American Jews Tell a Big New Story ~ Steve France reviews ‘Reclaiming Judaism From Zionism’

Posted on Aug 26, 2019

A new book, “Reclaiming Judaism From Zionism,” wants to start a big new conversation about Israel. The book presents the personal stories of 40 American Jews of all ages and descriptions who pull back the veil on a topic that is largely taboo in the U.S.: the trouble the Jewish establishment is having keeping the lid on Jews who are critical of the Jewish State.

The mini-autobiographies tell the stories of women and men who object to Israeli policies against Palestinians. They challenge Zionism as inherently flawed. Most disturbing, no doubt, to Jewish supporters of Israel, the authors have concluded that Zionism is a mortal threat to their deepest Jewish identities. That position, which each narrative makes with passion and personal precision, is an existential threat to Israel as a Jewish supremacist state. Nothing, perhaps, could give more comfort and hope to the long-shunned Palestinians.

The stock Zionist response to their Jewish critics is to label them as self-hating Jews, or at least indifferent, overly assimilated Jews who have forgotten their Jewish identity. But the Jews in these pages are passionately self-loving Jews; they are earnestly blazing a trail to a new Jewish liberation, rebelling against a “mental prison” of Zionism that stifles Jewish values and Jewish creativity.

“As I began to broaden my worldview, everything began to crumble. I unearthed a broken root of my Jewish existence, and I began to hurt because I didn’t know how to balance these two identities – my vast and expansive love for the Jewish people, and my urge to speak up for justice, for the loss of lives being carried out in my name,” writes Columbia University religion major Eliza Rose Moss-Horwitz. Her declaration comes on the heels of an incident she recounts when she was attacked on campus as “a betrayal of your ancestors,” and a foolish “girl” for not knowing that “Arab men would kill you if they found out you were Jewish.”

Ironically, like most of the authors, Moss-Horwitz is rebelling now because she believed so deeply in the goodness of Zionism. As a child, she was entranced by the “fabricated truth” about Israel that portrayed the Jewish State as the embodiment of Judaism’s uncompromising commitment to social justice and “healing the world.” When she got to know an actual Palestinian, it all began to fall apart. The story had no place for the Palestinians. Indeed, she recalls, even the word “Palestine” was to be avoided.

Other authors, who look back over a lifetime of relationship to Zionism, describe the same basic trajectory from an idealized understanding of Israel to a deep opposition. Some have to deal with happy childhood visits to Israel, which Tali Ruskin, for example, remembers as “a utopian playground for me and all Jews … supported and complemented by my experiences at a Jewish day school and Zionist summer camp.” A few pages later she is “grappling with the reality that I am implicated in the slow genocide of a people.” By age 30 she is a leader of her Jewish Voice for Peace local chapter.

History professor Marjorie N. Feld’s transformation took decades. She tells of “growing up Kosher” and feeling Israel linked “to the core of my Jewishness, and to the safety of all Jews,” especially as she defended her Zionism against critics within the field of civil and human rights. But when she published a biography of Lillian Wald, she found herself condemned for including discussion of Wald’s anti-Zionism. Instead of backing off, she began to study notable Jews who worked for progressive issues but had been “ostracized” for criticizing Israel. Then Feld wrote about American Jews’ “complicated responses to South African apartheid.” She came to feel “completely out of place in Jewish studies,” until to her joy she learned that Hsia Diner, “a towering figure in American Jewish studies,” had also “left Zionism behind.” Needless to say, neither woman has left Judaism behind in her stand for truthful history and Palestinian rights. Diner’s separate essay describes her long journey away from “passionate identification with Israel and Zionism,” to abandonment of even the “belief that Israel as a Jewish State within the 1967 borders posed no problems.” Now, she says, she’s in a place where Judaism has become “more meaningful to me than ever before.”

This caliber of Jewish resistance to the Zionist vision seems likely to cause havoc in the American Jewish community. Less obvious, but perhaps just as threatening to the mighty Zionist narrative, is the impact this Jewish movement may have on the vastly larger population of non-Jews who feel constrained to defer to American Jews on the subject of Israel and who believe Israel retains virtually unanimous Jewish support. If there is no longer a perceived monolithic Jewish position on Israel, the respect accorded to Jews will require respect for the Jewish, anti-Zionist narrative. That means the compelling Palestinian narrative of colonial, racist dispossession—the indelible offense held against Israel — will finally be weighed in the balance.

This result is precisely what editor Carolyn L. Karcher intended in assembling the essays. The book, she writes, is “designed to stimulate a vigorous public debate about Zionism.” Jewish readers are provided with “models of Jewish identity that replace ethnic exclusiveness with solidarity, Zionism with a Judaism once again nourished by a transcendent ethical vision.” Her approach — simply asking 40 individuals to tell their stories, in their own way — packs a punch: Rich in drama and emotion, the stories recount their individual struggles to understand, defend, adjust, abandon and reinvent who they are, what they stand for as Jews, and what Israel means to them. Together the stories also reinforce each other, giving a sense that they speak for multitudes of other Jews.

Every story offers searing personal examples of the “wild world of [Zionist] silencing and bullying,” as physician/author Alice Rothchild puts it. Cumulatively, this evokes a sense of countless Jews being censored and self-censoring and thus undermines the myth of Jewish unity, if not uniformity, on Israel.

Countering any impression that these authors are isolated, unrepresentative voices is the testimony they give to having sought and found deeper faith and vibrant new Jewish communities, despite efforts to cast them out.
Tali Ruskin has “connected with anti-Zionist community and practice” and “re-engaged with Judaism in a new and more authentic way.” Ariel Gold speaks of a unification of her faith and her commitment to justice. Moriah Ella Mason, like many others, has found community in the Jewish Voice for Peace organization, saying it fosters a “Judaism focused on liberatory justice … a spiritual practice that demands political praxis as well.”

This emerging community is more than just a refuge for dissenting Jews. Rather, it is felt as a return to the deeper prophetic roots of Judaism and a re-engagement with the larger world and the big questions. Rachel Winsberg taps a new confidence: “Judaism is so much more than Israel … so much more than Torah,” it 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 for all those “who have been harmed by Zionism in distinct ways.” For them she prescribes “a diaspora practice to imagine all the possibilities to build Jewishness after Zionism.” This accords with the call of Rabbi Michael Davis “to claim our place as the dynamic heart of the Jewish tradition,” which he calls “Diasporism.” Carly Manes holds a belief that the liberation of a “joyous diasporic Jewish people” and of Israeli Jews is “bound up with that of the Palestinian people.” Rabbi Alissa Wise’s essay, co-written with Rebecca Vilkomerson (both are top leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace), entitled “The Discarded Materials Have Become the Cornerstone,” describes JVP’s “core” mission of being a “Jewish home that enables people to be their full selves.”

Zionists faced with dissenters often suggest that such individuals are naïve or excessively idealistic and hold Israel to an impossible double standard of political morality, far above the norms tolerated for other countries. The dissenters can thus be dismissed as oddballs or eccentrics. But when the standard that Israel is said not to meet is expressly associated with Judaism, Zionists must take care. Even if these authors stand out as unusually sensitive, their pointedly Jewish distress makes them more like canaries in a coal mine, warning of danger ahead for the Jewish defensive consensus on Israel.

Many of the authors not only indict Israel as “not a very Jewish place,” in the words of Stanford professor Joel Beinin, they diagnose Israel and its Zionist malady: “Israel was becoming a mirror image of its fascist oppressors,” religious studies professor Linda Hess writes. In her view, Zionist Jews suffer from “a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that makes you hell-bent to possess the power of your torturers.” Most tragically, in devastating Palestinian families, Israelis give Nazis a sort of victorious afterlife: She fears that the Nazis “have destroyed love and made Jews help them do that work.” And so, she stands against Zionism “because of being Jewish, not in spite of it.”

After reading these passionate personal essays, bracketed by Karcher’s elegant and succinct introduction and afterword, two impressions emerge: One is of the tremendous tenacity of Jews’ attachment to their identity. This shows in the vehemence of both the many Zionist voices that are heard in these pages and in the intensity of the authors’ stories. The other take-away is a feeling that the winds of change are beginning to blow within the American Jewish Diaspora.