Israel & Zionism: A Dialogue | Reconstructing Judaism

Israel & Zionism: A Dialogue

Note: This symposium took place in the summer of 2015, and reflects conversations and events at that time. 

Welcome to the Jewish Reconstructionist communities’ conversation on Israel and Zionism; this site is now our home for tackling important topics and deepening our relationships with Jewish life and community.

We know that members of our communities hold a wide array of views when it comes to our approaches to Jewish life, and this is also true when it comes to how we understand and relate to Israel and Zionism. With this forum we will forge a path of civility in our increasingly polarized world and create a safe space to engage with challenging issues and questions.  Our hope is that our movement will demonstrate that it is possible to both disagree and deeply engage in challenging conversations while maintaining mutual respect and connection across the political and religious spectrum.

We are kicking off this conversation with five essays that represent a range of viewpoints from within the Jewish Reconstructionist communities. They have all grown out of a Reconstructionist approach to Jewish life. We invite you to read these essays and to join the conversation.

With your help and participation we seek to model an open tent in which a variety of views can all be held together to create a space in which each person can add an opinion without fear of being personally attacked, and where no one feels pre-judged or labeled and then dismissed.

To that end, we’ll be moderating the discussion according to these Community Guidelines. Please read them before posting. 

A History of Reconstructionist Zionism

In preparing this essay, I had the opportunity to read books, editorials and articles from an 80-year span of Reconstructionist history.[1] This wide-ranging array of material reflects a striking uniformity in Reconstructionist positions on Zionism. From the movement’s outset, every intellectual leader has been a committed Zionist loyal to the same principles. Their responses to changing political situations have been quite predictable based on their earlier positions. Their frequent discussion of issues regarding Palestine and then Israel indicates their centrality in the history of Reconstructionist Judaism.

There are many legitimate dates that one can use for the beginning of the Reconstructionist movement. Often cited is the founding of the first Reconstructionist synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in 1922. For the purpose of this essay, I will begin in 1934-5, which includes the twin events launching Reconstructionist Judaism as a North American movement with a distinctive ideology: the publication of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s magnum opus, Judaism as a Civilization, and the launching of The Reconstructionist magazine.

THE PURPOSE OF ZIONISM

Rabbi Kaplan’s thought formed the original basis for Reconstructionism, and that is true also of Reconstructionist Zionism. He wrote, “Judaism is unlikely to survive, either as an ancillary or coordinate civilization, unless it thrive as a primary civilization in Palestine.”[2] At a time when most of the American Jewish community was indifferent to Jewish efforts to build Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), Kaplan imagined a majority Jewish homeland in Palestine where Jewish life would normalize and Jewish culture would thrive, and he saw activities to further those efforts as central to the future of the Jewish people. In the old Reconstructionist seal, Eretz Yisrael in Hebrew was at the center. Before 1948, that was translated as Palestine, and after 1948, it was simply transliterated. “State of Israel” never appeared on the seal. In Kaplan’s view, the establishment of a Jewish state was not an end in itself.

The only way in which the return of Jews to Eretz Yisrael can come to mean the fulfillment of the long nurtured hope of the Jewish People is for the Jewish People to prepare itself for that fulfillment by undergoing what is tantamount to a metamorphosis. Without a Jewish People regenerated in sprit, no matter how successful the state…Zion will continue to be unredeemed.[3]

Following some of the thought of Ahad Ha’am, Kaplan understood the Diaspora and Israel to be deeply intertwined, with each requiring the other. He expected the cultural revival in Israel to spread through the Diaspora, and he believed that the moral voice of the Diaspora would save Israel from becoming merely another Levantine state, a state characterized by authoritarian government, a lack of full civil liberties and a tribal, premodern orientation.

The first issue of The Reconstructionist contains an extensive statement of purpose by the full editorial board, including Mordecai Kaplan, that deals with Zionism:

We consider the establishment of Palestine indispensable to the life of Judaism in the diaspora. We seek to enable Jewish civilization so to root itself in the soil of Palestine as to make of that land the cultural center for Israel’s intellectual and spiritual rebirth. We oppose any attempt to render Palestine the object of imperialist aims or the victim of private profit-seeking. We endorse every effort to reward the establishment of a cooperative commonwealth in Palestine based upon social justice and social cooperation.[4]

The last words of that statement remain critically important. From its earliest days Reconstructionist Zionism has been committed not just to establishing a Jewish homeland but to developing a Jewish homeland characterized by the fulfillment of the Jewish tradition’s vision of social justice, which in the Reconstructionist understanding includes equality for all citizens, peace with its neighbors and care for the needs of the less fortunate.

Unlike many Zionists, Reconstructionists did not see the goal of Zionism as creating a Jewish nation to which everyone would move. Reconstructionists have always seen the Diaspora Jewish communities in general, and the one in the United States in particular, as playing a vital role in Jewish life. In the words of influential educator and editorial board member Samuel Dinin in The Reconstructionist:

We must drive home the realization to Jews the world over that Palestine and the Diaspora are joint partners in a common endeavor.  One without the other, one to the exclusion of the other, one at the expense of the other, will lead to the demoralization of both. What we are trying to do is not to establish one kind of life in the Diaspora and another in Palestine. We are trying to establish a new type of Jewish life for Palestine and the Diaspora. The richness and the vitality of this new life will depend upon the extent to which both are interdependent, and sustain each other. Just as much as Palestine is the affair and the creation of the Diaspora, so Palestine must realize that the Diaspora is its affair too.[5]

An editorial several years into the existence of the State of Israel continued to emphasize that the fulfillment of the Zionist dream entails changes for the whole Jewish people:

Zionism is the effort to insure the unity of the Jewish people and the continuity of its civilization under conditions of maximum freedom and creativity. To this end it strives for the security, stability and prosperity of Israel as the cultural center of world Jewry, for the democratic organization of Jewish community life in the Diaspora, and for the maintenance of a continuous interchange of cultural and spiritual influences between Israel and the Diaspora, so that the collective life of the Jewish people can help Jews everywhere to fulfill themselves as human beings and can contribute to their welfare and that of their fellow men.[6]

Mordecai Kaplan was distressed with the failure of Zionism to evolve once the State of Israel came into existence. In 1953 he lectured,

Should Jewish civilization fail to be at home in Eretz Yisrael, it will disappear everywhere else. Should it disappear everywhere else, it is bound to give way to some new Levantine civilization in Eretz Yisrael.[7]

A 1988 resolution of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (which later became the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation) made a point of saying that Jews in North America have an obligation to directly address ethical issues that concern Israel because our fates are intertwined. The 2004 Israel Task Force report ratified by the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) board made a point of stating the mutual obligations of Diaspora and Israeli Jewry while affirming the positions described throughout this essay.

THE ARAB POPULATION

From the outset of Aliya to Palestine, the question of how to relate to the Arab population that was already there was central.  The Reconstructionist commitment was to buying land and settling on it, not taking any land by force. Reconstructionist leaders argued that the Jewish nationalism of thehalutzim (pioneers) could provide a model to the downtrodden Arab population dominated by an Arab upper class for developing an Arab nationalism that would help the downtrodden come into their own, and that the two nationalisms could co-exist.

We must make the Arab masses understand that the political ambitions of Arab nationalism can be realized in the vast territories in the east where the bulk of Arabs reside, but that in Palestine, Arab nationalism, like Jewish nationalism, must be so adapted as to make possible the peaceful cooperation of two national groups.[8]

They were actively arguing against the Jewish Revisionists led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky; from the earliest years, the Reconstructionist position has always insisted on full rights for both Jews and Arabs.

We Jews have suffered sufficiently from fascist tyranny.  We shall have suffered in vain unless that suffering shall have taught us to appreciate tolerance, democratic procedure, and civil liberty. Incidents … will only tend to alienate the progressive elements of the world—and those of Jewry included—from the cause of Zionism.[9]

Continued Arab violence stood as a serious threat to the Jewish settlements of Palestine throughout this period. That did not alter the movement’s approach, which rests on fundamental moral commitments.

The Reconstructionist has repeatedly maintained that lasting peace in Palestine will not be realized until Zionists formulate a clear and unequivocal program of cooperation with the Arab people. The events of the last months have revealed that such a program is indispensable.[10]

Despite the ongoing and dangerous friction between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, the Reconstructionist position remained that providing equal treatment and full civil liberties would eventually lead to peace. However, equal treatment never occurred. In 1949 the movement objected to consideration of a blue and white flag with a star of David at its center because it saw such a flag as making Arab citizens feel less than equal. “It must be remembered that the Israeli flag is to represent the common national aspiration of all the citizens of Israel.”[11] Later, the magazine protested unequal treatment in the form of unbalanced investment in roads, sewers and schools in Arab villages when compared to Jewish ones.

THE VALUES THAT SHOULD SHAPE A JEWISH GOVERNMENT

There was a strong affinity for many years between the Reconstructionist and Labor Zionist movements because of their shared values. Even during difficult times, their approach in the pre-state days was similar. The fusion of Zionism with democratic socialism were seen as keys to the vitality of the State. Zionism and democratic socialism

combined the ideals of nationhood and of social justice. This synthesis unloosed a reservoir of energy and sacrifice, of social and cultural creativity. They had found the key to their own salvation, and had stumbled upon what might become the key to the social salvation of other peoples.[12]

As the danger to European Jews grew during the 1930s, the need for Jewish refugees to enter Palestine became ever more urgent.

We do not bring these considerations before our readers in order to further depress their spirits at a time when faith in the future and courage to bear present ills are so badly needed. We mention them in order to direct the attention of our readers to what we believe to be the essential prerequisites to a solution of the refugee problem, particularly as it affects the Jews. These are 1) the establishment of a world order founded on democracy, social and economic justice, freedom of religion and culture, and international cooperation and 2) the recognition of the right of every nation to a national home adequate to its vital needs and, specifically, the right of the Jewish people to its national home in Palestine.  To these ends we must direct our efforts and never permit the spirit of defeatism to slacken them.[13]

In Reconstructionist thought, the urgent need for a Jewish state and the danger to Jewish lives did not justify a suspension of social justice. Quite the reverse: for Reconstructionist ideology the long-term safety of a Jewish state is dependent upon the triumph of liberty and social justice not only for Israelis but for Arabs as well. While achieving that ideal has remained an unmet hope since its first Reconstructionist expression in the 1930s, the movement continued to advocate for it even when Labor Zionist governments failed to live up to its ideals.

This attitude explains the movement’s powerful opposition to the Irgun and Jabotinsky before the state was created.

It is time for the true nature of the terrorist movement in Palestine to be exposed. It is not merely an uprising against Great Britain. It is an armed revolt against the democratically elected and responsible Jewish leadership, a quasi-Fascist attempt to seize power by force and to discredit the legitimate leaders of Jewry.[14]

Of course the Reconstructionist movement fully celebrated the coming into existence of the State of Israel in 1948. The magazine quoted extensively from the Declaration of Independence, which promised,

The State of Israel…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; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.

The magazine’s editors made clear their understanding of this celebratory moment:

In the spiritual exaltation with which Jews everywhere greeted the news of the declaration of Israel’s independence and of its recognition by the United States, one sensed an awareness of the transcendent importance of the historic occasion. Something more than a mere change in political situation had taken place. Our generation has had the zekhut [merit] to witness and bear testimony to a triumphant act of faith, to the successful assertion of the spiritual forces making for freedom, justice and peace in the face of apparently insuperable obstacles.[15]

Jewish nationalism and the existence of a Jewish state are not ends in themselves. The full meaning of Zionism is to be found in the assertion of values and the revitalization of the Jewish people.

The State of Israel does not coincide with the Jewish People, neither is it co-extensive with the whole of Jewry. We Jews have to maintain our historic position that a state is not the supreme form of human association. Only those who are actively united for the furtherance of universal freedom, justice and peace, whether they be few or many, constitute the supreme form of human association.[16]

Given these values, which include a commitment to religious pluralism, the Reconstructionist movement has always objected to the entanglement of the Israeli government with religious affairs. Exemption from the army for yeshiva students, state funding for Orthodox rabbis, and the institution of the Chief Rabbinate all undermine any effort toward religious pluralism. This church-state entanglement affects the lives of every Jew who lives in Israel, as the Chief Rabbinate controls whether any Jew can marry in the country.

Our own position on the religious issue in Israel has been frequently expressed.  We are opposed to all forms of religious authoritarianism and clericalism.  We believe that religion must operate thru persuasion and not by the police power of the state.[17]

Kaplan worried about too much entanglement of church and state on other grounds as well:

Now that Israel is to be the homeland of the Jewish People and its civilization, it will have to foster the kind of Jewish religion that can afford to be voluntaristic and that will renounce all ambition to engage in power politics. Without having a voice in the administration of the State of Israel, voluntaristic Jewish religion, which is likely to be diverse in belief and practice, can enhance the Jewish way of life in Israel and in the Diaspora.[18]

These values have continuously shaped Reconstructionist commitments to the State of Israel. A clear summary can be found in a Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) plenary resolution passed in 1998:

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association hereby rededicates itself and our members to the vision of the State of Israel as outlined in its Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel…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; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.

ISRAEL AND THE WORLD

On the eve of statehood, it was clear that the emerging State of Israel could not succeed by itself. It depended then—and still depends—on the support of other countries committed to democracy. The role of the United States in particular is seen as vital for the survival not only of the Jewish state but of democratic values in the Middle East.

If we Americans are really committed to the advancement of democracy in the world, as the only concept of government which can insure peace and prosperity, then we should be equally committed to combating all forms of anti-democratic government….Once again, as in 1933, the Jews are the touchstone of the world’s responsibility. The democracies stood by then when the Nazis declared war against the Jews; they were compelled ultimately to fight for their very lives. Today, the Arabs are testing the integrity of the democracies; if they have their way with the Jews, the U.N. will cease to be a power, and mankind will enter upon the road leading straight to the next—and perhaps final—war.[19]

The Reconstructionist movement has long recognized the strong affinity between Israel and the democracies of Europe and North America. As a small nation, Israel is dependent upon its allies for weaponry, intelligence and political support. The movement is committed to supporting these alliances.

WAR AND PEACE

The Reconstructionist movement has always recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure and recognized borders and has urged continuous dialogue between Israel and its neighbors toward that end. In taking this position, the movement has repeatedly acknowledged the power and enmity of several Arab nations and of Iran as well. Nevertheless, following the Six Day War and the acquisition of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Rabbi Jack Cohen, former senior rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, former director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, and already five years into his nearly 30-year term as Hillel Director at Hebrew University, argued in the Israeli press that the Israeli army should immediately give back the West Bank to Jordan because nothing but strife and enmity could come from retaining it. Since 1967, Reconstructionists have steadily opposed West Bank and Gaza Jewish settlements as long-term impediments to peace.

There is a commonplace of strategic thinking about Israel: of democracy, a Jewish state and holding onto the occupied territories, Israel can have any two, but not all three. The positions of the Reconstructionist movement have at every turn supported a democratic Jewish state, which means finding a way to avoid holding onto the occupied territories. This is understood as serving both Jewish and Arab interests, though how to achieve this end has never been clear.  Several statements have supported U.S. efforts at peace making. After the Camp David accords were signed, an editorial inThe Reconstructionist commented, “None but the most callous can help rejoice” at the treaty with Egypt in which Israel agreed to withdraw from Sinai in exchange for peace. That editorial particularly lauded President Jimmy Carter’s role, along with those of Prime Minister Menahem Begin and President Anwar Sadat.

In 1988 the RRA plenum passed a resolution that is indicative of this direction:

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association expresses its support for those elements in the Israeli population and government which believe that direct negotiations with the representatives of the Palestinian people are imperative if the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states is to be resolved peacefully and justly. We believe that participation in a peace process such as has been suggested by the United States during Secretary of State Shultz’s recent trip to the Middle East is less of a threat to Israel than the continued control of the territories and of the over one million Palestinians therein.

We recognize that Israel has the ultimate responsibility to make decisions regarding her security. Yet we express our conviction that Israel’s security is ultimately dependent on the achievement of a negotiated resolution rather than on perpetual control of the territories. We further believe that the unique partnership between Israel and the North American Jewish community mandates that we share our concerns with Israel, and that we do so out of love and respect for Israel as the Jewish homeland.

This resolution indicates the clear sense of the movement that our fate and that of Israel are so intertwined that we have an obligation to address each other honestly and directly, with American Jews appealing directly to their allies in Israel to form common cause for the future of the Jewish people. As Kaplan put it, “World Jewry without Eretz Yisrael is like a soul without a body; Eretz Yisraelwithout World Jewry is like a body without a soul.”[20]

In 2000, the JRF responded to the Second Intifada in this way:

At this time, we reaffirm the JRF Resolution on Israel, which states, in part: “We call for a just and lasting peace that will protect Israel’s right to a secure existence and that will also fulfill the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Such a peace will require Palestinian leaders and heads of Arab governments at long last to acknowledge Israel as a permanent state in the region and to renounce all violence directed against the Jewish homeland.” We therefore urge the Palestinian leadership to halt the violence and return to the negotiating table. We also urge Israel to address the legitimate social and economic grievances of its Arab citizens, as well as to pursue negotiations and an end to the cycle of violence with the Palestinian people.

All the organs of the movement express the same themes in dealing with the pursuit of peace. Even given these shared principles and values, however, there can still be sharp strategic differences regarding assessments of the military and political situation at any given moment. Those differences can lead to different conclusions about best strategies for guaranteeing Israel’s safety and vitality and for bringing peace between Israel, Palestinians and the Arab nations of the region.


[1]The author is grateful to Rachael Burgess for doing research that bolstered this essay, and particularly grateful to Rabbi Deborah Waxman, who generously shared some of her unpublished doctoral research.

[2] Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American Jewish Life,(Macmillan, 1934; Schocken Books, 1972), p. 273. Page citations from the Schocken edition.

[3] Mordecai M. Kaplan, A New Zionism, (Herzl Press &Reconstructionist Press, 1959), 99. 11-12. The contents of most of the book are lectures delivered in 1954; this second edition has one lecture delivered in 1958.

[4] The Reconstructionist 1.1, January 1935, p. 4.

[5] The Reconstructionist 2.6, May 1, 1936, p. 13.  

[6] The Reconstructionist 18.17, December 26, 1952, p. 4.

[7] Mordecai M. Kaplan, A New Zionism (Herzl Press and Jewish Reconstructionist Press, 1959), p. 42.

[8] The Reconstructionist 2.7, May 15, 1936, p. 4.

[9] The Reconstructionist 3.6, April 30, 1937, p. 4.

[10] The Reconstructionist 3.2 March 5, 1937, p. 3.

[11] The Reconstructionist 15.1, February 18, 1949, p. 5.

[12] The Reconstructionist 14.7, May 14, 1948, p. 4.

[13] The Reconstructionist 5.14, November 10, 1939, p. 5.

[14] The Reconstructionist 13.8, May 30, 1947, pp. 5-6.

[15] The Reconstructionist 14.8, May 28, 1948, p. 3.

[16] The Reconstructionist, 15.7, May 13, 1949.

[17] The Reconstructionist 17.1, February 23, 1951, p. 8.

[18] Mordecai M. Kaplan, A New Zionism, p. 92.

[19] The Reconstructionist 14.5, April 16, 1948, p. 4.

[20] Mordecai M. Kaplan, A New Zionism, p. 139.

https://soundcloud.com/jewishrecon/she-said-no

Finding a New Narrative

One of my favorite book titles, by writer and political activist Jim Hightower, is There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. This is a credo to which I generally adhere. I prefer a principled ideological stance based clearly on one's values and analysis of the given situation than a nebulous striving to find “the center.” As it turns out, my values and analysis usually put me squarely in the progressive camp on most political issues.

Yet when it comes to Israel, and more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I do find myself in a kind of “middle.”  Not the political middle; if I were an Israeli citizen I'd be a partisan of some lefty party or other. As an American Jew, I've chosen to politically align myself with J Street, which in some ways is in the “middle”—between an increasingly right-leaning American Jewish establishment and the Palestinian solidarity politics of Jewish Voice for Peace. This not because I agree with every position that J Street takes, but because it's been the one organization working for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a two-state solution which has been effective on two levels:  creating space for that position on Capitol Hill, and significantly widening the discourse within the American Jewish community when it comes to engaging with Israel.

The “middle” I identify with is a place in between two narrative frames that tend to dominate the discourse around Israel/Palestine, both within the American Jewish community and without. I've dubbed these the “existential narrative” and the “justice narrative.”  In broad strokes, they go something like this:

In the existential narrative, the survival and wellbeing of the State of Israel is coterminous with the survival and wellbeing of the Jewish people as a whole. Attacks on Israelwhether physical or ideological, whether economic or academic—are in essence attacks on the survival of Judaism and the Jews. In this narrative frame, the founding of the State of Israel is inextricably linked to the Holocaust and the two thousand years of anti-Semitism leading up to the Holocaust; Israel is both refuge and beacon of Jewish civilization. The State of Israel comes to represent the possibility of the Jewish people defining our own destiny and taking care of ourselves. “Never again” means “Never again to us.”  In this narrative, even as the successes of the state are admired, there is a persistent attachment to the experience of Jew as victim. No matter how strong the Israeli army or its arsenal (including nuclear weapons), ultimately Israel is a small, vulnerable democracy in a sea of Arab aggressors. The relevant categories are “Jew” and “other,” where “other”—in this case, Palestinians/Arabs—are our enemy. What Judaism demands, in this narrative, is a commitment to the continuity of the Jewish people even if that entails the suffering of others.

In the justice narrative, the history of the State of Israel is essentially the history of European colonialism, with the Palestinians paying the price of Europe's depredations against the Jews.  The relevant categories are “oppressor” and “oppressed,” with the Jewish state (and its patron, the U.S.) clearly in the role of oppressor, and the Palestinians the oppressed. The very notion of a Jewish state is racist, in its blatant privileging of one ethnic group at the expense of the indigenous people of the land. There is no rationale for the continuing occupation of the Palestinian people beyond economic and political benefits accruing to the Jewish majority. And the occupation is no accident of history; there is a clear line of Israeli policy, beginning in 1948, intended to disenfranchise and ultimately destroy Palestinian society. For Jews who inhabit this narrative frame, “Never again” means “Never again to anyone.”  What Judaism demands is a commitment to Jewish values of justice and compassion, especially when those violating these values are fellow Jews.

In each narrative frame the actual people involved in the conflict tend to get reduced to ciphers: Jew vs. Arab, oppressor vs. oppressed. And of course it is impossible to talk across these frames.  The person inhabiting the existential narrative tends to feel that her very existence is threatened when Israel is criticized, and is befuddled at being accused of being immoral. The person inhabiting the justice narrative does not understand why he is called an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew, when all he is doing is calling for justice for an oppressed people. Dialogue or discussion becomes impossible, largely because the frames of reference are so completely divorced from each other.

The “middle” I inhabit is my ability to see both of these narrative frames from the outside, and at the same time to sympathize with parts of each. While I do not believe that Israel is in mortal danger on the military front, I can understand Jewish fears of anti-Semitism and the real traumas experienced by Israelis over the past six decades. I understand that people who endured the horrors of the Holocaust are inevitably going to re-enact some of those traumas on others when they achieve power. I also believe in the sincerity of the early Zionists in their dreams of a Jewish homeland; I do not believe that they were colonialists out to subdue a native population. I choose to believe that the noblest part of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the declaration that “The State of Israel….will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it 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; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” is neither naive nor insincere, but the vision of what Israel can one day be.   

And as Tevye would say, on the other hand…I see quite clearly the intolerable situation that the founding of the State of Israel and many of its policies since has created for Palestinians both within the Green Line and in the occupied territories. The massive power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinian people since 1948 causes me to lay the bulk of responsibility for the current situation on a succession of Israeli governments, whatever the failings of Palestinian leadership. While I abhor violence in all forms, I can understand the grief, rage and despair that fuels Palestinian violence against Israelis. I am increasingly sensitive to the tensions inherent in trying to maintain Jewish dominance in Israel's political realm while aspiring to be a true democracy. 

So, where does this “middle” position leave me?  What does it mean for the people of that land, both Israeli and Palestinian?  Most urgent, to my mind, is the need for a new narrative, one that helps us think beyond the categories of “Jew vs. Arab,”  “oppressor vs. oppressed”; one which will get us beyond the perpetual image of Jews and Palestinians as caricatures of victim or aggressor.  This project is urgent in North America because the increasing polarization between those who inhabit each of these narrative is tearing the American Jewish community apart.  We need not just respectful listening to those with whom we disagree, but an entirely new way to think about the issues, new frames of reference which will get us out of this polarized box in which we find ourselves.

Sitting outside of Israel, I am less qualified to say what the urgent project there is, although I do believe that the narrative of victimization and fear plays a not-insignificant role in keeping Israelis from making needed moves toward ending the occupation.  This past summer, as part of the first RRA mission to Israel, I had the privilege to meet Palestinian peace activist Ali Abu Awwad.  Ali has moved himself out of a narrative of fear and anger, and something he said to us has stayed with me:  “You cannot make change if you are a victim.”  To hear these words from a Palestinian man who has lost so much—his family became refugees in 1948; his brother was killed during the first Intifadah; he himself was shot and jailed for five years—was enough to show me that there is another way, but it will demand a transformation in both Israeli and Palestinian hearts and minds: A willingness to shed the status of victim, to move beyond fear, to be both truthful about the reality of the situation while having the audacity to believe that things can be different.

I am not a Palestinian solidarity activist, and I am not a true-blue Zionist in the ways that some may define that term. I do not believe that Jewish survival or the flourishing of Jewish culture can be established on top of the suffering of others.  We may have to jettison some aspects of what we once thought a “Jewish state” might be in order to accommodate some portion of the demands of the Palestinian people, who have already lost as much as we have gained.  Ultimately, however the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, Israel must become a state of its citizens, fulfilling the promise of its Declaration of Independence. The shape and form of Israeli culture and its connections to Judaism—and beyond Judaism and Jews—will continue to evolve, and may go in directions that we cannot yet imagine.

Yet at the same time I adamantly affirm that we Jews have the right, just as all people do, to seek our own self-determination, and to enhance our own security and wellbeing. I simply believe that the way to do that is not through building higher walls and bigger bombs, but through becoming pioneers once again, and showing the world that peaceful coexistence with the “other” is not an idle dream, but rather something that can be brought to be, im tirtzu.

On Occupied Ground

“It’s the occupation, stupid.”

This paraphrase of Bill Clinton’s iconic campaign phrase looms large over everything I say or do that is related to Israel and Palestine. I believe that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Palestinian people who live there is the major moral issue facing the Jewish world today, and that we are being stupid not to acknowledge this loudly and often. Israel’s denial of basic civil rights to West Bank Palestinians is an ethical disgrace, and a source of shame for Israel and for those of us who love her. Furthermore, when Diaspora Jews (along with our Israeli counterparts) maintain ignorance of the occupation and its repercussions, we jeopardize the very future of Zionism and Israel as we know and love them. The occupation is a time bomb.

Open Borders, Closed Borders

When the Oslo Accords were announced in 1993, I was an RRC student living in Jerusalem and studying at the Hebrew University. As flawed as it was, the Oslo process allowed many of us to experience a Camelot-like moment when the entire region seemed to blossom into the myriad possibilities that peace might bring. Within two years, when I was living and working in Jerusalem, the barriers seemed to be coming down as co-existence flowered. Palestinian buses to Ramallah or Bethlehem passed through West Jerusalem, making visits to areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority simple.  I made such trips regularly in order to participate in dialogue groups, volunteer as an English tutor for Palestinian children and take Christian visitors to Bethlehem. More importantly, Israelis also visited the Palestinian areas of the West Bank regularly, allowing open-minded people on both sides of the then-porous border to get acquainted.

Twenty years later, the border consists of a concrete wall that is up to 26 feet high; metal fences buttressed by barbed wire and electricity; and scattered checkpoints where Palestinians who have secured permission to work or study in Israel are subjected to stressful ordeals, long waits, and frequent humiliation and danger. In some areas, the wall actually divides Palestinian communities internally: family members and friends living on two different sides of the same town must drive for hours to visit someone who lives just three blocks away. Farmers are prevented from working their own land on the other side of the barrier. Students are forced to traverse Israeli military checkpoints to get to class.

Symbols of Enmity

I witnessed these hardships regularly because I am not an Israeli citizen. Israelis—even those who carry foreign passports—are forbidden to visit the Palestinian West Bank. A few weeks ago, on a visit to Ramallah and its environs, I saw several huge, red warning signs stating: THIS ROAD LEADS TO AREA “A” UNDER THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY. ENTRANCE FOR ISRAELI CITIZENS IS FORBIDDEN, PUTS YOUR LIFE IN DANGER, AND IS AGAINST ISRAELI LAW.

These warnings reinforce many Israelis’ view of Palestinians as implacable enemies. Although some Israeli Jews have been kidnapped and even murdered while traveling in Palestinian areas, the average Palestinian is not interested in harming Jews. Many would like to see Israelis return to the area to purchase goods and services. Activists for peace and justice on both sides of the border argue that the laws preventing Israelis from visiting the West Bank without a special and elusive permit aren’t in place primarily for safety reasons; rather, they serve to prevent Jews and Palestinians from meeting one another and learning how to live as peaceful neighbors. Such xenophobic signs contribute to the credibility of hate and fear mongering Israelis, who add them to their pile of “evidence” that the Palestinian people are inherently dangerous to Israel’s survival.

In reality, the military occupation of the West Bank poses more danger to Israel’s survival. The many Jewish settlements that have been built have created a two-tiered social system that has so dehumanized Palestinians that the recently built Jewish-only roads on which they are forbidden to travel are actually called “sterile roads,” as if Palestinians would somehow infect them. I visited the West Bank during the Pesach holiday this year. Since many Israelis travel around the country then, the military police closed more roads than usual to Palestinians. Meanwhile, Jewish settlers living just down the road from Palestinian villages sport Israeli license plates on their cars, so they can zip through checkpoints and down brand new Jewish-only highways. The occupation builds resentment, which, combined with the growing settlements, makes peace-making ever more difficult.

Facts on the Ground

On a visit to several West Bank communities with Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), I met olive farmers whose trees were destroyed by young Jewish settlers. I witnessed twenty middle-aged Palestinian men being forced to stand for hours in the blazing noonday sun without shade or water: while they had to address traffic violations at the nearby military police station, they were not allowed to enter the large Jewish settlement that houses it. Instead, they waited for hours for the military police to come and process the tickets. When the armored car finally arrived with its blue lights flashing, the officers climbed out with M-16’s drawn and police dogs at their sides. All of this for traffic tickets.

I am less interested in theories about how to solve this intractable conflict than I am in urging Diaspora Jews who care about Israel’s future to learn more about the occupation. Every Jewish visitor to Israel should also visit the Palestinian West Bank. The landscape is spectacular, and most Palestinians are warm and hospitable to Jewish visitors. The major population centers are a short drive from Jerusalem, and there are many guides who offer “dual-narrative” tours of the area. Only by visiting in person can one truly appreciate what the occupation means. My hope is that, when confronted with the disquieting reality on the ground, more of us will support our Israeli counterparts in their struggle to end it. 

In 2012, I participated in a dual-narrative tour of Hebron led by an Israeli and a Palestinian peace activist. While the co-leaders of the trip were each forbidden to visit the other’s section of this deeply divided, heavily militarized city, we international visitors were able visit and talk with people on both sides, as well as with international peacekeepers stationed there. In Hebron I met Jewish settlers who have enshrined the grave of Israeli terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims as they prayed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site sacred to both Judaism and Islam because it is built over the grave traditionally identified as that of our shared ancestor Abraham/Ibrahim. Those of us who are appalled by Jewish terrorism carried out and glorified by fanatics who claim to speak for the Jewish people and the State of Israel must not remain silent. We must confront and repudiate such people and actions, but we only learn about them by visiting both current populations of the West Bank: Jewish and Palestinian.

In conversation with an Israeli whose army service had been in Hebron, I came to understand that ending the occupation and resolving the conflict are two different processes. While a conflict is resolved between disputing parties, true negotiation can’t take place while the boot of one is on the neck of the other. He also pointed out that the amount of military resources deployed in Hebron and neighboring areas is vastly disproportionate to what is required in areas of Israel proper. This former officer declared that he would always pick up a gun to protect his beloved Israel, but for that pledge to be truly meaningful, Israel needs actual borders—something it has not had since 1967.

Possible Futures

A few weeks ago, my partner and I traveled to the West Bank with long-time peace activist and negotiator Dr. Gershon Baskin, who took us to the brand new Palestinian city of Rawabi, which has been featured in American media. We saw the innovative and impressive models of a city that will house Palestinians of all backgrounds. I agree with Baskin’s assessment that supporting the emerging Palestine is not only the morally correct thing to do for Palestinians, but is also the best guaranteed security for the Israel that many of us hope to see: an open democracy situated side-by-side with its neighboring state, Palestine. And counterintuitively, cities like Rawabi also may serve the interests of those Israelis who would rather keep Palestinians at a distance. A self-sufficient Palestinian society that does not depend on Israel for its basic needs will have less need for daily entanglement with Israel.

Visiting Ramallah, it was clear to us that the nascent State of Palestine already exists. The real question is whether its’ government buildings, cultural centers, commercial districts and banks become the dynamo from which Palestine grows, or whether we all continue to inch toward a single state that through demographic inevitability will eventually not be a Jewish state. Currently there is a one-state reality on the ground, in which Jewish Israelis control Palestinians in most aspects of their lives, and determine whether or not Palestinians who live abroad can return to their native land. Israel was not created so that Jews could subjugate another people without affording them basic civil rights. Regardless of what one thinks of an “ethnic democracy” (an issue many European nations grapple with), there is nothing democratic about a military occupation. As long as settlers live freely on a West Bank occupied by Israel, the Jewish state is far from a democratic nation.
 

As Gershon Baskin writes in his April 15, 2015 column in The Jerusalem Post,

Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory is undeniable: […]a majority of Israelis support a right-wing vision for Israel’s future. But let’s not forget, even for one minute, that nearly half of the Israeli population does not. Half of Israel’s population continues to support a vision of two states for two peoples, and I would venture to say that if Israelis believed it was possible to achieve such a solution, that number would grow to two thirds…

The people of Israel, even most of the half of them from the Center leaning toward the Left, do not believe there is a partner for peace in Palestine.

I strongly disagree, and I base my disagreement on constant ongoing contact with the Palestinians and their leaders.

I have sat with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and extensively discussed all of the issues in conflict in permanent-status negotiations, and I know that there are possibilities for reaching agreements that will provide Israel with all of its security needs. I have had these discussions with a large number of Palestinian leaders throughout the West Bank, in cities, towns, villages and refugee camps. I am there several times a week for years already. I speak to Palestinians in Gaza almost every day…I am convinced that there is a Palestinian partner for peace.

Baskin’s column is titled “The Citizens’ Challenge — from Despair to Hope.” We diaspora Jews who still believe that a just and peaceful two-state scenario is possible must offer hope to our Israeli counterparts who feel post-election despair. The only way for this to happen is to confront the reality of the occupation head-on.

After we have faced that harsh reality, we also need to act. I boycott West Bank goods as a protest against an illegal occupation that is sustained by a steady, large infusion of government money to the detriment of education and social welfare in the rest of Israel. You might choose a different path. However, for the sake of the Jewish people and of justice in the world, we must not be silent.

Values, Middle East Politics and the Future of Israel

Values and Principles

Both the text of the Bible and the lived experience of the Jewish people (regardless of the particular type of Judaism practiced) point to Israel and particularly Jerusalem as the historical foundation of our religion, which continues as a 5,000 year connection for our people. As an American Jew, the core values that resonate for me are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” However, I don’t believe these values to be solely American — as a forward thinking human being, I see these as universal values that transcend religion and politics. We also hold fast to such other values as honesty, social justice, charity, and more. However, these values are just words and not reality to much of the world’s population. Values in the abstract are difficult to use to differentiate ourselves, since most people can agree on values when they are just words. But no matter how much cultures may agree on values in the abstract, each culture differs in how it interprets and emphasizes particular values and how it carries them out. This is true even within the same culture. It is in the statements that define the values where we gain context and understanding and can appreciate the meaning of any particular value.

If we consider our hopes and dreams for Israel and its future, they include domestic harmony, prosperity, inclusion and the ability to be at peace with the world around it. In order to achieve the latter goal, one must be realistic: it’s necessary to use classic SWOT (strength-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) analysis. One cannot move forward with an idealized and unrealistic approach to Israeli peace and safely apply that idealism to Israel’s negotiations with its neighbors.

Contemporary Reality

In our contemporary world, unrealistic expectations and double standards are applied to Israel and its leadership regarding both their internal and external politics. Terms like “social justice” and “fairness” are used to critique many of Israel’s internal policies, which may not be perfect or ideal. Many critics believe that the West Bank settlements are an impediment to peace and should never have been built in the captured and occupied land from the 1967 war. However, anyone looking at the geography of the State of Israel and its borders in 1948 can appreciate how untenable and indefensible those borders were, considering the animosity around the world toward Jews and specifically the animosity in the Middle East. From a strategic perspective, settlements, to some degree, make sense: they both establish a buffer and send a message that a return to pre-1967 borders will not occur. It can be argued that the Israelis went to extremes, but this is not a convincing position when one considers the settlements’ historical context: the Arab League’s and Palestinians’ rejection of negotiations with Israel over borders – or any other issue – in the post-war period.

The Palestinian refugee problem is unique in the world. A significant reality is that many Palestinians and their forebears left the land (Israel) in 1948 at the urging of leaders who supported aggression against the Jewish state. Even so, rarely has a displaced people been maintained in camps for an extended period and not assimilated into the lands around it. The ongoing refugee problem of the Palestinians has been perpetuated as a political necessity, in order to maintain the conflict and strife between Israel and its neighbors. Over time the refugee situation has been used to influence world opinion, highlighting the unfairness towards the Palestinians of the Israeli presence while downplaying the Palestinian Authority’s and Hamas’s mismanagement. Its invocation has been so incessant a drumbeat that it has become the world’s reality.

Hopes for the Future

The world clamors for a Palestinian state. However, a contemporary two-state solution is viable only if the second state’s inhabitants are willing to demand leaders who are dedicated to the advancement of the national interest and economic vitality of its people. Today’s political situation within the Palestinian territory is fundamentally an obstacle to peace. A political establishment that includes affirmed terrorist groups is a leadership dedicated to the destruction of Israel, not one dedicated to a two-state solution and peaceful co-existence. The situation in Gaza has shown this to be crystal clear.

The reality that the world turns on is that Israel is occupying Palestinian land. When Israel was attacked in 1967 and drove back its attackers, it occupied the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza as critical elements to secure its future by holding borders that were more appropriately defensible than the pre-1967 borders. It also allowed Jews better access to Jerusalem, which had been difficult prior to 1967. Had the Arabs and Palestinians been committed to peace and to the recognition of Israel’s right to exist, a negotiated settlement would have been the result. Out of that negotiation would have come a true Palestinian state. But that outcome was not and is not the goal of the more fanatical elements of the Palestinian political organizations that have driven negotiations. Their single-minded dedication to the destabilization and destruction of Israel has been a shameful waste, consuming Palestinian resources which could and should have gone to industrial parks, schools, paved roads, and the basic economic betterment of their people. Much of the world prefers not to discuss or acknowledge this reality.

Unfortunately, most countries including the United States have lost sight of this historical context; instead, their actions are motivated by a distorted perspective. Until there is an honest Palestinian government which speaks of peace and co-existence both externally and internally, true peace will never be achieved. I believe this was Netanyahu’s point during the recent elections. Prime Minister Menachem Begin said, “First, if an enemy of our people says he seeks to destroy us, believe him. Don’t doubt him for a moment. Don’t make light of it. Do all in your power to deny him the means of carrying out his satanic intent.”

These blunt, pragmatic perspectives are uncomfortable for many people to hear, because they force the unwilling listener to accept the reality that Israelis live with day in and day out. But there is no workable alternative. We must deal with the reality of the world around us, including the Middle East, even while seeking a just solution to Israel’s peace and its ultimate borders. This goal should be supported by every Jew, and indeed by all who understand and appreciate freedom and self-actualization.

Toward the Future

A peaceful future and economic vitality for both Israelis and Palestinians will be achieved when the United States, Europe and most of the free UN member states begin to demand that the Palestinian government recognize Israel, shed its terrorist ties, and account for how it spends the donations that support its political organization and its people. This may appear one sided, and many will recoil at the lack of supposed fairness. However, this is the only route to a lasting peace. As long as the world accepts hypocrisy, ignores aggression, and willfully allows duplicity in speech, there can be no peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

I am certain that Israel would respond to an honest peace offering. It was done by Ehud Barak, who in 2000 offered almost everything demanded of him by Yasser Arafat. However, Arafat could not accept peace and chose terrorism, whether out of personal necessity or through a philosophical inability to accept Israeli’s continued existence as a nation. With Hamas now involved, the political situation within the West Bank is now even more radical than it was under Arafat. Yet a significant number of Jews and non-Jews are unwilling to accept history, and they expect that a different result can be achieved without changing the underlying hate and intransigence of the parties.

I believe the United States is a critical component to the peace process. The strength and influence of the United States has been and will continue to be critical to an ultimate peace between Israel and its neighbors. Unfortunately, our current administration is pulling back from visible diplomatic support of Israel, an action unique in our two countries’ history. This stance may precipitate a major conflict if Israel’s neighbors perceive that the U.S. may stand silent or defer action to the U.N. Realistically, this leaves little hope of a near-term solution to the Middle East conflict. In the interim, Arabs within the West Bank should have similar freedoms and rights as Israelis, aside from the ability to vote in Israeli elections, until a viable two-state solution can be negotiated.

Where Next?

With the recent restructuring of the Reconstructionist movement comes a renewed commitment to providing a clear voice on issues regarding our collective relationship to Zionism and to the Jewish State.  In 2004, the movement’s Israel Policies Task Force produced a superb and comprehensive report. This 53-page document, available as a PDF here, emerged from a movement-wide process that solicited thoughtful input from Reconstructionists across the country. A dedicated committee of rabbis and lay people developed the positions and proposals laid out in the report. Unfortunately, the Task Force’s proposals were never implemented, and the report languished.  Our revived Israel Task Force will be using the 2004 report as our foundation for moving forward. While much has changed over the past decade, most of the earlier report’s framework and recommendations are still compelling and sound.

While the new Task Force is still in formation, and it will not be officially in gear for several months, the broad direction of our work is clear:

  • We will stand publicly for the more than century-old vision of liberal Zionism: a state of Israel that is a vibrant and powerful center for the Jewish people and a state that holds at its core the ideals of justice and equality for all of its citizens.
  • We will advocate for those in Israeli politics and society who know that it is untenable to continue to rule over a Palestinian population that has no right to vote and no control over their own collective future, however remote and unclear a solution to that dilemma might be.
  • We will build relationships with some specific organizations in Israel that are developing indigenous, creative and new expressions of and approaches to Jewish life – Israeli Reconstructionists, if you will. Our Israel Gateways project has already begun this work.
  • We will remind American Jews and all others that Israel operates in a wildly volatile and dangerous region, that anti-Semitism is a real and vicious threat, and we encourage our constituents to take thoughtful and well-informed positions.
  • We will oppose those who presume that Israel, unique among the nations, needs some special justification in order to exist.
  • We will model respectful public discourse, despite the all-too-common human impulse to shout down and berate people with whom we disagree. Following our Reconstructionist principles, dissent will be welcome. We do not expect, let alone require, consensus.

Reconstructionism has a well-documented and consistent identity in support of a vibrant and revived center of Jewish life in our ancient homeland, a center that works to manifest the highest ideals of justice that our tradition champions. The Israel Task Force will be speaking for that Zionist vision. We reserve the right to criticize the government of Israel when it does not uphold the clear mandate of equal treatment for all of its citizens as expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, just as we will fiercely defend Israel against the forces arrayed to delegitimize or destroy it.

While our movement is small in numbers, the size of its influence on Jewish thought has been considerable. Now too, we have the opportunity to speak in a uniquely clear and compelling voice that can cut through the current cacophony of overheated rhetoric and simplistic analysis.  

We approach our task humbly, hoping to contribute to Israel’s well being and to strengthen our bonds to Israel. It is our responsibility to speak up for the vision of Israel that we hold dear, and it is our labor of love to build and nurture life-giving connections between our communities here in North America and like-minded communities in Israel. We welcome your input as we pursue these goals.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler (Chair, Israel Task Force)

Adina Newberg, Ph.D. (Director, Israel Engagement)

 

 

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler chairs the Israel Task force. He served as the spiritual leader of Kehillat Lev Shalem in Woodstock, New York for 26 years. He now serves as the Senior Scholar of the Lev Shalem Institute. Adina Newberg, Ph.D. is director for Israel Engagement of RRC and the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. She has taught Hebrew at RRC and the University of Pennsylvania, and has served as an organizational consultant for religious and nonprofit organizations. In her current position, she serves as the channel for involvement with progressive Israeli Judaism in general, as well as the new Israeli-Jewish renaissance.