Can A Rational Progressive Jew Still Maintain Hope For Israel?
My answer is yes, even in the face of despair by many who deeply love and care about Israel. The question arises because a short time ago one of Israel’s passionate defenders in the U.S., Rabbi David Gordis, finally gave up hope.
Rabbi Gordis served as vice-president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (now American Jewish University). He also served as Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Committee and was the founding director of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel. He founded and directed the Wilstein Institute for Jewish Policy Studies which became the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies. David Gordis is President Emeritus of Hebrew College where he served as President and Professor of Rabbinics for fifteen years.
So when Gordis published an article on Tikkun magazine’s website saying that Israel has failed and that today’s Zionism has little in common with the Zionism he supported for many decades, it was an important wake-up call to his former colleagues in the Jewish establishment.
American Jews are no longer able to maintain the “united front” in which being a serious Jew is equated with giving Israeli policies their support. But don’t count on the establishment to hear the alarm—they’ve proved amazingly deaf to their own constituents, and may remain so even when one of their most powerful former colleagues speaks truth to power.
Gordis is certainly right in his description of the problem: “Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary. These values have been subordinated to a cruel and oppressive occupation, an emphatic materialism, severe inequalities rivaling the worst in the western world and distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behaviors rather than the best.”
Nor is he exaggerating when he describes the present reality in Israel: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is nearing a half century in duration. Netanyahu’s “facts on the ground” steps to make a two-state solution impossible are bearing fruit, and there still appears to be no significant opposition to these policies in Israel itself. In Gordis’ words, ”The right has triumphed; the left has been defeated. The Israel of today is very far from anything I dreamed of and worked for throughout my career.” Had he waited till yesterday when the Pew Research report on Israel came out, he might have added another extremely upsetting fact that Pew revealed: 48% of Jewish Israelis want to see Palestinians expelled or transferred from Israel—the ultimate ethnic cleansing! Oy, how low a significant section of the Jewish people have fallen.
Gordis is courageously stating what we Jewish progressives have been saying for the past several decades, a position that is now almost mainstream among younger American Jews: Israel’s policies have little to do with Judaism’s ethical vision, are in stark contrast to the Torah’s command to “love the stranger/Other,” its occupation of the Palestinian people makes its claim to be “democratic” a ridiculous attempt at propaganda that no one outside the Zionist-dominated sections of the Jewish world and right-wing Christian Zionists could take seriously, and the demands of the Jewish establishment to make loyalty to Israel a condition of Jewish identity has contributed to the perversion of Judaism by creating this new form of idolatry!
Yet I cannot fully buy Gordis conclusion when he says “I see no way out, no way forward which will reverse the current reality. Right wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire. So, sadly, after a life and career devoted to Jewish community and Israel, I conclude that in every important way Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure.”
There is a way out, but it won’t emerge from Israel or the current Middle East. Instead, it can happen only if Americans and other Western societies make a huge change in their understanding of what provides “homeland security” and then acts to implement this new strategy around the world and particularly in the Middle East. Israelis are too traumatized not only by their history, but by what has become almost daily assaults on random Israelis by outraged Palestinians to be able to think their way out of the mess that the Occupation has created. But we in the West are not, and we could play a major role in creating the preconditions for a very different kind of Israel to emerge in the next twenty to thirty years. Let me explain.
I remember when I first worked on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s how otherwise progressive Israelis maintained deeply sexist views, and how in the 1980s Rabbi David Hartman, supposedly a champion of tolerance, resigned from Tikkun magazine’s editorial board when we called upon the Jewish world to fully embrace our gay and lesbian Jews. Today Israel is one of the more advanced societies in its recognition of women’s rights and in its acceptance of gays and lesbians. These changes did not originate in Israel, but in a fundamental transformation of consciousness in the Western world to which Israel still looks to for military, intellectual, and cultural support.
When these changes were first proposed by feminists and gay liberationists fifty years ago they were seen as “utopian fantasies” in light of ten thousand year history of global subordination of women and gays. The “realists” who chided these “silly dreamers” were as wrong as those who thought that Zionism’s desire to establish a homeland for Jews in Palestine would never happen.
Western societies have long sought security by dominating others whom they thought of as “a threat.” In modern times the West’s debate between left and right has largely been about which strategy of domination is most effective, with the right clinging to a belief in the effectiveness of military might, while liberals have sought to use diplomatic, economic and cultural means to achieve Western domination, using military interventions only as a last resort. Both sides of this debate seek domination and “power over’ the “Other’; the ways to achieve it have differed. Yet the goal of domination has led to endless wars, economic struggles, and hatred that does not make the US or the West more secure.
The task for anyone who wants to save Israel from its current extremism is to join in an ‘unrealistic’ campaign started by the U.S. based interfaith and secular-humanist Network of Spiritual Progressives to seek a new paradigm for how to achieve “homeland security.”
We call for a fundamentally different approach: A Strategy of Generosity. Domination has led to economic and military policies that are disastrous for much of humanity and disastrous for the well being of the planet Earth. In the 21st century, the major problem facing humanity is how to save human life from the destruction of our planet’s life-support-system. The generation reaching voting age in the next twenty years has a much greater awareness and sensitivity to this problem than most of those who were born in the 20th century. They will have little tolerance for the kinds of nationalist ambitions and struggles that dominated so much of the past, realizing that their own lives are likely to be dramatically impacted and their quality of life undermined by the environmental crisis. And that crisis can only be rationally addressed when nations stop their endless search for domination and instead develop a new consciousness that prioritizes cooperation.
In this newly emerging reality, “homeland security,” for the U.S. but also for Israel, will be more achievable through developing ties of mutual aid, caring for each other and caring for the earth. We call that The Strategy of Generosity.
As a step in this direction, the NSP has developed an outline for a Global Marshall Plan. Unlike previous aid plans, this one gives at least as much focus to developing a sense of caring for “the other” as it does for providing direct material aid to people without jobs and without hope. Its first goal will be to end poverty in the Middle East, provide reparations for Palestinians as well as for all who have suffered in the West’s repeated violent assaults on Muslim countries, while ending the poverty that afflicts so many Israelis who live outside the wealth belts from Tel Aviv to Haifa.
As the Strategy of Generosity takes hold in the West, and gets implemented by a coalition of nations supporting this Global Marshall Plan, a new development will take place in Israel—a political party or set of parties who understand that Israel’s security is more like to be achieved through generosity, given the total failure of the strategy of domination. Many Israelis will embrace this strategy and seek to make Israel a regional conveyer of a Middle East Marshall Plan. They will aim for Israel to become known as a country that excels in generosity as much as it now excels in electronics, armaments and medicine.
No, I don’t expect Israelis or the surrounding Arab states to jump quickly into a strategy of generosity. Most Israelis when they hear this will laugh with the same dismissive cynicism that I heard about women’s rights and gay liberation back on the kibbutz in the 1960s. It will take several decades to get this worldview accepted in the West, where is most likely to be greeted at first with the same ridicule that greeted the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and the call for legalizing gay marriage received in the 1980s and 90s. No one expected a Jewish “democratic socialist” to be winning primaries in the U.S. It turns out that you never know what is possible till you strive for what is desirable.
So there is something American Jews can do to help Israel, and no, it’s not too late. We can become pioneers in a new way—by challenging the ethos of competitiveness, selfishness and materialism that has been the “common sense” of the global marketplace, and instead embrace a new bottom line of caring, generosity, environmental sanity, economic justice, and love.
This process has strong foundations in Jewish values. Progressive forces in Israel can reclaim Judaism’s social justice and environmental values, moving away from the 18th to 20th centuries’ historical divide between religion and progressive politics. As we move toward the end of the second decade of the 21st century, environmental and social justice movements are fast abandoning the militant atheism of past centuries and you begin to understand that ecological thinking welcomes and requires a spiritual component—seeing the planet earth not as a “resource” for human beings to use recklessly, but as something that should be responded to with awe, wonder and radical amazement! So the switch from domination to generosity is also a switch from a narrow instrumental way of thinking about fellow human beings and about the Earth.
To the extent that we succeed in the West to popularize this worldview, to show its effectiveness in contrast to the domination paradigm, we will have an impact on the thinking of the future generations arising in Israel. But the burden is on us in the West to make this fundamental change—and that is the true way to serve Israel and the Palestinian people at this historical moment.
We all owe Rabbi Gordis deep thanks for calling out to the American Jewish establishment what Jewish progressives have long been saying, through Tikkun Magazine, through J Street, through Jewish Voices for Peace, and through so many conversations among unaffiliated Jews as well: if Israel hopes to continue getting any support from American Jews in the coming decades, it needs to fundamentally change directions, end the occupation, and start living according to the love and justice values of the Jewish people. And in the voice of our prophetic tradition and our best Jewish visionaries, we proudly proclaim: Yesh Tikvah. There is still hope. So please join our Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org/covenant and help us make this dream a reality!! As Theodore Herzl so wisely put it: If you will it, it is not a fantasy.
A version of this article first appeared in Haaretz on March 9th under the headline “The End of the Road for Progressive Jews and Israel?”