On Loving Jews
For Jews engaged in Palestine solidarity work, what might be gained by refusing excommunication from our own communities?
Responsa is an editorial column written by members of the Jewish Currents staff and reflects a collective discussion. This responsa appears in our Fall 2021 issue. Subscribe now to receive a copy in your mailbox.
AMID THE LATEST CONFLAGRATION in Israel/Palestine, we heard frequently from liberal Zionist readers who were deeply troubled by our coverage. In a representative message, a leader in the socialist Zionist movement took issue with one of our Shabbat reading list newsletters, focused that week on resources for understanding the “conflict” through the lens of the ongoing repression and dispossession of Palestinians by the Israeli state. He characterized my recommendation of a podcast explainer about Hamas as an expression of sympathy for the group, reading it alongside the omission of platitudes about our “Jewish brothers and sisters under rocket attack” as evidence that the Jewish Currents staff had “declare[d] a separation” between itself and the progressive Jewish community, here and in Israel. “Is this really the collective face of Jewish Currents?” he asked. Where was our sense of “Jewish solidarity”?
Our critics’ distress was compounded by our publication of an uncompromising essay by Kaleem Hawa, a young diaspora Palestinian writer, laying out a vision of decolonization in the land between the river and the sea. Like editor-at-large Peter Beinart’s essay published the same week, Hawa’s piece calls for the right of return and reparations for Palestinian refugees, a deep reckoning with the Nakba that expelled 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and an end to a national formation predicated on Jewish supremacy and Palestinian subjugation. But unlike Beinart’s essay, Hawa’s does not concern itself with Jewish feelings. He accepts no obligation to reassure Israeli Jews of their safety, particularly in a moment of mass Palestinian death. Instead, the author casts a loving gaze at the youth on the streets of East Jerusalem, asserting with stones their continued existence in the face of generations of crushing state violence and ethnic cleansing. He calls this continued campaign a “genocide,” in accordance with international legal precedent, and affirms that Palestinians have the right to resist it “by any means necessary.” On Twitter, Yehuda Kurtzer, a Jewish communal leader who heads the pluralist Shalom Hartman Institute, called the piece’s publication in a Jewish outlet “indefensible.” Under the circumstances—the mounting death toll in Gaza, the Jewish youth chanting “Death to Arabs!” in the streets, the police-backed anti-Palestinian pogroms inside the Green Line, all atop the routine cruelties and injustices of a decades-old military occupation—these critiques sounded willfully obtuse. To us, it seemed straightforward: We are in solidarity with the oppressed. You could add “as Jews” to the front of that sentence, and also, you didn’t have to.
Of course, we are not the first Jews to find ourselves mired in an intracommunal argument about tribalism and humanism. Here is Gershom Scholem, the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, in a 1963 letter to the political philosopher Hannah Arendt: “There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete—what Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.” It is significant, and maddening, that Scholem prizes this idea of ahavat Yisrael while declining to define it. Our critics, too, allege that we are deficient in this love, but refuse to more fully describe what it might mean to privilege it. So I have been looking for clues elsewhere in contemporary Jewish life.
I found one in late May, in the days after the ceasefire, when a flurry of solid blue squares appeared in my Instagram feed. The meme, cribbed from the black squares shared during the George Floyd uprising, was a coordinated expression of “Jewish solidarity” circulating in response to a handful of short videos appearing to show violent and indiscriminate antisemitic attacks on American Jews in response to Israeli actions in Gaza. The squares—posted mainly by Jews I grew up with in Miami whose accounts typically feature sporting events and tropical vacations—were invariably accompanied by a pair of hashtags: #stopantisemitism and #istandwithisrael, a coupling that unwittingly affirmed the logic of the attackers, conflating Jewish identity with the actions of the Israeli state and thus making Jews legitimate political targets for anti-Israel backlash.
The campaign seemed to underscore the incoherence of mainstream Jewish sentiment, providing an unwelcome reminder of how most “affiliated” American Jews, attached in some way to organized Jewish life, understand their Jewishness. Despite significant and growing disidentification with the Jewish state, public opinion polling suggests that a majority of Jews, especially older ones, still see Israel as central to their Jewish identity. In one glaring example, a recent march against antisemitism in Washington, DC, cosponsored by all the legacy Jewish organizations, touted a “big tent” open to “all Zionist, Jewish organizations, and allies”—as if anti-Zionists are immune to anti-Jewish attacks. Meanwhile, an Australian kosher-certifier revoked the hechsher from Ben & Jerry’s due to the company’s refusal to sell ice cream in illegal West Bank settlements. Simply put: If a majority of Jews do not distinguish between Jews and Zionism, how material is such a distinction? Under these conditions, is it possible to be in solidarity with the Jewish people outside of their entwinement with an oppressive regime?
Our political opponents in the Jewish community have lately answered this question for us in a flurry of tweets and op-eds that seem to arrive with new urgency at an old conclusion. Zionism, they say, is the primary site of Judaism, the way most Jews “do” Jewishness; therefore, non- or anti-Zionist Jews attempting to cleave the meaning of Jewishness from the state are outing themselves as “ex-Jews” (UCLA Professor Judea Pearl) or “un-Jews” (historian Gil Troy and famed Soviet dissident-turned-settlement-champion Natan Sharansky). This is true, the men say, despite the acknowledgement that many of these uns and exes are actively devoted to Jewish life.
For their part, our liberal Zionist critics will mostly concede daylight between the people and the State. They are not as ignorant of the mechanics of occupation as the blue square crowd nor as defensive of the necessity of these measures as those who mime our excommunication; they know that what is happening to Palestinians is wrong. But, also, they are Zionists. They are Zionists precisely because they believe in a Jewish collective, and because they believe that an ethnostate is the best way to serve and safeguard it. And despite their professed allegiance to ideals of fairness and equality, they have shown time and again, through their refusal to hold the Israeli government accountable, that they believe the ethnostate that serves this collective to be more important than Palestinian freedom. It seems clear, then, that when even these critics ask, “Where is your Jewish solidarity?”, what they really mean is: “Where is your Zionism? Where is your allegiance to the State?” And because they cannot make room for a Jewish non- or anti-Zionism that destabilizes their premises, they are continually shocked by the reply.
PERHAPS IT’S UNSURPRISING that we at Jewish Currents have been as consumed with the question of what to do about our fellow Jews as they have been with what to do about us. We have debated amongst ourselves whether now is the time to engage Jews more deeply—especially as many seem to be displaying a greater willingness to listen than at any other point in recent memory—or to turn more completely to Palestine solidarity work outside of the Jewish sphere. We have also asked ourselves whether the Jewish establishment is still an important player worth fighting, or a hulking yet hollowed-out shell, best left to fossilize and decompose. It has not escaped us that these questions amount to an inverted version of our critics’ preoccupation with Jewish solidarity, and so we scrutinize our own attachments. Is our continued orientation toward Jews and Jewish institutions rooted in a clear-eyed assessment of the power they hold over Palestinian lives, or is it an irrational vestige of Jewish exceptionalism, betraying a desire—more conscious in some of us than in others—to save “our own” from themselves?
These questions are not merely hypothetical; our obsession with them is our obsession with our families, our old friends, the communities that raised us. In the newsletter that provoked our socialist Zionist critic, Jewish Currents poetry editor Claire Schwartz took scholar Christina Sharpe’s 2016 essay “Lose Your Kin” as a starting point for an exploration of how these familial connections can distort our justice work. Schwartz writes:
Kinship makes the hyphen [in anti-Zionism] elastic, so that what is framed as opposition can take place without severance. Kinship keeps some circling the question of Zionism rather than wholly joining with Palestinian freedom struggles. This bad family magic spells a violent and absurd equivalence between fears of Israelis in Tel Aviv and fears of Palestinians in Gaza. It insists the Shoah into conversation whenever mentions of the occupation of Palestine comes up. This is what kin does. It brings us back to each other—even when our return cuts a path through other people’s lives.
In light of the temptations of kin, perhaps we can be forgiven if, mid-crisis, we sometimes overcorrect. For my own part, I realized only after the ceasefire, with a sense of shame, that as I worked long hours helping others make sense of the conflict, I had repressed my own connections. I had not reached out to see how my great-aunt and -uncle, in their mid-90s and not entirely mobile, were making it down to the bomb shelter in the middle of the night. Nor had I spared so much as a text for my cousins, my friends, even my comrades inside the Green Line. The omission of concern for Israelis from Jewish Currents’ public offering had a parallel expression in my private life. It’s not that I disagree with Schwartz’s diagnosis; I am willing to do all that Sharpe demands in her essay, “willing to be more than uncomfortable . . . to be on the outside . . . [to] refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin.” I have made many of my closest relationships a site of struggle; in some cases, I have paid in lost intimacy, in pieces of my life cut away from me. A measure of this cannot be helped, it is the price of refusal. And still my staunch neglect of those I love made me wonder: Have I acceded the distance between us too eagerly? Leaned into it the moment it manifested, and made of it an object lesson in principled disengagement? Where does this behavior intersect with the logic of our critics, the totalizing conflation of people with state? And does it mean we are abandoning them to it?
Perhaps the alternative is to assert the potential in the hyphen’s “elasticity,” as Schwartz calls it, which can function as a bridge out of Zionism as much as a tunnel into it. It was only within the bonds of an ineluctable relationship that I was able to move my mother toward a sweeping recognition of Zionism’s crimes, and to activism on the issue. If I can love her enough to let her change her mind, and if she can love me enough to be changed in turn, doesn’t that also suggest a path forward for communal transformation beyond the bounds of the immediate family? I am reminded that in many of my other communities, political and social, efforts to confront harmful or abusive behavior are defanged by the element of choice: Why work things out if you can just leave? In an atomized society, the ability to “opt out” is the greatest barrier to restorative justice. This leads me to contemplate what might be gained from staying “in”—from refusing excommunication and adopting an operative, if nebulous concept of “Jewish peoplehood” as a terrain of meaningful struggle. There is a risk, of course, of being captured by these bonds—of legitimizing, platforming, justifying, or otherwise offering leniency when accountability is due—and another risk of talking only to one another when we should be listening, first and foremost, to Palestinians. But perhaps these concerns are the guardrails on the path, and not a reason to refuse to walk it.
I admit that though I am repelled by Scholem’s compulsory, contentless love, Arendt’s response does not completely satisfy. “How right you are that I have no such love . . . I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective,” she writes. No love for the nation, certainly. But it seems foolish to write off the collective, which, as long as it resists the temptations of supremacy, seems elemental to a just and meaningful way of life. (And after all, it’s not as though collective structures beloved by the left—the union, the commune, the Party—are immune to political co-optation, exclusionary behavior, or embarrassing and arbitrary markers of belonging.) Until the founding of the state, Jewish collectivity often managed to stand outside a supremacist framework while providing its adherents with care and a sense of purpose. In an essay for this magazine, Jordana Rosenfeld, who joined the Pittsburgh chevra kadisha (or burial society) in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting, describes the society’s historical import as a mutual aid organ for new Jewish immigrants to the US in the 19th century. “The values Jewish communities enacted through this approach to death—among them, egalitarianism, radical compassion, togetherness, responsibility, and human dignity—allowed them to survive in a nativist, antisemitic system,” she writes. Though the chevra deals only with the bodies of deceased Jews, Rosenfeld credits her experiences there for prompting more expansive questions about how, and for whom, she performs care in the wider world. She identifies the practice as an act of “active antifascism, standing in defiance of the dehumanization of ourselves and others.”
Indeed, there is no commandment in the Torah toward ahavat Yisrael; it appears as commentary to the directive in Leviticus to “love your fellow as yourself.” It seems possible, then, to look on ahavat Yisrael as a practice of extending one’s sphere of concern beyond one’s immediate kin, which makes love beyond the reaches of self-recognition more attainable. Throughout history, people have articulated their Jewishness in similar terms, as a difference that invites broader solidarities. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once wrote: “The traumatic experience of my slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched, and the persecuted people of the world.” But then even Levinas abandoned these ideals when it came time to defend Zionism, a reminder—as if I needed another one—of how the entwining of Jewishness with a state has changed the equation. How can we commit to the idea of the “Jewish people” while its meaning is in flux? As Arendt wrote to Scholem: “[T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God . . . And now this people believes only in itself. What’s going to become of this?”
Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin makes a conjecture in his 2006 book Border Lines:
It has been said by many Christians that Christianity died at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. I fear—G-d forbid—that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Daheishe, Beteen (Beth El), and al-Khalil (Hebron). The violent actions taken in the name of defense may help some Jewish bodies survive (and even that only dubiously, temporarily, momentarily), but they threaten to empty Jewish existence of all meaning, to make hollow the resistance for two thousand years to being dissolved into the majority.
These are the stakes: Jewishness must mean justice for the Palestinian people or nothing at all. If it is to be drained of meaning, then I will be, too, for a time, and will have to rebuild myself on sand.
In preparing the Occupy Yom Kippur oral history for this issue, I had cause to revisit a video from that touchstone service at Occupy Wall Street a decade ago, in which we danced and sang together on the holiest night of the year, ecstatic with love and purpose. But the clip also called up another image, which I reflexively superimposed on the first: of the young Israeli men on Jerusalem Day this year, ecstatic with love and purpose, dancing and singing as they watched smoke rise from a fire at the al-Aqsa compound. Can we be joyous Jews dancing while that second image exists? Do we want to be? To consider this question is to recognize that while my debt is to Jewishness as a set of transhistorical stories, practices, and ideas, and not to individual Jews, there is no definition of Jewishness separate from those people. Jewishness will be what Jews as a collective do in the world—our small, dissenting minyans be damned. In this sense, the fact that I cannot agree to disagree with our Jewish political opponents reveals what I have in common with them. The paradigm of peoplehood materializes around me, and I find myself stuck. Fine, I concede to our critics, I do not now love the Jewish people as such. I do not send solidarity where it isn’t needed. But I cannot deny that this state of stuckness is the very condition of familial love, perhaps moreso in the fight than in the yielding.