My Problem With the Idea of a ‘Non-Zionist’ Synagogue

Rabbi Brant Rosen started Tzedek Chicago last year, a synagogue that bills itself as “non-Zionist” (and whose name means “justice”). Rosen’s recent Rosh Hashanah sermon, circulated in blog form, calls for a “Judaism beyond nationalism,” one “openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people — an injustice that continues to this day.”

Rosen calls his synagogue’s alternative approach “Diasporism.” It’s a position that “views the world as our [community’s] true ‘homeland’ and brings…the margins to the center.” And while Rosen tells me that his synagogue turns its lens on an array of social justice issues in America and abroad, aside from one reference to racial identity, the only issue mentioned in the sermon was Palestine. (A perusal of the website reveals a protest against Donald Trump and a protest against police brutality.)

It’s understandable that a congregation might pop up to coalesce around Palestine solidarity. Israel, after all, claims to act in the name of Jews, and generations of Diaspora Jews have grown up being inculcated with the demand to be loyal to the Jewish State. No wonder there’s a thirst for a Jewish spiritual space that seeks to uncover the less visible effects of Israel’s national project.

But is this really non-Zionism? I think the label may be producing more confusion than clarification. It’s hard for me to believe that the many Jews in North America who actively call themselves non-Zionist are actually “non-Zionist” in the same way that I am a “non-fan” of the NFL. It doesn’t seem that, in a Diaspora Jewish context, non-Zionism is actually about being indifferent to Israel. Instead, what I see among non-Zionists is a very different kind of engagement, but a serious engagement nevertheless. These activists may be cynical about the “ism” suffix and the political commitments that label is expected to entail, but their commitments to bettering Israel — and to standing in solidarity with those under the state’s yoke — are anything but.

So where can these activists, who actually care passionately about Israel’s future, go to feel at home? Rosen naturally decries the idea of litmus tests and redlines around Israel that too often define Jewish communal spaces. But does Tzedek Chicago deploy similar redlines, only in reverse? While every community is entitled to shape itself around core values, I wonder whether Zionists (however defined) are welcome to participate and debate — and to invite guest speakers, for instance, to do the same. How can we, as a community, engage in anti-occupation work, bring peace to the troubled land of Israel and Palestine, and challenge Israel’s problematic political structures, if we only listen to those within our own silo?

Part of the underlying resistance to reaching across the divide may be that most of the critique of Israel in Jewish communal settings refers rather anemically to “leaders” or “policies.” Here is sociologist Steven M. Cohen as quoted in Dov Waxman’s recent book, “Trouble in the Tribe:” “Ill feelings about Israeli leaders or policy cannot be seen as signs of distancing or disengagement. We must recall that the people (or institutions) whom we love most dearly are those that disturb us most readily. In our personal lives, distress is a sign of engagement, not a sign of distancing.”

No doubt, many self-declared “non-Zionists” have problems with Israel that go much deeper than particular “policies,” and instead reach to the core of Israel’s political ethos. A repeated focus on “policies” makes those who issue more serious structural criticism feel unheard.

A second related problem is the ambiguous use of the word “attachment” we now hear so often in Jewish communal settings. A recent Jewish community survey I filled out asked me how “attached” I was to Israel on a five-point scale, where 5 is “high” and 1 is “low.” As I clicked “five,” I knew that my style of attachment — wrestling, research, writing, connection and intense critique — takes a very different form from that of ordinary “support,” the kind that most Jewish institutions suggest is the right kind to have.

So I wonder how many of these so-called “non-Zionists” are avoiding Jewish communal spaces because they think their admission of “attachment” to a place whose injustices pain them will be interpreted as blind support. I wonder how many are hiving off into like-minded, “non-Zionist” spaces rather than push for the kinds of tough conversations we should be having with those who disagree. We need to reinvigorate pointed debate about Israel — and Zionism — across the Jewish communal divide. Justice might just depend on it.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Follow her on Twitter, @Sucharov

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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