Too Hot for Shul: Rabbis Seek Healthy Israel Dialogue After Gaza


During an American University panel on the recent war in Gaza earlier this month, Rabbi Shira Stutman related a story of a friend who was scandalized to learn that her rabbi served on J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet. The friend told Stutman that she was considering  leaving the synagogue she had belonged to for over 20 years—only to discover that Stutman, too, is affiliated with J Street.

“I said to her, please don’t do that, that’s the worst thing that can happen to the Jewish community,’” said Stutman, who serves the largely millennial congregation at the historic Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, DC’s Chinatown. She said she urged her friend to meet again and again with her rabbi “until you can figure out how you can have a conversation.”

“We need to have these conversations,” said Stutman, “and I still think synagogues are the best place for them.”

Co-sponsored by J Street, the school’s J Street U chapter, and the New Israel Fund, the event was titled “Test of the Crisis in Gaza: Who We Are and What’s Next?,” an acknowledgement of the unprecedented polarization of American Jews produced by this summer’s war in Gaza.

Stutman is, along with over 840 other rabbis and cantors, a member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” Washington advocacy group that arrived on the scene less than a decade ago, billing itself as a pro-Israel alternative to the long-dominant American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Despite Stutman’s optimism about synagogues as the locus for difficult conversations about American Judaism’s most contentious topic, few rabbis believe they are able to create a space where conversations can take place without participants’ fear of recrimination.

Rabbis are “terrified” of talking about Israel, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), which has 1800 affiliated rabbis. “Rabbis tend to be more progressive than their congregations and more knowledgeable” about Israel, Jacobs added, but fear losing their jobs, members, and donations, as well as contending with pushback from their more hawkish congregants—who may well be a very vocal minority.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote in the denomination’s magazine (“Muzzled by the Minority,” Fall, 2014) that he knew of rabbis who had expressed views “somewhat critical of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians,” only to be met with a reaction of “such outrage, contempt, and ferocity” that they chose to “simply remain silent on the subject in public.”


A 2013 report by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, based on an online survey of over 500 mostly Reform and Conservative rabbis, found that nearly half “hold views on Israel that they won’t share publicly, many for fear of endangering their reputation or their careers.” The survey found that 43% of rabbis who identified as dovish reported feeling “very fearful” of expressing their true views on Israel, compared to just 29% of moderates and 25% of hawks. A full 74% of the dovish rabbis reported feeling “very” or “somewhat” fearful of expressing their views.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the Reconstructionist-ordained rabbi of Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), a non-denominational, LGBT-inclusive congregation, said, “I think there’s a larger chilling effect in the American Jewish world, yes; I’ve gotten so many phone calls and voicemails [from people] who have had something happen to them—this summer I do believe it has gone off the rails.”

Yet, Kleinbaum said, “I do think my job is to create a Jewish space in which this discussion can take place without saying this person is not a good Jew and another is a good Jew. That, I think, is a reachable goal for my community.”

Many rabbis told me they simply don’t talk about Israel that much—in some cases not because they felt “muzzled,” necessarily, but because they believed their congregations to not be that interested, or the issues too complex, for a thirty minute sermon. Even the leaders of less traditional communities, like Kleinbaum’s, say that achieving the space for constructive dialogue is hard work, demanding diligence and intentionality that must be maintained not only by clergy, but by lay leaders and congregants as well. Several rabbis said the best approach was to bring in speakers of varying perspectives, and to encourage civil engagement with the speaker by congregants, a goal several said their communities had accomplished.

Younger Jews “scratch their heads,” and ask, “how can it possibly be true that Israel is not at fault in any way?”

Sharon Brous, a Conservative rabbi and founder of Ikar, a nondenominational spiritual and social justice community in Los Angeles, told me they have “worked really hard over the past decade to build a culture within the community in which people can hear voices that they strongly disagree with and sit respectfully in conversation nevertheless,” which was something she “felt both aware of and really grateful for” during the height of the Gaza war this summer.

“Poisonous Atmosphere” In the Jewish Community

Despite its dovish reputation, J Street supported Israel’s decision to launch a military attack on Gaza this summer, prompting an outcry from American Jewish progressives. Even though it supported the war—a position shared by the American Jewish establishment—the centrist newcomer continues to face hostility from the establishment. This year, it lost its bid to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, despite support from the Union for Reform Judaism and other Conference members.

At the American University event, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, lamented the “poisonous atmosphere” in the American Jewish community. On September 2, he recalled, the organization sent an email condemning the Israeli government’s seizure of approximately 1,000 acres of Palestinian-owed land in the West Bank, saying that this action “casts serious doubt on the Israeli government’s sincerity in claiming to favor a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians,” and calling on the US government to unambiguously declare settlements “illegal” as opposed to “merely ‘unhelpful’ or ‘illegitimate.’”

The reply, which Ben-Ami said came from a person “at the top of the pyramid leadership position in an umbrella organization in the Jewish community,” contained just two words: “Go away.”

“There’s far too much intolerance in the American Jewish community, the Conference of Presidents, AIPAC people, people on the right,” said Rabbi John Rosove, of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles, and co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet. “They need to grow up. Jews argue. We need civil discourse.”

“It’s not healthy,” said Kleinbaum, “that the Jewish community has created litmus tests for what’s okay and not okay to talk about.” The mainstream Jewish community, she added, “has brought this on itself, from my perspective, by saying that we who are dedicated to the survival of a pluralistic and just Israel are put in a very, very narrow space.”

Attempts have been made from outside their congregations to undermine both Kleinbaum and Brous. After reading the names of Palestinian civilians killed in this summer’s Gaza war, which led to the loss of one board member and a handful of congregants, Kleinbaum’s board stepped in to defend her against a “misleading” article, published in Tablet, that “misrepresents both CBST’s position on Israel and the tone of community within the congregation.” For Brous, the criticism came after she was critical of what she saw as celebrations of the loss of Palestinian life during the 2012 war in Gaza.

“The issue is we have an entirely toxic ecosystem around Israel right now,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ Civility Campaign. As a result, “People perceive their only options are avoidance or antagonism.”

Through its Resetting the Table initiative, the JCPA, she said, has developed a “whole framework for trying to detoxify the system,” which is focused on building a “culture of dialogue and inquiry on Israel.”

Rabbis, said Weintraub, “need to exercise leadership; we need the rabbis’ voice and their vision, but part of what’s needed is something that’s not just about the rabbi’s voice, but also about making room for all of the voices in the congregation.”

When congregants “feel heard” by the rabbi, said Weintraub, “when they feel like there are channels of expression and recognition for them, they have a lot more room for anything the rabbi has to say.”

Discussions about Israel, “should be taking place within synagogues, JCCs [Jewish Community Centers], JCRCs [Jewish Community Relations Councils], within Federations,” said Kleinbaum, referring to the network of local Jewish charities across North America. Younger Jews, she said, “scratch their heads,” and ask, “how can it possibly be true that Israel is not at fault in any way?”

Crossing the Non-Zionist Rubicon

Criticizing Israeli government policy has long been a third rail in American Judaism, even as J Street has made such criticism a little less taboo (provided it’s done from a Zionist perspective). Yet there is a third rail so highly charged it can set off even self-described doves and progressive Zionists: questioning Zionism as central to Jewish identity.

Rabbi Brant Rosen, who for 17 years led the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois, recently stepped down from his pulpit, following a summer of protest against the Gaza war with the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace, on whose Rabbinical Council he serves. (Compared to J Street’s 800-plus-member Rabbinic Cabinet, JVP’s two-year-old Rabbinic Council has just 50.) Rosen told me he was not forced out, but that his decision to step down was driven by “stress between individual congregants and me,” and was made “for my congregation’s well-being and my own well-being.”

Rosen described Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, as the “breaking point” prompting his “personal and very public move from my liberal Zionism to what I would call Palestinian solidarity.” He told me this was “a matter of conscience as a Jew.” Although it “raised a lot of dust in my congregation,” Rosen said, the leadership “stood by me.”

Most recently, Rosen was a highly visible supporter of the Presbyterian Church USA’s June 2014 decision to divest from companies whose products are used in the occupation, a move that was strongly opposed by the Reform movement. Over the summer, he was present at a JVP anti-war protest at a Chicago Jewish Federation fundraiser, at which protesters (not including himself, Rosen said), chanted, “we are Jews, shame on you.”

“I don’t have a problem saying I’m not a Zionist,” Rosen told me. JVP, he said, is “agnostic” on Zionism, noting some of its members are Zionists. Nonetheless, he said, for many “joining JVP means crossing a kind of Rubicon.”

But more people are crossing that Rubicon according to Rosen, who says that JVP’s membership is “growing explosively.” That same observation is also made—disquietedly—by rabbis who take issue with JVP’s positions. Some place at least part of the blame on the establishment’s “litmus tests,” which result in too few communal spaces in which Jews feel comfortable or welcome voicing criticisms of Israel.

Rabbi Brian Walt, the founding executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, and now part-time rabbi for Congregation Tikkun v’Or, a Reform synagogue in Ithaca, New York, sits on both the JVP Rabbinic Council and the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet. While the emergence of JVP has “widened the discourse of rabbis,” he claims that there remain “many rabbis” who would want to affiliate with JVP but can’t “because there are severe limitations on what you can do as a rabbi and still hold a job.”

Progressive Zionist rabbis like Kleinbaum and Brous told me that even though they are strong Zionists, they make Jews of all positions on Israel feel welcome in their congregations. Others said they cannot countenance a non-Zionist perspective from a fellow rabbi. “Rosen’s just off the charts as far as I’m concerned,” Yoffie told me. “He’s so extreme, it’s very hard for me, at least from my perspective; it’s very hard for me to make sense of all that.”

“I couldn’t be a member of a shul led by Brant Rosen,” said Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Gaithersburg, Maryland. At the same time, though, he pointed out that he couldn’t be a member of a synagogue where the rabbi supported “bombing Gaza into the Stone Age.”

Arian maintained that positions on the far left and right can place Jews outside of the mainstream of the community. He did, however, concede that “obviously racist and demeaning comments about Muslims and Arabs are far more tolerated than extreme anti-Zionist leanings.” (Other rabbis shared the view that people on both the Jewish far left and the Jewish far right express intolerant views that can silence those who disagree, but that the right does it more frequently and gets a pass from the mainstream.)

“I don’t deny that my view is a dissident view in the Jewish community today,” Rosen admitted, though he referred repeatedly to a shift in “paradigm,” using phrases like it is “mid-shift at this point” and “I think we’re seeing the pains of that shift.” The “classic example,” he said, is Open Hillel, a student-led movement that aims to change Hillel International’s policy of refusing to partner with or host organizations or speakers who, among other things, “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” Open Hillel calls that policy “counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus.”

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of the Reconstructionist congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin, and likewise a member of the JVP rabbinic council, said, “I think for younger Jews, ethnic solidarity doesn’t mean anything to them.” Younger Jews aren’t as likely to believe that Jews share a tribal or ethnic solidarity around Israel as “the people of my generation or older do,” said Zimmerman, who is 40. In one-on-one conversations, she said, younger Jews are “questioning the assumption of Israel being connected to Jewish identity.”

Last year’s Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, a major survey of American Jews, found declining attachment to Israel among younger generations, while older Jews are more likely to see “caring about Israel” as an “essential part” of being Jewish. More than half of respondents over 65 said caring about Israel was “essential,” compared to just 32 percent of those under 30.

Younger Jews are “nervous,” Zimmerman said, and “it’s important that they have people to talk to.”

The Clash of Spiritual Optimism and Political Reality

While Rosen has clearly touched the most charged third rail in American Judaism, another, more subtle one persists, particularly for progressive Zionists: questioning the claim that Israel’s serial military incursions into Gaza since the 2006 Israeli settlement withdrawal from the territory are wars of necessity for Israel’s security.

“The majority of rabbis are horrified” by the scale of civilian casualties and destruction in Gaza this summer, T’ruah’s Jill Jacobs told me. They “don’t believe the human shield story,” she said, referring to the Israeli government’s contention that civilian casualties were Hamas’s fault because it harbored civilians in locations used to stockpile or fire rockets.

Yet most of the rabbis I talked to this month whose views would place them in the liberal or progressive Zionist camp—a mix of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and one modern Orthodox—expressed support for Israel’s decision to go to war. While they said they mourned the deaths of Palestinian civilians, which included over 500 children, few questioned the decision, or what they considered to be the necessity for Israel to protect its civilian population against Hamas rocket fire from Gaza.

Many of these rabbis emphasized the rejection of binaries, shifting the conversation from an assessment of Israel’s justifications for going to war to a conversation about the ability to hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in one’s head at once.

“People seem to believe that if you really support Israel, there’s no heartspace to grieve civilian deaths in Gaza. And if you’re horrified by the rockets and tunnels, you’re disregarding Palestinian suffering,” said Brous.

Both of those views, she said, “are absurd. It’s actually very Jewish to hold both.”

Rabbi Eric Solomon of Beth Meyer Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Raleigh, NC, and a member of both the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and the T’ruah board, said, “my goal is to try to awaken people’s consciousness and make them consider other positions, to recognize it’s okay to love Israel (and even give her some rebuke)… [and to] recognize Palestinian humanity and [that] not all Palestinians are Hamas or Hamas supporters.”

But questioning the war—or the political calculation of the war—seems to be off-limits. Temple Israel’s Rosove told me, “I was very skeptical of Israel in the beginning although I didn’t come out publicly because whenever Israel is at war I keep my mouth shut.” Rosove said that later, after the discovery of Hamas tunnels, he changed his mind and believed Israel’s war was justified.

Yet analysts on the Israeli left have made a powerful case that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy was driven not by defense of Israeli civilians but by his cynical aim to undermine the peace process and the prospects for a two-state solution. Assaf Sharon, the academic director of the Israeli think tank Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, argued in a post-war assessment in the New York Review of Books that Hamas was at a low point before the war. Yet rather than take the opportunity to undermine Hamas further and bolster Fatah’s standing as a peace partner, Netanyahu sought to undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by casting Hamas as the instigator, and therefore the Fatah-Hamas unity government as an untrustworthy partner.

The Gaza war was, Sharon argued, “fundamentally, not about tunnels and not against rockets. It is a war over the status quo. Netanyahu’s ‘conflict management’ is a euphemism for maintaining a status quo of settlement and occupation, allowing no progress.”

One of the summer’s notable developments on this front was the hawkish Times of Israel editor David Horovitz’s acknowledgement of something Netanyahu critics have long argued: that despite his claims to support a two-state solution, Netanyahu in reality does not. After a wartime press conference—during which Netanyahu spoke only in Hebrew—Horovitz wrote that the Israeli leader “made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank.”

There’s evidence of some rabbinical awareness of this reality. The JCPA online survey, conducted in 2013, found “some considerable doubt among rabbis” that the Israeli government wants peace more than the Palestinians do, pointing out that it is “notable insofar as Israeli officials and their supporters have long argued to the American public and the world at large that Israel is far more interested in peace than the Palestinians.”

This year in particular, Walt said, is a “very hard year for rabbis to figure out what to say, for rabbis who don’t feel they are on Netanyahu’s bus.”

But dovish rabbis, even ones who expressed little admiration for Netanyahu, seemed reluctant to step outside the wartime frame that Israel needs the support of American Jews during the heat of military battle, regardless of the political calculus that led to war. While these rabbis say they want to support and bolster the Israeli left, they seem reluctant—whether merely out of habit, or out of fear of appearing insensitive to Israel’s security needs—to take its political analysis into account.

If they did take that analysis into account, they would be in the company of a leading thinker on the future of liberal Zionism. After the Netanyahu admission, the most prominent liberal Zionist critic of the American Jewish establishment, Peter Beinart, in a Haaretz column, accused the American Jewish establishment of “sanitizing” Netanyahu’s position. The result of that sanitizing, he argued, will be “exactly the reaction American Jews fear most,” Palestinian abandonment of a two-state vision for a one-state solution. That, Beinart wrote, “would likely mean the end of a country dedicated to Jewish self-protection, and even though a binational state, in practical terms, would likely mean civil war.”

But, according to Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, a Conservative congregation in Pasadena, California, and another member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, the Israeli left has always been more critical of the Israeli government than American Jews.

“I think American Jews continue to still have a desire and a belief and a strong sense that Israel is a land of peace and does want peace,” said Grater. He added that American Jews have “blinders,” and that “we have a hard time believing” that “this great country that’s been a dream of our ancestry for thousands of years really might be doing things we disapprove of.”

The End of Liberal Zionism?

Walt said J Street’s members are Jews “who feel very troubled by the occupation, the denial of human rights to Palestinians” and “affirm a Zionist vision that supports establishment of a Jewish democratic state.”

Yet, he says, referring to such a state that is both Jewish and democratic: “I don’t think there is such an animal anymore.”

The progressive Zionists, however, reject the idea that their movement is dead, or that the prospects for a two-state solution and a pluralistic, democratic Israel have been lost. “The power of the religious mind is attaching yourself to the vision of something that is not yet in existence,” said Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a Conservative congregation in Alpharetta, GA.

Beyond the mere optimism of the religious mind, many of the progressive Zionist rabbis said they support Israeli NGOs working to combat racism, racist incitement, religious intolerance, and human rights abuses. That includes support for progressive religious movements to create a “religious, social justice option for secular Israelis to not only celebrate their own Judaism but to fight racism and the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox on Israeli life,” said Rosove.

In the end, the divide between the non-Zionists and progressive Zionists is whether Israel, as politically constituted, can still function as a democratic state. Kleinbaum said the current generation of progressive Zionists needs to “drain the swamps of hatred, of racism, of economic inequality, and of the occupation.” Pressing for change, she said, will “inspire people” to make Israel “live up to what we want it to be.” If Rosen is right about the paradigm shift, though, a failure to talk about the range of disillusionment among American Jews could prove more damaging than difficult conversations.

“Rabbis think they have to find the perfect, nuanced, balanced message that will speak to all of their politically diverse congregants and give them a model,” said JCPA’s Weintraub. But, she added, “Rabbis can exercise leadership by sending the message, wherever you stand, this is where you can come to get beyond the echo chambers of American political life, and investigate the issues honestly and constructively with people who disagree.”

*The 6% “Other” includes the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements.

  • Jim Reed

    This sounds familiar. You don’t like to express a public opinion on this issue either, do you Sarah?

  • cgosling

    Mixing religion with politics is risky. When will we ever learn?

  • Northern_Witness

    The article mentions Rabbi Jill Jacobs as saying, “Rabbis tend to b e more progressive than their congregations and more knowledgeable” about Israel. If this is so, why do they not inform their congregations that (1) scriptural messages are given in figurative language and (2) that the Israel the Israel of the Bible is not real estate or a country but rather is a state of God Consciousness where the person experiences God directly. In this transcendent state there is no left or right, no right or wrong, no judgement, no stealing land, and no treating others as inferior.

  • Thanks for a very interesting and informative article. Some points of response from a converted Buddhist of European ancestry: As I view the Zionist landscape, I can see no such position as a “Progressive” or “Liberal” Zionist. I suppose what the label is intended to indicate is the perspective of a person who is liberal or progressive on all the other social issues, except for Israel. But then the label is inherently misleading because the adjective grammatically attaches to the Zionist view, not the person’s other views. Zionism is a never a liberal or progressive view. Zionism is no different in its political structure from a state based on race or religion. Zionism as the advocacy of a Jewish state is no more liberal that Islamism as the advocacy of an Islamic state.

    This article talks about the differences among Jews in trying to deal with the notion of the state of Israel as a Jewish state. However, from this non-Jew’s perspective, the concept of what the word “Jew” means is so hopelessly confused that the term is no longer relevant in intelligent rational discussion. Why? Because people use the word “Jew” with no regard for whether they mean a religion, a nation, a tribe, an ethnicity, or a race. This very deliberate confusion is what has allowed Zionism to exist without the criticism that would otherwise arise if the context was made clear. What if we said that we were creating a Christian nation where only Christians would be privileged? That would be so distasteful to Americans that it would be a nonstarted. What if we said we were going to create a nation where only people descended from Germans would be citizens with full right? This confusion about what exactly is a Jew is exactly what Zionism depends on to legitimatize itself with Americans and others in the west.

    Also, J Street’s president is completely out of touch with reality when saying that Israel’s recent action of seizing additional land “casts serious doubt on the Israeli government’s sincerity in claiming to favor a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians,” The Israeli government does not claim to be in favor of a two-state peace agreement and any suggestion that Israel wants a two-state solution is just propaganda while the Palestinians are moved into reservations and ghettos for the eventual one-state solution of the Greater Israel project of Zionism. It is exactly because J Street does not acknowledge the real goal of Zionism that J Street demonstrated there is no such thing as a liberal or progressive Zionist.

  • Lori L

    Thank you for a very detailed and nuanced overview of something that threatens to drive a wedge into the American Jewish community, family by family and congregation by congregation. As a member of Rabbi Rosen’s congregation, I was not in favor of his continuing because doing so would have turned congregation member against congregation member (in what is normally a fairly diverse but progressive community). Also, it seemed as though he needed to pursue the activist role that had become so close to his heart, and in this we all wish him well. I don’t think that JRC’s example is the norm. What is disturbing is an atmosphere of demonization in the Jewish community that is making many clergy go quiet and making members drift away.

  • Jim Reed

    As an outsider here, it seems to me that wedging apart the American Jewish community congregation by congregation is not that important of a deal compared to wedging apart the world country by country. This is only a problem in the Jewish community because it is a real problem, so deal with it. I wish you luck because I would trust the American Jewish community to deal with this way more than I would trust the American Christian Zionist community.

  • Rehmat

    Yes, it’s very risky to criticize Israel – whether you’re rabbi, Jewish academic, human rights activist or some Jew who believes that Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism. Just take the persecution of professor Richard Falk, former UN special envoy for the Palestinian Territories.

  • RabbiMichaelBernstein

    I understand how you arrive at your conclusions about Zionism basing it on the model of Judaism as a religion solely. However, it is important to realize that long before political Zionism Jews have seen ourselves as a people as well. A peoplehood that, unlike Christianity or Islam, is passed down generationally as an identity, regardless of belief or practice. Yes, a person can become Jewish through a ritual choosing of this people and such Jews by Choice enrich us immensely. However, the model of Jewish identity is still one of a national people even when living amongst other nations. To be a progressive or liberal Zionist is actually to follow the mode of some of the first architects if Zionism, including Herzl who saw the movement not only as a way to save Jewish lives, but as a way to bring to fruition dreams of world harmony. Neither goal was acheived when Israel was established too late to save the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and when partition was rejected by Arab powers in favor of war. Those of us who consider ourseves progressive zionists believe that the state if Israel, still necessary and legitimate as a Jewish homeland can and should coexist with a Palestinian state securing dignity and sovereignty for the Palestinian people. Those of us who are religious progressive Zionists believe that this goal is also part of fulfilling the promise of peace that is the bedrock of the prophetic vision that helped inspire Christianity and Islam as well.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I don’t know how risky it is. Seems to me that virtually every major online opinion outlet is anti-Israel or at least, hosts plenty of anti-Israel articles. That’s not to deny any individual case, but it’s hardly as if anti-Israel views are not plentiful in the public discourse.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Regardless of your “view” of the “Zionist landscape” — whatever that is — there are many, many liberal/progressive Zionists. Indeed, the bulk of the founders of the State of Israel were socialists — the majority party, at the time of the founding — the Mapai — was a Socialist party. The political Right only came to power in Israel in 1977, with the election of Begin, some 30 years after the nation’s founding. Every single one of my relatives who live in Israel — and some 90% of my relatives live in Israel — are secular, politically progressive, and members of liberal-progressive parties. So your “no such thing” is simply, demonstrably false.

    As for your comparison of Zionism to Islamism, all I can do is laugh. If you are of the view that Israel is less liberal than its Islamic neighbors — pick any one you like — then you clearly have no understanding whatsoever of the politics of the Middle East. Not only is Israel more liberal/progressive than Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., it is exponentially so. Indeed, this is why gay and lesbian Palestinians flee from the territories *to* Israel — because Israel is tolerant of LGBT rights, whereas in Gaza and the West Bank, a public “outing” will get you put to death.

    Your “confusion” regarding the term ‘Jew’ is simply a reflection of your own ignorance. The Jews are first and foremost a people and secondly a religion. In that sense the Jews are no different from the French, the Irish, the Italians, or any other nationality. It is that sense in which Israel was founded as a Jewish state, and the majority of Israeli Jews are secular — indeed, a greater percentage of Jews in the US are religiously active than in Israel. Your remark “What if we said that we were creating a Christian nation…?” is hilarious, insofar as many of the countries in Europe — from which Jews were expelled, deported and eventually sent to the gas chambers — have state churches.

    Israel has a substantial Arab population. There are Arabs serving as ministers of Parliament. It is true that Arabs do not serve in the Israeli military and we might have a discussion as to whether that’s discriminatory. But an Arab citizen of Israel has it much better than an Arab citizen of any Arab country surrounding Israel. If you are motivated by such powerful humanitarian concerns, I suggest you focus on the condition of Arab life in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

    Finally, on the subject of your humanitarianism. The Arab nations and Iran used to have substantial, robust Jewish populations. Where are they now? Some 800,000 Jews were expelled from their homes in these countries and those few who remain, live a largely secret life. Certainly they have no representation in government. I look forward to hearing your heartfelt appeals on their behalf.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Hear! Hear!

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    the Israel of the Bible is not real estate or a country but rather is a
    state of God Consciousness where the person experiences God directly.


    This is a Christian understanding of Israel, not a Jewish one, and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the TANAKH. The Jews are a people and they are a people *of* the land of Israel (just as the French are the people of France, the Spanish the people of Spain, etc.)

    That said, the Biblical origin-story is *not* grounds for any contemporary political state of affairs. At best, it explains why the modern state of Israel was placed, by the UN, in Israel, rather than, say, Madagascar. But, contrary to crazy Settlers and other assorted Israeli Rightists, it provides no basis for any sort of resolution to current disputes. Those have to be worked out via diplomacy or (unfortunately) war.

  • Northern_Witness

    As God was supposed communicating directly with certain Jews in the Tanakh or Old Testament, it is even more likely that Israel is the state in which the communication occurred. God doesn’t care about land. Rewards would be to be in God’s presence and, again, the name for that condition is Israel. God’s rewards would not entail murdering other people to take their land.

    Taking scripture literally is a foolish notion that will estrange the seeker from that which is sought.

    “The modern state of Israel” was arbitrarily begun in the 1880s, when Jews were urged to settle in Palestine under the slogan “A land without people for a people without land”. Incidentally, Palestine was not the first country considered for that occupation. Argentina and an British East Africa were also on the list.

    Of course, when that slogan was popularized Palestine contained 500,000 Palestinians and only 50,000 Jews. The UN proclaimed the country of Israel only after Jewish paramilitary gangs had rampaged throughout Palestine killing UN officials, British soldiers and countless Palestinians. It was basically a washing of hands on the part of the UN and Britain to cut their losses.

    Your mention of Madagascar only plays into the Nazi era propaganda and the subsequent sympathy given to displaced Jews. But no matter how much Jews suffered in WWII, the UN and the Allies did not have the right to give someone’s land to Jews.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I hardly take the TANAKH literally. I am a Reform Jew. I was simply speaking to how Jews understand their connection to the Land and it is not as you describe.

    As to the rest, we simply disagree, but this is not the place to re-litigate the founding of the State of Israel and her subsequent wars with the Arabs.

  • Rabbi Bernstein,thank you for your reply.
    While others may not be aware of the history of the group self-image, that is, the tribal image, of Jews seeing themselves “as a people,” I am very aware of that history and that is exactly the context in which I was drawing attention to the fact that today Jews continue to speak about being a Jew in a manner that confuses the question of which context the word “Jew” is being used.

    In one and the same paragraph, in one sentence the word “Jew” will be used as meaning “a religion,” and then in the very next sentence the word “Jew” will be use as meaning “a people.” This type of semantic fusion is what I am proposing is causing so much confusion and difficulty for both Jews and non-Jews alike. For non-Jews, we see certain issues and principles that would apply to Judaism as a religion but would not apply to Jews as a tribal or ethnic people. I also propose that it is this confusion of self-identity that is central to what makes Jews themselves not be able to evaluate how Israel is behaving or why people can severely criticize Israel and its apartheid conduct
    without being anti-Semitic. Since Jews see Israel as a Jewish nation that integrally combines and fuses Jewish identity as a religion, a people, and an ancient tribe, then any criticism of the nation of Israel is a criticism of Israel’s Jewishness, ergo it is anti-Semitic.

    It is precisely the model of Jewish identity that I am proposing must be examined as much as the Arab Muslim identity needs to be examined and the Irish Catholic identity needs to be examined. Because we have two words for “Arab Muslim” and “Irish Catholic” we can examine those identities without so much confusion. But because there is only one word “Jew” and not two words separating the nationality from the religion, any examination of that identity comes up against the demand that there be no conceptual separation between the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. This is the core of what I am trying to inform my Jewish friends about.

    There is just something not right about saying it is okay for Jews to have a religions nation and a racist nation, but it would be wrong for others to have a religions nation or a racist nation. While I can understand that people with a tribal identity as Slavs, Sioux, Irish, Jews or Arabs might want a nation-state for their tribe, I am just not prepared to say that people should be allowed to have religious nations, so that is my ethnocentrism talking. In other words, I don’t think ethnic diversity should be allowed to the point of allowing some other nation to have slaves, and likewise I don’t think that ethnic diversity should be allow to the point of having a nation state based on a single religion regardless of whether the religion is Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, Christianity, or whatever.

    To put it another way, having a Jewish State or an Islamic State or a Hindu State, etc., is just the opposite of a plan or dream of world harmony, it is a dream leading to world discord as witnessed by the current conduct of Israel. I’m not saying that having a capitalist state as we have in the USA is any better for leading to world harmony, because the economic religion of capitalism is just as religious as Judaism or Islam could ever be. In my view, a physical “homeland” for a religion or a tribe or an ideology is essentially an antiquated idea that leads to the worst aspects of tribalism and the contention, contestation, and conflict that is inherent in all forms of tribalism.

    If there is a progressive view of Zionism that is a model of an Israel that conforms to the Book of Micah’s ideals, then exactly how are progressive Zionists calling out and condemning the current leaders of Israel for their wrongful acts in the same clear words of Micah? All I hear are excuses and justifications for Israeli apartheid and colonization from so-called progressive Zionists. The only religions Jews I hear criticizing Israel are Jews who have disavowed Zionism as a tribal project.

    Would you please refer me to your public comments—or comments from other Progressive Zionists–that have unequivocally condemned the actions of maintaining Israeli settlements that should all be dismantled, the stealing of land by building of the wall, or the devastation of Gaza and turning Gaza into a reservation or ghetto?

  • Thank you Aravis, for engaging in thoughtful discussion instead of rants. You have raised many points that I will try to respond to coherently. My hope is that we can reveal how it looks from our own perspectives and inform each other in a way that might lead to a bridge of some kind.

    First, being a socialist is neither here nor there when it comes to evaluating Zionism as a project, either in its inception or its current result. The terrorist tactics used or condoned by these original socialists when invading and conquering territory to create modern Israel belies any inherent morality or progressivism to their brand of socialism. Also tribal socialism is not progressive socialism.

    Second, you seem to misunderstand my “no such thing” position. When it comes to all your relatives in Israel who are self-avowed Zionists, I would ask, do they publically condemn the building of the wall, the occupation of the Settlements, the bombing of Gaza, the second class citizenship of non-Jews? Which are the liberal progressive parties in Israel that endorse Zionism but do not endorse the apartheid government and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?

    Third, the “less liberal” argument is a red herring. Athens was a direct democracy but only for the male citizens who could vote. Women and slaves had no standing. Israel is certainly a better place to vacation than the Islamic States, but that still does not mean that the social liberalism of Israel justifies or excuses the immoral behavior of the state of Israel or its political prejudice against non-Jews. Yes, the states that have Islam as a state religion are backward nations in my view, but it is not much of an argument to say Israel is less backward than those. That is an argument of degree. Israel justifies the violations of civil rights on a daily basis, it is just that the justification is different and the people whose civil rights are violated are generally not Jewish.

    Fourth, to say “Jews are first and foremost a people and secondly a religion” tells me all I need to know about your perspective and I thank you for your clarification. Don’t you know that there are other people who would say just the opposite? That “Jews are first and foremost a religion and secondly a people”? If you think your view of what it means to be a Jew is universal, then would you not benefit from a wider view?
    The argument about State Churches in Europe is another example. I do not say the State Churches in Europe are good and the State Religion of Israel is bad. I say all State Religions are wrong. both the State Churches of Europe and Israel. Are you saying the State Churches that drove out Jews was a good thing? If not then you should admit that what was good for the goose is good for the gander.
    You want me to have a consistent appeal to humanitarianism and I ask the same for you. This was a blog about Zionism and the idea of progressive Zionism so that is the appropriate topic of discussion. Certainly, changing the topic to misconduct by other nations is not going to deal with the question of Zionism, unless you are arguing that the conduct of Arab states allows Zionist conduct a free pass from examination.

  • RabbiMichaelBernstein

    I’ll mention in advance that as Rosh Hashana is approaching I will have go take a hiatus from this conversation soon for religious reasons.
    Here is my thought about your take, Gregory. Is it possible to allow for the possibility that many Jews drawing from within our own traditions and history have a deep commitment to the understanding of the Jewish religion as being based on a particular concept of peoplehood in a way that is different than Christianity or Islam. I certainly understand that this understanding is not what animates most non-Jews, especially Palestinians who have felt disenfranchised by Zionism. But when it comes to religious and cultural identities there has to be room for more than one truth. The goal, in my opinion is to find a way to coexist even under those circumstances. Part of that coexistence is an acknowledgment of the validity of each other’s story. One way to express it would be that by rights bith sides could lay claim to any part of the land as a homeland, but in order to build the futire of coexistence moving forward, both sides agree to a political compromise establishing two stqtes for two peoples.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I appreciate the reply, and please let me apologize for my snark at the end of my reply to you. I am sensitive on the topic and feel as if Israel is held to standards to which we do not hold other nations, including the US.

    A few things, specifically in response to your reply:

    1. My father spent most of his time in the Haganah smuggling refugees from the concentration camps into Palestine, in defiance of a draconian British quota. Your attitude towards the “terrorism” — if that’s what we want to call it — seems to me to lack any cognizance of the context in which the state was founded, namely the immediate aftermath of the Shoah. As for invading, conquering, etc., this is just one of the examples of double standards. When the US returns half of the country to Mexico and the other half to the American Indians, I will take criticisms like this seriously. If anything, relative to the way in which other nations were founded, Israel’s founding, with the UN’s involvement and the partition offered to the Arabs, was more just than the way in which the countries currently criticizing her were founded.

    2. Re: your charge of a red herring. You commit the classic fallacy of making the perfect enemy of the good. In geopolitical matters, all judgments are relative judgments. Every country “violates civil rights on a daily basis.” The relevant questions are “how much” and “compared to what?” It should be emphasized, however, that this does *not* absolve anyone of a duty to do so less and less, and I would be the first to say that Israel needs to do so — as does the US, especially now, with the appalling situation we seem to be facing with police departments across the country.

    3. Finally, as to your point re: “no such thing”, there is a substantial Israeli political Left, the most well-known organization of which is Peace Now ( With regard to my relatives–and me–we are most certainly against the occupation and against the Settlements, and believe that Israel should make a deal with the Palestinians that entails a two-state solution and eventually, a free-trade zone. However, we also believe that the Wall was justified by the situation on the ground — it virtually eliminated what had become weekly attacks on civilian targets in Jerusalem. Our opinions are mixed on whether or not Arab nationals should serve in the Israeli military, but beyond that, we all oppose formal discrimination of every stripe. To a person, we believe in LGBT rights and equal rights for women. Sounds liberal to me. As liberal as any liberal in the US.

  • Northern_Witness

    You were the one who introduced the topic of the founding of “Israel”.

    If Jews understand a connection to land then they do not understand the Israel of the Bible/Tanakh.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    There is a reason why we refer to Israel as “ha’aretz.”

    Just out of curiosity, are you Jewish?

  • Northern_Witness

    That reason is that you have misunderstood your scriptures. Try rereading them with a view to treating the spiritual messages as figurative.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I’m good…thanks. I am generally disinclined to take my midrash from random, anonymous gentiles on the internet.

  • Northern_Witness

    Argumentum ad hominem is the last refuge those who cannot defend or even articulate their position.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    It wasn’t an argument. It was a dismissal.

    I’ve been teaching in the university for 20 years. I can articulate very well. I just don’t feel like spending the rest of my life trying to explain things to you.

    I’ve had a perfectly civil, productive exchange with Mr. Wonderwheel. Unlike you, he has interesting things to say, even if I disagree with some of them.

  • George M Melby

    Does Northern_Witness sound an awful lot like other trolls we know on these websites, Aravis? His writing style MO sounds very familiar, right?

  • George M Melby

    I am so grateful to hear splendid conversations going on between learned people, Aravis and Gregory Wonderwheel! This is what learning is all about… listening!!! Not just hearing!!! THANK YOU BOTH!

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    No, I don’t think so. Still, his cavalier attitude towards the circumstances in which the Jews found themselves in 19th century Europe, his nasty little aside about Nazis and the like make me not want to talk with him.

  • George M Melby

    Point taken. Thanks.

  • Michael Tessman

    THANK YOU for posting this excellent, comprehensive, balanced, and candid account of what is surely among the “hottest” topics on the global scene. A dear friend recently resigned his job as interim chaplain at the Episcopal Church at Yale because an irenic atmosphere for conversation was absent. You have encapsulated the issues so well; now, how can we have a discussion without the hermeneutic of suspicion taking over?

  • KMU

    Remind me why it’s ‘okay’ for Israel to be ‘a Jewish state’. That is to say, a country primarily for the benefit of only one of it’s ethnic/religious groups.

    Because when someone says America is ‘a white nation’ or a ‘Judeo-Christian nation’ or when some schmuck says such-and-such place is an ‘Islamic republic’ we pretty much have their number, don’t we?

    But, as in so many other cases, It’s Okay When Jews Do It.

    (See This American Life’s story about Ramapo, New York)

  • KMU

    I disagree. I was ‘born’ ‘Jewish’ and repeatedly told that stuff about ‘being Jewish is both religious and ethnic.’

    But I’ve since rejected such thinking. I don’t believe in the Torah. I don’t go to shul. I didn’t circumcise my male kids. I like to eat pork. I turn on lights on Saturday. I don’t support Israel. I pretty explicitly reject Judaism *and* Jewishness. When those Lubavitcher guys on the street ask me if I’m Jewish I answer, flatly, “No.”

  • KMU

    I disagree. I was ‘born’ ‘Jewish’ and repeatedly told that stuff about ‘being Jewish is both religious and ethnic.’

    But I’ve since rejected such thinking. I don’t believe in the Torah. I don’t go to shul. I didn’t circumcise my male kids. I like to eat pork. I turn on lights on Saturday. I don’t support Israel. I pretty explicitly reject Judaism *and* Jewishness. When those Lubavitcher guys on the street ask me if I’m Jewish I answer, flatly, “No.”

    Yes, I’m sure you’ll argue with me and say, “Yes you are!” Well, no: As a wise man once said, “[W]hen it comes to religious and cultural identities there has to be room for more than one truth.”

    My truth: I am no longer Jewish. And I never will be again.

  • KMU

    You seem very frustrated and lonely.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I’m sorry to hear that. I guess one can disaffiliate from whatever one wants. The question is, will others accept your disaffiliation, or continue to identify you, nonetheless. I’ve never heard a Frenchman or a Scot disaffiliate their Frenchness or Scottishness, but I guess it could be done. Whether others would accept the idea that Connor McEwan isn’t Scottish anymore, because he says so, I have no idea. I suspect they would call him a Scot who hates Scotland, not an ex-Scot.

    For my family and our social circle here, though we are politically liberal and mostly atheists, we find the Jewish traditions, holidays, music, and the like to be meaningful and to connect us as a people. This has been especially valuable to us, living, as we do, in the buckle of the Fundamentalist Bible Belt. Without a Jewish community, here, I’m not sure we would have made it the 15 years, now, that we’ve been here.

    So, I’m sorry that you were unable to find value in your heritage, but many of us still do, despite our being completely modern people.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I’ve responded to your other remarks, which are similar to this one. As I said there, one can disaffiliate from whatever one wishes. The real question is whether others will accept your disaffiliation, or whether they will continue to identify you thusly, regardless. Certainly, the Nazis would not have accepted your disaffiliation — they routinely gassed “ex-Jews”, Jews who had converted, etc.

    But even when one is not considering such an extreme example, the idea of disaffiliation from ones own people seems odd. I can imagine an Irishman who hates Ireland and Irishness, but I can’t see how he thereby ceases to be Irish.

    So, I’m not really arguing with you…just wondering how common such a way of thinking really is. I’ve never met an ex-Irishman or ex-Spaniard, but there is always a first time.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Care to explain?

    If it is any help, I am married, with children, have a wonderful job and quite a lively social life, so I am not lonely. I am grateful, however, that you are concerned on my behalf.

  • RabbiMichaelBernstein

    I won’t argue with you. With or without my imprimatur you clearly are confident in your non-Jewish identity. Personally, I am sorry to hear that Jewishness in general inspires such rejection for you. All I would say is that what makes you not Jewish is not the rejection of Torah, G*d (by any name), keeping kosher, supporting Israel or any other element of the “religion” per se. To identify as not Jewish for you required an explicit repudiation in its own right if the peoplehood. Furthermore, were you ever to desire to be Jewish again most of the Jewish world would not require any formal ritual conversion as opposed to a oerson not birn into the oeople who would seek to be Jewish. This doesn’t prove my point about peoplehood and it doesn’t refute Gregory’s assertion that the Jewish understanding on this matter us ambiguous and maybe even unfair. Still, I really do believe in the multiple truths you reference. I also imagine that you arrived at some of your feelings about your former Jewish affiliation because of a sense of what us ethical and what is just. I hope if that us the case that these impulses lead you to fulfilling places. Have a sweet and happy beginning to autumn….