Why I removed my synagogue’s Zionist prayers on Yom Kippur

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A year ago, I joined my synagogue’s Yom Kippur service and looked over a prayer they had distributed. Titled “Prayer for the Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces,” it called for Israel’s opponents to be “struck down”. It thanked Israel’s soldiers for standing “guard over our land” and clarified that this land included the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It was published by “the official fund of the Israeli Defense Forces.” Although I’d had my disagreements with this synagogue in the past, I decided to attend the service in honor of my grandma who passed away a few months earlier. Seeing this prayer, I realized my participation was no honor to her.

I walked out. On my way, I grabbed the entire stack of prayers.

I posted a photo of the stack on Facebook, along with an admittedly boisterous caption. [1] Some friends replied with strong disapproval. A former classmate even threatened, “One of these days you’re going to get beaten to within an inch of your life by someone, and you’re going to deserve it. That’s all I have to say.”

Initially, I planned to shred the despicable prayers. A Chabad rabbi, a longtime friend, wrote to me that they have God’s name on them and, “As Jews we bury not shred G-d’s name.” Fine with me. I announced I would give them a burial.

With Yom Kippur here once again, it is customary for Jews to reflect on the past year and repent for the wrongs they have committed. Some will think I should begin by apologizing for stealing from and publicly shaming my synagogue. Instead, I will explain why I did it and why I would do it again.

Their prayers answered

It matters a great deal what synagogues include in their Yom Kippur service, on the holiest holiday of the year. These prayers help shape many Jews’ very conception of what it means to be Jewish. They set an example for the congregation’s children. Zionist prayer reinforces the militarist mindset that so many young Jews learn on Birthright and March of the Living, in campus Hillel chapters, and in Hebrew School classes. As long as advocacy for occupation and warfare proliferate Jewish culture, it is impossible to see the Jewish mainstream playing anything but a destructive role in the struggle for justice and peace.

The prayer asked, “May the Lord cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down.” A year has gone by, and the congregants got what they prayed for. The Israeli military “struck down” some 2,188 Gazans this summer, at least three-quarters of them civilians. Israel “struck down” Gaza despite the offer Hamas made on July 16 for a decade-long truce in return for ending the blockade (which, as a form of collective punishment, is illegal anyway under the Fourth Geneva Convention). Israel “struck down” Gaza despite Human Rights Watch calling for Israel to be investigated for war crimes. Israel “struck down” Gaza despite the clear lesson from history that war will not extinguish Palestinian resistance. The assault “left 373,000 children in need of direct and specialised psychosocial support,” according to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.

As if answering the prayer, Israeli soldiers and police continue to occupy “our land” from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Over the summer, Prime Minister Netanyahu once again promised never to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. This week, Israel finalized its approval for 2,610 housing units to be built in occupied East Jerusalem.

What would Rabbi Hillel do

I explained to my family the day after Yom Kippur that I had simply tried to follow the words of the first-century BCE rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow man. This is the whole Torah; the rest is mere commentary.” Hillel’s prescription resembles the well-known Golden Rule (Treat others as you would like them to treat you under similar circumstances) that Charles Darwin and later Peter Kropotkin considered an approximation of human beings’ innate moral instinct.

If someone saw a prayer for anti-Jewish violence in their church or their mosque, I would not want them to recite it. In fact, I would want them to remove it and to explain to their fellow congregants why they did so. This is how I would want to be treated. I am sure the members of my synagogue would agree. Following Hillel’s words, when I saw a prayer for anti-Palestinian violence, I tried to respond with the same respect toward Palestinians that I would want directed toward me. I also tried to treat my fellow Jewish congregants how I would want to be treated; if you ever catch me praying for a military occupation of someone else’s land and the striking down the oppressed, I want you to interrupt and challenge me.

The Chabad rabbi sent me another message, insisting that I had censored my synagogue’s prayer and violated the congregation’s freedom of speech. He is mistaken. I had neither the intent nor the effect of censoring the prayer. I removed the stack during the middle of the service, after most congregants had already seen and taken a copy. Far from censoring it, I even posted a copy online for educational purposes. I cannot and would not stop my synagogue from printing or ordering more of these prayers in the future. Needless to say, I would oppose any attempt by the State to stop a house of worship from reciting a prayer like this one.

So what message did I hope to send? I wanted to show that from time to time we ordinary Jews can throw a wrench in the Zionist propaganda machine and challenge its hijacking of Jewish culture. As the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe writes, “We need to reclaim Judaism and extract it from the hands of the ‘Jewish State’”. I want to emphasize the “we”. This time, there will be no Abraham smashing the idols for us, no Moses burning the golden calf, and no Elijah calling fire from the sky to expose the wayward Israeli king. This time, the work of decolonizing Jewishness will be up to all of us rank and filers.


[1] Here’s the caption:

On my way out of synagogue, I ‘borrowed’ the whole stack of Zionist prayers being handed out. Does anyone have a good shredder?

Bless the Israeli Occupation Forces for standing ‘guard over *our* land’? Pray for Israeli ‘victory’? Wish for all those who ‘rise up’ against colonialism to be ‘struck down’? Really, Beth El?

Happy new year, everyone! This year, may we overcome racism and free Palestine!

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