The Jewish People, Zionism, and the Question of Justice

When I was a boy in the 1950s attending Hebrew School in Philadelphia, we would receive little cardboard folders with slots for dimes distributed by the Jewish National Fund. On the cover was a picture of a tree being planted by handsome, tanned people in shorts. When the card was full, you sent it in and in return received a certificate with your name on and a bigger picture of a tree, which was the tree you had planted in Israel. It was fun and it was a thrill – I was reclaiming the homeland. I saw pictures of kibbutzim and orange groves filling the valleys and dreamt of going there someday.

Four decades later, now a middle-aged man, I saw pictures of Israeli bulldozers uprooting three hundred year-old olive trees and Jewish soldiers restraining Arab villagers crying hysterically over the destruction of their groves. I traveled to the West Bank – Israeli occupied Palestine – and saw the hillsides denuded of trees to build concrete Jewish settlement cities. I saw Arab houses leveled and gardens taken to make way for a 30 foot-high concrete wall cutting through Palestinian cities and village fields. I saw that this was wrong. I didn’t buy the story that this was for defense. I could see that it was a lie.

When I returned to the United States and began to talk about my horror, sadness and deep concern over what I had seen, I was told by many of my fellow Jews that I must not talk like this. I was informed that this makes me an enemy of the Jewish people and that I was opening the way for the next Holocaust. I was told by many Jews that I was disloyal to my people, that I had “gone over” to the “Palestinian side.” One Jewish rabbinical student informed his colleagues that I was obviously a convert to Christianity “masquerading” as a Jew in order to cause the destruction of the Jewish people. I have spoken about my experiences before many groups, almost all of them in churches. I have yet to speak in a synagogue. I am trying hard to make sense out of this and to figure out a way forward. Here is what I have figured out so far.

Jewish History: Survival and its Shadow

Zionism was the answer to the anti-Semitism of Christian Europe. The failure, despite the Enlightenment, to establish Jews as an emancipated, accepted group in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the rise of political anti-Semitism in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century gave birth to political Zionism under the leadership of Theodore Herzl. Zionism expressed the powerful drive of the Jewish people to establish ourselves as a nation among other nations, with a land of our own and the ability to achieve self-determination. This is why, in sermons from synagogue pulpits, in lectures on Jewish history, in classroom lessons for small children, and in spirited discussions about the Israel-Palestine question, you will so often here the preamble “throughout the centuries…,” followed by a description of the suffering of the Jews at the hands of our oppressors. Indeed, it’s in our liturgy, notably in the Passover Seder. The story of Jewish survival despite constant persecution is in many ways our theme song — it’s in our cultural DNA, it’s the mantra of our peoplehood. It runs deep.

This unique Jewish quality is not the product of some cultural aberration or collective character flaw. Developing this particular brand of “character armor” has been part of our survival throughout long ages of persecution, marginalization, and demonization. We survived, in part, by creating rituals, habits and attitudes of insularity, pride and persistence that allowed us never to forget, never to let down our guard, and to always be proud of our stubborn vitality in the face of “those who sought to destroy us.” When, in our modern liturgical idiom, we talk of the State of Israel as “the First Flowering of our Redemption,” we are reflecting the reality of our survival, the meaning of the achievement of political self-determination in the context of Jewish history. It is good to have survived.

But we must also see clearly the shadow that this history casts on us today. We have striven to be the masters of our fate – but, having achieved this, we must also realize that we are responsible for our actions and for the consequences of these actions. Being free, we have free choice. The tragedy of Jewish Diaspora history, in our own cultural narrative as well as in reality, is rooted in our history of powerlessness and passivity. Zionism came to correct this, and it has undeniably succeeded, indeed far beyond the expectations of Jews and non-Jews alike. But if we now become slaves to the consequences of empowerment, then we are not free, and we are not truly powerful. The Nazi Holocaust in particular casts its shadow over our modern history and the history of the State of Israel. The Nazi’s campaign to eradicate world Jewry has become part of our uniquely Jewish “Liturgy of Destruction,” the way we Jews throughout the ages have made sense of our suffering by turning to the broader context of Jewish history. From this matrix of vulnerability, victimization and meaning-making comes the Zionist cry, “Never again!” But the modern State in its policies, carried out purportedly to preserve our people, and using the Holocaust as justification for unjust actions, is betraying the meaning of Jewish history. You cannot achieve your own deliverance, even from the most unspeakable evil, by the oppression of another people. Indeed, in this current era of power and self-determination for Jews in Israel, we face risks to our peoplehood that far exceed the physical perils brought by millennia of persecution.

Israel and Palestine: Reality Stood On its Head

The stormy controversy over the Israel-Palestine question today – a controversy that is splitting the Jewish community here in the United States as well as Israeli society, stands as evidence of this risk. The history of conflict and bloodshed between the State of Israel, its Arab neighbors, and the indigenous inhabitants of historic Palestine is the unavoidable and predictable result of the colonialist nature of the Zionist enterprise. Although Zionism, unlike the other European colonial projects, was not directed originally toward the occupation and exploitation of a subject people – the Zionists sought only to create a refuge for a themselves – it is no less a settler colonial enterprise for that. What is uncanny and tragic is that in the current discourse, the roles of the combatants are turned upside down: The Jews are portrayed as the victims, and the Palestinians as the aggressors. In truth, it is the Palestinians who are the victims: dispossessed, powerless, and pained. In every way, the Jews are victorious and all-powerful. The Jews of Israel are, to be sure, victimized by acts of popular resistance on the part of Palestinians, and the terrorizing effect of these acts is not to be minimized. But in the perspective of the current power balance, and in comparison to the effect of Israel’s military occupation on Palestinian society, these are pinpricks. At the same time, this resistance, fueled by the desperation and humiliation of a displaced and occupied people, has been amplified and exploited by political forces within and outside of Palestine. As terrifying as acts of resistance such as suicide bombings and cross-border shellings are, Israel’s current hegemony, power, and certainly her security are not threatened by these acts. Suicide bombings are horrible and terrorizing. But it is too easy, too convenient to tar an entire people with this brush, which is precisely what has happened. The image of the Palestinians as a violent people, as “terrorists” bent on the destruction of Israel, is not a true picture. The truth is that by and large the Palestinians are a peaceful, patient people – and at this pass an angry, humiliated and pained people. Their sin over the last 60 plus years has been their relative lack of organization – set up effectively by the British during their 30-year rule — in the face of the highly organized and effective Zionist colonial project. They are paying for this now as they face the ongoing dismantling of their economy and their infrastructure, and the continuing program to disable their leadership and ability to self-govern. Israel has taken over where Britain left off – and with far greater efficiency and thoroughness.

The Jewish Discussion

Although it is painful and deeply troubling, I see the ferocity and depth of the current split within the Jewish community in the Diaspora as an opportunity for dialogue. This is an issue of crisis proportions for Jews, and we need to take it seriously. We must encourage this conversation — we stifle it at our great, great peril. It is our responsibility as Jews to examine our relationship to Israel, rather than to passively accept the story fed to us by the Jewish establishment: the synagogues, Jewish Federations, lobbying organizations and the rest of the apparatus devoted to maintaining the mighty stream of financial and policy support for Israel from the US government and from private sources. We must examine our convictions and feelings about the meaning of the State to us personally, especially in relation to anti-Semitism. For example, do I, as a Jew living in America, believe that the State of Israel is important to me as a haven if I should feel unsafe or disadvantaged in my home country? Do I personally feel that the existence of a Jewish State is an essential or part of my Jewishness, or of the religious values and beliefs that I hold as a Jew? Do I believe that the world owes a state to the Jews because of the centuries of violence against and persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust? These are all important questions – they need to be asked, confronted, and measured against the realities of contemporary life. Furthermore, as Diaspora Jews we need to question where we get our information about the history of the State of Israel and about the current political situation. What news services do we rely on, what websites do we visit? What do we know about the discussion going on inside Israel today, exemplified by the active dialogue to be found in the pages of Haaretz, the organizations voicing opposition to Israeli government policy, and the accelerated pace of revisionist Zionist history being produced by Jewish Israeli historians?

We must become willing to overcome our profound denial about the current reality and the injustices wrought by Zionism. Walter Brueggemann, the Protestant theologian, in his work on the prophetic imagination, writes about the prophetic call to grieve and to mourn, that only in this way can we hope to move on to a new and better reality. Only when we are able to cry, in Jeremiah’s phrase, for our own brokenness, and to confront the implications of the suffering we have caused, can we be the beneficiaries of God’s bounty. In other words, we must break through the denial about what we have done. The power structure, of course, is committed to the very opposite. The State turns the story on its head in order to paper over the truth: “This is done in the name of national security.” “These others are the terrorists, they are the obstacles to peace.”

One particularly “slippery” form of denial, of this failure to grieve, is how some Jews take issue with some of the actions of the Israeli government while still avoiding confronting the fundamental issues of justice. This can take several forms. The first is the “pragmatic” approach, which can also be called the appeal to “enlightened self-interest.” “The Occupation,” so this position goes, “was a mistake. It’s bad for Israel. Denying self-determination for Palestinians and subjecting them to the humiliation of a military administration breeds hatred and desperation, which is then visited upon Israelis in the form of violence.” Some American Jewish organizations, hoping to avoid being marginalized by the mainstream community, or labeled “Pro-Palestinian” adopt this position, ignoring the issue of justice.. “Israel,” they say, “should smarten up and change its policies if it wants to live in peace and limit the economic drain of unending conflict.” In informal conversations with some Jewish Americans who articulate this position, I have heard confessions that their position is really much more extreme with respect to their feelings about Israeli policy, but that they feel it important to hew to this line for strategic purposes, in order to maintain credibility with the Jewish establishment as well as with government legislators.

A second kind of denial, for me more serious and more disturbing, is to be found in the ranks of what has come to be called the Jewish Progressive movement. In his critique of this element of American Judaism, Jewish Liberation theologian Marc Ellis notes that whereas this element of Jewry critiques aspects of Jewish ascendancy by recognizing the validity of Palestinian aspirations, it limits the scope of the critique by accepting the need for this same Jewish ascendancy as a solution to Jewish history. This viewpoint acknowledges the issue of justice, but attempts to do this within the context of Jewish mainstream assumptions of entitlement with respect to the rights of the Jews to historic Palestine. “If we can just clean up this messy business of the Occupation,” say these people, “things will come out alright, and we will be able to enjoy the land with a clean conscience.” This viewpoint limits the discourse to actions post-1967: it denies the history of Palestinian displacement prior to that. Indeed, Progressive Jewish organizations avoid discussion of the Nakba, an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe” used to describe the ethnic cleansing of three quarters of a million Palestinians from historic Palestine by Israeli forces between1948 and 1949. Indeed, progressive Jews have been known to become quite irritated with fellow Jews who raise it. Finally, it avoids the fundamental question, which is how a Jewish State, founded as a haven and a homeland for Jews, can be a true democracy, providing justice and fair treatment for its non-Jewish citizenry. It avoids the related and equally fundamental question of demography – the issue that, above all others, drives Israeli foreign policy and fuels the current political and military conflict. On the whole, Jews outside of Israel across a wide spectrum from “establishment” to “progressive want to avoid these questions – indeed, they are off limits.

This is denial – it is a fundamental failure to accept the consequences of Jewish actions in pre- and post- 1948 Palestine-Israel, and thus a failure to grieve over the particularly Jewish tragedy from which we as Jews suffer today. Returning to the pre-1967 borders (as if that will ever happen) will not make everything better. It will not make Israel a just society with respect to its Palestinian citizens. It will not erase what was done to the Palestinians who were driven out of their cities, towns and villages in 1948. It does not place the issue of justice as primary. Rather, it places the interests of Israel as primary, and promotes an entitled, supremacist, paternalistic stance with respect to non-Jewish inhabitants of historic Palestine, on whichever side of the final status border they may reside when a political settlement is finally achieved. It pre-empts our horror over the crimes we are committing and the suffering we have caused. It muffles our own cries of pain over our sins and our cruelties. It squelches the agony of confronting the contradictions and the excruciating dilemmas. It blocks the discussion. It closes our hearts.

Conclusion: Christians, Jews, Anti-Semitism, and Our Accountability

The issue of anti-Semitism is complex and deeply embedded in two thousand years of Western history. Among liberal Christian theologians and religious leaders, supersessionism – the concept that Christianity, embodied in the Gospels, came to replace Judaism as God’s plan for humankind – has become the Great Evil. The argument, well supported by history, is that this idea, developed in the first centuries after Christ and central to Christian belief and doctrine, laid the groundwork for anti-Semitism. But in their zeal to correct the injustices of the past, and to in effect atone for anti-Semitism, Christian leaders and thinkers are in danger of losing sight of an important aspect of early Christian thought. Christianity, in its reframing of the relationship of God to humanity, produced a revolution — in effect, it moved the concept of “Israel” from the tribal to the communal. In the Christian reframing, God’s commitment to humanity through his election of the seed of Abraham, assigned a special role in history, was transformed into God’s love for humankind and the invitation to all to become part of a universal spiritual community. This was a great contribution, a great step forward, and it has special relevance today, as all religions struggle to move from “Constantinian,” power-based religions to communities based on a commitment to diversity, human rights and justice. The choice between religion based on and consorting with political power and oppression, and religion grounded in a concept of community is one that must be faced by all the faiths. Jews and Christians must talk about this, indeed they must come together with their Muslim friends and colleagues to together confront what may be the central challenge of our times. We stifle this discussion at our peril.

To our Christian sisters and brothers I say – do not, out of a sense of guilt for anti-Semitism, give the Jewish people a free pass. Do not confuse anti-Semitism with critique of Israel, and in so doing fail to hold Jews accountable for our choices and our actions, as members of the human community, as individuals, and as a nation state — especially as a nation state. To make this mistake, to allow yourselves to be – I will use the word – bullied by the threat of the charge of anti-Semitism, is to commit a pernicious fallacy. As Jews we sought political self-determination, and we got it. Now we must behave in accordance with principles of justice and in accordance with international law as an expression of universally agreed-upon principles of justice. As Jews, we are confronted daily with this choice as we witness the illegal and oppressive actions of the Jewish State toward the Palestinian people it is so rapidly displacing. Empowerment – political empowerment – presents a mighty challenge to values. The Prophets knew this well, continually speaking this truth to the power structures of their day. To the crushed and exiled Jewish people of his time, Second Isaiah declared that redemption and comfort was coming, but only when the people acknowledged the divine meaning of their suffering. To my coreligionists in Israel and America, I say that we will ultimately survive as a people only to the extent that we can understand how our own suffering makes us part of humankind, and responsible for suffering wherever and whenever it happens. It was Roberta Feuerlicht, the Jewish ethicist who famously wrote, “Judaism survived centuries of persecution without a state; it must now learn how to survive despite a state.”

Mark Braverman is a Jewish American with deep family roots in the Holy Land. He serves on the advisory board of Friends of Sabeel North American and on the Board of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA. He is the author of Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land. Information and additional writing at

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