Jewish resistance to occupation is also fighting for the future of Judaism itself

Activism
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In May of 2017, I traveled to the West Bank as a member of a delegation organized by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV). We were 130 Diaspora Jews, mostly Americans, working in partnership with Palestinian and Israeli resistance organizations to peacefully oppose the occupation of the East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza—an ambitious mission to be sure, yet the group strived for even more: a challenge and wake-up call for the Jewish religion and tradition itself.

In the words of its organizers, the group’s work is at the “center of Jewish Transformation and Palestinian Solidarity.” It rejects many conventional notions in the West about the relationship between Jews and Israel, such as the idea that Israel represents the Jewish people as a whole, and that any criticism of the Israeli policy constitutes anti-Semitism. Instead, in its motto, CJNV boldly proclaims “Occupation is Not My Judaism.” In other words, we can be proudly and fully Jewish while forcefully rejecting the actions of the so-called Jewish state.

Slide from CJNV delegation orientation. (Photo: Charlie Zimmerman)

The leaders of the delegation, a group of very principled and courageous people, asked us to focus on Palestinians and resistance to the occupation in our reports on the delegation, rather than writing about ourselves. That aspect of the work was indeed historic and covered extensively elsewhere, including Haaretz, Al Jazeera, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. So I am going to respectfully defy the leaders’ admonishment because the group’s work also has notable implications on the relationship between resistance to the occupation and the Jewish religion and tradition.

In Palestine, we heard extensively about the occupation from its victims. One resistance organizer noted that Palestinians are “stereotyped as terrorists like chocolate is stereotyped as sweet.” I believe Judaism is associated with Israel in a similar way. Any decoupling of Israel from Judaism, such as our mission, disturbs or least jars many observers—they might express surprise or even call Jews who challenge Israel “kapos,” traitors, or self-hating Jews.

Indeed, when I told friends and relatives that I was going to the West Bank to resist the occupation, some did point-blank call me “traitor” and an “enemy.”  Others who were less vitriolic generally had a difficult time understanding how a Jewish person could possibly go against Israel—they tended to think I was a bit weird (which is true, but that’s another story), or that I wasn’t really Jewish.

A commentator on an article I previously published about the delegation’s work brings this point home well, if a bit, hyperbolically:

“Mr. Zimmerman represents the crypto-enemy of Zionism and the so-called ‘Jewish State’ of Israel; and every unacceptable, immoral and unjustifiable policy they stand for: he penned his observations having been there with the Jewish group CJNV and – however secular by his own averral he may be – he’s Jewish. He is thus the detested and reviled JINO, the ‘Capo’, the ‘self-hating Jew’ whose criticism of the Zionist project and of the Hasbara-im’s beloved, flawless, sacrosanct Israel is the crime for which no punishment can be sufficient; criticism, express or implicit, by a Jew of Zionism and the State of Israel being worse than child-abuse, cannibalism and robbery-with-violence combined. [sic]”

In hindsight, I realize that, prior to my participation in the CJNV delegation, even I unconsciously thought of the Israeli state and Judaism as equivalent to some degree. I knew that CJNV’s slogan was “Occupation Is Not My Judaism”, but, unconsciously assuming that opposing Israel could not be authentically “Jewish”, I thought that we would focus only on the “Occupation” part of the mission. I assumed that Judaism would only enter the picture peripherally if at all, or maybe even cynically as a strategic way to advance our agenda.

My experience in the delegation proved these assumptions dead wrong. Though some secular Jews and atheists were present, the majority of participants, including at least ten rabbis, were very committed to Judaism. Their religion and tradition compels them to pursue justice for non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel and therefore actively resist the occupation. And they could support this position with plenty of Torah passages, commentary, and interpretation.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), for instance, is a central tenet of Judaism. Pursue—not value, love, or think it’s just dandy: we must always seek and struggle for justice. The CJNV activists lived this principle. Many are active members of Jewish groups opposing the occupation such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. In that capacity, they devote much time and effort towards their goal of reversing unconditional support for Israeli policy, often putting their bodies on the line and risking arrest. And they did the same in Palestine when working to build and sustain the Sumud Freedom Camp in the South Hebron Hills village of Sarura. The IDF forcibly evicted Palestinians living in Sarura from their cave-homes about 20 years ago, and our mission was to rebuild these homes and move one of its former inhabitants and his family back in. Though CJNV officially asked us to participate in this action for only one full day, many activists camped out in Sarura for five days straight, engaging in physically intensive construction work while eschewing cell phone service, electricity, and indoor plumbing.  Some even stayed in the camp up to a week or more after the delegation was officially over. Justice, justice they did pursue—and then some.

Additionally, the more religious participants had a take on concepts such as “Aliyah” and “Israel” that differed from convention and what I learned growing up—in their view, both refer to spiritual abstractions rather than concrete entities or actions. Aliyah refers to an unattainable goal of ascending (the term literally means “ascent”, not, as widely believed, “return”) to the ways of God in one’s thoughts and action. As God is infinite, this is an unattainable goal, but those who yearn for it continually strive to act morally and improve themselves.

And “Israel” is seen both as a verb that means to struggle or wrestle with God and a noun referencing God’s covenant with the Jewish people. The struggle means one seeks God’s wisdom and guidance, but it also implies a dialectic partnership with God that affects both parties. The covenant represents a commitment of God to the Jews and vice versa. Jews honor this commitment by living ethically and seeking justice according to God’s will, which they continuously seek to discern.

Thus, in naming the Zionist state Israel, its founders debased the spiritual realm by implying that one could attain transcendent goals that we should strive for but are always beyond reach in the physical realm. According to one rabbi who participated the delegation, the Israeli state’s primary founder David Ben-Gurion’s advisors warned him that the name “Israel” would lead Jews to falsely conflate the spiritual concept with the new state. Ben-Gurion’s response: “That’s fine with me.”

All this armchair theology relates directly to CJNV’s idea that occupation resistance intersects with Jewish transformation. To the degree that we identify Judaism with the Israeli state, it would be impossible to oppose the latter without transforming the former.  And despite what some of its Orthodox adherents might believe, Judaism is a living religion and tradition: Jacob’s wrestling with God (he cannot take the name “Israel” without engaging in this struggle), Talmudic debates, and evolving and differing viewpoints about the role of Zionism all exemplify a religion and tradition that at its essence embraces dialectic interaction and change.

So in supporting, opposing or remaining neutral on Jewish resistance to occupation, we are also staking out positions on the future of Judaism itself. Do we want our Jewish identities defined by allegiance to a nation-state, or do we recognize this as perhaps the clearest, most dangerous, and historically common example of idol worship there is?  Do we say “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so now it’s our turn to victimize others” or “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so we should ensure at all costs that we never perpetuate it ourselves?”

Maybe this struggle for the soul of Judaism is one reason why I have observed an increase in visibility of and support for Jewish anti-occupation organizations in the Diaspora.  More and more of us, in addition to pursuing justice, are fighting for Jewish identities we can embrace proudly and to keep our tradition alive, compassionate, and meaningful. Diaspora Jews, for the sake of Palestinians, ourselves, and our tradition, must continue to raise our voices and insist that injustice being perpetrated in our name and on our dime must end.

About Charlie Zimmerman

Charlie Zimmerman is a software developer, writer and long-time human rights activist from New York City who currently lives in Agoura Hills, CA. He participated in the Center for Jewish Nonviolence delegation in Palestine, summer 2017. On Twitter as czimmerman19.

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26 Responses

  1. Paranam Kid
    July 31, 2017, 12:29 pm

    Bravo, well written, a noble project, and a worthy one. It is important to keep denouncing & fighting the conflation of Judaism & Zionism, as well as the conflation of antisemitism & anti-Zionism, and Israel criticism & antisemitism. These conflations are depraved, an insult to Judaism & the Jews, and are dangerous.

    • Mooser
      July 31, 2017, 2:20 pm

      “Bravo, well written, a noble project, and a worthy one.”

      And such a bargain! We can rid ourselves of the moral stigma of Zionism simply by being anti-occupation.

      • festus
        July 31, 2017, 3:17 pm

        Jewish resistance to occupation is also fighting for the future of Judaism itself

        It seems that is what the resistance is really about. Not the victims of Zionism ..but to avoid future Jewish loss of power.

      • Keith
        July 31, 2017, 4:08 pm

        FESTUS- “….but to avoid future Jewish loss of power.”

        Indeed, Jewish Zionists achieve “kinship” with other Jews by organizing for Israel and Zionism, whereas, Jewish anti-Zionists achieve “kinship” with other Jews by organizing in opposition to the occupation and to a Zionist Israel. In this regard, anti-Zionism is Zionism’s echo, an attempt to maintain a kinship identity without the baggage of Israel. What I don’t see is any real commitment to universalism or, as you mention, anything other than a Judeocentric orientation and perspective.

      • Mooser
        July 31, 2017, 7:42 pm

        ” Jewish anti-Zionists achieve “kinship” with other Jews by organizing in opposition to the occupation and to a Zionist Israel.”

        And a huge web of self-dealing, falsehood, hypocrisy and conspiracy grows out of this anti-zionism kinship exactly the same as grows out of Zionism. Cause, well, Jews.

      • Keith
        August 1, 2017, 1:25 am

        MOOSER- “And a huge web of self-dealing, falsehood, hypocrisy and conspiracy grows out of this anti-zionism kinship exactly the same as grows out of Zionism. Cause, well, Jews.”

        Methinks Moosie doth protest too much. It takes a certain talent to impute anti-Semitism to acknowledging that anti-Zionist Jews tend to focus on their Jewishness. You disagree? You think that the “Center for Jewish Nonviolence” is a multicultural organization emphasizing universalism? In fact, your umbrage at my comment tends to prove my point. Perhaps it is time for a little introspection on your part. Seriously.

      • Citizen
        August 1, 2017, 10:46 am

        Re” Do we say “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so now it’s our turn to victimize others” or “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so we should ensure at all costs that we never perpetuate it ourselves?”

        In more general terms, meaning, universally, not tribally, do we continue the cycle of abuse, or not? Of course, that’s a question for every human individual, which means collectively, all of Humanity, while, in contrast, other forms of this question posit God has only made a covenant with one group, the Jews. This despite Adam & Eve had no tribe–of course, they had no belly button too, eh? To me, it’s simple: do you yearn for, and pursue justice for all out of empathy for all born human, or not? Either “Never Again!” applies to all humans, thus, human groups, or it applies to none. Nuremberg & Tokyo Trials implemented ex post facto legal principles, and Geneva IV followed up. “Crimes against humanity” and against “aggressive war” were presented as universal crimes, not just crimes against the Jewish portion of mankind.

      • Keith
        August 1, 2017, 4:22 pm

        CITIZEN- “In more general terms, meaning, universally, not tribally, do we continue the cycle of abuse, or not?”

        What cycle of abuse? The author is saying that Jews have been persecuted throughout history, always the innocent victim. This is part of the Jewish myth-history meme that throughout history, Jews have been the victim of irrational and eternal anti-Semitism. Do you buy that? You actually believe this is an expression of universalism? Oh, he may be saying to turn the other cheek now, but he is totally committed to the myth of eternal Jewish victimhood. This notion of eternal victimhood is intrinsic to Zionism which could not long exist without perceived anti-Semitism.

  2. eljay
    July 31, 2017, 1:22 pm

    … Do we want our Jewish identities defined by allegiance to a nation-state, or do we recognize this as perhaps the clearest, most dangerous, and historically common example of idol worship there is? Do we say “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so now it’s our turn to victimize others” or “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so we should ensure at all costs that we never perpetuate it ourselves?” …

    Well said.

    Zionists don’t seem to care that for decades they and their colonialist and (war) criminal “Jewish State” construct have been deliberately undermining international laws and human rights and the protections they are meant to afford all people including their fellow Jews.

    Why do Zionists hate Jews so much?!

    • Talkback
      July 31, 2017, 4:00 pm

      eljay, just to clarify your comments, because some phrases could be misleading.

      Are Zionists only “colonialists” outside the state of Israel and does ‘criminal construct’ only refer to the “Jewish” state and not to the state of Israel in general?

      • eljay
        July 31, 2017, 5:13 pm

        || Talkback: eljay, just to clarify your comments … ||

        There’s no need “to clarify” because you already know the answers.

        So, thanks, but I have no interest in continuing to play your and echinococcus’ little game.

      • Talkback
        August 1, 2017, 10:48 am

        No, you are simply to dishonest to give an honest answer. You abuse antizionist arguments to make a case for Zionism.

  3. Citizen
    July 31, 2017, 9:23 pm

    I’m a 90-year-old woman in Israel for 50 years – this is what I think about Israeli settlements http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/israel-palestine-settlements-heres-what-i-think-a7784866.html

    • YoniFalic
      August 1, 2017, 9:47 am

      There is no obviously ethical distinction among:

      1) the post-1967 settlements;

      2) the post-1948 but pre-1966 settlements; and

      3) the pre-1947 settlements, which my family and fellow white racist genocidal European settler-colonist invaders built.

      The last were disgusting while I can only say one thing about the first two.

      After Auschwitz and the Nuremberg IMT, it was vile and criminal to found a state in post-Auschwitz genocide.

      I left Israel. Ruth Kedar should do likewise.

      BTW, all the year relative qualifiers are meant to be inclusive.

      • Nathan
        August 6, 2017, 9:16 pm

        Yoni – you only used five adjectives to describe the invaders [“….white (1) racist (2) genocidal (3) European (4) settler-colonist (5) invaders…”]. Certainly, the invaders deserved at least 10-12 adjectives in order to convince us that they are the bad guys.

      • Mooser
        August 7, 2017, 11:22 am

        “Certainly, the invaders deserved at least 10-12 adjectives…”

        It’s a trick, “Yoni”. Don’t fall for it. Tests have proved it is impossible to apply more than 8 adjectives to the Zionists with crossing over into anti-semitism. Which invalidates all charges.

  4. Susan A
    August 1, 2017, 9:43 am

    @Festus @Keith: I’m not Jewish, but what’s wrong with fighting for the future of Judaism as they see it? It doesn’t mean people aren’t fighting for the rights of the people of Palestine because they only care about Judaism. I think it’s because these people have a conscience. I’m with Mooser all the way…as ever.

    • Citizen
      August 1, 2017, 11:01 am

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Mooser implied that it’s not right to say or imply all Jews who pursue justice for Palestinians are motivated more by saving the Jews as a people distinguished from all others, than by justice for all. OTOH, the Jewish people as a collective have no monopoly on seeking justice, no matter the god or gods non-Jews have worshipped. So, I’m not sure what the difference is between hard core humanists and justice-seeking, empathetic Jews. I don’t think Mooser does either. I admit, I don’t like kosher food, nor Chinese food too much, nor fucking through a sheet; nor do I think routine circumcision of baby boys is a blessing on those boys. So, what am I missing?

      • Mooser
        August 1, 2017, 12:37 pm

        Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think the “kinship” rewards of anti-Zionism are quite in the same class as those afforded by Zionism.

      • RoHa
        August 1, 2017, 8:59 pm

        You don’t get the fame, the girls, the money, the sense of machismo?

    • ErsatzYisrael
      August 7, 2017, 11:53 am

      Susan A, on August 1, 2017, 9:43 am:

      @Festus @Keith: I’m not Jewish, but what’s wrong with fighting for the future of Judaism as they see it?

      When the “fighting for the future of Judaism as they see it”, is really just them fighting for the future of Zionism as they see it.

  5. JLWarner
    August 2, 2017, 1:48 am

    Excellent description and analysis of the motivations of participants in CJNV. I was there also and completely agree with Zimmerman.

  6. aloeste
    August 3, 2017, 12:26 am

    your form of leftism as judaism plants you firmly in the goy and jew hater camp. fortunately , the pro-israel form of judaism has the most active and reproducing elements. we aren’t worried

    • Mooser
      August 3, 2017, 5:07 pm

      ” the pro-israel form of judaism has the most active and reproducing elements. we aren’t worried”

      Oh, you’ll be good and worried when it becomes clear to the world they are violating the ‘nearly half the time’ rules.

  7. ErsatzYisrael
    August 7, 2017, 10:29 am

    Do we say “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so now it’s our turn to victimize others”

    ZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…Someone wake me when they’ve found an honest-to-goodness 3000-year-old Jew who has actually “experienced persecution throughout history”.

    • Mooser
      August 7, 2017, 10:54 am

      Would 2000 years do? I’ve been checked out by Hellman at the Mayo Clinic, he says I’m still fresh. How did I live this long? Easy, I never fly. If the good Lord had meant men to fly, He would have given us tickets…

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