“Zionism not only imprisons Palestinian bodies, but Jewish minds as well,” writes Ned Rosch in “Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation.”
The beautifully edited book by Carolyn Karcher, is a collection of 40 autobiographical narratives by Jewish American activists and scholars, who not only separated Zionism from Judaism in their lives but have made it their goal to openly oppose Zionism as an ideology.
In the modern world where questioning Zionism, Israel’s national ideology, or criticizing Israel’s domestic and foreign policies are tantamount to anti-Semitism, the book is bound to be provocative and controversial, if not outright ignominious, among many Jews and those who have an opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, if readers approach the book without preconceived notions and partiality, they will discover the intimate, agonizing, inspiring, tragic, triumphant, illuminating, and infinitely brave stories of spiritual and political transformation of 40 extraordinary people from various backgrounds.
What makes the stories so compelling is that they are all based on deeply personal experiences and introspections about the spirituality and morality of faith (Judaism) and ideology (Zionism). Otherwise, their transformations and subsequent passionate embrace of activism would have been impossible. All forty stories walk the reader through profound individual evolutions from embracing and never questioning Zionism to a visceral rejection of it after witnessing manipulated narratives, outright propaganda, erasure of Palestinian history and identity, and the Israeli government’s deliberate and systematic policy of ethnic cleansing and brutalization of the Palestinian people.
As many authors poignantly point out, there is no complex conflict between Israel and Palestinians, but a system of oppression by a powerful military aimed at controlling, marginalizing, and denying the existence of the Palestinian people.
Because marginalization of the “other” and exclusive privileges of some are at the core of all nationalistic ideologies, the moral clarity distilled from witnessing inequality, racism, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians and Misrahi (oriental) Jews in Israel has dismantled the Zionist myth of virtue and ethics.
The glaring injustice forced many Jews to put themselves on the line by taking a stand in solidarity with Palestinians, writing about their positions against Israel’s policies, and joining the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel at the expense of being shunned by their own families and banned from entering Israel.
BDS is a campaign to promote various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law. The question is not why some Jews suddenly started voicing their opposition to Israeli policies and Zionism, but how could they not after what they had witnessed in Israel and Palestine?
The question is not why some Jews suddenly started voicing their opposition to Israeli policies and Zionism, but how could they not after what they had witnessed in Israel and Palestine?
Intifadas — Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation — opened the eyes of Rabbi Linda Holtzman after she saw “the arrests of boys throwing rocks not as the army doing the job it needed to keep people safe but as one of the most powerful armed forces in the world reacting harshly and cruelly to children.” The myth of the Israeli military being gentle, moral, and ethical, as taught by her parents, was shattered after she saw the reality on the ground.
Ilise Benshushan Cohen’s experience of being marginalized as a Sephardic Jew in a majority-Ashkenazi Jewish community in Israel and being told by her cousin that she hoped her young sons would grow up to shoot all the Palestinians—as if they were responsible for the Holocaust, forced her to question her identity as a Jew and take a stand against Zionism and any other form of nationalism.
Marginalization and discrimination of Sephardic, Yemenite, Ethiopian, and other Jews of color in Israel exposed the illusion of democracy to non-Ashkenazi Jews, some of whom began to proudly and vocally embrace their Misrahi Jewish heritage and to speak up against the Euro-Zionist ideology.
Cecilie Surasky realized that prejudice, discrimination, and a physical wall separating Palestinians from Israel have kept Israelis from seeing the beautiful world in Ramallah, let alone enjoying and learning from it. Protesting the wall and becoming close to Palestinian families in Israel and Palestine have led Charlie Wood to experience firsthand the brutalization of Palestinian homeowners and their forced dispossession, as well as his own beating and jail sentencing for standing up for Palestinian rights.
Carolyn Karcher’s life-changing trip to Israel forced her to question the Israeli government’s narrative of being under attack from Palestinians when it has systematically dragged children, some as young as six, from their beds to interrogate or imprison them without so much as providing a reason. According to Karcher, hundreds of Palestinian children “spend an average of five and a half months in prison.” And, adding insult to injury, the Israeli government forces their parents to pay for the incarceration. It also callously prolongs children’s imprisonment if their families are unable to pay the bill.
The message of these and many other powerful personal stories shared in the book is clear – Zionism is morally bankrupt.
The message of these and many other powerful personal stories shared in the book is clear – Zionism is morally bankrupt. According to all 40 authors, Zionism should not be conflated with Judaism. In fact, they argue that Judaism should be reclaimed from Zionism because they are inherently in opposition with each other. Judaism preaches loving the stranger, pursuing justice, and healing the world. Zionism excludes not only Palestinians, but also many Jews in Israel.
Judaism preaches loving the stranger, pursuing justice, and healing the world. Zionism excludes not only Palestinians, but also many Jews in Israel.
As an ideology aimed at creating a Jewish country, Zionism also shuns Jews in the Diaspora under the notion of Shlilat Hagalut (Negation of the Diaspora), yet, Diaspora Jews make up the majority of Jews in the world. Under Zionism, justice is denied to non-Jews, and the world is increasingly broken under the oppression and discrimination perpetrated in the name of Zionism.
While it is hard to criticize Zionism in Israel, Diaspora Jews are embracing a Jewish identity that is transnational, multi-cultural, and more globally connected, which goes against the nationalist position of Zionism. But most remarkably, Diaspora Jews are starting to boldly reclaim Judaism from Zionism and differentiate anti-Semitism from moral criticism of the Israeli government’s policies. Some Jews are even making the treatment of the Palestinian people in the hands of the Israeli government as a civil rights issue for modern younger Jews, as Alice Rothchild writes.
These Jews want to live in an inclusive world built on justice, equality, and peaceful coexistence. It is admirable and humbling to see that many Jewish Americans are not only taking a stand against the injustice in Israel and Palestine, but also pushing to own it as part of Jewish history.
Re-examining and separating the ethical values of religion and the toxicity of a nationalist ideology has become imperative.
Re-examining and separating the ethical values of religion and the toxicity of a nationalist ideology has become imperative for many Jews, as perfectly characterized in “Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation.”
In truth, the book is not only important for Jews. It is a moral guide to all of us – Jews and non-Jews alike – to see the decades-long injustice in Israel and Palestine for what it is, to examine our own moral compass, and take a stand, no matter how controversial or scary it may be.
We can all learn from these courageous Jewish American activists and scholars.