Liberal Zionism in the Wake of the Flotilla

by Rabbi Jill Maderer

In his recent New York Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Peter Beinart, professor of journalism and political science at CUNY, captures his understanding of the status of American Zionism with these provocative words: “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.” 

I witnessed the alienation of which Professor Beinart speaks in a discussion among RS Young Friends at one of our Book Club discussions last year.  Although our Young Friends’ perspective was not as extreme as Professor Beinart suggests, they did ask: Is there space in the American Jewish community for Jews who love Israel but hate some things that Israel does?  Is there space for Jews to be Zionists and also to oppose the occupation?

Yes.  There is space and there must be space—sacred space—to love Israel and insist on Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, and also to be concerned with the plight of the Palestinians and advocate for their right to statehood. 

Last month’s flotilla incident highlighted, once again, the struggle of Liberal Zionists—the tension between Israel’s need for security and Israel’s pursuit of peace with Palestinians and with her neighbors.  As a liberal Zionist, I support Israel’s right to defend herself and I understand that every security threat to Israel is an existential threat.  Yet, I also believe that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is a moral existential threat.   Everything that I understand about Jewish values in a Jewish homeland, social justice, being created in the image of God, and basic human dignity demands the creation of a Palestinian State.  The Jewish soul of Israel is at stake.

The struggle between justice and security is illuminated in the commentary of Zionist thinker, journalist and Jerusalem resident Yossi Klein Halevi.  Yossi Klein Halevi submits that Israel must be saved from the moral burden of the occupation—of policy that prevents Israel from moving forward as a democracy.  He embraces the improvements that have been made on the West Bank and hopes they demonstrate to the Palestinians that diplomacy, not violence, is the solution.  Yet, he explains, for as long as a Hamas takeover remains a threat, Israelis won’t support the completion of the Two-State solution.  Yossi Klein Halevi is prepared to make any concession, including a divided Jerusalem, but only once the Palestinian leadership is no longer threatened by a Hamas takeover.  A Hamas-led West Bank would turn the Israel heartland into Sederot—an unlivable warzone.*

The disconnect between progressive Jewish values and some of Israel’s policy has created alientation, some say a crisis, in the relationship between American Jews and Israel.  Professor Beinart expresses concern that American Jews are checking their Zionism at the door.  I am concerned that many American Jews are not even entering the door.  The problem is not that liberal American Jews are critical of Israel.  The problem is that, often times, American liberal Jews are emotionally and spiritually divested** from Israel, experiencing both physical and emotion distance from Israel.  Perhaps, more space for liberal Zionism can help us to acknowledge our problems with Israel and can help us to see a Jewish homeland that has the potential to reflect our Jewish values.  As an American Jew unwilling to check neither my liberalism nor my Zionism at the door, liberal Zionism is critical for my relationship with my Jewish homeland.

A local rabbi from another synagogue recently mentioned that they cannot discuss Israel in their congregation without people screaming at each other!  I am hoping there is a different model!  I’m certain that we can grow, learn, and listen to one another in a thoughtful way.  Whether a liberal Zionist or not, if you would be interested in engaging in study about Israel, or discussing the Middle East with other RS congregants, I invite you to be in touch (rabbimaderer@rodephshalom.org) or to share your comments here.

To learn more about Liberal Zionism and current events, visit the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

**Term used by Anat Hoffman, director of Israel Religious Action Center.

5 Responses to Liberal Zionism in the Wake of the Flotilla

  1. Jennifer Simon Lento says:

    “I support Israel’s right to defend herself and I understand that every security threat to Israel is an existential threat. Yet, I also believe that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is a moral existential threat.”

    I love this.

    Thank you Rabbi Jill for writing about this issue. Whether the existance of the state of Israel has more or less of a right to exist than a Palestinian State is a topic that frequently comes up with my non-Jewish friends and it is always a touchy conversation. Most non-Jews seem to assume that all Jews are conservative zionists who will deny any argument that criticizes Israel or its defensive position with regard to the neighboring Arab states.

    While there are plenty of Jews who do take that position (especially among generations with personal recall of the Holocaust), there are many Jews, myself included, who struggle with this black and white approach to Israel.

    My mother describes Israel as being like a dear Aunt or cousin, who always seems to say and do the most appalling things. You love your family member, but you are a little embarrassed to be seen in public with them. I don`t want to be embarrassed for Israel– it is a heartbreakingly beautiful place. But it`s tough for me to be proud of Israel when I hear about some of the appalling things Israel does in the name of its threatened sovereignty.

    One of the things I value about Jewishness is how we encourage warmth, generosity, and a welcoming spirit. How can we reconcile these quintessential Jewish qualities with our efforts to maintain Israel as an exclusively Jewish homeland?

    In any case, thinking about Israel always raises more questions than answers for me (which of course is a pretty Jewish thing in itself!), but I hope that the RS community can engage in more conversation — not screaming matches!– about Israel.

  2. Shelley Nash says:

    I also want to thank Rabbi Maderer for writing about this sometimes divisive issue. As someone who did not grow up in a Jewish home, I do not have a strong emotional attachment to Israel and the Israel Issue has always been difficult for me to understand and negotiate.

    Unfortunately, I have witnessed too many conversations that confirm Jennifer’s statement that, ” all Jews are conservative zionists who will deny any argument that criticizes Israel or its defensive position with regard to the neighboring Arab states.” I have always been afraid to voice another opinion for fear of offending or upsetting other people. Not being a “real Jew” in the eyes of a lot of my Jewish friends, it is a touchy issue that I usually try to avoid.

    So, thanks to Rabbi Maderer as well as the congregants at RS for being so welcoming and providing me with a thoughtful, conscientious, and balanced look at the Israel Issue. These kinds of conversations are what makes RS special to me, and I feel more empowered to voice a liberal viewpoint without feeling like I am compromising my newly developing Jewish values.

  3. Jack Butler says:

    I am a staunch Zionist, but that doesn’t preclude my taking issue with actions/policies of the Israeli govt with which I disagree.
    I consider myself a fairly open-minded person, but I have a serious problem with the widespread belief that Israel is occupying the Palestinian territories. This is actually a canard which has evolved into what is considered by much of the world as absolute fact by a very effective (and exorbitantly expensive) Palestinian PR organization.
    I was very disturbed by your (Jill’s) statement that you “believe that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is a moral existential threat.”
    Political occupation involves the military takeover of a sovereign people’s lands by another foreign power; for example, the occupation of Austria by Nazi Germany.
    That definition certainly does not apply to Israel’s presence in the West Bank. You just need to recall events in that region of the Middle East in 1967 to justify Israel’s control of that territory; and, as I’m sure you know, the West Bank, along with Israel proper, comprise roughly the ancient lands of Judea & Samaria, which together are widely and fervently believed by Jews to be our historical as well as Biblical homeland.
    The fact that other tribes or ethnic groups also settled in this territory does not give any of them a legitimate claim to the land. History abounds with examples of nation-states created by the military/political superiority of a people with little regard for other groups that happened to settle within its borders.
    I am very eager to discuss with other RS members the many very difficult issues concerning Israel’s vital role in helping to establish a stable, peaceful future in the Middle East. I think a planned series of discussions would be most beneficial for enlightening, dispelling misconceptions, clearing up misunderstandings, etc.
    But if these discussions begin with the premise that Israel is occupying lands which rightly belong to Palestinians, count me out.

  4. Jennifer Simon Lento says:

    @ Jack: I think that no real discussion of this topic can begin with any presumptions or irrefutable premises. If we are really going to have a discussion of this issue, we can only begin with questions– not presumptions. I hope that if we do schedule some conversations on this issue, we can all approach the topic with the understanding that it is an extremely sensitive matter that generates a lot of emotional heat and that we need to be considerate of opposing views. That being said, I hope that you will participate in a discussion at RS about Israel– even if there are people in attendance asserting different perspectives!

  5. Cy Swartz says:

    Thank you, Jill for opening this really important discussion! For me it is not only the soul of Israel that is threatened – but also the soul of the Jewish people.

    I look forward to participating in open minded discussion of these important issues in the spirit so well described by Jennifer. Hope that we will be able to come together for this in the very near future!

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