Who has not seen the PLO flag-wearing Neturei Karta Jews at the Israel Day Parade or any other pro-Israel rally? For decades we either laughed, nodded, dismissed, or were enraged by the anomaly of Jews publicly taking sides against the Jewish state. Yet, at no point did we need to address anti-Zionism in our community as something serious.
That has all changed over the past year. No. It is not just Peter Beinart saying Kinot on Tisha Be’Av for Palestinians displaced in 1948. A growing number of young Jews who have gone to our day schools may sit next to you in shul or be sitting at your Shabbat table. They deserve a thoughtful response from all of us.
Young anti-Zionist Jews have a straightforward question: Why can’t we have Judaism without Zionism? Fair question. Why can’t we have a day school education with no “Hatikva,” synagogues without Israeli flags upfront, rabbis that are not busy leading AIPAC missions to DC or trips to Israel, Hillel on campus without speakers coming to defend Israel, young Jews going on trips that are not Birthright trips to Israel, and Shabbat dinners that are not all about Israel-related content?
In 2015 my wife and I began hosting Shabbat dinners. Since then, we have hosted more than 500 guests, most of whom we had never met previously. Most often, we did not know who our guests were until they walked through the door, nor did they know us. We had young Jews aspiring to become rabbis in Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College and JTS. We welcomed guests from all various professional backgrounds, orientations from different countries and even had some non-Jewish tourists who wanted to see what a New York Shabbat table looked like. We had guests from across the political spectrum, some of whom worked professionally for non-profits from CAIR to AIPAC, Zionists, anti-Zionists, often people who cared for neither option – all were welcome.
This kind of big-tent Judaism is one that I passionately believe in, one in which all are welcome, and we create a space that is welcoming to all. That is the kind of community structure we should have. All must be welcome – Zionist or not. If there is a Jew who happens to have the opinion that Jews don’t necessarily need to have a state of their own, they must remain a welcome part of our community.
The new wave of anti-Zionist Jews changed this all.
The new anti-Zionist Jews are not like members of the Satmar Hassidic community who hold the theological belief that Jews should not have a state of their own until a miraculous messianic era. The new anti-Zionist Jews are Jews who have decided to wage war against other Jews. They are Jews who advocate for economic boycotts of Israel, which will rob other Jews of their means of livelihood; they are Jews lobbying to limit weapons sales to Israel, choking the Jewish state’s ability to defend itself, they are Jews seeking to tilt public opinion against Israel and seeking to diplomatically isolate Israel. This is not about Israel being in the land of Israel with all of the historical and religious meanings that might have; this is about waging war against the largest Jewish community in the world. It is about taking an active role in seeking to harm other Jews.
Peter Beinart could have taken whatever position he wanted on what the meaning of Zionism is. Joining Ben and Jerry’s campaign to actively boycott other Jews, whether they live inside or outside the Green Line, in Uganda or Iran, crosses a red line. It is the kind of behavior we cannot contain as a community. This brings us to why it is that Zionism plays a role in our communities when not religiously mandated or inspired.
Two things that have always brought together Jews regardless of place or ideology have been the concept of arevut – a commitment to the well-being of fellow Jews – and a shared belief in the need to secure the future of the Jewish people. Jewish institutions in America did not just pop up. They were built with immense sacrifices.
I think of my grandfather Rabbi Bernard Poupko who miraculously fled the Soviet Union in the 1930s just to come and help build Hillel Day School and much of the Jewish communal structure in Pittsburgh, or of my friend and hero, Rabbi Joseph Polak, who survived the Holocaust to become the Rabbi of Hillel in Boston University and raise funds to build one of the most beautiful and successful Hillel Houses in North America. They sweated and bled because of their commitment to the Jewish people and our shared future.
PASSIONATE ANTI-ZIONIST Jews are entitled to their opinions, but factually speaking, they have prioritized the cause of Palestinian nationalism over that of their fellow Jews. You can agree with them or disagree with them, but the fact is that they have abdicated one cause for the other. They have chosen to harm their fellow Jews in favor of advancing the Palestinian cause. They are entitled to that position, but by doing so, they have taken the exit door to our shared peoplehood.
Inclusion of anti-Zionist Jews is not about Zionism; it is about our shared peoplehood. When Ben and Jerry’s announced they would be boycotting Jewish communities beyond the Green Line, New York State Senator Simcha Eichenstein and many other hassidic store owners were the first to condemn the policy and announce a counter-boycott on Ben and Jerry’s products. These hassidic Jews may have never been in the Israel Day Parade and likely never sang “Hatikva,” but they knew that an assault on one of us is an assault on all of us. They knew what was behind the singling out of the Jewish State and that it was not about Achad Ha’am or the occupation – it was about being Jewish.
Finally and very sadly, being an anti-Zionist Jew can no longer be defined by Jews alone. We have seen over this past year increasing incidents of Jewish communities being attacked under the guise of the “Free Palestine” movement. Synagogues were vandalized, Jews of all ideologies have been attacked, and Jewish students on campus have been intimidated. Whether we like it or not, many antisemites and racists use the Palestinian issue as an excuse to physically and verbally attack Jews. Consequentially, anyone lending a hand to the Free Palestine Movement is lending a hand to a movement used to target Jews wherever they are – and that is the crossing of a red line – aligning oneself with organizations and individuals that are harassing Jews on campus, beating hassidic Jews on the streets of New York, and stabbing rabbis in Boston.
With COVID restrictions I don’t know when we will be hosting large Shabbat meals again. While I do not believe we will be able to share a space with anti-Zionist Jews, I do think they deserve answers and explanations to the real questions they have. I hope this is the first of many.