Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

Can Zionist Jews still be liberal?

Peter Beinart's 'liberalism' – the kind that fails to denounce Hamas and its atrocities – sounds like illiberalism to us

This article is co-authored with Dennis C. Sasso.

Peter Beinart, in his New York Times piece, “The Great Rupture in American Jewish Life” (3/22/24), suggests that we are reaching a time when Americans will have to choose between liberalism and Zionism. With an increasing number of liberal causes requiring those who would join them to denounce Israel, Beinart postulates that Jews who believe in the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state will no longer be welcome in those circles. Under the guise of intersectionality, this is already happening. Jewish authors who mention Israel in their books are systematically given poor reviews. Exhibitions of Jewish artists are boycotted and a Jewish museum is criticized for having paintings of Israeli hostages on its walls.

Beinart claims that Jews who are finding the left inhospitable are turning to the right, becoming Republican. Somehow, because Trump declares that Jews who vote for Democrats hate their religion, Beinart assumes that Jews will abandon the Democratic party. One does not need too long a historical memory to recall the Proud Boys saying that “Jews will not replace us” and Trump asserting that there are “good people on both sides” of that rally to doubt such an alliance shift.

For a long time, liberal Jews have had to deal with those who would dictate to them who can be a rabbi and who can be a Jew. Now they are being told who can be a liberal. Just as we will not abandon our right to say who is a Jew or who can be a rabbi, so we will not allow others to tell us who can be a liberal. American Jews have championed liberal causes for generations, as Milton Himmelfarb used to quip, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans”.

Ever since the Enlightenment and Emancipation in Europe, the liberal tradition of social justice has remained a cornerstone of Jewish identity, even when antisemitism sought to fracture that alliance. Civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, reproductive freedom, equity in health care, alleviating hunger and poverty, responding to climate change all remain causes that, despite the current efforts to exclude them, Jews will continue to embrace and champion. The need for a Jewish state became evident when the world’s so-called “enlightened values” allowed antisemitism to flourish. Voltaire, among many other important figures of the Enlightenment, had nothing but disdain and odium towards Jews. Are we experiencing a rebirth of such attitudes among many progressives today?

The antisemitism of today’s far left that chooses to delegitimize only the existence of Israel among all other sovereign nations, will not change Jewish commitment to social justice. It will, however, damage the very coalitions that once helped to bring about change and it will bring disrepute to their claims of inclusivity.

You can have compassion for Palestinians and Israelis. You can believe in and work toward two states for two peoples. You can criticize Israel’s leadership, as Israelis freely do, and as we criticize our own. However, failure to denounce Hamas and its atrocities, not only against Israelis but also against Palestinians, and ignoring their accountability for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, is not liberal. It is being blind to reality, it is immoral, and it is antisemitic.

Beinart and the “liberalism” he promotes should give thought to the illiberalism of such a position.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is the first woman ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis after serving for 36 years. Rabbi Sasso is the Director of Religion Spirituality and the Arts at IUPUI, Co-Founder of Women4Change Indiana and an author, having won the National Jewish Book Award and Indiana Author's Award.
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