At the recent J Street National Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., our President and CEO Jeremy Ben Ami addressed the conference and said, among other things:
“… regarding the relationship of Jewish America to an Israel mired in permanent occupation and increasingly undemocratic, J Street will be a home for those who believe that our community – for itself more than even for Israel – must root its identity not in commitment to a flag or a piece of land, but to a set of principles and values. If we do not, we will see large swathes of our community walk away not only from engagement with Israel – which is already happening – but from the Jewish community itself.” (For his complete remarks, see https://jstreet.org/an-indispensable-force-j-street-in-the-2020s/):
Jeremy expressed the shared worry of so many of us that the policies of the incoming and most extreme right-wing religious and nationalist government in Israel’s history will cause a rupture in the relationship of a large part of American liberal Jews with Israel.
In light of this threat I want to clarify what I believe are the deepest commitments of progressive Zionism of which J Street is a prominent part. It may seem to some that J Street’s emphasis on the liberal Jewish values of Tikun Olam (i.e. social justice) is at odds and in tension with the values of Klal-Yisrael tribalism, but I do not believe that is the case nor that these two commitments of the Jewish people conflict based upon the historic emphasis of Zionism relative to the ethical principles of equality, justice, compassion, and peace towards all peoples.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen S. Wise Free Synagogue in New York recently explained well the relationship between Judaism’s universal humanitarian values and Jewish tribal values on his Podcast “In These Times”:
“At no time in Jewish history was Tikun Olam, the universal demand to do what is just and right, ever ripped from the moorings of Klal Yisrael, the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. It was never one or another. Loyalty to the Jewish people absent concern for all the families of the earth is a distortion of Judaism. Tikun Olam, the repair of the world, divorced from Jewish peoplehood is not Jewish universalism, it’s just universalism.”
Though these two themes in Jewish history today feel strained in light of the extreme ultra-nationalist exclusionary politics of Israel’s right-wing government to-be, as a Progressive Zionist, I know I share with others in the progressive Zionist movement an unconditional love for Israel, and I reserve the right to be critical of policies that are contrary to the liberal American Jewish values upon which I was raised and are the basis of J Street’s political philosophy and principles.
Though we here in the Jewish Diaspora should not tell Israelis what to do, especially on matters of war, security, and peace as Israelis are the ones who must take the decisions they believe necessary and live with the consequences of those decisions. After all, we Diaspora Jews do not vote in Israeli elections, nor do we send our children to the army, nor pay Israeli taxes. Consequently, a certain humility is incumbent upon us. Still, we have the right to share our ideas with the leadership of the State of Israel even as we advocate for those liberal pro-Israel policies in the halls of the American government that we believe in and that we know, according to all polls, are shared by the vast majority of the American Jewish community and by hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Further, we have a right and duty to share our ideas because what Israel does has a direct impact on American Jewish identity, American Jewish pride, and American Jewish security as a minority population in the United States.
The Talmud is clear about the intimate character of our relationship as Jews to each other wherever we live: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All Israel is responsible one for another.” (Sota 37a)
There are many interpretations of Zionism from the far right to the far left that, for better and worse, are part of a large pro-Israel Zionist tent. As the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, Zionism is also a social justice movement. It is both a particular cause and a universal cause. As such, the Jewish people seeks not only our own national liberation, justice, and safety for our own people, but the liberation of and justice and safety for all peoples, including the Palestinians. Zionism’s social justice emphasis is the basis as well for the promotion of a more shared society with equal rights, justice, and privileges for Israeli-Jewish citizens and Israeli-Palestinian Arab citizens alike.
It is false dichotomy to separate Judaism’s universal humanitarian values from Judaism’s tribal values. The former grows from the latter and the latter embraces the former. The ancient prophets of Israel advocated for both just as both are articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. To separate them is a false dichotomy and is dangerous to the well-being and integrity of the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.
Note: J Street is a pro-Israel, pro-peace, and pro-democracy political organization in Washington, D.C. that advocates for liberal American Jewish values and for Israel’s security and well-being in the nation’s capital.