Friday May 27, 2022 – כ״ו אִיָיר תשפ״ב
“Our Reform Zionism can be of a kind that scarcely exists today, but is desperately needed: a Zionism that is fully affirmative both of a religiously-motivated political liberalism and of a religiously rooted program for a specifically Jewish future in the State of Israel.”
~ Professor Michael Meyer
One of the largest and most broad sweeping initiatives of contemporary Jewish life sees Israel as the key to Jewish identity.
The stated goals of Birthright Israel are:
“To ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel via a trip to Israel for the majority of Jewish young adults from around the world.
Our hope is that our trips motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity and support for Israel and maintain long-lasting connections with the Israelis they meet on their trip. We encourage our alumni to take active roles in Jewish organizations and to participate in follow-up activities worldwide.”
Something shifted in the 1990s. Instead of using Israel as a rally-cry Israel – for roughly 750,000 young people – Israel became the most significant arena in which Diaspora Jews get a shot of “Jewishness.” According to the funders and founders, this 10-day trip would turn Jews-by-chance into Jews-by-choice. A visit to the Jewish State (with a highly curated program) would be enough to reverse the trend of apathy, assimilation, and fall-off of Jewish affiliation in North America. It is remarkable that one of the biggest game-changing initiatives of the last two decades was to use a 10-day trip to Israel to strengthen Diaspora Jewish identity.
The strategic logic behind this program is that the Jewishness of many American Jews is bereft of Jewish tradition and content except for their identity as ‘pro-Israel,’ giving to political campaigns, going to AIPAC conferences, and advocating on Israel’s behalf.
Not everyone sees this as a viable solution. After all, some American Jews say, Diaspora Judaism is rich and full without a sovereign Jewish State -as much of Jewish history and creativity took place in the absence of a State.
Regrettably, we now see too many young Jews’ connection with anti-Zionism and their activism against Israel grounded in what they regard as their universal humanitarian Jewish values without connection to the specifics of Jewish tradition and the context of Jewish history.
In asking the question “Do American Jews Need Israel?” we are really asking: “What does it mean for American Jews to be “connected” to Israel? And to what extent is this connection necessary to assure the vibrancy of the Diaspora Jewish community?”
The discussion raises three questions:
- Is there such a thing as Liberal Zionism?
I suggest that the viability of American Liberal Zionism is based on this test:
Is our critique of Israel (its policies and behavior) an internal or external criticism?
Israeli spin doctors and hasbarists (PR reps) make the claim that, of course, it’s ok to criticize Israel – just open up an Israeli newspaper and see pages of criticism. But there is an important difference. A critical op-ed on the pages of Ynet or Haaretz comes from within Israel, from someone who lives there, pays taxes, and serves in the army. When American Jews stray from being unfettered political champions, Israelis ask “But, do you love us?” In response, the critical American Jew asks: “What do you mean ‘do I love you?’ Of course, I love you; that’s why I’m criticizing you.”
A couples’ therapist once told me that before a couple gets married their arguments are over seemingly trivial things but are really about something much more. Arguments over dishes in the sink, cleaning the house, paying attention to one another, and the color to paint a wall are more deeply about the question: “Do you love me, and are you committed to me, for the rest of your life?” After they marry, the petty arguments are often about the issue of the moment – the larger issue is by and large agreed upon.
What Israelis ask is this:
“Are you American Jews committed to us, or is this relationship conditional, fragile, and temporal?”
Jewish conservatives tend to oppose public criticism of Israel, while Jewish liberals view criticism as an important part of “caring” about both countries. For there to be liberal Zionism our Diaspora Jewish leadership needs to demonstrate that our commitment comes from within and is different from the external critics.
For liberal Zionism to succeed we need to come to terms with two critical understandings:
- There is an “Occupation.” Israel has maintained a military rule over roughly 3.5 million Palestinians for t 55 years. Failure to acknowledge that fact, to speak about it, criticize it, and claim it as a moral blight staining the Zionist project, will result in large swaths of liberal American Jews turning away from Israel, Zionism, and Jewish peoplehood.
- The “Occupation” cannot consume all our Israel engagement. There are those who refuse to engage with Israel unless that engagement is about the occupation, settlements, and human rights abuses. There is a place to discuss the Palestinian narrative in our schools, synagogues, and camps, but it should not be the primary focal point of Israel education. On some college campuses and in some Israel programs, we see alums urging that all Israel programming focus on the Palestinians’ plight. Too many regard Israel as a settler-colonialist state and graduate from our educational system without a sophisticated understanding of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We do them a disservice if we don’t engage them with the whole story. (For more on this read the soon-to-be-published work of Dr. Sivan Zakai and view this interview with her.)
Liberal Zionism affirms that American Jews who struggle with the Occupation can maintain a deep emotional connection to Israel by embracing criticism of Israeli government policies as a legitimate form of Zionism. Zionism, after all, was a movement to create not just a sovereign political Jewish State, but to aspire to create an exemplary Jewish society based on the prophetic values of Justice, Freedom, and Peace
Some Israelis are critical of Diaspora Jews who weigh in on Israeli domestic issues – which leads to our second question:
- What kind of influence should we have?
The relationship between the United States and Israel has become intertwined increasingly with domestic U.S. politics. For example, there was a direct clash between PM Netanyahu and President Obama in 2015 over the Iran nuclear deal, and President Trump’s decisions to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and pull the U.S. out of the JCPOA were received very differently in the American Jewish community. Now, liberal Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claims that military aid for Israel led to the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, and American financial aid to Israel takes badly needed funds away from health care.
There is a growing confluence between support for the Israeli government and American political conservatism, as many U.S. Jews who voted for Donald Trump (30% of all American Jews) did so, reportedly, “because of Israel.” Many are troubled by the fact that the newly constituted AIPAC-PAC has endorsed candidates who may be “pro-Israel” (a problematic term on its own) but who also supported the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, and against recognizing the results of the 2020 presidential election.
- Can we have a meaningful Jewish identity and existence without Israel?
Israel tourism has been a stalwart of the American Jewish experience. It seems that our camps and youth movements have positioned Israel travel (e.g., summer teen tours, semester programs, or gap year) as a Jewish rite of passage.
I think we need to reframe our relationship with Israel and Israelis. We need to centralize our critique, political advocacy, and financial support. The 20th-century scholar Simon Rawidowicz (1896-1957) put it this way:
“Two that are One,” however, must not be understood as a one-sided obligation; each must mutually recognize the other. The Diaspora of Israel must build the State of Israel with all its strength, even more than it has in the past seventy years, and the State must recognize the Diaspora as of equal value, and an equally responsible co-builder and co-creator of all Jewish life.”
His is a revolutionary idea: that the Jewish communities of Israel and the Diaspora regard each other as equals, as co-creators of Jewish life. Today we Israelis and Diaspora Jews can share lessons learned from our unique experiences.
Israelis have learned how to create a Jewish society, live in Jewish time and space, have power as a sovereign state, and rely upon themselves for their security and defense.
Diaspora Jews have created a rich Jewish culture in vibrant Jewish communities that have grown within a privatized economy in which the State does not fund religious institutions and each Jewish movement exists on its own without battling turf wars about which religious stream controls the public square?
We are at an inflection point and I believe it is time to do two things:
- Unite our efforts for a just Liberal Reform Zionism in which we partner with our Reform Movement in Israel. “Just Zionism” is a new initiative in which we will work with partners in Israel and North America to align our activism and advocacy around social justice issues such as climate change, combatting racism, religious pluralism, and gender equality.
- Seek out one young person in our families, congregations, and summer camps, and listen to them. Ask students returning from Israel how they are going to make an impact after having had such a transformative experience, and with what issues are they struggling.
The future of American Judaism and the State of Israel are intertwined, and it is upon us to do our part to ensure their vibrancy, richness, and commitment to justice, freedom, and peace.