Rescuing Jewish culture from Zionism

April 13, 2018

Ben Lorber is the campus coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). He talked with Jonah ben Avraham about the declining support for Israel and Zionism among Jewish Americans. In this interview, he is speaking as an individual, and not for JVP.

IT'S NO secret that Zionism and support for settler-colonialism in Palestine are strong in the institutional Jewish community. How strong do you think those politics are? What impact do you think this has on American Jewish life?

I THINK the most important thing to say about those politics is that they're weakening. The stranglehold, not only of support for Israel's increasingly right-wing policies towards the Palestinian people, but of Zionism itself, is really slipping in the American Jewish community, especially when you look at younger generations of American Jews like you and I.

It seems like every day now, there are more and more reports and headlines that young American Jews don't support Israel's increasingly racist and xenophobic policies, and don't hold the state at the center of their Jewish identities.

Especially with the rise of the Trump administration and the phenomenon of Trumpism in America, American Jews as a whole have seen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being great buddies with Trump, and that's disturbing to the majority of American Jews who define themselves as liberal or progressive and are shocked by the policies of the Trump administration.

Anti-apartheid activists march for Palestinian rights in Manhattan
Anti-apartheid activists march for Palestinian rights in Manhattan (Jewish Voice for Peace-New York City | Facebook)

Every time Israel does something terrible--like the latest massacres in Gaza or the deportation of African refugees, to name two recent examples--we see many different sectors of American Jewry speaking out in new ways, with increasing intensity.

I also think that in the long term, it's a fundamentally unnatural and unsustainable project to tie American Jewish identity to a nation-state halfway around the world, and to put the program of supporting its policies at the center of American Jewish identity. Many of us are actively concerned at Israel's oppression of Palestinians and are working hard to broaden and deepen our Jewish identities beyond Zionism.

What impact has Zionism had on American Jewish life? First of all, it puts us on the wrong side of history.

Driven partly by inherited fears and traumas about anti-Semitism, the need to unconditionally support Israel means many of us end up allying with right-wing Christian Zionism and supporting reactionary U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This leaves our institutional leadership and many in our communities alienated from progressive allies and divided from the left.

This is a very old tactic in Zionism, and it's why during the early 1900s, Zionism was supported by European powers. They were worried about the strong phenomenon of European Jewish support for revolutionary movements, and they supported Zionism as a divide-and-conquer alternative for the Jewish community.

Over and over again today, you see these things like the Movement for Black Lives being attacked for being anti-Israel, or the Women's March being attacked because of Linda Sarsour's supposed anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, many American Jews basically tend to be scared away from supporting these progressive causes because of the wedge issue of Israel, while false charges of antisemitism are weaponized to batter and weaken progressive movements.

It's also a question of our community's resources. Birthright raises tens of millions of dollars every year from American Jewish donors and institutions. What if that money was being used to make our synagogues affordable or to provide enriching, accessible, affordable Jewish life in America?

Imagine if, instead of putting defense of Israel's illiberal policies at the top of its priorities list, our American Jewish communal institutions were committed with the same public vigor to supporting calls for social security, Medicare for all and affordable housing, to stopping Trumpism's attacks on vulnerable minorities, and other progressive causes.

Finally, it's a question of identity. There's been a long process of assimilation of American Jewish identities--basically a similar phenomenon that happens with many cultures and identities under capitalism, where there's a constant pressure to forget our traditions and to assimilate into consumer culture.

Contrary to popular belief, Zionism has helped a lot with that. For too many American Jews, the chief way we have been taught to express our Jewish identity is to support Israel's policies. Forget learning in depth about our histories, forget religious practices--the way to show you're a good Jew is to attack BDS.

In this way, despite presenting itself as an anti-assimilationist Jewish identity project, Zionism has paradoxically helped further American Jewish assimilation.

WHEN YOU look at young Jews in America today, what kinds of alternatives to that kind of navigation of Jewish identity are you seeing them put forward?

I THINK we're at the beginning stages of a revolution in Jewish identity in America. I see young Jews on campuses all over the country creating and building alternative Jewish institutions.

For some of them, it's organizations specifically advocating for Palestinian human rights as Jews, and for others, it's simply a space outside of their Hillel--which has become overwhelmingly Zionist--where they just get together and enjoy and celebrate being Jewish.

More and more American Jews on college campuses are being alienated by the mainstream pro-Israel support they see in their Hillels, and so they're building alternative institutions.

WHAT DO you see in these alternative institutions? What's exciting about them?

ONE EXAMPLE I can think of is at Tufts University. They've had for a while this space called Alt-J, which is basically a monthly potluck Shabbat at someone's house.

Each month, a different person is responsible for uplifting a different cause as far as the social justice work they're doing, and it gives an opportunity for other people to get involved. Many similar non-Zionist Jewish spaces have formed on other campuses, outside of Hillel.

Here in Chicago, we have a space called Cool Chicago Jews--which started as a Facebook group, just a way for young non-Zionist Jews of Chicago to connect.

We have monthly Shabbats in people's houses. Some folks gathered together and put on a Purim shpiel recently that had Yiddish and Ladino. And we have Passover seders that draw on ancient themes of liberation and imbue them with new radical messaging. At our recent Passover Seder, we had 50 young Jews in a room yelling 'Free Palestine!' and cheering. This is the future!

We also have Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist congregation with folks of all ages. Across the country, there are non-Zionist havurot (mini-congregations) springing up all over the place. Rabbinical schools are filled with non-Zionist and anti-occupation rabbis-to-be. The future of American Jewry's relationship to Israel is an open question.

This isn't a new phenomenon. For decades, especially since the 1960s, there have been a lot of grassroots progressive Jewish movements in America that combine radical politics and radical spirituality, to differing degrees.

But I think today, it's bubbling up and growing stronger, and we're seeing a proliferation of spaces for radical Jews who are involved with different organizing initiatives to connect and to share in community.

The common trope that you hear repeated again and again is that Zionism and support for Israel is the core way for Jews to connect with their Jewishness, and if we didn't have support for Israel, our identities would be lost to assimilation. We would disappear as Jews if we didn't all have support for Israel to unite us.

But I think these communities are proving that's bogus. There are young Jews who are strongly anti-Zionist, but are just as strongly devoted to developing a strong Jewish identity. These DIY spaces and shuls are made by young Jews who are taking our Judaism into our own hands, and we're building our Jewish future with our own sweat and hard work, and that's what makes it so powerful.

WHY ORGANIZE as a Jew? Why is there a growth in interest in doing social justice work as Jews?

THIS IS a question that confronts a lot of leftists who happen to be Jews: Should I just organize as a worker and a human being, or as a white ally [if they're a white Jew]? Or should I specifically attach a Jewish label to my activism?

I think the first answer to the question of "Why organize as a Jew?" is really simple: it's just because it's who we are. No matter how different folks who call themselves Jews came to their Jewish identities, if you identify as a Jewish person, and that identity is important to you, then you have every right to bring your identity to your organizing, just as we bring all of our identities to the work we do.

People throw around the phrase tikkun olam [repair of the world] a lot to say, "There is something inherently Jewish--something deep within our millenia-old tradition--about striving for justice." Sometimes I think that's true, and other times, I'm a little skeptical of that.

But one thing's for sure--millions of American Jews in the modern era have put radicalism at the deep core of their Jewish identities.

For many American Jews who came of age in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, going on strike with your union and fighting for racial justice was the most deeply Jewish thing one could do. This was a core part of American Jewish identity in the first half of the 20th century, and it was suppressed mainly by anti-Semitic McCarthyism and assimilation (for many) into whiteness and the middle class.

I also think that today our institutional leadership is, for the most part, deeply reactionary, and a lot of people are outraged by that. So there is an especially strong impetus today to organize as Jews to tell our communal leadership, "Hey, we're reclaiming our heritage that you've forgotten and you need to wake up."

I think we're seeing a surge in Jewish social justice organizing today because we're looking at our communities, which are deeply embedded in white supremacy in a lot of ways, and we're saying, "This needs to change."

WHAT ROLE do you see the fight against anti-Semitism playing in the radical Jewish spaces that we've talked about? Do you think that these kinds of communities of Jews bring anything special to the fight against anti-Semitism, and with it, the fight for collective liberation of all people?

TOTALLY. I think a lot of Jewish folks have been rightly shocked to see the rise of the anti-Semitic alt-right, to see the white nationalist marchers chanting, "Jews will not replace us" in Charlottesville, and a lot of these folks are joining left-Jewish organizations. Being in community with other leftist Jews at scary times like this is deeply therapeutic and deeply empowering, and it makes these spaces even stronger.

The other side of the coin is that we see our institutional leadership getting the fight against anti-Semitism wrong. We see our mainstream Jewish organizations raising their voice to attack Linda Sarsour or the Movement for Black Lives, while, meanwhile, they aren't spending enough time fighting the rise of the white nationalist alt-right.

So even more so, there's this impetus to come together and build radical Jewish community that will get the fight against anti-Semitism right, and that will actually know who our enemies are.

This is a matter of our own long-term safety. In this moment, as anti-Semitic fascism is rising in this country, we're concerned that our leadership is trying to harm and subvert grassroots movements like the Movement for Black Lives and leaders like Linda Sarsour--forces of progressive struggle, which are building the power to beat fascism.

Our community's mistaken priorities are actually a colossal mistake that could be putting our bodies in danger in the long run. The BDS movement is one of the most powerful and vibrant people-of-color-led intersectional movements for justice, and false charges of antisemitism are being used by our government, by Christian Zionist leaders in America and, sadly, some leaders in our own community to harm this movement.

So we are very concerned that false claims of anti-Semitism are hurting the left right now, and we need to be strengthening the left. So it's even more important for us to build these genuinely left-wing, progressive Jewish spaces that are on the right side of history.

History is heating up right now, and we're not sure what the future holds in America. We need to get on the right side of the barricades, and to get as much of our community on the right side of the barricades as possible.

I also think radical Jews and radical communities have a lot to offer the left around its analysis of anti-Semitism, because there are times when anti-Semitism does appear on the left, and other times when the left simply lacks an understanding of what anti-Semitism is and how it functions.

I think it's up to us as Jewish allies on the left who have built close relationships and who show up for struggle--it's up to us to lovingly call in our allies and do education around anti-Semitism, in the context of our deep relationships, and to develop a progressive movement that can passionately fight against anti-Semitism alongside all forms of oppression.

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