philadelphia.   In honor of her, Rabbi Walt will reflect on his own journey as a long-time progressive Zionist to a belief in a Judaism and American Jewish identity that rejects Zionism and support for the State of Israel as its core belief.  He will discuss how non-Orthodox Jewish movements – Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist  – adopted Zionism as the foundation of American liberal Jewish identity, corrupting the prophetic and ethical values of Judaism.  How do we reclaim a vibrant, progressive, non-Zionist Jewish identity that is connected to the Jewish community in Israel but not to unconditional support for Zionism and the State of Israel?  

Part 1: Hilda z’l

Thank you so much for inviting me to give this lecture in memory of Hilda Silverman z’l, a dear friend, congregant, teacher and comrade.  Hilda, as many of you know, was a very passionate, articulate and relentless advocate for justice, particularly for Palestinians.  Passion for justice was core of her Jewish identity.  The Torah commands: Justice, Justice, shall you pursue! Hilda’s tireless pursuit of justice is reflected in the Torah’s repetition: Justice, (Yes!) Justice shall you pursue!

For Hilda, as for most liberal Jews, this commitment to justice was based not only on Jewish text but also in Jewish history, in the experience of Jews as victims of injustice.  We must never do to others what was done to us.  In the words of the Torah: “You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the soul of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” For Hilda, solidarity with the oppressed, with those who are treated unjustly, was what it meant to be a Jew.

Hilda saw the discrimination and oppression of Palestinians was the most urgent and pressing moral Jewish issue.  Every day she challenged the high wall, a “Separation Barrier”, a “Mechitza” that many progressive and liberal American Jews involved in many different justice issues build around the issue of Palestinian human rights.  American Jews have a proud legacy of challenging discrimination in America in housing, education, voting rights and every form of human and civil rights, yet are often silent about the systematic denial of precisely these same rights to Palestinians by Israel.  (I wonder how many synagogue and family seders were held 10 days ago where rights for women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, the poor and many others were mentioned but not a word about the violation of Palestinian human rights.)

For Hilda the issue of Palestine was the issue on which the integrity of the Jewish ethical tradition and the Jewish legacy rested.  And, it wasn’t just the silence that was so disturbing, but the silence is acccompanied by the massive and effective support of the American Jewish community for Israel and the profound influence of the American Jewish community in ensuring massive American military, political and diplomatic support for Israel that enables the oppression of the Palestinian people.  As Hilda met Palestinians and encountered Palestinian suffering, the role of her community, so committed on issues of justice in America, while at the same time enablers of the oppression of Palestinians, pained her so deeply and inspired her to act fearlessly.  She angered many with her relentless insistence that this issue must be confronted and for this we are all so indebted to her.

Hilda and I met in Philadelphia in the 1980’s, I think in the Philadelphia chapter of New Jewish Agenda.  Then I was a rabbinical student and Middle East Peace activist training to become a social justice rabbi anchored in the prophetic tradition of Judaism.

Hilda read everything she could put her hands on about the Palestinians. She would send me long handwriten notes suggesting I read photocopied articles that she enclosed on the history of the conflict and on the disturbing realities of the Occupation.  She invited Palestinian speakers and arranged educational events.  She opened my eyes to realities that I wanted to deny. She was always ahead of me, understanding realities that it took me years to acknowledge.   She understood how important and painful it was for us to step beyond the comfort of denial.

In my first congregation, she helped me put together a unique adult education series on Israel: Hearing Both Sides that included speakers such as Rashid Khalidi, Afif Sefieh, Meron Bevenisti and several prominent Israelis.  At the time there was an Israeli ban on speaking to anyone associated with the P.L.O and yet Afif Sefieh who devoted his life to representing the P.L.O. was welcomed into our little synagogue.

In 1987, my  Yom Kippur sermon,  A Generation of Occupation, discussing the corrosive moral effects of twenty years of Occupation on Jews and Judaism. cost me my first position as a congregational rabbi.  When we founded Mishkan Shalom, an explicitly activist congregation with a commitment to support to justice and peace in Israel/Palestine, Hilda joined the congregation.   I think it was the first time she became a  member of a congregation.  I will always remember the first Hannukah service in our congregation that Hilda planned honoring Human Rights Day and the first anniversary of the intifadeh.

Hilda moved to Boston but we kept in touch and later when I helped found Rabbis for Human Rights North America we reconnected.  Hilda always was a devoted and passionate supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights, particularly the work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman with whom she had a close relationship.  She always helped bring him to different communities.

Hilda was my teacher and friend and a very important part of my own spiritual/ethical journey that I want to share tonight.   As I said, she was always ahead of me.    My talk, “Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism: A Personal Spiritual/Ethical Journey” is a way of honoring and thanking her.  It is also a way of sharing publicly in a comprehensive way an important transformation that I have undergone in my understanding of the conflict and of my activism in the past two to three years.

My talk will be divided into three parts:

1. Zionism

2. Judaism

3. Privilege, Power and Solidarity

1. Zionism

I grew up in a fiercely and passionately Zionist family and community in South Africa and have been a progressive, liberal Zionist for most of my life.  The schools I attended as a child were Weizmann and Herzlia, named after the two Zionist leaders.  I was part of Habonim, a Zionist youth movement, and spent three months in Israel in 1967 following the 67 War.  I love Hebrew language and culture.  In 1969 one of the highlights of my life was meeting David Ben Gurion, the founding father of Israel, and representing South Africa in the International Bible Quiz in Jerusalem on Israel Independence Day.    I made aliya after high school, and studied in the regular program with Israelis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  While I returned to South Africa in 1972, liberal Zionism and a deep connection to Israel remained  a core part my Judaism and Jewish identity. (My great grandfather, Avraham Zeev, after whom I am named, is buried on Mount of Olives.  According to family legend he made aliya to Israel in 1926, a few days after his daughter asked if she could go to a store with a non Jewish friend on Shabbat!)

Liberal Zionism

Liberal Zionism meant that I believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would provide a desparately needed safe haven for Jews around the world,  a state that would be a cultural center for the Jewish People, and a state that would reflect the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.  After centuries of victimization, the creation of a Jewish state would afford Jews an opportunity to test our values: not do unto others as was done to us.   The Jewish State would treat all with dignity, equality and respect.  In the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the state will be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

This was the Zionist vision that I learned as a child, that was the ethos of Habonim, my Zionist youth movement, that inspired me to make aliya, and that inspired my involvement over the past three decades in Breira, New Jewish Agenda, Tikkun , Rabbis for Human Rights, Americans for Peace Now, the Shalom Center, and many related organizations.  Athough these organizations are to the left of the mainstream American Jewish community they all share a progressive/liberal Zionist vision, deeply attached to the Jewish state, while viewing the oppression of Palestinians, the Occupation and the settlement policy as deviations from the true intent of Zionism and a violation of the core values of Judaism.

Public Letter to Netanyahu

One of the very first public acts of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America was a public letter in 2004 to Prime Minister Netanyahu from over 400 rabbis protesting the arrest of Rabbi Arik Ascherman for blocking a bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian home.  The letter articulated our Zionism.

We wrote: “We are concerned about the decision to prosecute our colleague who has devoted his life to Israel and to the Zionist vision of building and sustaining a Jewish State that exemplifies the values of compassion and justice.  Rabbi Ascherman has dedicated his career to protecting the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and his Zionist and Jewish commitments inspire thousands of Jews in Israel and abroad.  ……..  For us and for many Jews in our communities the work of Rabbi for Human Rights represents the Jewish moral conscience. We express our love and commitment for Israel by supporting that work. To silence it is to push us away from the Israel we love.”

For many years I expressed my love and commitment to Israel by supporting the work of Rabbis for Human Rights and other Israeli Human Rights and peace organizations as they embodied the Israel that I believed in and loved.

Over time, engagement with these organizations also led to a transformation in my own relationship to Zionism and my understanding of the relationship between Zionism and Judaism.   This transformation came to a head in 2008.

Home Demolition:

As part of my involvement with these organizations, particularly Rabbis for Human Rights in the 1990’s and first decade of this century, I got to see some very disturbing realities most Jews and Israelis choose not to see.

As Rabbis for Human Rights worked very closely with the Israel Commmittee against Home Demolition, in the 1990’s I witnessed or visited several demolished Palestinian homes.  The memory and visual images of these experiences live within me, in my body and soul.

I remember standing on the site of a recently demolished Palestinian home seeing the childrens toys lying in the rubble and a small one person tent next to the demolished home where the father of the family now lived.  The experience shook me to my core.  What does it mean for me to believe in a Jewish state that demolishes Palestinian homes using bulldozers to destroy everything including the toys of children, while it builds and subsidizes thousands of homes for Jews, homes that house among others, friends of mine who make aliya from America?  How can I understand this reality as a Jew?   Is this the Jewish state I believe in and support?   As a supporter of Israel, a Zionist, am I implicated in this evil act?   What is the appropriate response?

These questions haunted me every time.  On one visit to Israel a small group of rabbis participated in rebuilding a demolished home.  While we were there some of us slept in a home threatened with imminent demolition.  Later in the day as we watched the demolition trucks, police and ambulance make their rounds demolishing various Palestinian “illegal” structures, we actually saw the home being demolished.  First, dozens of Israeli soldiers and police cut off access to the village, then we saw the bulldozers do their dirty work while the homeowners were wailing, the neighbors standing in shock and awe.  It is is a scene that I will never forget.    I was proud that Rabbi Arik Ascherman wearing a kippah was present protesting the demolition but the questions remained.   Do I still believe in Zionism?  Can I still be  a Zionist?  A Jew?

As a person who had grown up in South Africa under Apartheid, these acts of discrimination were very  evocative of scenes from my childhood.    Evictions was one of the brutal realities of Apartheid, part of my reality as a chid.

Over the years as I saw more and more horrifying basic violations of human rights: massive tracts of stolen Palestinian land on which settlements were built, trees uprooted and burned by settlers, homes in Silwan taken over by settlers in the middle of the night who are then protected by the Israeli army.  Each time the question of Zionism came up.  These demolitions, settlements, violent disposession of Palestinian homes were not “rogue” acts, the Israeli state with all its military might enabled and supported these actions.   Because of my deep connection to Israel, to my friends, to Israeli culture, to what Israel meant to me and the Jewish people,  it was hard for me to even think of relinquishing my Zionism.  It was so much part of me and my connection to my community.

In 2008 it came to a head.

In honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of Rabbis for Human Rights, I planned and led a Rabbis for Human Rights trip to Israel and the West Bank entitled Planting Justice. This solidarity mission to Israel and the West Bank was part of a campaign to support the efforts of Rabbis for Human Rights and all those in Israel working to fulfill the dream of an Israel that upholds equality and justice for all -Jews and Arabs alike.

On the trip:

We visited an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev where Palestinians have lived since 1948 without any services, while over the same period of time countless Jewish towns, and villages have been created.  There are over 150 such unrecognized villages in Israel of Palestinians displaced in the 48 war.  While the Bedouin village was still unrecognized 60 years after the founding of the Israel, the government was advancing plans to  “Judaize” the Negev.

We witnessed the humiliation of Palestinians waiting  for hours early in the morning at a checkpoint and then processed like a group of animals.

We replanted olive trees on Palestinian land, uprooted by Jewish settlers with the full protection of the Israeli army.  The trees were undoubtedly uprooted again within days after our visit.   The tract of land adjacent to where we planted the trees had been stolen from a Palestinian who took the case to the Supreme Court with the aid of Israeli human rights organizations.  Despite a ruling in his favor several years ago, the land had still not been returned to him.


And, for me this was the clincher a deserted street restricted to Jews, in the middle of Hebron, passing by Palestinian homes where the residents are not allowed to walk on the street in front of their homes.  When Michael Manikin, our guide, mentioned that this was a Jews only street and showed us the apartments where Palestinians climb over the roof and then down a ladder to go to the store, the supermarket, the hospital, something in me had changed.  Sadness and rage overwhelmed me.   I realized that this was in some ways worse than what I had witnessed as a child in South Africa.  Whenever I would compare my experience on the West Bank with my experience during Apartheid, Jews would get very angry.  For many years I knew I should never use the A (Apartheid) word.  At that moment I broke down crying and made a pledge that I would never again censor myself.  I didn’t know it then, but that was the moment when I crossed over.

There was no word that accurately describes what we had experienced on this 12 day trip on both sides of Green Line other than systemic racism.   I finally had to admit to myself what I had known for a long time but was too scared to acknowledge: political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethno-nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews.  As such political Zionism violates everything I believe about Judaism.  While there was  desperate need in the 1940’s to provide a safe haven for Jews, and this need won over most of the Jewish world and the Western world to support the Zionist movement, the Holocaust can in in no way justify or excuse the systemic racism that was and remains an integral part of Zionism.

In the past I believed that the discrimination I saw: the demolished homes, the uprooted trees, the stolen land were an aberration of the Zionist vision. I came to understand that all of these were not mistakes nor a blemishes on a dream,  they were all the logical outcome of Zionism.

As a Jew I believe in the inherent dignity of every human being.  As  a Jew I believe that justice is the core commandment of our tradition.  As a Jew I believe that we are commanded to be advocates for the poor, the oppressed the marginalized.   Zionism and the daily reality in Israel violated each of these core values.  And, I could no longer be a Zionist.   I will always be a person with deep and profound connection to Israel and my friends and family there, but I was no longer a Zionist

I came to understand that the democratic Jewish state is an illusion. There is no democratic Jewish state nor will there ever be.  Israel will either be a Jewish state or a democratic state. A Jewish state by definition privileges Jews and cannot be democratic.  Israel is a  democratic state for Jews and a Jewish state for Arabs.   It is true that Palestinians who live within Israel have the franchise but they are do not have eqaul rights in many different ways, nor could they ever be full and equal citizens of a Jewish state.

And there was another profound change in my thinking.  I also came to understand that there was a direct line between the formation of Israel in 1948 and the Occupation.  Just as I thought that the human rights violations were blemishes on an otherwise inspiring vision, I, like many liberal Zionists saw the Occupation as the issue. The problem were the right wing settlers and the settlements.  Like most liberal Zionists, I ignored the Nakhba and the direct connection between the Nakhba and the Occupation.   Without knowing it at the time, this confrontation with the Nakhba began at that meeting with Ben Gurion when I was in high school.

Ben Gurion in South Africa

When Ben Gurion visited South Africa in 1979 he was asked at a meeting of the counsellors of the Zionist youth movements about charges that in 1948, Palestinians were expelled from their homes.  Red in his face, banging on the table, he adamantly asserted that not one Palestinian was expelled.  The opposite: We pleaded with the Arabs to stay and promised them security but they followed the Mufti of Jerusalem who encouraged them to drive the Jews into the sea.  This story is still told to explain the exodus of over 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.

For a few years I believed this standard and still prevalent untruth.  We now know conclusively that this story is simply not true.  Not only were Palestinians expelled from many villages and towns, often with great brutality,  but Ben Gurion himself gave the order for some of  these expulsions.  He one of the architects of the policy of transfer.  The debate still rages about exacty what happened in each village but there is overwhelming evidence that most of the Palestinians left because of actions of the Israeli forces.

The expulsion of over 600,000 Palestinians some of whom left out of fear and most because they were expelled, and the refusal to allow them to return to their homes as required by United Nations Resolution was also a logical outcome of Zionism.  Removing or transferring them was essential to create a “democratic” Jewish state.   Ben Gurion understood this and he was one of the architects of this policy.   The Jewish state could only claim to be democratic if it had a minority of citizens that are not Jewish. Demography, not democracy is the driver.    Zionism has always had the goal of control over the maximum amount of land with the minimum number of Arabs.  Demography has always been the main rationale for Israeli policy.  It was the policy in 1948 and it has been the same policy on the West Bank since 1967.  The Occupation is simply the continuation of the same Zionist goals that led to the Nakhba.     

As a liberal Zionist, we never talked much about the Nakhba.  We never paid attention to  the over 400 Palestinian villages that were razed to the ground, their names erased and replaced by Jewish towns, villages and kibbutzim with Hebrew names.   When I made aliya to a kibbutz in 1970, I simply had no idea that most kibbutzim were built on the ruins of Palestinian villages.  Last year as I was thinking about this I looked up my kibbutz and with the aid of Google in a few minutes I found a photo of the Palestinian village on which it was built.

In 2010, my family spent five months in Israel  in Katamon, a neighborhood with many Anglo immigrants to Israel.  As I walked around the neighborhood I wondered who lived in all these beautiful Arab homes before 48 and where were they now.  In 2009, I was in Bethlehem and when some Palestinian friends and I made our way back to Jerusalem, one of them told me that her home was in Katamon!  There will be no reconciliation without an acknowledgement of the dispossession of the Palestinians.

It is true that what happened in Israel was no different from what the colonialists did in North America and Africa and around the world.  What is different is that the Nakhba is ongoing.  The Occupation, the stealing of Palestinian land, the creation of settlements,  the demolition of Arab villages in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere are a continuation of the Nakhba.  It is a systematic policy by which Israel creates facts on the ground that will make life difficult for Palestinians thereby encouraging or precipitating a voluntary “transfer” of Palestinians from the West Bank. And the policy has met with success.  According to the Civil Administration about a quarter million Palestinians voluntarily left the West Bank between 200-2007.

Palestinian Residency:

Another dramatic example of this policy are the regulations that revoke Palestinian residency for Palestinians who leave the country for a few years.  By the time of the Oslo accords, Israel had revoked the residency of 140,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.

Gideon Levy writes:  “In other words 14% of West Bank residents who dared to go abroad had their right to return to Israel and live here denied forever. In other words, they were expelled from their land and their homes.  In other words: ethnic cleansing.”

He writes; “Anyone who says “it’s not apartheid” is invited to reply: Why is an Israeli allowed to leave his country for the rest of his life, and nobody suggests that his citizenship be revoked, while a Palestinian, a native son, is not allowed to do so? Why is an Israeli allowed to marry a foreigner and receive a residency permit for her, while a Palestinian is not allowed to marry his former neighbor who lives in Jordan? Isn’t that apartheid?  Over the years I have documented endless pitiful tragedies of families that were torn apart, whose sons and daughters were not permitted to live in the West Bank or Gaza due to draconian rules – for Palestinians only.”

Israel recognizes that many Palestinians will not leave but it hopes to contain them in four disconnected Palestinian cantons over which it will exert maximum control and have minimal responsibility.  This is the situtation Israel has created in Gaza and this is the intention for the West Bank.  This is exactly what was called a Bantustan in South Africa, an area where Blacks seemingly had indepdence and autonomy but in fact were totally controlled by the White South African government.

Zionism has become a movement that displaces Palestinians and privileges Jews. The problem here is much deeper than demography; it is a problem of ethics.  Political Zionism contradicts what we hold as the sacred values of Judaism and the lessons of Jewish history.  Judaism has been fused with Zionism and we need a Judaism and Jewish identity without political Zionism.

2. Judaism and Zionism

Prior to the 1940’s there was a vigorous debate about Zionism and Judaism.  Within the Zionist movement there was a small but influential group of very prominent leaders – Buber, Magnes and others –  that understood that imposing our will on the Palestinians would create an unending cycle of violence and violate our deepest values as Jews. There were vigorous debates about Zionism and a division between political Zionists and cultural Zionists.   Most Jews were not Zionists.   The Holocaust transformed the Jewish world and Zionism won the sympathy of the world.

Today 60 years later there is almost no distinction made between Zionism and Judaism.  Zionism has become the religion of American Jews.  Even the Reform movement, the most liberal of the movements with a proud commitment to social justice and  which prior to 1948 was opposed to Zionism, has made Zionism a core tenet of Judaism.

I was recently preparing a Shabbat morning service for Tikkun v’Or the Reform congregation in Ithaca.  As I reviewed the service in Mishkan Tefila, the new Reform prayerbook, I came across the prayer for light that preceeds the recitation of the Shma.

“Shine a new light upon Zion, that we may all swiftly be privileged to bask in its radiance.

Blessed are You, God, Creator of the Light”

My eyes were drawn to a commentary on the bottom of the page by my colleague, Rabbi David Ellenson, the President of Hebrew Union College, the Rabbinical School of Reform rabbis.

He writes:

“Classical Reform prayerbook authors in the Diaspora consistently omitted this line with its mention of Zion from the liturgy because of their opposition to Jewish nationalism (Zionism).  With the restoration of this passage to our new prayerbook, the Reform movement consciously affirms its devotion to the modern State of Israel and signals its recognition of the religious significance of the reborn Jewish commonwealth”

In his brief comment, Rabbi Ellenson describes the transformation in the Reform movement’s relationship to Zionism in the mid 20th century.  In the first half of the 20th century only a minority of the world’s Jews were supporters of Zionism. The Reform movement actively opposed Zionism as antithetical to the core values of Reform Judaism dedicated to a form of Judaism that would allow Jews to uphold our tradition while fully participating in American society.  Since the Holocaust there has been a complete reversal.  with Reform Judaism not only affirms its devotion to Israel but ascribes to the State of Israel religious significance.

What does it mean to ascribe to a political state that is predicated on privileging a particular ethnic group, religious significance? How can American Jews who firmly advocate separation of Church and State  ascribe religious significance to a Jewish State?  Do we believe in a separation of religion and state in America but not in Israel?

The idea that the State of Israel has religious significance is shared by all the movements of Judaism except for some sectors of the ultra Orthodox.  The formulation that is most widely accepted is that Israel is of the flowering of our redemption.  of redemption, the beginning of the messianic age “Reishit tzmichat geulateynu”

Last year there was  some controversy in the Reform movement when Rabbi  Rick Jacobs was chosen to replace Rabbi Eric Yoffie as the the head of the Reform movement.  To allay the fears of those who were afraid of Rabbi Jacobs’ support for J Street and the New Israel Fund, my colleague Rabbi Peter Knobel defended Jacobs as a “staunch Zionist.”

He wrote in Haaretz:

“This is not just a reflection of Rabbi Jacobs’ personal views, for this staunch Zionism and support for Israel are enshrined in Reform Judaism – and in the hearts of most of our more than 1.5 million Jews. For us Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is not only a national celebration but a religious one as well.  [We have enriched our ritual life with new observances and liturgy rooted in our commitment to Israel. The Israeli Reform siddur, “Avodah Shebalev,” has a special Amidah and Kiddush for Independence Day. The new North American Reform siddur, “Mishkan Tefillah,” has a special service for Yom Ha’atzmaut, which uses the Israeli Declaration of Independence as a sacred text.”

“We believe that the renewal and perpetuation of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael is a necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and of all humanity. While that day of redemption remains but a distant yearning, we express the fervent hope that Medinat Yisrael, living in peace with its neighbors, will hasten the redemption of Am Yisrael, and the fulfillment of our messianic dream of universal peace under the sovereignty of God.”

What does he mean?   Is the existence and perpetuation of a Jewish State, one that was created by dispossessing the Palestinian people, one that is has imposed the longest military occupation in human history is a “necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and all humanity?”

What is the relationship between these inspiring words and the Jewish soldiers who invaded a Palestinian home last night to arrest Palestinian children?  Or to Palestinian children who are imprisoned in Israel?  Or to the villagers of El Arakib whose village has been destroyed several times over the past year?

Tragically, Zionism has become the primary religious commitment for most liberal Jews, more important than any other commandment or ethical concern. As a rabbi one can say almost anything one wants about the most sacred traditions and rituals of the Jewish people but if one criticizes Israel, one could quite easily lose your job.


In response to concern about Jewish continuity, the Jewish community has invested millions of dollars in Birthright, free trips to Israel.  Instead of building a vibrant Jewish life here in America and/or creating programs in which our children could engage meaningfully in spiritually engaging/justice related projects we take our children to Israel on “birthright”   What is their birthright?  Do they as Jewish children growing up in security and with much privilege here in America, have a right that comes to them because they were born Jewish of a free trip to a country where Palestinians who lived there for centuries were expelled and not allowed to return and where the process of dispossession of the Palestinians is an ongoing project day by day?

This fusion of Judaism with the interests of that nation state is a tragedy for Judaism.  Judaism is a religion.  Zionism is a political movement associated with a particular nation state. And we need to separate the two, to create daylight between Judaism and Zionism.

We are all indebted to Mark Ellis who coined the term
“Constantinian Judaism” comparing the fusion of Judaism and Zionism to the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Christianity by becoming the religion of the empire, assumed the role of legitimating the actions of the empire.  A religion that is based on the teachings of a radical prophet who taught a message of love, justice and peace was wedded to the needs and brutality of an empire.  Similarly, Judaism with its profound commitment to the human dignity of all, to freedom and to justice, is now wedded of the actions of the Israeli government.

Diaspora Judaism

We need to return to the vibrant debates about the Jewish future that existed prior to 1940.  We need to reclaim with pride the history of Diaspora Judaism, a Judaism that was attached to Spirit and community, not to political power.  We need to affirm the value of  life in Diaspora, living alongside and in relationship with people of other faiths and ethnicities.  We need the wisdom of two thousand years of Jews living in Diaspora creating community and surviving despite victimization.  The Zionists portray Jewish life in the Diaspora in shameful terms, as weak, effeminate, shameful. Living in Diaspora offers us many blessings.

We need to envision an Israel that is a state for all it’s citizens, a true democracy. We need to reclaim Judaism as a source of ultimate values not as the cheerleader for a nation state.  Judaism is an ethical system that can and offer us wisdom about how to use power ethically.

Cast a New light upon Zion and may we all be privileged to bask in that light.

We truly need a new light with which to see Zion and it must be a a light that all can bask in.

Part 3: Solidarity, Privilege and Transformation

In his recent book, The Crisis of Judaism, Peter Beinart has pointed out the contradiction between the story of victimisation that is told almost exclusively by mainstrem Jewish leaders and the reality of Jewish privilege and power.  Jews in America, Israel and around the world have significant power and privilege.   We were victims and have been victimized but thankfully in our world Jews are no longer victims.  The challenge we face is how to live Jewishly with power and privilege.   How do we respond ethically to our power and privilege.

I believe the answer to this question lies in the concept of solidarity. Judaism calls us to be in solidarity with those who are the victims of injustice.  The God of Judaism is the God who cares about the oppressed  Oseh mishpat la’ashukim.  Our God is the God who brings people out of slavery, poverty, injustice.

The Jewish response to privilege and power is to stand in solidarity with all who are seeking justice for all.  In our time, this includes standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice and equal rights.    As Americans we have a direct responsibility for the oppression of the Palestinian people – we make it possible.

Hilda followed a path of solidarity.  As a Jew she was in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice just as she was in solidarity with the struggle of African Americans, Black South Africans, the people of Haiti and Central America.  She understood far earlier than many that this issue, the Palestinian issue, was a Jewish issue, one for which she and we are accountable.

There is a growing movement of Jews who, as Jews, support the Palestinian struggle for justice.  They can be found in American Jews for a Just Peace, in Jewish Voice for Peace, in J Street, in Students for Justice in Palestine, in the US Campaign to end the Occupation and in the B.D.S. movement.  Every person, every Jew will have to make a choice about how we can best support the struggle for justice.

Every day the Nakhba continues.  Every day land is expropriated, Palestinians are imprisoned, brutalised.  Every day our precious Jewish tradition is used to justify this oppression.

For those of us, like Hilda, for whom Judaism is essentially about justice, who have deep love for Jewish culture, we need to join in the task of reclaiming a new Judaism without Zionism.  It will require vision, courage and the ability to endure many difficult and painful conversations.  There are many who want to silence this new movement by name calling and intimidation.

Hilda was one person who continued despite the name calling.  She developed a community of resistance, a commumnity of Jews, Palestinians, and people of many faiths and ethnicities tied together in a shared commitment to justice. There is no better way for us to honor her memory than by travelling beyond our comfortable assumptions and choosing how we may be part of the growing movement for justice.

May her soul live on in us.

A Sheynem Dank/ Todah Rabba/Shukran/ Thank You


35 Responses to “Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism: A Personal Spiritual Ethical Journey”

  1. naomi paz greenberg said

    I was only able to skim this very valuable declaration of conscience. Am printing it to take along to read while traveling to Chicago. I can say that I responded to several paragraphs with deep gratitude.

    This cannot be easy for you.

    Many many thanks,

  2. Ellen Levine said

    Hi Brian–
    Thanks so much for your incredibly brave articulation of what I also feel and think. I am really proud of you for this and proud that there are many others who also stand up for this way of seeing it.
    We have to keep speaking out—-no matter how hard the resistance.


    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks so much, Ellen. We need to stand together, acknowledge our own resistance and lovingly counter the resistance of others to what is true. That is the only path to justice, healing and peace.

  3. Dear Rabbi Brian,

    Thank you for sharing this powerful story of your journey to a non-Zionist Judaism. It helps me enormously to read your clear articulation of these difficult issues knowing also the knowledge and experience you bring to the subject.

    With all best wishes

    Robert Cohen
    Micah’s Paradigm Shift (blog)

  4. carolehope said

    These are words of stunning insight and clarity. Thank you so much for taking the time, and for finding the courage, to write them.


  5. rehmat1 said

    British veteran journalist and author, Alan Hart, in his latest article, entitled Never ending Nakba has warned the Jews around the world to fight the evil of Zionism before it’s too late.

    “If the rising global tide of anti-Israelism is not to be transformed into anti-Semitism, making another great turning against Jews everywhere inevitable at some point, the Jews of the world must play their necessary part in containing and confronting Zionism. As I never tire of pointing out, silence is not the way to refute and demolish a charge of complicity in Zionism’s crimes,” wrote Alan.

    Many rabbis and Jewish scholars, writers and human rights activists have issued similar warnings in the past. Many of these Jewish intellectuals have expressed their opposition to the very existence of the state of Israel. This group includes Rabbis Moshe Aryeh Friedman, David Weiss, David Feldman, Yisroel Feldman and Aron Cohen, Alexander Baron, Gilad Atzmon, Roger Tucker, Dr. Finkelstein, Christopher Bollyn, G. Neuburger, Hannah Arendt, Israel Shamir, professor Israel Shahak, Dr. IIan Pappe, Mary Rizzo, Elias Davidsson, Eric Walberg, professor Norton Mezvinsky, etc.

    In Nazi Germany, the World Zionist movement did not have more than 5,000 Jewish members because a great majority of German Jewish population considered Zionist leaders as Nazi collaborators. Even in the United States, until 1967 Israel-Arab war, Israel was not a serious topic among the American Jews. However, when the Israel Lobby feared the defeat of Jewish army at the hands of Arab armies – it started the myth of “Arabs want to push the Jews in the Sea“. The lie had its desired affect – the American Jews became Israel’s proxy.

    Roger Tucker claims that there is no difference between Zionism and Nazism – they’re twins.

    Gilad Atzmon says: “The Israelis can put an end to conflict in two f*****g minutes. Netanyahu gets up tomorrow morning, returns to the Palestinians the lands belong to them“.

    Miko Peled, the son of famous Israeli general Mattiyahu Peled says: “Israel is not an occupation. It’s the ethnic-cleansings of the native Palestinians”.


  6. judy said

    as a jew who does not live in israel, I am tired of being treated like a second class jew. For example at seders it says next year in jerusalem

  7. Phyllis Bloom said

    This is so deep and important, Brian, so core and speaking to the heart of our understanding as people and to our some of our wonderful conditioning as Jews. That Jews are taught to stand with justice, in its deepest and most beneficial sense, is at the heart of our lives, and is most devastatingly contradicted in Israel in how that State/our “beliefs”, treat the Palestinian people. We are brought to the brink to understand what you say, and what you say from your authentic transformation, which speaks to me completely. I feel honored to know your thinking and your feelings and how you’ve come to change. And blown away, also, by sharing what you mention on our RHR trip. What you write, re-encourages me to speak out as you have done and to take action. Using your words to affect others will be so helpful. Thank you again and again for your honesty and radically true vision, and for your courage and clarity, your commitment to justice and to standing with you know to be true.
    Phyllis Bloom

  8. Thank you, Brian. This is a most powerful, exquisite statement I will send on to students who took my course, Sociology of the Israeli-Palestinian Confrontation, during the semester just ended. As you might expect, some will be thrilled to read it and others mightily bothered by it.
    Thank you again.
    Gordie Fellman, Dept. of Sociology, Brandeis University
    PS I was a long time friend and NJA colleague of Hilda as well as a strong admirer. I miss her so…….

    • Brian, this is a beautiful, honorable and courageous statement. Thank you for not ignoring the monstrous fact that the entire land called Israel was stolen from the Palestinian people. We know who the truly noble Germans were during the Third Reich: they were the ones called traitors because they had the courage to tell the truth while the vast majority of patriotic Germans went along with the Reich’s genocidal agenda. You are a genuine rabbi, a Jew in the noblest sense, and I thank you for this superb essay. Steve Kowit

  9. Steve France said

    Hi Brian,

    I think I might be the first non-Jew to respond to your personal meditation. Be that as it may, I ask your indulgence as an outsider to speak on Jewish issues. Let me add that I have long admired your courage, learning and humility in wrestling with this challenge.
    Since I began to educate myself on the woes of Israel and Palestine about 10 years ago, I have been strongly drawn to exploration of the historical-theological underpinnings of the mess, i.e., how could such highly educated, experienced, ethical people as the Jews go down this path of conquest, militarism and domination? In particular, how could liberal Reform Jews go that route so stubbornly?
    I think the Ellis analogy to Constantinian Christianity that you cite is a useful reminder of how prone all humans everywhere are to twist their religions into justifications for hostility and war against the other. And the Holocaust trauma certainly cut the legs out from under Reform Jewish optimism. But your essay doesn’t go far enough in analyzing the tribalist strands of Jewish doctrine and tradition that are congenial to political Zionism — or at least are fairly easily distorted into seeming to support political Zionism. So, it’s not really sufficient to speak of Constantinian Judaism, when one could cite purely Jewish sources of Davidic or Solomonic or Joshuaite Judaism that support privileging Jews and a Jewish state. Put another way, why did it take you, with your uncompromising attachment to human rights, decades to break with a political Zionism that has always scorned Palestinian rights?
    Looking at the other side of the question, you describe Reform Judaism simply as “a form of Judaism that would allow Jews to uphold our tradition while fully participating in American society.” This seems perhaps to imply that the only challenge was getting along with non-Jews. In any case, it fails to plainly state that the main struggle of Reform Jews was to free Jews from the crabbed, insular authoritarianism of traditional rabbis and leaders. The essay insists that Jewish tradition, especially during the Diaspora, is simply “profound commitment to the human dignity of all, to freedom and justice.” I agree it is well established that the people Israel broke new ground in seeing God as absolutely concerned with the ethics of justice and compassion and community. But didn’t Jewish religious institutions through the ages also regularly support or impose oppression and humiliation on fellow Jews and express serene contempt for non-Jews and a willingness to exploit them? Doesn’t the struggle to overcome political Zionism require a frank recognition of the dark side of Jewish history and doctrine, rather than only shining a light on the bright side?
    As a professing Christian, I confess I sometimes wonder if the reluctance to vigorously confront this “dark side” is not partly caused by fear that is could be a slippery slope toward siding with Jesus of Nazareth and his Jewish followers against the authoritarian traditions of political Judaism. (Mark Braverman may be a cautionary example in this regard as he almostly exclusively draws on Christian theology and has almost nothing to say as a Jew to fellow Jews.) Jesus solved the riddle of Choseness by announcing a new covenant that called on the Chosen to radically reject the power, privilege and greed of this world in favor of solidarity with the poor and downtrodden. The Jewish establishment’s rejection of that message after it was formulated in the early years of Christianity seems pretty close to the rejection by political Zionist Jews of your message of solidarity with Palestinians. So, then, should true Jews embrace his understanding of a new covenant (with or without the metaphysical messages of incarnation, trinity, etc.)?
    The scandal of greedy, murdering exploiters who call themselves Christians is at least as heinous, of course, but it is not identical to the phenomenon you are confronting of enlightened, liberal Jews whose “primary religious commitment” is Zionism. The miscoupling of ethical monotheism with Zionism’s embrace of privilege and power does seem like a dagger aimed at the heart of any hope for Judaism to transcend the tribal.
    Thanks again for your courageous, thoughtful leadership. I hope my ponderings are not offensive and might even spur you on further.


  10. […] post was originally published on Rabbi Walt's blog . Posted in American Jewish Community, Israel/Palestine, Occupation ← Israel Land […]

  11. dima said

    Tell my rabbi-do you pray : “לשנה הבאה בירושלים הבנויה” ?
    And if you do-what does it mean to you.

  12. Rabbi Brian

    Powerful and thoughtful essay.

    You should read (if you haven’t already) “Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn (The Modern Jewish Experience)” by Noam Pianko. It tells of another more fluid and ethical Zionism that might have been, and whose ideas (if not the name “Zionism” itself) might yet be a model for a Jewish ethical peoplehood that does not see Judaism as congruent with the state of Israel, but sees does see it allied with the Jewish people living in the land of Israel and with the struggle for justice in that land and for full rights for Palestinians.

    Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, in particular, had a vision of a multi-national State of Israel which would privileged Jews and which would enforce separation of church and state at least as much as in America. He objected strongly to Ben-Gurion’s formulation that Israel was “The Jewish State” Among his many really good insites on this is the following:

    “A people in ancient times was a religio-political-territorial society. A people in modern times takes on
    one of two forms: either that of a political-territorial society which is not committed to a particular
    religion, or that of a religious society which is not committed to any political state. If Diaspora is to be
    a permanent condition of Jewry, the Jewish People cannot ever again be a political – territorial society

    The only alternative is for the Jewish People to become a world religious community with no
    commitments to any state, not even the State of Israel. On the other hand, the State of Israel cannot be
    the authoritative head of the Jewish People. As a modern state, it should not be committed to any
    particular religion. Whether it should foster all the religions to which its citizens belong, or foster none
    of them, is purely a matter of practical politics. But whichever policy is adopted, all citizens of the
    state, regardless of race, color or creed, must be accorded equal treatment.
    The present status of the State of Israel is an anomaly, because it satisfies neither the ancient nor the
    modern requirements of a state. Insofar as it recognizes Muslims and Christians as full-fledged citizens
    on an equal basis with its Jewish citizens, it has broken with the ancient type of nation-state which was
    committed to a particular religion. On the other hand, insofar as it calls itself a Jewish state, and has
    Hatikvah as its national anthem, it is not yet a fully modern state ..
    The only solution therefore lies in reconstructing the Jewish People, and basing its solidarity not on its
    relationship to the State of Israel, but on its tradition, its historic character and its Messianic striving.”

    – Judaism Without Supernatutalism (1958) p183-191

    I recently developed and gave a course on Kaplan’s though, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of a “cultural Zionist” he was and how worried he was about the course that Political Zionism was taking. It is not for nothing that his last book – written in 1969/70 at age 88/89 was called “The Religion of Ethical Nationhood.” He wished for a different path, and had not yet despaired of it. It is too bad that his views of Zionism and Israel are so little known by today’s Reconstructionists.

    BTW if you would like access to a lot more material re Kaplan and Peoplehood you can see some of the material from the course at

    Course Reader: http://www.box.net/shared/v6epzu28vt
    Kaplan Timeline: http://www.box.net/shared/29fgo7at8x

    Handouts for session 1: Overview – http://www.box.net/shared/op7b4brdru
    Handouts for session 2: Elohei Yisrael: Influences, Values and God – http://www.box.net/shared/lchbymrolm
    Handouts for session 3: Am Yisrael: Jewish Peoplehood – http://www.box.net/shared/bkz3nhvalx
    Handouts for session 3: Torat Yisrael: Jewish Religion – http://www.box.net/shared/sqk1jrzu3k

    and you can see videos of the course at


    The third video re “Am Yisreal” covers some of Kaplans ideas about Zionism/ Jewish Peoplehood / and nationalism in general.

    Is any of this important – other than for historians? I believe it is. It shows that respected Jewish thinkers of not so long ago had a different vision of what modern liberal Judaism should be. Perhaps we can reclaim (some of?) that vision, and use that vision to gain credibility for our own.


    • Oops! The first sentence of the second paragraph above should have read:

      Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, in particular, had a vision of a multi-national State of Israel which would NOT privileged Jews and which would enforce separation of church and state at least as much as in America.


  13. steven brion-meisels said

    Dear Rabbi Walt,.

    Thanks for this and your comments at the Workmen Circle panel on zionism and jewish identity. We will pass this on to friends, and seek the courage to have this conversation with those who will disagree.
    Shalom and salaam,
    steven and linda brion-meisels (cambridge)

  14. Thanks for your article. I read of it at the Mondoweiss blog.

    I hope you will permit disagreeing posts to appear here.

    I am still, and frankly could only be a liberal Zionist. If you acknowledge any relevance to a Jewish majority state, in which the Jewish community gets to self-govern, then you are also a Zionist.

    The only way that one can be an anti-Zionist, would be to desire, and act, for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish majority state.

    While, in some respects that would result in a greater presence of democracy, in other very critical respects, that would result in a diminishment of democracy, as less people would regard themselves as self-governing in that context.

    I don’t see any way around that.

    Israel is a crucible. To hold to own’s values is by definition to be seriously morally challenged. (Its actually the same in any community, state, nation, planet. What’s different about Israel is that one’s name is associated, and we have a strong vested interest in looking good to ourselves and to others.)

    There is a problem with trees and forests. Meaning, that the presence of even significant wrong incidents and policies even (trees), don’t make any qualitative commentary on the existence of the self-governing Jewish entity (state). They are at least significantly skew, like a drop of water is different than a wave.

    The liberal Zionist credo of Israel is as its declaration and basic laws (as originally drafted) convey, an #AND# construction, Jewish #AND# democratic. Like moral life is an #AND# construction, kind #AND# surviving (sufficient to live and to not be forced to steal in some default).

    I sincerely hope that you are not in fact an anti-Zionist, that in fact you are opposed to specific policies and actions, and desire change as in significant reforms, and not change as in revolution and resulting war.

    • Steve France said

      Hi Richard,

      It’s hard to buy the idea that your “survival” is at stake in maintaining a Jewish State that requires you to hock your “kindness.” Details, please.

      Perhaps the true threat to Judaism and to a strong Jewish identity and community comes mainly from misdirecting ethical ethnic energy into a project of military-based political autonomy (self-governance). Check your Roman-Jewish history or even the history of the monarchical states of Israel and Judah. Three thousand years of Jewish thought and effort add up to a lot more than the sort of cheap nationalism other peoples, e.g., the Serbs, find so compelling . . .



    • The issue is not whether Jews want Israel to be a Jewish majority state (If they do let more Diaspora Jews make aliyah or have Israeli Jews have more children.) The issue is whether the Israeli State’s official policy and definition is to have a Jewish majority. A state that is not neutral between ethnic groups under its jurisdiction is racist by definition. A state that defines itself as the state of one ethnic group under its jurisdiction to the exclusion of another is racist by definition. Political Zionism advocates both of the above. The conclusion is obvious. Lets say that Israel returns all the occupied territories (which it wont) and lets imagine that in 100 years the 22% of non-Jews in that new – within the green line – Israel grows to be 51% by dint of higher Arab birth rates or whatever. Will the state then start throwing Arab babies into the Jordan?.

      The only ethical way for Israel to define itself is as a State for all its citizens. The only Zionism that remains ethical today is a cultural Zionism ala Magnes, Buber, Kaplan, Ahad Haam. But these guys (sadly) lost. Defending Zionism today is like defending Communism based on a reading of Marx – as if Lenin, Stalin, Mao had never happened. It can be done, but the word “Communism” just gets in the way. That’s why most people of that viewpoint call themselves “Marxist” not “Communists”.

      As someone who used to be proud of the term Zionist, I say all this with no joy. Today I try to avoid the word altogether. I haven’t come up with another term yet, (“Magnesian” doesn’t seem to cut it.)


      • The Jewish nation is of people, not so much of land.

        I wrote a blog post on “homelessness vs home(full)ness”, beginning on the question. The desire for a safe home to be who/what one is remains. It should not and frankly can not be ignored as a motivation or valid goal.

        The people desire to self-govern as Jews, of which the land is a secondary necessity for all the purposes that land serves. (Residence, agriculture, industry, urbanity, buffer for defense).

        The question of jurisdiction is a very large one, one that if not clarified is a mark of dishonesty.

        Specifically, whether one is an advocate for a democracy of all its citizens in river to sea, including Gaza, or in 67 (consentedly modified) borders).

        The term “racist” is used as a curse, a pejorative. In contrast, the term “national self-governance” is an affirmation of democracy, but both describing the same reality.

        I prefer to bless and encourage than to curse, even by inference.

        So, on the positive side, noting that individual moral capability is a skill learned, incorporated into a personality, a soul, I would recommend healing and growth by teaching of the features that make interaction possible (tangible and in persons), rather than urging existential angst in consideration of some prospective revolution.

        Speaking of what is wrong is important, but the wrongs are of specific policies, legislation, behaviors, implying reform not revolution.

        On the manner of persuasion. There is a common mode of speaking about Zionism which is “you should be ashamed to be associated ….” I hear Rabbi Walt also speaking in those terms. It is the language of an ex-participant, where more intimate participation in the society is what is most persuasive internally.

      • Steve France said

        Sidney — I love your analogy to noble, theoretical Marxism trying to ignore the holocaust-strength crimes of practicing Marxists, aka, communists, e.g., Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.

        Richard — your efforts to wish away the contradiction between ethnocracy and democracy/justice have reduced you to incomprehensible babbling. But it’s clear that for you only Jews are ultimately important. Democracy and justice are merely values to which you give lip service to advance what you call a “strong vested interest in looking good to ourselves and to others.” You look and sound like one thorough going hypocrite!

      • From some activists’ eyes, I probably look like a hypocrite. From a Jew’s eyes, I’m committed to the realization of Tikkun Olam, meaning to repair the world in the form of “all my relations”.

        Judaism is definitively not a universalistic credo. It is a life of a people, and a sincere practitioner will always appear tribal compared to a universalistic litmus.

        You asked above “It’s hard to buy the idea that your “survival” is at stake in maintaining a Jewish State that requires you to hock your “kindness.””

        In that, and your comment above, you assume an apology on my part for Israel’s current policies. If you read my blog, you’ll note that I am not an apologist for Israel right or wrong, hopefully you’ll note that.

        I personally don’t believe that Israel’s survival is at stake currently, really from any specific source, and therefore it is in Israel’s and Israelis’ interest to be kind to its neighbors, in practice.

        The only threat to Israel’s survival currently is the political application of one-person one-vote in the jurisdiction from river to sea (including Gaza), accompanied by the maximal definition of right of return.

        It threatens the self-governance of the Jewish people, and to the extent that civil war is near certain consequence, effects the bodies of Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike.

        It is math, and it is dishonest to advocate for one-person one-vote from river to sea accompanied by the right of return, and then claim that one does not support the elimination of Israel as Israel.

  15. naomi paz greenberg said

    I strongly recommend that people read Uri Avnery’s article on the CounterPunch website:


    He writes, in part:

    “… the Zionist movement has never given a clear answer to its most basic question: how to create a Jewish state in a country inhabited by another people. This question has remained unresolved to this very day.

    “But only seemingly. Hidden somewhere underneath it all, on the fringes of the collective consciousness, Zionism always had an answer…. It is imprinted on the “genetic code” of the Zionist movement, so to speak, and its daughter, the State of Israel.

    “This code says: a Jewish State in all the Land of Israel. And therefore: total opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state – at any time, anywhere in the country, at all costs….”


    • Steve France said

      Richard — I get it — it’s a Jewish thing and I wouldn’t understand. The brutal, hard-hearted subjugation of non-Jews in their own ancestral land is tikkun olam (paging George Orwell). Your position, of course, also means (if you still admit the value of logic, despite its being universal) that anyone who doesn’t understand is really not a Jew, regardless of what he may suppose and others may suppose about him, e.g., Brian Walt, or Naomi Paz Greenberg.

      If you are so very, very Jewish in this way, Richard, it seems improper for you to masquerade as belonging to some other national tribe — or to the ranks of liberals, who by definition subscribe to universal values. You really should reside in Israel and relate to Jews and non-Jews as an Israeli. In any case, why should non-Jews be asked, hoodwinked and pressured to spend big bucks and unlimited diplomatic capital on supporting your tribe against the world and the world’s universal values?

      Historically, the leaders of the people who called themselves Jews and were recognized as such were keenly aware of the folly and ultimate danger of your aggressive tribalism. Herzl & co. fondly hoped that Zionism was a way to “normalize” Jews, i.e., give them a way to live by universal values, as they understood them, and leave the rabbinic mysticism behind. Unfortunately for the cause, racial theories of national identity and lording it over native peoples soon fell out of fashion internationally.

      Your position of mystical ethnic nationalism accords with neither of these positions; rather, it is the logically doomed endgame position of folks who refuse to deal with the reality brought about by the contradictions that Sidney, Naomi and Uri have cited.

      Our pity awaits you.


      • naomi paz greenberg said

        Well, as a matter of full disclosure, I am a Jewish Quaker.

        Part of what I found so troubling in American Jewish society is its seeming amnesia about the fundamental Jewish commandment: Ve’Ahavta Reyecha Kamocha, Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself. Everything else is either commentary or real estate. And if Palestinians are not our neighbors, then who is?

        So many of my family were killed before I was born, that I felt born into a family of ghosts. There is nothing unusual about that. That is an ordinary, commonplace aspect of the narrative of every war everywhere. After I learned about the Holocaust, I learned the phrase ‘Never Again,’ and assumed that meant never again, never to anybody.

        I have since learned that war brutalizes the perpetrator and the victim. Often victims of war are brutalized in two ways: they are injured and they become brutal. This is another heartbreaking postscript to the Holocaust, but not inevitable.

        We can choose to look in the mirror and say we do not wish to be like that any more.

        To see what some of us have become, have a look at the faces in the photos of this article by Yossi Gurvitz for the Information Clearing House:


        For all I know some of these people could be my relatives. DNA evidence suggests that they all are. And I weep for them.


  16. I’m sorry that the desire to live as a coherent, somewhat distinct community is foreign and then offensive to you Steve.

    The dual nature of Judaism, and the dual nature of Israel will not die for your convenience of consistency.

    Its just he way it is.

    Israel will get to be a kind Israel, rather than the current duality (kind and unkind), only by acceptance of it.

    That is why J Street’s approach is much more apt. I love Peter Beinart’s work, but I differ with him on his statement in support of boycott even of settlements.

    The logic that “Zionism is racism”, will not yeild a kind Israel, but will ask it to be more defensive. The effort to force it to reform by boycott and other primarily external pressure, and not primarily through persuasion and making a path for coexistence, is not progressive, as easy as dissent is to name as progressive.

    It is the difference between the urge to reform and the urge to revolution (in the case of a self-governing entity, the urge to kill that).

  17. http://liberalzionism.wordpress.com/

    This is my blog, if you’ve not read it to find out what I actually think.

  18. One last point. In the original article, the title of Peter Beinart’s book is “The Crisis of Zionism”, not “The Crisis of Judaism”.

    • Steve France said

      I don’t have the slightest problem with you or anyone else grouping together to live as a distinct community — and nothing I have said here gives you any warrant for such a surmise. And living as a distinct community does not require displacing and subjugating other people. What you are tripping on is lust for raw power, my friend, impunity, domination, etc.

      Your little threat that we will pay a price for protesting Israeli injustice and cruelty (which you appear to concede is occurring), rather than begging, sucking up to and appeasing Israeli power reflects your power lust syndrome quite clearly.

      You should listen to Naomi about what is happening, though I think she’s a bit charitable in attributing your power trip exclusively to Holocaust ptsd. You simply share the banal, universal human pleasure derived from having unfettered power over others.

      We are saddened.


      • Again,
        As I stated in my original post, that any affirmation of Israel at all defines a Zionist. An anti-Zionist is only one that desires that Israel not exist as Israel.

        To be actively, presently Jewish, implies an affirmed (not ashamed) blood relationship. A family of families. There is certainly a path to conversion, but the conversion is to Judaism, to association with the Jewish people, not to universalism. That is a different religion.

        Within that set of Zionists, there are different approaches, from messianic expansionist, to national expansionist, to defensive, to accommodating, to actively pursuing mutual well-being.

        I don’t know if Rabbi Brant is an anti-Zionist, or a Zionist by that definition.

        It is a critical distinction.

        There are very very few liberal Zionists that regard the state of Israel as inconsequential. We care about it. Even dissenters that are liberal Zionists, do so from a sense of caring, not a sense of willing dissolution, not a “failed experiment”, even Uri Avneri.

        It is much more sad that you resort to name-calling Steve. Try another approach.

        If you read my writing Steve, I clearly advocate for mutual empowerment, not one and not the other.

        I clearly am in the two-state camp, and assertively so, a liberal Zionist.

      • Steve France said

        Nice try, Rich.

        You could take another crack at this one: Why should non-Jews be asked, hoodwinked and pressured to spend big bucks and unlimited diplomatic capital on supporting your tribe against the world and the world’s universal values?

        Historically, the leaders of the people who called themselves Jews and were recognized as such were keenly aware of the folly and ultimate danger of your aggressive tribalism. Herzl & co. fondly hoped that Zionism was a way to “normalize” Jews, i.e., give them a way to live by universal values, as they understood them, and leave the rabbinic mysticism behind. Unfortunately for the cause, racial theories of national identity and lording it over native peoples soon fell out of fashion internationally.

        Your position of mystical ethnic nationalism accords with neither of these positions; rather, it is the logically doomed endgame position of folks who refuse to deal with the reality brought about by the contradictions that Sidney, Naomi and Uri have cited.

      • There is no contradiction between the tension of an #AND# construction that requires both features to be in effect to make something substantive.

        The tension of national and democratic, exists in every nation, every state.

        Differing states have different definitions of the character that makes them national. There is literally no common norm. A geographic emphasis is not a universal basis, as there are accepted ethnocracies as you describe them. There are accepted ethnocracies. There are accepted ideologically defined states. All.

        It is very feasible for a Zionist (even an American sympathizer, or a South African sympathizer) to dissent profoundly from Israeli policies and still love Israel, including Israel the state in which Jews self-determine.

        I love that Rabbi Brian sympathizes with the condition of Palestinians, and acts to improve that condition.

        My question to him (he didn’t respond), is if he has gone so far as to take the political position of advocacy of a single state.

        And, a related question for him, of whether he understands being Jewish and specifically of being a rabbi as a universalistic credo (idea) or real (comprehensive well-being of the specifically tribal Jewish people, including character – as in our collective moral character).

  19. Dorothy Naor said

    Dear Rabbi,

    Thank you. May there be many more voices as yours.

    As a Jewish Israeli (and also American, but living in Israel) who has gone through a process not unlike yours, I much appreciated every word that you said. Just the other day when an American grandson asked what, if I had one word of wisdom to tell my grandchildren, would it be, and without thinking I said ‘do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Having been active against the occupation for a number of years and having seen what is happening, I have repeated this word of wisdom in talks. It took additional years for me to realize that occupation and colonization are but means rather than ends, the end being a ‘pure Jewish state.’ I often say in talks that there is no basic difference in aim (though there can be in means) between a pure Jewish state and a pure Arian one.” For all countries grounded on a single religion/race/ethnos the real aim will always be demography rather than democracy.

    You might be interested in reading ‘Beyond Tribal Loyalties,’ a book in which 25 of us relate the circumstances that brought about a change in each of us–most to becoming anti-Zionist, though not all.

    So far as I know, Aric Ascherman (whom I greatly respect) has remained Zionist, but I suspect of the cultural kind rather than the political Zionism. I never discussed the issue with him. Once when I asked him if in my talks in the US I could say that he supported bds he related that the Rabbis for Human Rights was U.S. based and did not support bds, but that I could say that he personally supported divesting from Caterpillar.

    Due to physical ailments, I can no longer participate in olive harvesting nor protesting in Palestinian villages. Instead I spend hours keeping up with what is happening and distributing information, and speaking in our yearly visits to the US.

    I would recommend (if you are not familiar with it) “Israeli Rejectionism: A hidden agenda in the Middle East Peace Process” by Zalman Amit and Daphna Levit, which shows that none of Israel’s governments have wanted peace.
    Good luck in your continued endeavors.


  20. lonnymoses said

    As a member of Habonim Dror North America, I read this piece when it was posted to our movement’s list serve. A few thoughts:

    First – I think this speech is a wonderful and touching dedication to a person who sounds like an amazing woman. I appreciate your ability to honor her life in such a touching way.

    However, I feel compelled to respond to the arguments you’re making.

    I think the leap you make from “bad things are happening” to “Political Zionism is an ultimate failure” is not very defensible. This is not a clear case of “bad Israel” vs “Good Palestinians”. This situation developed over 100 years, with input from Britain, USA, the USSR, Jordan, Egypt, the Ottoman empire and others. Before Zionism, Palestinians were living in the same area that Israel is in, under Ottoman rule for 400 years. The 30 years between Ottoman rule and the war of independence were a downward spiral into violence and chaos that didn’t end when the war ended. For 19 years, those living in the occupied territories lived as non-citizens of Jordan, before becoming non-citizens of Israel. Based on this and much more, your characterization of the Nakhba is lopsided and lacking in nuance. I know this is not a book or a PhD thesis, but since it is being published in contexts that are meant to sway others to challenge their decision to be Zionists, I do believe it must be scrutinized.

    Again, this is not a simple equation. “Zionism” is not equivalent to “Bad”. When bad things happen we should work to fix them. When we learn new things about our history we should explore them. The history of Palestine from 1917-1948 isn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to go the way it did. And the Zionist enterprise was not a singular, bad actor in the development of the history of the region. You write “I also came to understand that there was a direct line between the formation of Israel in 1948 and the Occupation.” Yes there is a direct line. Both are part of an ongoing struggle that began in the late 1800’s, and which has involved violence, hatred and racism on the part of both arabs and jews. When the grand mufti of Jerusalem issued a fatwa against the sale of land to Jews in 1935, when riots against Jews escalated between 1936-39, these factors also contributed to an increasingly hostile environment. The civil war of 1947 needn’t have happened, but for a variety of reactions to Jewish immigration in the decades leading up to it. When that happens today in France, or even in Israel, we call it racism and/or facism. When it happened in 1929, what was it??
    So when you say, “The expulsion of over 600,000 Palestinians some of whom left out of fear and most because they were expelled” it seems to me that you have been so upset by the failure of the propaganda/mythology that you were fed as a younger person, that you is now assuming a contrarian stance, rather than trying to construct a realistic history.

    When you describe yourself overcoming a fear to finally admit a truth, I do believe you are being sincere, but I also want to challenge you on it. I think that you are an aberration in the Jewish world. Many older Jews reflexively defend Israel because they worry that more pogroms could be around the corner. No amount of power or influence in America will end that fear. Many younger Jews reflexively attack Israel because they want their socialist/radical/liberal friends to like them and don’t have to worry about Jewish existence. Some other younger Jews have learned the fears of their parents, and act like them as a result. Then there are those who simply choose not to care because they can’t handle it.

    In America in particular, but also in other diaspora countries, Jews are able to position themselves as outsiders in large part because we are so successful as a community. Because the Jewish community is both solidly middle/upper class, and because we collectively hold many positions of influence, the (especially young) radicals and liberals among us also feel safe enough in this country to criticize its power.

    Yet, when our army goes to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or when we topple governments in South America, it protects the hegemony that protects us. Similarly, in South Africa, the money Jews gained during apartheid allows them to live comfortably. So when somebody says that they worry more about becoming like those who’ve oppressed us than about maintaining a Jewish state, what does that actually mean? It means to me, that the question of existence is so far removed from their psyche, that they fail to understand how somebody could put existence and security before morality.

    In the country in which I live, we benefit from extraordinary privilege, perhaps even beyond that of normal white privilege. And fortunately, because Jews do have so much influence, when somebody calls us oppressors in America, whether it be true or not, we viciously pound them into the ground – just ask Mel Gibson. Yet isn’t it true, to some extent, that Jews, as much as any other white ethnic group in this country, are now complicit in late-capitalist hegemony? Did not Jews run the pawn shops and liquor stores in poor black neighborhoods during segregation? Are we not amongst the bankers on wall street? Haven’t Jews overwhelmingly become teachers, a position in which we both represent oppression (that is, to black children) and, to a certain degree, enact it (i’m not talking about the great habo teachers out there of course, but look at the riots over new york school teachers in the 80’s)? Did we not flee to the suburbs when black folks moved into our neighborhoods in the 1950’s and 1960’s?

    Yet, while we immediately condemn remarks and actions which blame Jews for oppression in America, when a Palestinian claims injury, we liberals often back those claims reflexively. Like you say, “Judaism calls us to be in solidarity with those who are the victims of injustice”. Yet, who defines who is a victim? Better yet, who defines who is a “bigger” victim? Many liberals, it seems to me, find it acceptable for Palestinians to claim injury from Jewish hegemony in Israel because, for the first time in over 2000 years, their claim cannot be obfuscated behind the actions of the country in which Jews live – it is our country! But isn’t it called the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because it is precisely that – a conflict?

    A.D. Gordon wrote some time ago – ‘Quite characteristic of us is the Hebrew expression: “When Israel does the will of the Lord, its work is done by others”. These with us are not mere words. The sentiment, whether we are aware of it or not, has become a subconscious attitude within us; a second nature to us. ‘ He was talking, of course, about labor. Yet, it has also turned out to be true that this sentiment is true of state violence. While American Jews can protest the War in Iraq as young black and hispanic men go to fight it, Israeli Jews (even ashkenzim) fight for survival in the streets of Gaza and Lebanon (thank god, no longer in the streets of jerusalem and the kibbutzim). And while American Jews can certainly not claim to be victims in the Iraq war, Israelis are certainly victimized by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I don’t want to compare oppression–what happens in the West bank and Gaza is horrible–but is bus bombing not an act with a victim?

    This why for so many, an anti-Zionist stance is not at all courageous. We get to live in a position of power and at the same time align ourselves with the Palestinians, who we believe to be “the oppressed” in this situation. We lecture Israelis on what their country should or should not do, but get to hide comfortably within the opposition when our own countries oppress others. In this way, it is the collective, neurotic striving of our Jewish communities around the world to obtain enough power within these countries to feel secure, that allows liberals, like you Rabbi, to feel comfortable enough that you can bash Israel. Jews in Israel unfortunately, do not have the same sense of security.

    Wouldn’t it be far more brave to sit at a table of communist, universalist, radicals and stay firmly as a Zionist, making it clear that you won’t allow the Jewish State to be made a pariah by the left as Jews before Israel have been for centuries?

    Like you Rabbi Walt, I want badly to see human rights abuses ended in the West Bank and Gaza. Like you, my world was briefly turned upside down when I learned that the Haganah was not an army of saints in the period between 1947-1949.

    Yet, I also believe Israel can be a democracy and a Jewish State. I know that in this era of Liberal Democracies, its hard for many to imagine that some democracies don’t have to follow the exact same principles as others. In the USA, money is both God and speech. That’s a religion to which I don’t adhere.
    I believe that both sides in this struggle need to make changes in order for peace to be possible. I believe in the vision of A.D. Gordon, Dov Ber Borochov, Nachman Syrkin, Ahad Ha’am, Martin Buber, Berl Katznelson and Hiam Nachman Bialik. I also believe that vision must adapt with time and circumstances. And finally, i believe that it is our duty to redeem Zionism.

    Aleh U’Vneh,
    Lonny Moses

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