“Now I Can No Longer Call Myself a Zionist . . .”

Posted on May 28, 2019

A new book explores the nuances behind the opposition to Zionism and effectively dispels the myth that Jewish people who criticize Israel are “self-hating Jews.”

Laurie Zimmerman photo.2.jpgby Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison

Progressive Magazine, May 10, 2019 – As the Israeli government under Netanyahu continues its path towards the far right and escalates violence against Palestinians, increasing numbers of Jews are voicing their opposition to ongoing human rights violations, the denial of basic freedoms for Palestinians, and the shunning of international law. Some are rejecting not only particular governmental policies but the basic ideology of Zionism, defined as support for a Jewish state in the land of Israel.

Carolyn L. Karcher, professor emerita of English, American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Temple University, is the editor of a new collection of forty personal narratives written mostly by American Jewish activists, scholars, and rabbis. It makes an important contribution to the growing body of literature that examines Jewish critiques of Israel and Zionism. This book will be particularly useful for Jews who are beginning to question their own beliefs about Zionism. Many of the essays trace the personal journeys of Jews who have parted ways with Zionism, describing the difficult emotional and intellectual issues with which they grapple.

Image: Graffiti on the Separation Wall in Bethlehem.

Graffiti on the Separation Wall in Bethlehem.

Zionism is an exceptionally controversial subject within the Jewish community. In my work as a rabbi, I meet older Jews who do not understand why their children do not support Israel and others who diligently avoid discussing the subject of Israel with their friends and family. This book explores the nuances behind the opposition to Zionism and effectively dispels the myth that Jewish people who criticize Israel are “self-hating Jews.”

Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism will also be helpful for activists and scholars outside the Jewish community who seek to understand more deeply Jewish critiques of Zionism and the State of Israel. These essays illuminate the Jewish community’s struggle over community, identity, and politics and has the potential to strengthen the relationships among progressives who wish to work together for Palestinian equality and freedom.

Most of the American Jewish writers express a consistent theme in their essays. They grew up with Zionist ideals and a strong connection to Israel, but once they went to Israel and Palestine and saw for themselves the true face of the Israeli military occupation, they experienced a profound transformation that led them to rethink Zionism and their support for Israel.

“Now I can no longer call myself a Zionist because the memories of Palestine will never let me,” writes Rabbi Linda Holtzman. “I am deeply saddened by the loss of something I treasured, of a link to my family, of a dream I once shared with people I love. But the truth is more important than my dreams or childhood memories.”

Many of the book’s essays address what it means to be Jewish in the face of humiliating checkpoints, night raids, and settler violence against Palestinians. These writers demonstrate that a core piece of their identity must include speaking out against the actions of the state of Israel.

Yael Horowitz, a young activist and recent graduate of Wesleyan University, explains this well: “A commitment to justice in Palestine also means not being complacent in the face of my own communities that are participating in violence—it means taking ownership, responsibility, and action.”

One of the more surprising developments in the Jewish community for me has been the increasing number of Jews who both separate themselves from Zionism but remain firmly connected to various aspects of being Jewish. They may join a progressive synagogue, embrace Jewish holiday celebrations and other rituals, or simply form community with other like-minded Jews. In spite of being excluded or told that they do not belong in mainstream Jewish communities, they are redefining what it means to be Jewish.

Some writers describe the strain their activism has placed on family relationships. Ben Lorber chronicles how his involvement in the Palestinian solidarity movement has affected his relationship with his grandmother.

“I no longer hope that my grandma can change her mind, can untangle the half-century knot of Zionism wedged so deeply in her heart,” he writes. “And I no longer feel the need, as I once did, to wrest from her a dream she has long clutched so tightly, a life raft that kept her, and so many others of her generation, afloat through the traumas of the Jewish twentieth century.”

The writers who grew up in Israel present a different narrative of what led them away from Zionism. I was particularly drawn to the essay by Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, a Yemenite Jew from Israel who moved to the United States as an adult.

Madmoni-Gerber describes the racism experienced by Mizrahi Jews, who came to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa and now comprise about half of Israeli Jews. Ashkenazi Jews, coming from Europe, have a long history of discrimination against Mizrahi Jews throughout Israeli society; Madmoni-Gerber writes that Yemenite immigrants in particular were considered unfit parents, useful only as cheap labor, and deemed intellectually inferior.

Growing up, Madmoni-Gerber had heard stories about Ashkenazi Jews kidnapping Yemenite babies from their mothers and giving them up for adoption, but her work investigating the Yemenite Babies Affair as a journalist changed her forever.

“The case study of the kidnapped children raises questions about identity, racism, narratives, and collective memory within Israeli society,” she writes. “It forces me to examine such concepts as justice, power, violence, and human rights, as they challenge the Zionist notion of rescue and unity.”

A strength of Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism is its commitment to presenting diverse voices. Inclusion of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews is rare in a volume like this, and their insights shed an important light on Zionism and Jewish history, which is overwhelmingly centered on the Ashkenazi Jewish experience. Additionally, I appreciated that the editor included writers ranging from their early twenties into their seventies, because generational differences significantly impact the work of activists.

I do think it was a missed opportunity to not include the voices of Jews of color. African American Jews have important perspectives to add when we consider the complexities of Jewish identity and Zionism, and they are often marginalized in predominantly white Jewish communities.

And despite its title, Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism barely discusses Judaism, which includes ethics, Torah, liturgy, theology, legal debates, and religious rituals. A few of the rabbis addressed religious concepts such as diasporism and chosenness, but their essays were the vast minority. To reclaim Judaism from Zionism we would need to confront the Judaism of settler rabbis, challenge the misuse of Jewish texts to oppress Palestinians, and reconstruct Jewish prayer and ritual so that it reflects our deepest values.

This book is, however, a compelling collection of essays that explores how Jews are reclaiming Jewish identity and recreating Jewish community. The writers serve as a model for how to reflect on our own experiences and beliefs and to wrestle with how we can best align our actions with our ideals.