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On Anti-Zionism, Idolatry and Adultery
No community can survive without limits on what is considered legitimate
What in the world does anti-Zionism have to do with idolatry or adultery? Both nothing at all, and much more than you might think. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.
A few weeks ago, I read a Facebook post by Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute, which I thought was interesting. I gave it a “like,” if I remember correctly, shared it with a few people I thought would be interested, and moved on.
Now that we’ve been in Los Angeles for a few weeks (to be with our kids who just had a new baby daughter), I’ve had countless conversations with friends, former colleagues and the like. And suddenly, I find myself thinking about Yehuda’s post time and again.
Here's what Kurtzer had to say (edited below for length):
Enough is enough.
In the past few weeks a brouhaha emerged on social media around the fact that Avodah, a good and credible Jewish social justice organization, hired and then subsequently fired an individual for a temporary social media job because a number of tweets came to light in which this person - who I do not know - referred to Zionists as “genocidal freaks,” denounced all Zionists as “extremely ugly,” and said a whole bunch of other gross things about Israel and “Zionists,” none of which can be credibly or morally defended as being somehow “pro-Palestinian” or in the productive service of any sort of human rights agenda, except if you believe that human rights is a zero-sum game for some and not others (which is to say, you don’t believe in human rights.) …
Nevertheless, in the week since, there’s now a campaign of over 150 alumni of Avodah who are using the general bad faithness of the watchdog organization to call out and condemn Avodah for the decision to “capitulate” to the pressure and to fire this person; and which portrays the act of doing so as in some way representing a betrayal of Jews of Color (which is how this individual identifies) and its own form of anti-Palestinian bias. These alumni call on Avodah to repent and to pay severance to this almost-employee. The letter, astonishingly, appeals to the idea of the “diversity of viewpoints” on Israel in the Avodah community; and it goes on to desecrate the idea of “mahloket l’shem shamayim” by suggesting it applies in this situation.
I find this sickening. I would fire immediately anyone who worked for me who used any such derogatory language like this - on social media, noch! - about *any* group of people; but a Jewish organization is supposed to tolerate it because it is in reference to Zionists? What the hell are we doing here anymore? …
You want to push for the Jewish community to have a bigger tent on Israel-Palestine: I am with you. …. But to include people who despise half the Jewish people and feel they can mock them, deride them, and insult them with impunity? Where’s the dignity in that? What kind of community would we become?
I cannot believe we are reduced to this. It is pathetic.
Kurtzer and I sometimes agree, and sometimes we don’t. That’s life. But for this one, he deserves applause. He is right to call the communal ethos of “shaming” and lambasting Zionists with impunity “pathetic.” I would have used stronger language. He is right to call “sickening” the tactics of much the anti-Zionist community.
I haven’t spoken to Kurtzer about his post, so I don’t know if he would agree with the rest of this, so to be clear, what follows is my view, not necessarily his. But I would have gone further. I would categorize as “pathetic” and “sickening” not only the tactics of the “woke” anti-Zionists in the Jewish community—I would have called out their viewpoint, as well.
If I still lived in the U.S., here’s what I’d say to my colleagues: “Enough is enough,” not only about the tactics, but the worldview, too. It’s time to fight back and to declare that anti-Zionism is beyond the pale.
It won’t happen, it it should.
What I’ve come to understand during these weeks in the States, that I realize I didn’t fully understand prior, is just how mainstream anti-Zionism has become in many circles here. Someone shared with me a letter sent recently to a leading American rabbi, complaining that this rabbi’s congregation had had a guest speaker who derided anti-Zionists. The complaint was that the speaker had no right to characterize anti-Zionists in a negative light. The letter read, in part:
All of us are committed members of this community and shul.
And all of us think anti-Zionist Jews deserve a place in this shul and deserve not to be demonized or called antisemitic. … Anti-Zionists are not some far away menace. They are not cranks. Anti-Zionists are beloved members of this community. They lead services, give Divrei Torah, pay dues, teach shiurim, … chat with you in the kiddush line, and have deep love for this community and this synagogue. Many of them are young adults or teenagers who represent the future of the synagogue and the Jewish community.
They are self-loving, community-loving Jews who also believe that the safest, most just, and most moral future for Israel and Palestine ensures all Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights.
Let’s leave aside the utter inanity of the notion that the end of Zionism would guarantee a “safe” future for the Jews of the region. One has to be willfully ignorant of both Jewish history and the dynamics of the Middle East to imagine any such scenario. The end of a Jewish state would be the end of any meaningful Jewish community in the place we presently call Israel, and the end of safety for millions of Jews. But that’s not for now.
What most struck me about this letter was the confidence of the writers, the sense that there was no reason to be meek when they told their rabbi that they are proud anti-Zionists. Theirs is not some marginal synagogue like Tzedek Chicago (see image above) which made waves earlier this year when it announced that anti-Zionism is a “core value” of their congregation. No, this is a major, nationally recognized and rightly admired flagship congregation. But still, there was no shame, no sense on the part of the proud anti-Zionists that theirs is a position on the margins of Jewish life.
I’ve also been meeting with some rabbinical students while I’m here. They go to all kinds of schools on both coasts, and are from all over the country. What have they wanted to speak about? They want to share how hard it is to be a Zionist in rabbinical school today. They want to talk about how most of their classmates self-define either as “non-Zionists” or “anti-Zionists” and how they, the Zionists, are worried that they’re going to lose friends and (get this…) possibly lose jobs if they continue to make it known that they endorse the idea of a Jewish state (even if they’re critical of many of its policies, as are many Israelis).
Obviously, it’s not the non-Zionists or anti-Zionists who are writing me and asking to meet for coffee. But if they did (which they won’t) and I could be honest (which I couldn’t), I’d tell them that what saddens me about their worldview is not that I disagree with it (which I do), but that they’re wasting their lives.
Why are they wasting their lives? Because their anti- (or non-) Zionism is obviously not going to move any Israeli policy needle one iota. Equally obvious, a formidable part of the future of the Jewish people is going to be written in Israel. It may be written for better, or it may be written for worse. But it is in Israel that the future of the Jewish people as we know it will largely be determined.
Recall just these few facts:
In 1948, there were 600,000 Jews in Israel, less than there were in New York City. Today, there are more than seven million Jews living in Israel, and Israel is the world’s largest Jewish community (slightly less than half of all Jews). In a few years, a majority of the world’s Jews will live in Israel (which has not been the case since the time of the prophet Jeremiah, c. 600 BCE), and by 2048, Israel’s 100th anniversary, it is predicted that about two-thirds of the world’s Jews are going to live in Israel.
To actively campaign against the state which will soon be home to the majority of your people, thus rendering them vulnerable in myriad ways, is a strange way to love the Jewish people.
Israel faces numerous challenges in fostering Jewish identity among its citizens, and it confronts problems of Jewish literacy galore. The Jewish state dare not ignore those. Nonetheless, it is in Israel where the Hebrew language has been brought back to life, it is in Israel where Jewish culture (literature, music, poetry, theater and much more) is being produced at a dizzying rate. Pull the carpet out from under Israel, and what portion of the richness of today’s Jewish world remains? Judaism is not all politics and religion—and that’s abundantly and meaningfully clear nowhere except for Israel.
Year after year, Israelis rank higher than most other countries in the world on the happiness scale. They have (even without the Haredim and even without Arabs) a higher birthrate than any other OECD country. Why? Because a country founded to promote Jewish rebirth has given them, even if they’re not aware of it, a profound sense of purpose and meaning. That is that we want to undo, while we’re still struggling to save the Jewish people from the devastation of the middle of the twentieth-century?
Unlike some my friends and colleagues, I actually believe that many of these anti-Zionists are well intended. They are genuinely troubled by the moral morass of the current state of affairs with Palestinians (so am I), and while they have no idea how to fix the huge problems their own country faces, they honestly believe that there’s an obvious fix to the problems of a country far away, a country most have never lived in for any extended time, a country the language of which they do not speak. But they genuinely do believe that they know how to solve all of this, and that via their anti-Zionism, they are saving the soul of the Jews.
Even if they are well-intended, though, with time, the Jewish anti-Zionists of today will come to be seen as Sabbateans—those supporters of Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1676) who believed with every fiber of their being that he was the Messiah (a view he encouraged), and then, when he was proven a hoax, were left utterly bereft (some committed suicide). Sabbateans were, I’m sure, as noble and as principled as some of today’s anti-Zionists. Much of the mainstream Jewish world railed against them, but to no avail.
But note this, about those very well-intentioned people from a few centuries ago: read a book of general Jewish history today, and they get a paragraph, or a footnote. They changed nothing, they contributed nothing, and at best, they’re a sad curiosity.
It’ll be exactly the same with today’s anti-Zionists, whether or not they live to see it.
Just as communal leadership back then could not prevent Sabbateans from believing what they believed, today’s communal leadership can’t prevent anti-Zionists from being anti-Zionists (or as some like to call themselves, anemically, “Diasporists”). But it can work much harder to make their viewpoint one that is not part of the “big tent” to which Kurtzer quite rightly refers.
A huge part of the problem lies in the rabbinical schools, of all sorts, which today have become wellsprings of non- and anti-Zionism.
How that happened, and what a new rabbinical school that could address the issue might look like, is for discussion down the road. But for now, suffice it to say that we need rabbinical schools where anti- or even non- Zionism are considered far beyond the pale.
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But wait, you, say: Rabbinical schools have no right to tell people what to think. They need to respect the views of their students.
To a degree, yes. Yet that position, without limits, is absurd. An increasing number of rabbinical schools is competing for students in a shrinking pool of candidates and to be sure, the pressure’s on. Nonetheless, I’m assuming that there are still limits. If a prospective rabbinical student said at her or his admissions interview that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for European Jewry’s immorality or non-observance (two very different categories), would they be admitted? If a prospective rabbinical student said that there was nothing in the world wrong with how white America had treated black America for centuries, would they be admitted?
I doubt it, and hope not.
If a rabbinical school applicant said that monotheism was great centuries ago, but it’s too rigid for contemporary Jews and that if a person wants to worship an idol because that enriches their spiritual life, then who are we to judge — would they be admitted?
Perhaps, I don’t know any more.
If a rabbinical student said that they thought that monogamy was an outmoded notion and that there was no reason that Jewish communal standards should look askance at consensual open marriage (i.e., adultery), would they be admitted?
If they would, obviously, it’s all over.
No, there clearly are (or at least, should be) limits on what rabbinical students can think, believe or say. It’s just that when it comes to Israel, anything is fair game. Well, not everything:
what would happen if someone applied and said that the Palestinians deserve nothing and their present condition is not morally troubling. Would they get in? I doubt it …
It’s just the view that the Jews don’t deserve a state that’s become entirely unremarkable. To quote Kurtzer from above (out of context), “What the hell are we doing here anymore?”
There does need to be a big tent. The community of those who care about Israel should include those who want to get out of all the territory that Israel captured in 1967 and those who want to annex more of it. It should include those who would like to abolish the rabbinate and those who would like merely to modify it. It should include those who want to let market forces determine the future of the Haredim, and those who would like more engineering from the top. Those who believe there should be a non-Orthodox section at the kotel and those who believe there should not. Those who believe it would be immoral for Israel to attack Iran and those who believe it might be immoral not to attack Iran. And hundreds of other issues.
But however we feel about the country, it is where most of the world’s Jews will soon live. It is, despite all its complexity, where the future of the Jewish people is going to be written.
No one can stop anyone from wishing that the state did not exist. But we could stop them from being admitted to rabbinical schools. We could create a community where they would blush before writing to their rabbi that they’re anti-Zionists. We could make this as sacred a Jewish principle as some of the others we mentioned above.
The real test we face is whether anything at all is still sacred, still inviolable.
And if it’s not, the question becomes not whether we’ll survive, but whether we deserve to.
Coming later this week for paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside: a conversation with Roni Abulafia
Roni Abulafia is a filmmaker and screenwriter and political activist. In our podcast this week, she’ll discuss her documentary on Ehud Olmert, “The Man Who Wanted Too Much,” which explores why Olmert fell, her film about Israeli soldiers who were captured in 1954 while on a covert military operation to install a wiretap on a phone line in Syria and what happened to them, as well as her documentary on Ruth Colian, a Haredi woman who decided to enter politics despite the objections of her community.
In addition to all this, Roni is an activist, was part of two missions evacuating Afghanis as the Taliban took over, and more –
… it’s impossible not to be inspired by her. The podcast will be posted on Thursday.
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