by Rabbi Brian Walt
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 Zionism 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.
Introduction: 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 the 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 ten 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 that the silence was accompanied 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 actions of her community, so committed on issues of justice in America while at the same time enabling 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 1980s, 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 handwritten 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 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,” an address that highlighted 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 Hanukkah 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 with you 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:
3. Privilege, Power and Solidarity
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 1967 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 aliyah 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 aliyah 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 meant that I believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would provide a desperately 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 aliyah, 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. Although these organizations are to the left of the mainstream American Jewish community, they all share a progressive/liberal Zionist vision – they are 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 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, my 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.
As part of my involvement with these organizations, particularly Rabbis for Human Rights in the 1990s and first decade of this century, I got to see some very disturbing realities that most Jews and Israelis choose not to see.
As Rabbis for Human Rights worked very closely with the Israel Committee against Home Demolition, in the 1990s 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 children’s 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 aliyah 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. Home evictions were among the brutal realities of apartheid, part of my reality as a child.
Over the years, 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 were then protected by the Israeli army. Each time the question of Zionism came up. These demolitions, settlements, violent dispossession of Palestinian homes were not “rogue” acts – the Israeli state with all its military might enabled and supported these actions. Still, 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.
Then 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 we called “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 1948 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.
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 own 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 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 term that accurately describes what we had experienced on this twelve 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 1940s 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 equal 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 counselors 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 was one of the architects of the policy of transfer. The debate still rages about exactly what happened in each village but there is overwhelming evidence that most of the Palestinians left because of the 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 194 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 claim to be democratic if it had a minority of citizens that were not Jewish. Demography, not democracy was and 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 aliyah 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 1948 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! No, there can 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 2000 and 2007.
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.
In Ha’aretz, 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…
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 situation 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 independence 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 1940s there was a vigorous debate about Zionism and Judaism. Within the Zionist movement there was a small but influential group of very prominent leaders – Martin Buber, Judah 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 Jewish 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 T’filah, the new Reform prayerbook, I came across the prayer for light that precedes the recitation of the Shema.
“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.
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 – 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 and 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 has imposed the longest military occupation in human history, 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, you can say almost anything you want about the most sacred traditions and rituals of the Jewish people, but if you criticize Israel, you 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. By becoming the religion of the empire, Christianity 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 now 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.
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. In truth, however, 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 light that all may bask in.
Part 3: Solidarity, Privilege and Transformation
In his recent book, The Crisis of Judaism, Peter Beinart pointed out the contradiction between the story of victimization that is told almost exclusively by mainstream 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, brutalized. Every day our precious Jewish tradition is used to justify this oppression.
Those of us who, like Hilda, believe Judaism is essentially about justice, who have deep love for Jewish culture, 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 community 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 traveling 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