I am a progressive rabbi. I believe God stands with the oppressed not the oppressor, and so my faith commits me to ease human suffering. I believe God tempers judgement with compassion, and so I construct my rabbinate to support people through life’s struggles. Even so, my Judaism proclaims a distinction between right and wrong, and calls me to uphold and teach it.
As a composite of political, religious, and educational movements, American progressivism emerged at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries in response to an industrial boom benefiting a relative few, leaving the poor and the working class behind. As a political ideology, progressivism championed equity and shared responsibility to the collective good.
The social gospel of religious progressives preached every human being as created in the divine image and brought faith’s teachings to bear on society’s pressing needs through a commitment to social justice. Progressive educators similarly prioritized the application of knowledge to lived experience.
Thus progressivism inspired in politics, religion and education alike greater attention to society’s vulnerable, and focused theory and principle on real-world problems. I have always been proud to call myself progressive.
But progressivism has suffered a breakdown over Israel and Jews. Though originally a sophisticated ideology grounded in the philosophies of John Dewey and Walter Rauschenbusch among others, many adherents today view progressivism as the facile sorting of peoples and nations into two boxes: oppressor or oppressed. And many of them place Israel and Jews in the first.
Natan Sharansky, a former refusenik who understands oppression well, recently noted: “Above all, because progressives see Israel as an oppressor and Jews as members of the privileged class, they believe that we are necessarily on the wrong side of history.”
Like all nations, Israel is imperfect. I do not deny the injustice of its settlements on lands that should one day belong to a Palestinian state, or the hardships and suffering of the Palestinian people. I have travelled into the West Bank to shield Palestinian olive growers from Israeli settlers who sought to chop down their trees. I mourn the deaths of so many innocents in Gaza killed by the IDF. And I know that Israel’s 1948 War of Independence resulted in the expulsion of many Palestinians from their homes. But history is more than those snapshots. Israel did not start that war, and ever since has spent its existence fighting for survival. It should not be labeled an aggressor just because it exercises the power to fight back.
As for Jews being privileged, despite a legacy of discrimination and exclusion from education, business, housing, and other opportunities, the Jewish community today enjoys success in every field of endeavor. And many Jews have achieved enviable financial security. But it is also true that one in three Holocaust survivors live in poverty and one in four American Jews struggle to make ends meet. And since when is it a privilege to fear for one’s physical safety, or to fear wearing a head covering or Star of David in public? Jewish institutions invest millions of dollars in security that Christian institutions fortunately need not. Where is the progressive critique of this inequity?
Ironically, progressivism’s Israel-Jewish problem is manifest in certain Jewish organizations opposed to Israel’s efforts to incapacitate Hamas. By prioritizing Israel’s responsibility to protect innocent Palestinians over its responsibility to protect innocent Israelis, they deny Israel’s government the right to fulfill its most basic duty to its own people’s safety. Israel must do all it can to shield noncombatants in harm’s way. But to dismiss Israel’s need to defend its land and people is immoral. The Hamas threat renders a large swath of a small country uninhabitable. What other nation would tolerate on its border a terrorist regime committed to its destruction? What other nation would be asked to?
On campus and in the academy, progressivism’s educational failures around Israel and Jews have long been evident. Many students, who consider themselves progressive, arrive at college knowing little Mideast history. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict becomes, for them, a spectator sport for which to choose a side. To the apparent underdog they give their sympathy and support. Further, Israel’s campus detractors often conflate the conflict with other liberation struggles, implicating Israel’s supporters in those societal injustices, excluding Jews from efforts to address them.
Inside the lecture halls, too, intellectual dishonesty and political motivations often have colored the teaching of history. Israel has been judged by double standards, demonized as a purely colonial enterprise, and delegitimized as the historic homeland of the Jewish people whose presence there stretches back at least three thousand years.
Even before October 7, a concern existed at many colleges and universities for the safety of Jewish students. We already knew that a hateful obsession with Israel often descends into hatred of Jews.
But what we have witnessed since that day is shocking and alarming: not just the defense of Hamas as freedom fighters, but a rejoicing in their atrocities and a rallying to their side, with hateful rhetoric defended on the grounds of free speech and free academic inquiry, as if the intimidation and fear felt by Jews did not undermine those very freedoms.
The testimony of the Presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania culminated two months of repeated failures by university leadership around the country to differentiate right from wrong with the safety of their own students at stake. To hem and haw about First Amendment nuance without first acknowledging the perils of a call for genocide is not just tone-deaf; it is negligent.
It also betrays a failure of many diversity, equity and inclusion programs to treat anti-Jewish bias with the same seriousness as other biases. Because Jews are perceived as privileged, we are often deemed beyond the reach of prejudice, and the attention rightly paid to microaggressions against other minorities is not paid to microaggressions against Jews.
Tension between particularism and universalism is common to most liberal religious faiths and denominations. Religious progressives, like me, believe their particular traditions should guide them to act for the betterment of all humanity. Nonetheless, as a Jew, I maintain the particularist right to defend myself and my people. And as a human being whose people are enduring hatred, intimidation, and violence, I expect other progressives to answer their universalist calling and extend to Jews and to Israel the same concern they rightly give to all peoples and nations who are oppressed.