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Reflections on Conversion and a Trip to Israel

Alan Rutkowski
May 2, 2017

by Alan Rutkowski

I CAME of age in the United States during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Although I certainly never put my life on the line as some did in those struggles, as a university student I participated in them, especially the anti-war movement, and they contributed to my core values and political orientation. In the process, I abandoned the Catholicism I was raised in. In my fifties, I converted to Judaism.

While I cannot articulate the exact reasons for my taking that step, I can identify certain things that attracted me to being Jewish. In every social justice cause I was ever involved in, Jews were disproportionally represented. True, they were secular, not religious, Jews, but I believe their consistently siding with the oppressed against the powerful has something to do with the foundational story of the Jewish people: The Exodus from Egypt, a story of triumph over oppression. Maybe, too, as a minority almost everywhere, Jews have a vested interest in liberal policies in the non-Jewish nations in which they live.

So for me, and I imagine for many others, conversion to Judaism has to do with an elective affinity for Jewish culture. It is that affinity, rather than any sense of embracing a higher truth, that motivated my conversion. There is no sense in Judaism that one must be Jewish in order to save one’s soul. On the contrary, the ideal is to serve God entirely lishmah, i.e. for its own sake with no hope of reward.

NOW THAT I have converted to Judaism, Israel has become an integral, if problematic, part of my Jewish identity. In my view, Israel is a political state like any other and subject to the same standards. I don’t find Israeli rightwing nationalism any more palatable than any other nationalism. The combination of nationalism and religion is a particularly toxic mix. As someone once quipped, secular Zionists don’t believe in God, but they do believe that God gave them the land. The great 20th-century Jewish philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz famously remarked, “Religious nationalism is to religion what National Socialism is to socialism.”

Like many of my fellow Jews, both born and by choice, I oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and effective occupation of Gaza. Alas, more and more I fear that the two-state solution is dead.

I was fortunate to travel to Israel in 2014 with my friend Francis Landy, a religious studies professor and a Jew with deep Zionist roots and many friends and family in Israel. Francis had made contact with David Shulman, who co-founded Ta’ayush, an Israeli Arab/Jewish human rights organization that monitors the settlements in the West Bank by sending activists to stand with Palestinian shepherds and farmers in their frequent confrontations with the settlers and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Within days of landing in Israel, Francis and I were in a car with activists from Ta’ayush, headed for the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank. We spent the day with an extended Palestinian family whose land in Umm al-Ara’is had been commandeered by settlers from the nearby wildcat outpost of Mitzpe Yair. The disputed ownership case was pending before the court, and the family showed up once a week to assert their claim to the land. About twenty IDF soldiers and Border Police were there that day to make sure no one ventured onto the plot. On this occasion the settlers didn’t show up, but they had in previous weeks -- with violent consequences.

In the two weeks we were in Israel, I met friends of Francis who are involved in such groups as Ta’ayush, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Yesh Gvul, an organization that supports soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories. Some of the activists are religious. They have been in Israel long enough to have experienced both intifadas and the terror of suicide bombings. Yet they have not become bitter or hateful (as I fear I might have in such circumstances) but have remained faithful to their core values. I greatly admire their moral courage. But such opposition in Israel is weak.

CRITICISM of Israel is sometimes said to cross the line when it calls into question Israel’s right to exist. But how can criticism of specific policies pose an existential threat to any state? Massive opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam posed a threat only to the continued prosecution of the war. Fierce opposition to the former Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jewish citizens posed a threat only to elements within the USSR that advocated denying Soviet Jews equal rights.

The former Soviet Union, like the former Yugoslavia, raises an interesting question about any state’s “right to exist.” Scott Burchill, a senior lecturer in international relations in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University argues that no state inherently has such a right, at least not one that is recognized in international law. In fact, states often come into being and go out of existence (and sometimes, like Poland, after ceasing to exist, come back into existence once again).

Some defenders of Israel accuse critics of antisemitism. So are criticism of Israel and antisemitism related? It’s complicated. Some actual antisemites doubtless take up the Palestinian cause in order to attack Israel and by extension, Jews generally; some rightwing Zionists try to discredit any criticism of Israel as antisemitic, thus making Israel, together with all Jews, a victim, rather than a victimizer. So both anti-Semites and right-wing Zionists have a good deal of common ground: Both have an interest in insisting that Israel acts on behalf of and speaks for all Jews.

Antisemites like to claim that Israel and its defenders are just like the Nazis, and rightwing Zionists like to claim that Palestinians and their defenders are just like the Nazis. That’s why anti-Israel protests sometimes feature Israeli flags with swastikas painted on them; that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu absurdly claimed that Hitler got the idea of the Final Solution from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Not coincidentally, the Holocaust, a tragedy of unspeakable evil, along with the establishment of the State of Israel, sometimes threatens to replace the Exodus as the Jewish foundational story.

To claim, as antisemites do, that Israel is perpetrating a genocide on the Palestinians comparable to the Holocaust is a denigration of the Holocaust and its victims. To exploit the Holocaust, as some rightwing Zionists do, to justify the oppression of the Palestinians, is no less a denigration of the Holocaust and its victims and is, to use a traditional Jewish term, a khillul hashem, a desecration of the sanctity of God’s name.

The modern State of Israel poses serious moral problems for Jews. We know that in occupying the West Bank, Israel violates the most basic human rights of Palestinians on a daily basis. We know that the relentlessly expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank are making the end of the occupation and a two-state solution less and less likely. We know that racism is a growing problem within Israel itself, and that the non-Jewish population -- about 20 percent -- suffers from systemic discrimination. What do we in the diaspora do with this knowledge?

Much of Israeli reality runs counter to the liberal values dominant among most diaspora Jews. There is even an acronym -- PEBI -- to describe Jews who are “Progressive about Everything But Israel.” It is, however, getting harder for Jews outside Israel to sustain this contradiction. The leadership of major Jewish organizations in the diaspora may continue to reflexively support whatever Israel does, but there are signs that their influence is waning. Increasingly, the Jewish impulse to side with the oppressed applies to the Palestinians as well.

Alan Rutkowski lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is a founding member of the Canadian Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? His views do not represent an official position of that group.