Shalom Schlagman
Shalom Schlagman

Peering Down the Well: Zionism and BLM

The last few months has heralded a reckoning for the Jewish community of Brighton, NY a suburb of the City of Rochester with the largest Jewish population in the Greater Rochester region.  Since the recent primary elections for Democratic town board candidates, a torrent of virtual slander and castigation erupted, fracturing fissures and fault lines – bilateral accusations of racism, antisemitism and predictable diatribes whose frenzied verbiage only whips the converted into circling the wagons, with equally predictable reactions easily summarized by the satirical poetry of Uriya Rosenman and Sameh Zakout,

אני לא גזען
הגנן שלי ערבי
אני לא גזען
אני קונה בשר ב׳חינאווי׳ וגם נרגילות ביפו אצל איזה ערבי

I’m not a racist
my gardener is an Arab
I’m not a racist
I buy meat at ‘Hinawi’ and hookahs from some Arab in Jaffa.

(If you have not watched these two men, one Israeli Jew and one Israeli Arab, perform their biting lyrics, do so now. Literally, stop reading this and watch their video.)

I removed myself from all social media years ago, and as such have not been directly exposed to any of the banal absurdity of online diatribes, but the conversations, the frustration, and the anxiety spill over into conversations on Shabbat, at the supermarket, and even in meetings at my kids’ school.

The buzz of contention began during the most recent violent hostilities between Israel and Hamas, on May 18th when town board member and incumbent Democratic primary candidate Robin Wilt posted a picture of herself with Linda Sarsour and the words “Those who know who she is, know what this post means. It’s Day 8 of this conflict,” followed by the insidious and inflammatory “#FreePalestine,” implying a Levantine Palestine free of Jewish influence.

Since that post, the backlash and counter backlash online has ebbed into communal seething. This invasion of internet bickering into the real world has forced me to reckon alongside those on virtual soapboxes, and I began to consider: what do we mean when we talk about Zionism?  How can one group connect itself through this term to two thousand years of yearning and hope by a dispossessed people to return to their ancestral homeland while another group reifies the term into oppression incarnate?

I begin my interrogation of Zionism with the words of the dispossessed themselves, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. In a stirring passage near the beginning of the book, Isaiah (Isaiah 2:2-4) envisions a future in which the diaspora resolves, Jerusalem rises, and the nations of the world ascend to her to marvel and study.

It will be at the end of days, the mountain of the House of the Lord will be established, rising above the hills, and all peoples will stream to it.  Many nations will go and say, ‘Come, let us ascend to the Mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us His ways and we will walk His paths.’ For from Zion comes for Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

In Isaiah’s vision for Zion, she becomes the future epicenter for cultural edification.  What will the peoples of the world learn from Zion?  Peace.

He will adjudicate between the peoples and administer justice to the great nations, and they will beat their swords into the plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will no longer raise sword against nation, nor will they any longer learn war.

With Isaiah’s vision in mind – Zion as the epicenter of a pre-emptive justice whose mechanism is peaceful coexistence with direct Divine arbitration – we must wonder, how could the people have been exiled in the first place?  Isaiah answers this in poignant poetry (Isaiah 5:1-7): God prepared Jerusalem with heightened expectation like one who plants a vineyard and builds a wine press.  When the vineyard produced rotten grapes, in His disappointment He tore down the wall and allowed the vineyard to be ravaged and wild,

For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel and the Men of Judah are the saplings of his rejoicing.  He had hoped for justice (משפט) but behold there was cruelty (משפח), for righteousness (צדקה) but there was wailing (צעקה).

The nation of the Torah cannot retain its footing in the land when it fails in the basic elements of justice.  Zionism is the constant search for a return to a homeland with the knowledge that its fruition depends on steadfast justice, whose parameters enjoin us to (Ps 82:2-4) “Bring the case of the wretched and the orphan, vindicate the pauper and the downtrodden.  Rescue the wretched and the needy, and save them from the oppressor.”  Zionism contains the duality of hope (return) and shame (failure), and thus requires a dual rectification — the returning of the diasporic Jewish people to their homeland but only as a means of enacting social reforms which lead to justice for the vulnerable and vindication of the rights of the historically oppressed.  Bound up in the nature of diaspora, embedded in a religious Zionist aspiration, we discover the conviction that our ancestor’s failures and our contemporary sin prevent Divine acquiescence to achieving the hoped for return.  Thus, without the establishment of a just administration, actualizing the hope for return is mere political ascension without the spiritual force of revolution — empty and unholy.   Again we turn to Isaiah (Isaiah 1:11-17):

What need have I for your many sacrifices, says the Lord, I am full from burnt rams, the fat of goatlings, the blood of bulls and lambs, in these goats I take no pleasure…When you lift up your hands, I will hide my eyes.  Though you offer multitudinous prayer, I will not listen for your hands are covered in blood.  Wash, scour and remove your evil deeds from before Me.  Cease doing evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice, abet the wronged, bring the case of the orphan, defend the widow.

While the prophetic verse implies a metaphorical washing of sin from one’s hands, the Torah mandates an actual ceremonial washing hands from sin.  One of the most astounding mitzvot is that of the egla arufa—the calf slaughtered by the city leaders as a penance when a corpse is found in the fields outside their city.  In a striking ceremony, the city elders, after killing the animal, literally wash their hands and make a declaration of innocence.  Though a human body was found near their village, they declare, “We did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see.  Absolve your people Israel whom You have redeemed, oh Lord, and do not penalize Your people for this innocent blood” (Deut. 21:7-8).  In two places in Mesekhet Soṭa, our sages provide marvelous insight into this mitzva.   The Mishna explains the reason that we no longer practice this mitzva, stating, “When murderers abounded, egla arufa was nullified” (mSoṭa 9:9).  The gemara quotes a tosefta which explains that egla arufa only expiates when the etiology of the death is in doubt, but when murder abounds and murderers are open about their business, we can find no atonement in the ceremony (bSoṭa 47b).

Here our sages teach us another valuable lesson: we do not tolerate cynical proclamations of innocence by leaders of an unjust society.  Certainly, when a body is found and there are no witness to the murder, the town elders could, and seemingly, ought to perform the ceremony as described in the verse.  Yet our sages declared that in a time when murderers’ crimes are known but un-repented and unaddressed, egla arufa has been nullified ipso facto in that place and that time.  For egla arufa to bear spiritual meaning, murder must be a horrifyingly unexpected event.  In a society in which murder is banal and murderers fear no justice, while the particular death has not been claimed, the communal failure to confront violence in its midst nullifies the power of the act of washing away the sin of negligence.

Culpability for egla arufa originates not simply from cold-blooded murder but from cold-hearted failures in the social safety net.  In a discussion of the merits of generosity and the social ills of greed, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi declares that we require the mitzva of egla arufa only due to greed (bSoṭa 38b). Rabbi Yehoshua wonders why the town leaders must declare, “We did not spill this blood.”  Do we truly imagine that anyone would actually accuse the leaders themselves of murder? Rather the fact that a dead person was found in the town’s vicinity, he argues, implicates the towns leadership in their failure to provide sustenance and protection to a vulnerable passerby. In Rabbi Yehoshua’s reformulation, the elders declare, “He did not come to us, and we did not send him off without food or without an escort.” Here our sages expand our understanding of the expiated guilt.  They offer testimony that they did not personally fail to provide him with necessities, as he did not approach them to ask for such.  Yet simultaneously his death implicates a social failure to provide and a communal greed which lead to death, and thus atonement is demanded.  This passage expands the horizon of social responsibility—failure of our leadership to cultivate a society which provides basic necessities leaves them culpable as if there were murder in their midst!

Combining these two passages leads us to understand the depths of rabbinic dreams of social justice.  Egla arufa is nullified, and thus the Torah cannot be entirely fulfilled in any society in which we cannot earnestly demand from our leaders that they testify to their naiveté about oppression, poverty, and need.  When these social ills are rampant, and thus death due to greed occurs with regularity, egla arufa becomes a cynical ceremony devoid of holiness.  In such a society the Torah cannot find completion.

It is in this vein that we must evaluate whichever society in which we reside.  We cannot abide leaders or colleagues who metaphorically wash their hands of entrenched social problems.  Such cynicism eviscerates holiness, for we know from the lesson of egla arufa that we attain no expiation without confronting all ingrained threats to the vulnerable.   For those of use living in America, we cannot allow shame or hope to blind us to the oppression of our minority neighbors be they Black, Latinx, or Native.  Our society, due to historical oppression, allows median black household income to be $40,000, Latinx household income to be $50,000 while it is $68,000 for white Americans.  To seek distributive justice, we must confront both shame and apathy.  Similarly, for those of us who live in or love Israel, we cannot allow pride or anger to hide the suffering of Arab Israeli’s or Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank.  We cannot only point our fingers at Fatah and Hamas, whose policies absolutely contribute to the misery of the people they seek to serve; we must overcome anger and pride to be introspective about Israel’s policies that contribute to this suffering.

Zionism, like every other aspect of Jewish culture, has not remained fixed and unchanged over two thousand years.  Isaiah’s dream holds true, but Zionism has grown. Hundreds of generations of diaspora and a heritage of violent pogroms, crusades, and inquisitions culminating in the conflagration of European Jewry delivered to my generation a two word slogan — “Never again” — with irreconcilably opposing valences of meaning.  To some, these words inspire acts of courageous kindness and revolutionary work against oppression and genocide in the spirit of the of repeated divine admonition against oppressing foreigners, “for you were once a foreigner in a land not your own.” Others find parochial meaning, ensuring that “Never again shall we be victims of violence.”  For this group, national security motivates militant Zionism.  It is in the combined spirit of both interpretations that I support  Black Lives Matter (BLM).  BLM, like the early Zionist thinkers, seeks to build support from within for a group that was forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland, and forced into centuries of subjugation on a distant and foreign soil.  Derrick Bell, legal scholar and Critical Race Theorist, reminds us of  “essentials in the baggage of people subordinated by color in a land that boasts individual freedom and equality…involvement in protests, belief in freedom symbols…yearning for a true homeland…[and] the temptation to violent retaliation.”  These “essentials” sound familiar to diaspora Jews, dispossessed Palestinians and African American’s alike, though the actualization of these themes finds different political and spiritual expression in each group.  Unlike the Jewish people whose experience in the Holocaust bequeathed us with international recognition and the slogan of “Never Again,”  Black Americans have been promised not compensation or justice, but basic equality through legislative acts of Civil Rights which have been passed into law but incompletely realized in daily life.

Supporting the causes of others does not imply agreeing with all of their positions or demands.  I can simultaneously love Israel and hope for the realization of the Zionism of justice within her borders which includes defending the civil rights of all residents of the land, while recognizing that the call for a Free Palestine from the river to the sea is an existential threat to the very life of my own people.  “Never Again,” like Zionism itself, carries the duality of external and internal implications — we stand up for the rights to life and liberty of all, including ourselves, and these rights must be defended with the force of law and just administration.  Similarly I can support Robin Wilt’s progressive values which often coalesce with my own, and can support her position in our community as a Black woman taking a leadership role in a predominantly middle to upper-class suburb , while rejecting her identification of Zionism with colonialism (can a people colonize it’s own ancestral homeland?).

The modern State of Israel and the United States of America were both birthed from dreams, but the dreams have not been equally shared by all citizens and residents of these great countries.  All dreams provide but one glimpse into the reality of realization.  American liberty for European colonizers was founded on the genocide of Native Peoples and the enslavement of African Peoples.  To achieve the superlative dream of equality and liberty we must address both the history and the present forms of inequity and injustice.  The dream of Zionism remains unfulfilled without revolutionary justice which seeks to upend oppression both within—the orphan, the widow and poor—and without—the foreigner living amongst you.  We must know that the historic realization of the Jewish dream for sovereignty in our ancestral homeland simultaneously implied our encroachment on the ongoing lives of Arab inhabitants of the land.  Just as our great teacher Moshe declared (Deut. 4:34),

Never before has God attempted to take one people to Himself from the midst of another, with signs, trials and wonders, and with war, a strong hand and an outstretched arm and with great visions, as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes.

So too, never before has God attempted to integrate one people peaceably into another, through wonders, through war, and ultimately, we pray, through our fulfillment of the Torah’s ideals of a just society, with the Jewish nation achieving its own aspiration to cultivate its historical memory of oppression to bring restitution and salve to all peoples within the borders of its land, living not simply in defense of our lives, but of our values.

About the Author
Rabbi Shalom Schlagman MD is currently completing fellowship training in Hospice and Palliative Medicine at the University of Rochester. He lives in Rochester, NY with his wife and three children.
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