Friday October 29, 2021 – כ״ג חֶשְׁוָן תשפ״ב
גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁ֥ב אָנֹכִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם תְּנ֨וּ לִ֤י אֲחֻזַּת־קֶ֙בֶר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם וְאֶקְבְּרָ֥ה מֵתִ֖י מִלְּפָנָֽי׃
“I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.” (Genesis 23:4)
Ah – to be a liberal Zionist today! The trials and tribulations of on the one hand loving, defending, and supporting Israel, and on the other, criticizing, rebuking, and protesting some of its policies. The tension between the two so often leaves us in a perilous and liminal state. We draw lines in the sand, join with some groups to say “yes” on certain issues, and reject the stances of those same people/groups/organizations on others. It’s challenging and exhausting, but the moral responsibility that comes with Jewish power and sovereignty coupled with Jewish values of collective responsibility, welcoming the stranger, and the decent treatment of the ‘Other’ pushes us to raise our voices in a clarion call for a Just Zionism.
I often feel like Avraham Avinu when he claimed this week to be”גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁ֥ב אָנֹכִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם” – “Ger V’Toshav” – “a resident stranger.” Avraham made it clear that he both fit in and didn’t fit in. He was welcomed but drew a line in the sand to Ephron and the Hittites: ’Make no mistake, I appreciate your generosity and your welcoming me, but I am also different and I need to take care of my own.’
As liberal Zionists who are active in progressive North American circles, we have a split identity. We sometimes fit in and sometimes don’t. We feel the push and pull of being at the center of the Venn diagram of “Progressive” and “Zionist.” We champion many progressive issues (e.g. voting rights, reproductive rights, climate change, gun violence prevention, etc…) and we stand proudly identifying with Israel. In Zionist circles, we often run counterculturally by challenging and criticizing some of the decisions and choices made by the Israeli government.
Two events this past week sparked that feeling of push and pull. First, the Sunrise DC organization refused to participate in a rally with other organizations (including our North American Reform Movement) due to our connection with Zionism. Second, the Ministry of Defense declared six Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist” organizations.
“The failure of the Sunrise movement to speak clearly in condemnation of the offensive statement this week from their Sunrise DC hub that sought to erase the presence of the RAC, NCJW, and JCPA from the fight for voting rights, is shameful,” the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism tweeted.
We are proud of our Movement for speaking out against the Sunrise movement decision, and for continuing its work for justice.
Going forward, we may see an increase in the marginalization and exclusion of liberal American Jews from American public life and progressive activism, especially those who wholeheartedly support Israel.
What the Sunrise DC chapter and many other such groups (i.e. those supporting boycotts and divestments from anything Israeli) missed is that by shunning these organizations, including our Reform Movement, they do more harm than good to the cause for Palestinian rights. They cancel the very organizations that work to foster a Shared Society between Jews and Arabs on the ground and that have clout and credibility with high-level officials in the Israeli government.
Whether or not this is antisemitic (I believe it is) is beside the point. The sentiment of Congressman Richie Torres speaks volumes:
“There’s a concerted effort to ideologically cleanse progressive politics of anyone or anything that dares to believe in Israel’s right to exist. The fearmongering about “Zionist organizations” has an undeniable undercurrent of Antisemitism that cannot and should not be ignored.”
The people of Sunshine DC have made their statement, that Zionism as defined by the Reform Movement, NCJW, and JCPA is so abhorrent that they prefer to miss an opportunity to advance their own agenda than risk losing tried and true allies who are Zionists and are often leading critics of Israeli policies. This is a frightening phenomenon.
Here’s what needs clarification as stated by activist Hallel Silverman:
“Zionism is not a right-wing political movement like some anti-Israel organizations and adversaries would like to have you believe. Jewish values and progressive values almost always align, which helps explain why 95% of American Jews support Israel. These same American Jews have played leading roles in every major civil rights movement of the past century and overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Fringe extremists should not deter progressives from defending Israel and its right to exist.”
While defending Israel and its right to exist, we can also be critical of Israeli policies, such as last Friday’s decision by Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz who declared six Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist organizations.” Among them are prominent and well-established human rights organizations such as Al-Haq which has been active in the occupied territories since 1979. Gantz’s declaration received sharp rebukes from international and Israeli human rights groups, the UN, and several members of the U.S. Congress. The U.S. State Department requested that Israel provide explanations for this move, and left-wing members of the Israeli cabinet requested that Gantz suspend the declaration.
“This decision is beyond curious,” explains Naomi Chazan. “To label key organizations as terrorist groups is akin to curtailing any possibility for legitimate opposition to occupation. This does very little to quell Palestinian unrest. To the contrary, it leaves them with only two choices: submission or violence. The former is not attainable; the latter is undesirable, leading to even greater anarchy.”
A delegation of Israeli officials will be visiting Washington, D.C. this week to explain the decision. Foreign Ministry official Joshua Zarka said on Tuesday that the envoy will give United States officials “all the details and [will] present them all the intelligence” during the visit in the coming days.
But, in this day and age, the old Israeli adage and mentality of “סמוך עלי” (loosely translated as “trust me and don’t ask questions…”) doesn’t really work. In the Israeli political spoof “Motek Bul Ba’emtza”, (think “Veep”) the 25-year-old reality-TV-star-turned-parliamentarian, hires an l.a. who walks the halls of the Knesset and sits in private meetings with a tefillin-style go-pro camera permanently affixed on his head live-streaming, well, everything. Transparency is the name of the game today.
This declaration is seemingly counter-productive, politically obtuse, and morally reprehensible. Now the burden of proof is on Israel to publicly convey the evidence it claims to connect these Palestinian NGOs, stalwarts of Palestinian civil society, to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a designated terror organization, and “because NGO-Monitor said so,” is just not going to cut it.
While the Government of Israel supported unequivocally this designation, we have not yet received a response from Defense Minister Gantz to the May 2021 letter that the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of Reform Judaism sent to Israeli officials to designate the Lehava Jewish extremist group as a terrorist organization. “Lehava’s use of Judaism distorts the values of Jewish morality to incite violence against Arabs just because they are Arabs,” said Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of IRAC.
As Reform liberal/progressive Zionists, our advocacy is emblematic of our Zionism and our deep commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. We will not shy away from our work for justice and equality.
At the end of this week’s parashah, Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury their father Avraham. Each will become a great nation and a “resident stranger” with one another. Like their father, we need not apologize for our identity, and our nationhood, but also are not free to desist from upholding our values of decency and mutual respect. As descendants of Avraham, may we continue to work hard, show up, and maintain our commitment to our values and our People.