I remember being asked in grade school, “If Canada went to war with Israel, who would you fight for?” The question made no sense to me. Canada didn’t go to war with Christianity, so why would it go to war with Judaism?
Theology being too difficult, Israel was my religion. The 1967 war gave it a miraculous sheen. When the First Intifadah threw my religion against my principles, I had no way to resolve the contradiction. I was an absentee Jew for a quarter century. While living four years behind the walls of Gaza, I began to study my religion through its principles, as I encountered Israel through its exercise of power. Then Israel decisively left me during the assault of 2014.
I left Gaza a year later, wondering how to be a Jew without Zionism. I left my work with communities affected by conflict, and returned to New Zealand. While I settled into Wellington, the family and social consequences of having chosen to live in Gaza unfolded painfully. I joined a liberal, Progressive temple, and stumbled into one more strenuously contested ground of this conflict: how to unshroud Jewishness from the Jewish nationalism of our institutions.
Through nine years in Afghanistan and Gaza, I had enjoyed the unselfconscious nearness of my colleagues’ religion. At last, I inhaled my own. I left each service feeling elevated. I joined the choir, learned to read and chant the Torah, had my Bat Mitzvah and sometimes led the singing for Shabbat services. I simply didn’t recite the prayers for Israel’s government (or, in other temples, for its army). I didn’t celebrate the Israeli holidays or attend the Zionist events, although they formed a good part of the social calendar. As I read commentaries on my first journey through the Torah, I set aside the ones more political than spiritual. For example, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth 1991 – 2013, links the Korah Rebellion against the authority of Moses to a rather misleading portrait of BDS. He is welcome to his political positions – but although he concludes that “the spirit of Korah lives on,” it’s not Moses (or any other religious entity) who is being challenged today.
I put those things aside. I understand that, if Israel is one’s religion, then a challenge to Israel elicits religious offense. I thought I could sift out the religion, and be left alone by the rest of it.
Then came Trump, and then came Jerusalem. Then the Israeli Ambassador informed a temple gathering that Israel has no obligation to the ‘inconvenient’ refugees, who ‘no one wants’. I looked in anguish at the silent people around me. They are principled, caring, often activist; and many of us are descended from inconvenient refugees. The people in that room support all kinds of charities, including the interfaith campaign to increase New Zealand’s intake of refugees. I assume that some of them would have objected, and felt that the temple was not the right venue for it.
I am not here taking issue with their beliefs (with which I disagree, but which I do not own). I am taking issue with the Jewish institutions that give such silence religious cover. Institutions are, among other things, agreements about behaviour. Institutions are political interests and they condition the politics of their members. The socio-institutional context of prayer and ritual is a (provocative) field of liturgical analysis known as form-criticism. When mainstream Jewish institutions wake up in bed with Donald Trump, the religious influence of Zionism is due for some serious form-critiquing.
I couldn’t tolerate the polite silence. As Israel radicalized, they were being moved too far for me.
I had learned to study (for which I will always be grateful), and I had questions: what is Judaism, if not Israel? Why do we claim social justice differently from secular acts with the same aim?
I had Marc Ellis to thank for my dim sense of a prophetic liberation theology, although I had not a skerrick of understanding of ‘the prophetic’. And I had a beginners’ Biblical Hebrew textbook. I grew up knowing that the founders of Israel had revived a dead language while they were making the desert bloom. Until I opened that textbook, I had not understood that they overwrote the language of our prayers and our source texts. Biblical Hebrew had not died; they colonized it.
On the strength of that hopeful toolkit, I vowed to read the prophets in Biblical Hebrew. I wanted sweat equity in my religion, not a set of received political positions. I left the city for a year of remedial study.
For me, being a Jew in dissent requires, first, figuring out what it means to be a Jew.
That requires the language of our primary sources. Language unlocks the lives of the prophets, who gave us a stern assignment, not an entitlement. Prophetic Judaism critiques power and its theology elevates the care of the vulnerable. Jewishness requires a study of the liturgy, the content and phenomenology of prayer. And it has centuries of richly contested philosophy. With that, I will have reached the starting line.
After years in the middle of other people’s wars, a friend suggested that this study calls to me because, ‘the value of religion [is to] heal, rather than destroy our humanity… for the establishment of any kind of grounded human decency.’ I had a long skype with a friend in Gaza this morning, and she, too, is yearning for some study time and some grounded human decency. We are, after all, both women of our Books.
Judaism is spiritual. Zionist nationalism is, emphatically, not. It’s not hard to tell them apart, and public discourse is learning to do that. If only more Jews could do the same.
Younger people are better at it. Their co-activism imagines co-existence. British youth say kaddish for the Gazans who have died, and IfNotNow is protesting Birthright.
Their parents need a positive, pro-Jewish walkout – a NotTooLate. Lots of them; because being a non-Zionist Jew is a project without a single template. In dissent, one spends a lot of time reacting, correcting, countering, browbeating and fending off despair. We need also to create, to be fed and to envision the reconciliation that can be good for everyone.
Meanwhile, my Prophets Project flourishes. Ezekiel made my hair stand on end. I am no longer self-conscious about singing 2500 year old prayers into the sunrise, reciting irregular verbs in the shower, and pestering the scholar down the road with questions. I feel fortified in my inheritance, nourished by its awe and argument and mystery. I have found an asset to bring to my life, including the urgent matter of justice.