zioness by the Forward

Letter To The Editor: In This Unique Moment, Zioness Speaks For Us

Aiden Pink’s recent Forward article on Zioness piqued my interest because I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the group. The timing of their launch was perfect.

In recent years, several of my Temple Sinai students have returned from college shell-shocked by the virulent anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism they faced on campus. Israel, they were told, is a Nazi regime, an apartheid state, colonialist and racist. Some were told they could not participate in LGBTQ or women’s rights organizations unless they denounced Israel. One ran for student government and, because she was Jewish, was interrogated about her loyalty to Israel, as if it might disqualify her. They were at large state schools and elite private schools. Some were in the Northeast, others in the Midwest and South.

Letter | Zioness Fills An Important Need In Our Community

This is a national epidemic that it goes far beyond college campuses. For years, Jews trying to join social justice campaigns have been confronted by calls to condemn Israel with language that goes well beyond criticizing particular policies. Zionists in these spaces have long been portrayed as pariahs, unwelcome in collective efforts in pursuit of domestic progressive policies we all support.

It was out of this context that Zioness was founded in 2017, when two Jews were thrown out of the Chicago Dyke March for the sin of waving a rainbow flag with a Jewish star at its center.

Zioness speaks for Jews like me for whom peoplehood is at the heart of our Jewish identities, for whom Israel is a central, animating treasure and cause, who are also unapologetically progressive on domestic social justice issues and are horrified by the bigotry and racism we see in the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies. When leaders of progressive causes tell us we’re welcome so long as we hide our identities, or worse, denounce them, they engage in a version of the bigotry and discrimination they claim to denounce.

I see Zioness as an important antidote to these attacks. When Zioness proudly and loudly advocates for LGBTQ equality, denounces the Trump administration’s racist, draconian immigration policies, promotes sensible gun laws and more, it sends a message: Zionists are kindred spirits in the fight for greater dignity and equality at home, and Zionism is itself a progressive cause. The greatest strength of the progressive social justice advocacy world is its diversity. Jews should be accorded the same rights to our identity that all others are appropriately accorded to theirs.

Letter | Zioness Fills An Important Need In Our Community

Some have criticized Zioness for not condemning the Israeli government’s policies. But criticism of Israel bleeds into anti-Semitism when American Jews are held accountable for the policies of a government we did not and cannot vote for. And besides, there are many other worthy and effective organizations that hold the Israeli government to account and shine a light on its flaws. I personally support them and champion their important work.

But Zioness fills a different need in the Jewish community, proclaiming that Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state transcends any particular government or policy. In an era of lethal anti-Semitism, Zioness justly and correctly asserts that Zionism and patriotism both animate our lives and our progressive advocacy. We simply refuse to allow others to judge us or define us.

I’m proud to associate with many outstanding and effective organizations that put Jewish values into action, among them AIPAC, T’ruah, ARZA, the New Israel Fund, UJA-Federation of New York, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and now Zioness. Each is led by outstanding, visionary Jewish leaders, grounded in Torah, fighting for a better world.

Letter | Zioness Fills An Important Need In Our Community

But Aiden Pink’s article should be a wakeup call for us: Progressive American Jews can ill afford to turn on each other or engage in turf wars, undermining each other’s effectiveness. We live in a time of unrelenting assault on progressive Jewish values, harsh divisiveness, violent bigotry and state sponsored racism. This dark era requires us, together, to engage in the existential, patriotic battle for human dignity, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

In my synagogue on Yom Kippur morning we heard Isaiah’s breathtaking, empowering words, particularly meaningful for our times: If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word; if you offer compassion to the hungry and satisfy the suffering — then shall your light shine through the darkness and your night shall become bright as noon.

It’s a reminder of our collective power to bring an end to the suffering we see, to wash clean the corrosive hatred and intolerance around us. I am grateful to Zioness and all the amazing progressive Jewish organizations engaged in this holy work. When we all join in common purpose, we can fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy.

Rabbi Michael A. White is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, New York.

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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Letter To The Editor: In This Unique Moment, Zioness Speaks For Us

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