Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Israel’s Emerging Religious Left
Duration
0:00 / 30:58
Published
February 8, 2024

In recent years, religious Jewish communities around the world have turned increasingly toward the right. In Israel, the overwhelmingly right-wing ideology of Religious Zionism is on the rise, and it’s often seen as unusual to be both religious and left-wing. But there’s also a growing movement of observant Jews offering an alternative vision for religious life that centers Jewish values of justice, compassion, and freedom.

In this episode of On the Nose, Israel/Palestine fellow Maya Rosen speaks with Mikhael Manekin, Nechumi Yaffe, and Dvir Warshavsky, three activists with the new Israeli religious left-wing group Smol HaEmuni (the Faithful Left), about the experience of the religious left in Israel after October 7th, their work in the West Bank city of Hebron, and the movement’s future.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Texts Mentioned and Further Reading:

End of Days: Ethics, Tradition, and Power in Israel by Mikhael Manekin

Can religious Zionism overcome its addiction to state power?,” Shaul Magid, +972 Magazine

The far right is ‘taking over’ the Israeli army—with leftists in its crosshairs,” Oren Ziv, +972 Magazine

‘Not Our Judaism’: Israel’s Religious Left Takes a Stand Against Netanyahu Government,” Judy Maltz, Haaretz

There Are No Lights in War: We Need a Different Religious Language,” Ariel Schwartz, The Lehrhaus


Transcript

Maya Rosen: Hello, and welcome to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents Podcast. I’m Maya Rosen, Jewish Currents fellow, and I’ll be your host for the day. In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing the growing movement of Jews who are left wing and also religiously observant and involved in religious Jewish communities. In recent years, it’s often felt that religious Jewish communities are, on the whole, turning increasingly towards the right—sometimes the far right—which has seemed to be even more true since October 7, especially here in Jerusalem, where this podcast is being recorded. Religious Zionist ideology is on the rise, and being religious and left wing is sometimes seen as an anomaly. But there’s a strong community of religiously observant Jews insisting the Jewish tradition demands something else; that justice and compassion are core Jewish values that ought to guide us both interpersonally and also politically. This feeling is expressed in particular by members of Smol Emuni, or the faithful left in English, an Israeli religious left-wing movement, where all three of our guests today are active.

And so, to discuss Jewishness religiosity and the left, I’m joined today by Mikhael Manekin, Nechumi Yaffe and Dvir Warshavsky. Mikhael is an anti-occupation activist and the author of the recently published book, End of Days: Ethics, Tradition and Power in Israel. Welcome Mikhael.

Mikhael Manekin: Hi

MR: Nechumi is a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University and the deputy chair of research at the Tatia Institute.

Nechumi Yaffe: Hi

MR: And Dvir is an activist with various Israeli religious left-wing groups and a Master’s student in Jewish philosophy at Tel Aviv University.

Dvir Warshavsky: Hi

MR: Thank you so much to all three of you for joining us today. I want to begin by talking about this current and very difficult moment we’re in and ask specifically: What has it felt like for the three of you to be in specifically religious communities since October 7?

MM: I mean, of course there’s a lot of religious voices that I don’t feel connected to, to put it mildly. That being said, in our sort of subgroups of religious communities, I’ve found quite a source of strength. There’s actually quite an ability to use our traditional language to grieve together, to think about the present together, to think about the future together, and that’s something that’s been very powerful.

NY: I feel the same way as Mikhael said. I’m ultraorthodox, and I feel like since October 7, I’ve tried to go to shul a lot. I feel like I need religion. I need Jewish texts. I need prayer. I need community. I feel there is something about the brutality of the attack that really is crashing down so much of the things that are right in my eyes and some truths about human beings that I still hold on to. It’s very challenging. So I turn to religion as a source of comfort and a source of strength. When there’s so much going on, I’m looking for pillars of light and morality, and I find it in religion.

DW: Actually, I remember that in the first week of the war, I heard many people around me saying, like, “I have no words, I have no way to process the whole thing.” And I think that the first words that took place around me were religious words, said during Shabbat rituals, and during the prayers, and during spontaneous learning groups that we created in the weeks after in the activist religious groups that we have. It actually helped us to put ourselves in the situation and understand better how to react and how to think—not always very clearly, but still, I think that it’s really a source of meaning and understanding how to deal with situations and contexts that it’s not really intuitive to even process, to even think about them.

MR: It’s very powerful to hear the ways that traditional practice has been moving for all three of you in different ways in this time period. Are there particular Jewish texts that you’ve been turning to during this time that have provided you with comfort or with insight or some way of understanding what’s happening?

NY: The daily prayers, morning prayer, shacharit, minchah, the afternoon prayer, and night prayer, maariv. I think there is something about religious rituals that for me, as a woman, at least, can hold up a reality somehow. Especially in the first week, you really feel like you’re floating in space, like you lost gravity. So this is kind of like sources of grounding powers.

MM: I think for me, it’s developed over time. So the first couple of weeks when there was really a need to grieve—and there was really little focus on grief in general Israel, because there was an immediate response, and there hasn’t been a moment to just stop and breathe for the last over 100 days. Emotionally, and psychologically, and politically, that creates a lot of difficulties. But going into a space where you can talk about our tradition’s understanding of grief, and then later, as response develops and critique to Israeli response develops, thinking about issues like compassion, and humility, and empathy just allows you to open your eyes differently, both to the suffering of our own and also to the suffering of people beyond this imaginary border. A lot of religious texts have been able to allow that for me.

DW: On one hand, as Nechumi said, I think that ritual is a very powerful part about how to conceptualize feelings and things and how to look at the horizon. I think that lighting candles before Shabbat, for example, or even on Hanukkah, when we’re lighting the menorah and were thinking about how to enlight the situation around us, which is very, very dark—it’s something that is not a text, but it’s something that can concretize, I think very deeply, what we as activists want to bring to our mindset. But thinking about texts, I think that there’s many texts that can really help to understand how to respond, and the responsibility for all the people here in this holy land. And I think that also the whole Brit Shalom, which were activists in this land in the 1920s, brought really insightful ideas about how we can live here together, many times from a religious point of view. I am also thinking about Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares and about Rabbi Avraham Chein, and about the Rabbi of Djerba, Rabbi Moshe Chalphon HacChen, who also thought about how to think globally about responsibility and about empathy in many senses. And all of them do it through religious traditional concepts, ideas, symbols, terminology, and I think that it can touch very deeply in the current reality.

MR: So the vision that the three of you are offering for what Jewishness can look like in this moment and in this land is very different from the dominant primary vision of religious Zionism that we see in the halls of the Knesset and so many other places. Religious Zionism as an ideology sees the modern state of Israel as part of actual messianic redemption, and the kind of nationalism that it espouses has taken a sharp turn to the right in recent years and is generally aligned with a very aggressive form of Jewish supremacy. Mikhael, in your recent book, you’ve cited a 2018 poll from Maariv that polled young religious Zionists about their political affiliation and found that literally 0% identified as left wing or even center left. So we’re up against a lot, and with that in mind, I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about what you see as possible religious alternatives to that vision.

MM: I think it’s a big question. A friend of mine told me last week: Wars are really bad times for people who are opposed to wars. So I think I’m definitely not romantic about, at this point, our ability to counter (numerically) the dominant religious position of the day. I think dominant strands of religious Zionist political leadership have come to really be in love with power and in love with the idea of our strength. And they find backing for that in, I think, primarily biblical text, and tend to marginalize rabbinic texts that were written over the last 2,000 years around the world and were highly skeptical of individual and collective power. I’m not romanticizing powerlessness, and I don’t think they were either. But I do think that people from a position of being marginalized tend to be much more skeptical of forms of dominance and forms of power.

So we’re really trying to, in our own various communal language, hang on to those traditions of deep skepticism towards power in a context where we have a lot of power. And power doesn’t mean that we’re not sometimes incredibly vulnerable—you know, I think, on the 7th of October—and in some instances, despite the tremendous amount of Palestinians killed and displaced over the last months, Israelis and Jews are feeling (I think, justifiably) very vulnerable. But sometimes, we confuse vulnerability with powerlessness, and Israelis still have (and Jews, often around the world) have power that we haven’t had in the past. The question of how do you grapple with that ethically, and traditionally, is really, really challenging. And I think what we’re trying to do is hold on to what we see as beautiful religious traditions, in a political context and in a time where it’s much more difficult to do that. I think what religious Zionist leadership have chosen to do is go with that flow and say: We have much more power, let’s idolize that power. And that’s something that I’m very opposed to.

NY: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are powerful and still get to feel powerless. Most people don’t draw lines between being vulnerable and powerless. And I think most people, when they address their own power, they excuse it with the fact that they feel powerless, or that they are threatened. I think as long as we’re gonna go for power, we will feel vulnerable. And when we choose to bring in some other values, and some other ways to deal with reality, we will be less vulnerable. But I do think, in many ways, that the question of power is a Jewish question. I don’t think it’s a historical mistake. The Jews have been involved in so many endeavors that involve power relations. If you’re talking about communism, and if you’re talking about gender issues, and who gets power and opportunities, you always see the participation of Jews leading it. And I don’t think it’s an historical accident; I think it’s probably part of our mission as Jews to untangle the issue of power, and to handle it differently. So I think it’s a religious journey, to break it apart.

DW: I think that there’s many vectors who can influence power, and thinking about how to use power, and religion is one of them. Thinking about all the historical rabbinical literature, we can see how suspicious our tradition is, thinking about holding power in the personal level, but also as a collective—how it could be dangerous to hold power. And I think that we have a really fruitful field that we can use. But I should add that it’s a very important part of our tradition to be in opposition to the big system. Abraham, our father, called Avraham the Israeli, Avraham the Hebrew—and this word, to be Hebrew, to be Israel, rabbis interpreted as to be on one side while the other is on the other side. And it’s okay to be there. We know how to be in this very challenging position. And we know that it’s not as easy as being the hegemony, but still. Our tradition challenges us to think about putting ourselves in the oppositional side, the moral one, the religious one, even if sociologically it’s not the easiest move to do.

MR: That’s really interesting, and I sometimes feel like, having grown up abroad in the diaspora, growing up religious abroad feels, in some ways, like it prepared me to be on the Israeli left, because it teaches you the mindset of growing up and not swimming with the current, and always being a bit on the outside, and knowing that, even though everyone is doing something else, we actually believe in something else and believe in something higher and bigger than this current moment or this current trend that everyone is involved in. And I do think that some of the inner work, or the psychology of being both politically committed on the left and also being religious, feel to me to have a lot of overlap. Also, I think there’s something interesting in this case that, to be religious and left in Israel is to sort of to be, in some ways, a minority on the left (where it’s often rare to have religious people) but also to be, then, a minority in religious communities (where it’s somewhat rare to be left wing). What does it feel like to be in both of those worlds? But maybe on a bigger level, what do you think they can each offer to each other? How can each of them be corrective to the dominant discourse where they’re located?

MM: I do think that what we’ve been speaking about, this sort of deep, moral tradition, allows us access to language, which is both beneficial to us but also beneficial to others. I mean, we’ve talked primarily about Jews, but we also have—both within Israel proper, and also the occupied territories—there are a lot of Palestinians who are partners in co-resisting occupation or in dealing with equality within our borders, and coming with a tradition of rigorous study of morality and ethical tradition is important. A lot of what I’ve been thinking about recently is that being good, or trying to achieve good, is a lot of work. And just like being healthy physically—we know that you have to eat right, and you need to exercise—and being healthy emotionally, we have to do certain things, but also, being healthy ethically, actually is part of our job as activists. I mean, since the 7th of October, both Israelis and Palestinians were in this sort of very deep, dark hole. And it’s very hard to see outside of that hole. It’s very hard to see other people. It’s not always just a lack of empathy or a desire for vengeance, or racism, or all of these ideological words. Sometimes it’s just blindness caused by immense suffering, and violence, and pain, which everybody is experiencing in the region, and you just don’t have the tools to see anything. And I think what any moral tradition gives you is the ability to maybe look for a minute outside of that hole that you’re in. For me, Jewish language gives me an ability to contextualize my pain and my suffering in a way which makes me see other people’s pain as well. It makes me understand my pain, and perhaps gives us the ability to access beyond ourselves.

NY: I mean, the truth is the 7th of October, it pulls people in different ways. You know, some people just feel like, “Don’t you see we were right?” i.e., hypernationalism. For most people October 7 just deepened their hole, and they completely lost their ability to see beyond. And I feel like, as a lefty, even I sometimes feel like I need to shut down my perspective and just choose my own family. I feel like society kind of pushes you to choose sides. Even though I want to stand by the side of the life—at the end of the day, it’s people, it’s human beings, it’s God’s creatures—but there are some things that kind of push me to a sum-zero game. So it’s hard. It’s very hard.

MR: What does it look like to resist that zero-sum game, or to maybe use some of the language we were using before: to get out of that hole and to be able to see beyond? And what does it look like, I guess on an individual level, but also what does that mean politically? What’s that political work look like?

DW: The more you are active in different collective circles, the more you’re aware to the wider picture. And it’s not more optimistic, but it brings sensitivity that, when you bring back to a specific collective, sometimes it brings something. I say it of my family, like my family is deep inside the Israeli Zionist, religious Zionist narrative, the more hegemonic one, I think. But still, because they know me, and I have these extremely personal connections to others from other communities, it brings something to the most personal experiences. Unfortunately, I think there is not enough of that, I think that many communities in Palestine and Israel (and it’s not a coincidence) live in very big echo chambers based on different educational systems, and there are a lot of systematic conditions to make it. But even without war and without everything, to find these cracks is a big thing.

MR: You talked a little bit about how, through activism with other religious Jews, it opens up new possibilities of partnership or connection with Palestinians who may also be religious. And I’m curious to hear: what does that look like? What conversations or types of actions has that opened up? How do you see the connection between religious learning together and activism against the occupation together? I know you’ve been active in Hebron, maybe you want to say a word also about why Hebron, and what that means in this context.

DW: So Hebron was divided into two sides; one was supposed to be ruled by the Palestinian authorities, and the other one was supposed to be ruled by the Israeli forces. Basically, Hebron 2, H2, is the area where the IDF actually is the ruler. Most of the population in H2 are Palestinians who depend, in all the spheres of their lives, on the IDF. When we’re trying to talk about where is the pure form of apartheid, that’s the place. But in Hebron, the other side of the story, there is a really rich and old, ancient Jewish history. So we have very personal connections to this place, we have also a connection to our fathers and mothers who are buried there. And I think that for us, as religious activists, it’s very painful to be there and to see how a holy place actually could be the source of the whole narrative of living together in equality, and that all of us are sons of the same, of one Avraham. To think about the potential of this place and what’s happened there practically, it’s a very hard feeling for us, but also, it brings us a very deep motivation to try to change it and to stand with Palestinians there; to try to create something that could bring hope to Palestinians there—but also, for us, I think.

NY: Hebron is a place where we can step back and go back to our shared roots. You know, both religions see Abraham, the patriarch, as the first believer and the founder, and both agree that we are his children. And it’s almost kind of rewinding back the history and going back to a place where we share things, and maybe a will to extend this place of what we share together. And we feel like, at the end of the day, what we share is religion and faith in God, and faith in His goodness and faith in His promise for goodness for his children. So it’s kind of like trying to attach to this and widen this space.

MM: I also think that in the context of Hebron, specifically, one can (if one imagines and one opens from our perspective) see the fact that there are two peoples living in the region—not as a compromise, but as rather a hope, or even grace. There is a famous Israeli philosopher who was part of that movement (Brit Shalom, which Dvir spoke about earlier) who also had strong religious sentimentality named Samuel Hugo Bergman. And he has a statement, probably in the 40s, so before the State of Israel, saying that “God did a great grace with the Jewish people that in their homeland, there are also another people.” So it’s not about us compromising with the Palestinians, right? That’s usually the pragmatic position: “We wish we were here on our own, but what are you going to do, there’s another people, so we need to compromise.” The problem with that position is the minute something negative happens (and a lot of negative things sadly happen), you revert to your previous position, which is: “I want to be here on my own.”

And I’m not necessarily conflating the histories of both people, which are obviously much more complex than what I’m saying now, but looking at the hope for the future, and also recognizing the present, is that there are two people living here. There’s a Jewish people and a Palestinian people. And not only is nobody going anywhere, we can look at it as something which is hopeful. And what Dvir and Nechumi said about Hebron, it’s really powerful there because you’re praying in a synagogue, which is also a mosque, and all of our patriarchs and most of the matriarchs are buried under, and we really are praying to the same God and through our shared histories, and recognizing that it’s something beautiful and not something which we’re stuck with. And that sounds perhaps a bit naive to say in the middle of this ongoing, incredibly violent, and tragic, and depressing, (and, in my opinion, avoidable) war, but something which we can strive towards during these times.

MR: So I’ve been thinking recently about how inspired I am and how grateful I am for a lot of the learning and teaching and conversations that are coming out of Smol Emuni, out of the faithful left. And there have been some amazing essays written and conversations that I think are really important. But I’ve also been thinking about how, if I had different politics, I could easily write an essay using traditional Jewish sources to talk about why it’s okay to kill civilians in Gaza, or all sorts of horrible things that I don’t believe in, but I could find sources in the tradition for. I think this is the nature of having a polyphonic tradition, where there’s a lot of different voices in it. I’m wondering: How do you think about where that leaves us? Or maybe another way of saying that is: Is there a hermeneutic for reading our tradition that’s Smol Emuni—that’s the faithful left? How do we read this kind of diverse and complicated canon that we’ve inherited, given we are in the values that we have?

DW: It’s a big question. I want to cite, maybe, Shimon Rawidowicz, another faithful left voice, who said that the main thing when we are looking about our tradition is the concept of home, of feeling at home. And I think that since we were born to our Jewish tradition, we want our home to look like something that everyone are welcome there, which is not a hostile place, that the walls of this home could be wider and wider, to shape it in a way which brings more faith, and thinking about equality, and thinking about empathy to everyone. I think that these values exist inside our tradition. But our mission and our responsibility is to bring this light to our home, and I think that if we live there, we have the freedom, and the opportunity and the responsibility to do that. Maybe one of you can translate me but im lo achshav eimatai?

MR: If not now, when?

DW: Yeah.

MR: We’ve talked a bit about the experience of being religious, what it instills in you. One of the things that’s instilled in me is a desire and a commitment to keep doing the work, keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing, even when there’s not clear material gains. And I feel like you see this in the experience of religious life, when you train yourself to wake up every morning, and to Daven, to pray, no matter whether or not there’s any proof that God is answering your prayers. In some ways that feels reminiscent of this experience of continuing to commit to the struggle for justice and for equality in this land, even when there’s not really any material indication that we’re winning or will win. And there’s a piece of continuing to do that that feels, to me, a little bit almost messianic. You know, af al pi sheyitma’ameah, im kol zeh ani maamin—the old messianic idea that even though the Messiah may tarry, may be late, despite it all, I still believe. And it sometimes feels like we need a little bit of that religious or messianic spirit in order to keep doing the work that we need to be doing. And so, I want to close by asking about hope and belief, both what’s your vision for Smol Emuni, for the faithful left, in the years to come, and what’s the work we need to be doing, and what are we fighting for? What do you still believe in, and what does that work look like?

MM: I think in many ways, their activism is about dialogue, right? You enter a conversation, but the fact that you enter a conversation doesn’t mean that you get a response the way you want. So you can go to an anti-occupation action, or something which has to do with income inequality, or gender inequality, or all sorts of issues which are plaguing us. And if you’re not part of that conversation, you can’t affect it. But if you are part of that conversation, that doesn’t mean the response is what you want. And that frustration exists for anybody who’s ever prayed, and anybody who’s ever been active in any political action, and anybody who’s been in a protest, or anybody who’s been in prayer. There’s that moment where you feel that you’re sort of outside of the universe, of that injustice, and for a fleeting moment, you’re in the world that you want to create. And that’s a very powerful feeling, so that imagination of what you want exists also in the action, even if the result of the action is not exactly what you expect.

On a personal level, obviously there’s a very, perhaps, trivial trajectory of wanting everybody to live in equality. I say trivial in the sense that it sounds so obvious. I would lie if I say that I wake up most mornings optimistic towards that scenario, but optimism and hope are not necessarily the same thing. Regarding faithful left, one of the powerful things of being part of a tradition is that you inform it even if you’re unsuccessful. So for us, it’s not only important to be active, but it’s also important to write and to learn as we do it, because we’re really participating in a tradition which will have relevance in the future, even if we’re not effective in the present. And a lot of the people that we’ve been quoting, and the traditions that we’ve been quoting, I’m also aware that they were marginal in the times that they were written, but they’re still part of what informs us as Jews and as human beings. So that’s something to look forward to. If at the minute you participate in the tradition, you’re part of it. And even if you’re not effective in the way that you want, you’re aware that you’re a part of that. And something else can happen in the future where another person who’s trying to access God can see what you did or read what you wrote, and she might be a better person for it. So that’s something which is helpful for me as an activist and also, you know, as a religious individual.

NY: I feel like in so many ways and times in history, messianic movements were concretizing the moment, materializing it, and saying, “We are being messianic by being here now.” And I think even the hypernationalistic movement in Israel is doing this, like they are messianic in a way that they say: Okay, we have the answers now, and we know how to translate it into reality. And this is what makes them fundamentalists, and in many ways, they miss the actual point of what being messianic is. Being messianic is actually setting some truth and realizing it’s a process, and walking, and keep walking, understanding that there is something that has to be revealed with the walking. And I think, in many ways, being Jewish and being faithful is just being on this path, having the tolerance and the patience to be in the process, and not have straight clear answers, and just holding up to what we think is right, and moral, and walking towards it.

DW: Yeah, it’s always on the horizon, as Nechumi said, like, it’s something that we are working toward. But for myself, I think that what distinguished the thinking on the faithful left, is that I found there are also very practical, achievable aspects that I can imagine, even in this confusing, chaotic, and tragic moment. Even if the goals are not achievable right now, the structure, socially, that we want to create is something that we’re moving forward. We know what we want to create. And the messianic vision is always in the front, like amud ha’esh ha’holech lifnei hamachaneh.

MR: A pillar of fire that goes before the camp, when the Israelites are wandering in the desert. I think that’s a great place for us to end. I know it’s not easy to have conversations about hope and vision like we just ended on, especially in days that are so hard, and it feels really hard to access that place and those muscles of imagination and commitment, and I also think it’s all the more important. I really appreciate all three of you joining for this conversation. Thank you, Mikhael, Nechumi and Dvir for joining me today and sharing your insight and wisdom.

DW: Thank you.

NY: Thank you.


MR: Thank you also to our producer, Jesse Brenneman, and to all of our listeners. Please rate, review, and subscribe to On the Nose and find us online at JewishCurrents.org. Until next time.

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The Struggle to Stop Cop City (38:01)
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Jun 8 2023
The Plight of Masafer Yatta (26:57)
Alex Kane talks to Palestinian journalist Basel Adra about the West Bank hamlets where over 1,000 Palestinians live in fear of being expelled by Israel.
May 25 2023
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Jewish Matchmaking (47:09)
Arielle Angel, Nathan Goldman, Mari Cohen, and Aparna Gopalan discuss Netflix’s Jewish Matchmaking and the questions it raises about contemporary Jewishness.
May 11 2023
Still No Justice for Shireen Abu Akleh (25:19)
One year after her killing, Jewish Currents examines the life and death of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the broader context of Israeli assaults on press freedom.
Apr 27 2023
Fighting Anti-Trans Legislation in Missouri (38:38)
Editor-in-chief Arielle Angel speaks with Rori Picker Neiss about what it's like to advocate for a trans child in a red state.
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