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This Time We're Going To Do Zionism Differently

This Time We're Going To Do Zionism Differently

Israeli flag against blue sky, next to rocks

Colonialism can find expression in many different ways, none of them pretty. The word itself conjures up painful images of economic, political, and/or military domination by external forces. Who would wear the label “colonial power” with pride in the 21st century?

But what about cultural colonialism?

Google defines cultural colonialism as “the desire of wealthy nations to control other nations’ values….” Too many of us have been practicing the dark art of cultural colonialism when addressing the State of Israel.

For many years, it has been the practice of leading American Jewish social activists, many of whom are also committed Zionists, to seek to critique and then to modify from the outside the domestic cultural values of the State of Israel. Their assumptions are overt: Our American form of democracy is the best for everyone else; Our form of church/state interactions is the superior approach; Our pattern of elections and governance, though far from perfect, deserves to be emulated by all other nations. Therefore, we need to save Israel from itself.

This practice is a prime example of cultural colonialism.

Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Judith Schindler, Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, NC, in the forthcoming book, Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish Americans and Israelis Envision the Jewish-Democratic State (New York: CCAR Press, 2020), call upon us to work together, Israelis and Americans, as equal partners in an active, loving, and trusting collaboration to help understand and then to effect change in Israeli culture from within Israel in a manner first described in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Doing so would strengthen Israel’s identity as a Jewish and a democratic state. 

Rabbi Sattath first notes the rise of anti-democratic trends across the world, trends that have, over the past decade, found strong resonance within Israeli society. Sattath asserts that the Israeli right too often works today to build a racist, illiberal Israel, and that it is doing so with the generous support of many within the North American Jewish community. The pro-liberal forces within Israel are finding that their American counterparts – unlike the counterparts of the Israeli right – are pulling back, withdrawing from the cultural field of battle.

Israel’s public diplomacy (hasbarah) claims that Israel can do no wrong, that the IDF is the world’s most moral army, and that the failure of achieving a two-state solution should be placed solely and directly at the door of the Palestinian Authority.

Almost in response to such public diplomacy, more and more young American Reform Jews are willing to buy into a narrative that almost exclusively faults Israeli “oppression” for Israel’s current moral and political challenges, and they therefore are willing to embrace the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) or even a total abandonment of Israel as appropriate or necessary responses.

There is another path, however.

The authors propose a social justice partnership between North American Jewry and Israelis that acknowledges the moral challenges confronting Israel while fully embracing a commitment to try to understand the complex nuances of Israeli culture and then to labor to implement structural and institutional solutions from within Israel itself.

Rabbi Schindler acknowledges the dramatic growth of anti-Zionism in America. The arguments against Israel are far too often decontextualized and thus are expressed as blatant anti-Semitism with little nuanced understanding of Israeli culture. And in Israel itself, to compound matters, the denial of full rights and dignity to Palestinians, both in Israel and the Occupied Territories, is often twinned with the demonization of liberal Judaism. Liberal Jews are portrayed as irrelevant to Israel’s future as they themselves are seen to represent no less than a fast track to our people’s disappearance from the pages of history.

Rabbi Schindler embraces Rabbi Sattath’s view that we need a new narrative, one that both acknowledges a moral crisis and advocates for engagement to create change.

The authors then in partnership lay out a dramatic Ladder of Social Justice as a template for social change within Israel. Moving from “Relationship Building” through “Educating,” “Advocating,” and other steps they reach toward the target of joining and energizing a grassroots movement dedicated to social change.

Planning, exploring, thinking together, both authors have evolved a new approach to Zionism, one they call “Social Justice Zionism (Tzionut Zedek),” a social change force that clearly can be understood and embraced by both social activist Israelis and social activist (especially young) American Jews.

We are told that “Israeli progressives yearn to hear American progressive voices that do not condemn but reach out in partnership.”  And we know that American progressive Jews would be strongly attracted to a Zionism that openly and compellingly embraces social justice values.

This time we are going to do Zionism differently, very differently.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, D.D., was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, GA. A member of the Board of Overseers of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and an honorary life member of NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth organization, he previously held leadership posts with the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the World Zionist Organization. He is a past international president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids

Published: 9/24/2019

Categories: Jewish Life, Israel, History, History of Zionism, Living in Israel
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