Monday, February 07, 2011

Is Zionism a Dirty Word?

Rabbi Brian Walt, who helped found Rabbis For Human Rights North America, and who I generally admire, wrote an opinion piece in the latest issue if Tikkun Magazine, on why he no longer calls himself a liberal or progressive Zionist, and rather sees himself as "a religious American Jew in solidarity with justice for the Palestinian people."

Below is a response I wrote to Rabbi Walt. Quibbles perhaps, but if nothing else, it helped to clarify my own thinking on the matter.
Rabbi Brian,

While I agree with most of what you say, one must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Soviet Union was indeed an evil empire, but socialism is still not such a bad idea. How many anti-Communist started out on the left and ended up as leaders of neo-conservatism? Many! And while the fall of the Soviet Union was on balance a good thing, it set the stage for globalization, the resurgence of right-wing capitalism and the set back of the left in most of the world. (Think “New Labour” in Britain or of Bill Clinton or Obama as about the most left America can imagine itself now-a-days. Pale comparisons to FDR, LBJ or even Eisenhower.)

Since you (and I) value “the rebirth of Hebrew culture in Israel and ... still believe Jews desperately need safety after the Holocaust” we must be careful in stating, not just what we oppose – the occupation and chauvinism and racism within Israel proper and within the territories –, we must also say what we support – peace, justice, equality, and a thriving Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael. There used to be a perfectly good word for this set of values: “Cultural Zionism” – and its proponents: Ahad Haam, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Hannah Arendt, and even arguable Albert Einstein and Mordechai Kaplan where not without influence and following in the Jewish community.

I believe it would be more accurate, and more likely to attract support in the Jewish (and even non-Jewish) community – to use the label “Cultural Zionist” then the label “religious American Jew in solidarity with justice for the Palestinian people.” Of course the two ideas do not contradict each other, nor, I am sure, do either described you (or anyone else) fully. Its a matter of labels and the impressions and messages they convey.

I do not agree – and I may have misunderstood you here – that “Working in solidarity with Palestinians toward any political settlement — one state, two states, a federation, or any other political arrangement — that ensures the equal human rights of all Israelis and Palestinians should be the SINGULAR goal of our work.” Israel/Palestine is no doubt the biggest moral challenge facing the Jewish people today, but it is not the ONLY challenge, and for me – and I believe for you – it lives along side and within the larger (from a Jewish perspective) issues of revivifying the Jewish People and Judaism and planting them firmly on the side of justice, fully realizing human potential, and spiritual and social progress.

All this may be a small quibble – but then what else is there to say about your article, than "Yshar Koach."


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