Arnold M. Eisen
Featured Post

A morally pure Judaism without actual Jews

What do we make of a Passover seder that depicts Zionism as idol worship and ignores the suffering of Israelis?
Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian protesters, including students and faculty of universities across Philadelphia, hold a Passover seder at the protest encampment at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 28, 2024. (Matthew Hatcher / AFP)
Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian protesters, including students and faculty of universities across Philadelphia, hold a Passover seder at the protest encampment at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 28, 2024. (Matthew Hatcher / AFP)

This is a moment of reckoning for American Jews, on and off university campuses. Political alliances built up over many years have been shattered. Friendships have been forsaken and family relationships strained. Jewish loyalties and convictions long taken for granted have been questioned, abandoned, or reaffirmed. As a scholar of American Judaism and a teacher of American college students for nearly half a century, I confess that I’ve been surprised to see slogans and tactics employed decades ago by antisemites and the New Left – and widely discredited since then — refitted and deployed in the wave of protests against “American complicity in Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people.”

Last week, with memories of my family’s Passover seders still vivid, I watched video of the protest “seder in the streets” held in Brooklyn on the second night of the holiday – and was shocked, though not surprised, to see Israel denounced in the name of a definition of Jewish faith that we have not heard much of since its heyday in 19th century Europe and its use in the 20th century by the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. I found myself wishing that the students in my courses on Jewish thought could have seen the video too. I want them to understand that some of the current arguments made by young Jews against Zionism are in fact old claims about the nature of Judaism.

As is usual these days, Israel was denounced at the rally as inherently colonialist and apartheid; nothing new there, only more evidence that lovers of Zion have not done a good job in telling the story of how the State of Israel came to be. Too often the standard Palestinian narrative is met with silence or confusion; some knowledge of world history would be helpful too, lest Israel be denied legitimacy for mistakes and injustices all too common in the annals of nation-states. What was new at this “seder,” for me at least, was the charge that Zionism is literally a “false God,” that attachment to Israel is “worshipping a golden calf.” That is so, it was proclaimed, because Judaism is ethical monotheism and only that; Judaism is work for justice, full stop, and therefore any lapse from moral purity constitutes idolatry.

This seder/rally rightly emphasized the Haggadah’s call to join in the work of redemption – and wrongly omitted any reference to the actual people that, freed from Egyptian bondage, began a long trek to the Land of Israel. This seder’s Judaism cares immensely about the suffering of the Palestinian people (as I do), and even faults the Haggadah for insufficient attention to the “liberation and self-determination of the Egyptian people.” But it says not a word about the suffering of the thousands brutalized and murdered on Oct 7 or the welfare of the 7 million members of the Jewish people who live in Israel. It would not be going too far to say that, like many recent movements that have gained popularity among younger American Jews, this is a Judaism with no need of Jews. It has great appeal to Jews who have no need for Judaism as it has been practiced for millennia.

I understand the attraction of such a Judaism, which has long had a hold on diaspora Jews that it cannot exercise upon Israelis. This Judaism is utterly universal, unburdened with any link to a particular people or to customs that set Jews uncomfortably apart from non-Jewish friends and neighbors. It is all about ethics, with no need for history: not the history of Israel, which complicates any simple narrative of good versus evil (including Zionist narratives of this sort), and not the history of Jews over the centuries, which was not only one of persecution and expulsion, but had enough of both – even in modern “Enlightened” Europe – to make it clear why many Jews concluded that only a State with a Jewish majority could be depended upon to protect endangered Jews. The Judaism on view at the Brooklyn seder is entirely one of individual choice, with no obligations to any community or tradition not assumed voluntarily at each moment. It is, in other words, the very opposite of any Judaism ever seen until the modern period. The Torah tells us that a people was born at Sinai and not only a faith, a people that bound itself in covenant to one another as well as to the world and to God.

Jews have been arguing with one another ever since over what the terms of the covenant mean; how exactly justice and mercy are to be increased in the world, as the Torah and the prophets demanded; how everyday life is to be conducted, inside and outside the Land of Israel, in complex interaction with non-Jewish peoples and cultures, as the rabbis determined. This is the Jewish project, articulated best in the Book of Deuteronomy, that first drew me to Zionism as a teenager and has held me ever since. It’s a Judaism that presumes the existence of a people called the Jews, who have as much right to live as any other people, and as much right to a homeland in which they can survive and thrive, one to which Jews have always longed to return. This Judaism assumes that Jews will fail time and again to live up to the demands of the covenant and will have to try again to do better. The State of Israel is not exempt from that rule. It remains in force even – or especially – in times of war.

If Judaism were merely an ethical or religious doctrine preached from the sidelines of society, prophet-style, Jews could rest easy about their own moral purity. Other people’s sins could be counted up and broadcast. But if Judaism means taking responsibility for a society – as the Torah envisions and the prophets urge – Jews will have sins of omission and commission for which to atone and will pay the price of failure.

The Zionist move from criticism to responsibility makes me proud as a Jew to call myself a Zionist. I fear that it is also what leads many young Jews at the present moment — when the justice of Israel’s cause is widely affirmed by American Jews, but the tactics used to fight Hamas are increasingly debated, inside and outside Israel — to distance themselves publicly from the State of Israel and from the Jewish community that stands with Israel. They want a Judaism that is pure, unstained by history; I want a State that struggles to uphold the highest values of Judaism, and is called to account when it does not.

When I sang “Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!” at the end of my seders this year, I was not referring only to a symbol of universal peace and justice, though I had that in mind too. The Jerusalem I pray for is, was and will be a real city, in a real country, where a real people are trying hard to live up to a covenant that is eternally demanding — and the greatest gift we know.

About the Author
Arnold Eisen, one of the world’s foremost experts on American Judaism, is Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.