CCAR Press is honored to have published Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State, edited by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Rabbi John L. Rosove.
Using the vision embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a template, this new anthology presents a unique and comprehensive dialogue between North American Jews and Israelis about the present and future of the State of Israel. Deepening the Dialogue is available for purchase from CCAR Press.
Below, read an excerpt by Rabbi Noa Sattath and Rabbi Judith Schindler, the book’s consulting editors.
“Overcoming the Loneliness We Feel: A Way Forward Together”
Rabbi Noa Sattath, Israel
Progressive activists in Israel are facing tremendous
challenges—hostile governments, complex bureaucracies, and ongoing conflict.
Over the past decade we have been feeling increasingly isolated. The right wing in Israel receives massive, growing support from Jewish (and Evangelical) constituencies in North America. While this conservative support is growing exponentially, support from American liberals is declining. The majority of the North American Jewish community has liberal political and religious views and self-identifies as “pro-Israel.” Yet American Jewish support for progressive activities in Israel is diminishing. With current extreme anti-democratic trends in Israel, many Jews are struggling to balance their liberal political and religious positions with their support for Israel. Too often, this struggle leads to liberals disengaging from Israel and Israeli progressive activists and organizations losing support—moral, political, and financial support.
In order to break the isolation, I believe we need to redefine
the meaning of “pro-Israel.” If “pro-Israel” only means embracing every Israeli
government policy, too many liberal Jews will not be able to identify
themselves as such. We need to define “pro-Israel” as supporting Israel’s
Declaration of Independence, supporting the Israel that lives up to the dreams
of its founders, and supporting those Israeli organizations and activists that
share our progressive values and work to protect them.
Anti-democratic trends around the world use fear to enable
national leaders to gain more power, incite people against minorities, and
attack gender equality—all in an attempt to sustain or restore a power
structure that will preserve the supremacy of old elites. These trends appear
not only in Israel, but in North America, Europe, and elsewhere around the
Recent years have put extensive demands on us progressives
on both sides of the ocean as we have strived to advance our Jewish vision of
just societies. Facing tremendous backlash, we have had to work in more
focused, strategic, and innovative ways.
In Israel, we have experienced this anti-democratic trend
for almost a decade. Our opponents on the Israeli right are working to build an
illiberal, racist Israel that continues to occupy land on which millions of
Palestinians live. They do so with the support of elements within the North
American Jewish community, support of which the progressive camp can only
dream. The settlements are backed by North American Jewish donors, and almost
no settlement could survive without North American support. With billions of
dollars, Sheldon Adelson finances the most widely read newspaper in Israel,
which is distributed for free and supports the current government positions.
Our political opponents are working in Israel and around the world with North
American Jewish support—while portraying and imposing Jewish orthodoxy as the
only authentic Jewish religious expression.
The majority of the North American Jewish community, which
is liberal both politically and religiously, is increasingly pulling back from
Israel. It is quite overwhelming to compare the large impact of right-wing
North American groups to the decreasing impact of their liberal counterparts.
It is one of the core reasons for the continued decrease of power of the
progressive camp. It is a vicious cycle: because significant elements within
the North American community increase their support of the anti-democratic
camp, the Israeli government takes more positions and actions against the
egalitarian, democratic camp. In response, North American liberal Jews withdraw
even further, thus strengthening the anti-democratic camp, which then leads to
more hawkish Israeli policies, and so on. As progressive activists in Israel,
we sometimes feel abandoned by our North American brothers and sisters. We must
break this cycle.
There are two narratives of the situation in Israel and
Palestine that dominate the discourse in North America. One is the narrative of
Israel’s public diplomacy: Israel can do no wrong; the IDF is the most moral
army in the world; there is no solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict;
the stagnation of the process toward a two-state solution is the fault of the
Palestinians; and the conflict within Israel is either nonexistent or not
important. Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying into
this narrative less and less.
The second narrative claims that there is a huge moral
problem with Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and
Gaza and that the only appropriate response is boycott, divestment, and
sanctions (BDS). Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying
into this narrative more and more.
Our movement works for social justice in North America and
Israel. It is up to us to build a third narrative—one that acknowledges the
moral challenges, and one that is determined to arrive at a solution building
on a more intentional and strategic partnership between North American and Israeli
As liberal Zionists, our goal is for our society to be “a
light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). We aspire to achieve the
prophetic Jewish vision of a repaired world and a just society. We want more
than to be measured in comparison to our neighboring countries or to other countries
violating human rights.
Discussing social justice questions means to scrutinize and
analyze complex power structures, traditions, and belief systems. As demonstrated
in the chapters of this book, there are multiple and multilayered social
justice questions to be discussed both in and in regard to Israel. Many North
American Jews pull away from Israel because they are disappointed by its
government policies—and because they shy away from an overwhelmingly
complicated issue. Speaking about addressing the social justice questions in
Israel, one cannot hope for simple, instant solutions. But this must not
Many progressives in North America have a nuanced understanding of gender equality and racial justice and feel a deep commitment to work toward the establishment of these values in Israel. They understand that this will require sustained, long-term efforts. We, together with our North American Reform Movement, are looking at systems of injustice that will take immense labor and time to transform. It will take decades. However, every time we cannot provide any answer to the question “What do we do about Israel?” we feed into a growing sense of frustration and disconnect. We need to find a balance between implementing the necessary short-term fixes and our work toward longer-term structural and institutional change.
Rabbi Judith Schindler, United States
The challenge of Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activist and artist, in doing the work of justice, often echoes in my mind. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time,” she said. “But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Our redemption as American Jews and as Israelis is tied to one another.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence marked a monumental
step toward redemption. After millennia of exile, Jews finally have an
internationally recognized home. The Declaration of Independence calls upon the
Diaspora to “rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel” in their immigration and
upbuilding, and to support them in their struggle to realize that “redemption.”
As American Jews and Israelis, we celebrate that redemption
and the greatest political freedom that we have known since our last time of
sovereignty almost two thousand years ago. The achievements of our communities
inspire awe. Yet we labor tirelessly and continuously to ensure justice,
equality, and safety for ourselves and for our neighbors. We do so because the
memories of being the oppressed “other”—victims of discrimination and
violence—have remained an integral part of the Jewish collective consciousness.
Those of us working for social justice in American cities
are confronting a harsh reality of increasing anti-Zionism. As I teach about
Judaism and address social issues—from refugees to racism, from countering
antisemitism to expanding affordable housing—I have learned to expect questions
or comments about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. Sometimes the
inquiry is motivated by a desire to increase understanding and engage in
dialogue. Sometimes the remark is accusatory: “How can you stand for justice
and stand for Israel?” Sometimes the statement is said on a stage at a rally,
vigil, or event and before hundreds or thousands. The phrase “Israel’s
oppression of Palestinians” is woven into a litany of other social wrongs,
leaving me feeling both defensive and wounded.
As Americans, we regularly face a decontextualized
condemnation of Israel in our newspapers, on our social media feeds, and in the
streets where we strive to support others. Admired American social justice
authors and leaders such as Michelle Alexander, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis
publicly decry the Palestinian plight, often based on an unbalanced or
one-sided assessment. We struggle to respond effectively.
What can we say to underscore Israel’s complex history and capture our disagreement with some of Israel’s policies, while still supporting the Jewish state we love? What can we do to affirm our commitment to global social justice without fueling the fires of anti-Zionism or antisemitism that threaten us all? Former member of Knesset and famous Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky offered clarity for our dialogue in noting the three d’s of the new antisemitism of which we need to be continually cognizant: demonization, double standards, and delegitimization. While criticizing Israel is not in itself antisemitic, antisemitism often uses criticism of the Israeli government as concealment for its true intentions. As liberal Zionists, we see the moral crisis in the ongoing Israeli military presence in the West Bank, and we seek to bring peace and justice to both Israelis and Palestinians. We can hold both these complex truths in our activism.
The attack on equality in Israel is not only aimed at the non-Jew; it is also aimed at non-orthodox Jews. In November 2017, when images of our Reform Jewish American and Israeli leaders being assaulted for carrying Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza appeared in our media, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter called me for an interview and tried to badger me into saying that Israel’s leaders had gone too far and that there are limits to our relationship and support. My response was the opposite. In those times when Israel’s government devalues us as liberal Jews or promotes policies that contradict the pluralism and equality we demand, we need to double down on our work—amplify our voices, exert our influence, and deepen our Israel-American partnership. Just as we North American Jews support Israel, we appeal to our Israeli sisters and brothers to support us. We need a deep and mutual relationship.
As Rabbi Noa Sattath so beautifully articulated, we need a
new narrative—not the right-wing or orthodox narrative of ethnocentrism, and
not the BDS narrative of isolation and alienation, but a narrative that
acknowledges the moral crisis in Israel and advocates for engagement to create
change. Just as social justice activists understand systemic racism and the
fact that these structures were created over centuries, the Israeli systems of
inequality were created over time. It will take time to dismantle them—policy
by policy. We as social activists understand that change starts with story and
North American progressive Zionists feel alone in their
defense of Israel on our city streets and in our daily encounters. Israeli
progressive Zionists feel abandoned by their North American counterparts. We
need not feel alone; we can work together in partnership.
Rabbi Noa Sattath is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the social justice arm of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). Rabbi Judith Schindler is the Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. They served as consulting editors as well as contributors to the newly released anthology Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.