Suppose that you were a guest at a Passover Seder and you dared to bring up Israeli treatment of the Palestinians . . . and your host turned to you and said, “Thanks, for raising that. We really have trouble reclaiming our Judaism from the old Zionist narrative.” Unthinkable? Not as much as it used to be.
It might seem easier than ever to say the wrong thing about Israel-Palestine, at least as measured by, say, the U.S. Congress. A new definition of anti-Semitism popular in Congress says that criticism of the “Jewish State” is anti-Semitic. But 40 highly qualified American Jews recently provided passionate, personal testimony against that view. Their written statements are collected in a new book titled Reclaiming Judaism From Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation, edited by Carolyn L. Karcher, that documents radical changes in American Jewish attitudes toward Israel and its foundational Zionist ideology.
These are far from the first Jewish voices to fault Israel and Zionism, of course. Indeed, several of the authors make the point that for decades Zionism was a marginal movement denounced by Jews from every land and every religious persuasion from orthodoxy to atheism. They admit that the reality today remains that almost all Jews support Israel — or are very reluctant to openly oppose it. They tell of the deep emotional and religious hold that Israel and the idea of a Jewish State had on them from their earliest years. Zionism was at the very heart of their Jewish identity. But each one has a tale to tell of becoming disenchanted as they confronted the reality of systematic Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians. Each offers searing personal examples of the “wild world of [Zionist] silencing and bullying,” as physician Alice Rothchild puts it.
What’s new is that these are not isolated or lonely voices. Nor can the authors be dismissed as “self-hating Jews.” They are proud, self-loving Jews. Their anti-Zionism doesn’t exist despite their Judaism but because of it, they say. They tell why Zionism for Jews is a “mental prison,” a mortal threat to their deepest Jewish identities, and inimical to Jewish values and Jewish creativity.
They oppose Israel’s policies and ideology from the heart of their Judaism. Accused by Jewish leaders, and even friends and family, of betraying their people and abandoning their faith, the authors have dug deep, reached out and, they say, they have found a deeper faith and vibrant new Jewish communities. “Judaism is so much more than Israel … so much more than Torah,” Rachel Winsberg writes. Judaism “is thousands of years of Jewish scholarship, of people digging deeper and deeper into the possibilities of what it all means.” Natalia Dubno Shevin speaks of “a diaspora practice to imagine all the possibilities to build Jewishness after Zionism.” Rabbi Michael Davis talks of “claiming our place as the dynamic heart of the Jewish tradition.”
Not only are these anti-Zionist Jews deeply Jewish, they are getting organized. That, too, is new. Having fled the spiritual place that Zionists say is their only true home address as Jews, these critics are building a “Jewish home that enables people to be their full selves.” Those are the words of Rabbi Alissa Wise and Rebecca Vilkomerson, who are top leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace, in a joint essay titled, “The Discarded Materials Have Become the Cornerstone.” JVP, along with other Jewish groups such as If Not Now and Open Hillel, is a fast-growing national organization cited in many of the stories as a home where Jews young and old are “re-engaging with Judaism in a new and more authentic way,” in the words of Tali Ruskin. All three groups were formed in the belief that Judaism can no longer abide the unequal treatment of Palestinians by Israel, and that Jews are safer with pluralism than with Jewish supremacy.
Will this movement succeed in bringing the end of Israel as a Zionist state? A lot will depend on the impact that their message has on all of us non-Jews who would not dream of bringing up Israeli policy toward Palestinians at a Passover seder, no matter how deep our belief that Israeli policies are unjust. Until now, we doubtless have correctly understood that the cost of raising the issue would be too steep, the chances of a positive outcome too remote. But if our continued silence is based on the false assumption that Jewish Americans remain virtually unanimous in supporting Israel – or at least not openly criticizing Israel – we non-Jews are actually helping keep Jews silent. At a minimum then, dear Christians, if we wish to see positive change in the Holy Land, we need to read Karcher’s book and assess the importance of the reclaiming-Judaism movement.