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Working to Answer Tough Questions About Liberal Zionism Today

Working to Answer Tough Questions About Liberal Zionism Today

Small child holding an Israeli flag being carried on his father's shoulders

Jewish tradition is filled with questions.  

Scouring the Garden of Eden, God called out to the primeval Earthling: “Where are you?” 

Abraham brazenly challenged God: “But if there are 50 righteous people, will You still destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?”  

In Isaiah’s transcendent vision of a prophet’s being summoned to Divine service, God demands: “Who will go for us?”  

Hillel forces an immediacy to his moral imperatives by saying: “And if not now, then when?” 

And in the Haggadah, the troubled child asks: “But what does all of this have to do with me?”

This is the eighth and final blog post dealing with essays contained in the forthcoming publication, Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish Americans and Israelis envision the Jewish-Democratic State (Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Rabbi John Rosove (ed), CCAR Press, New York 2020).

Through these essays, readers have been introduced to the thinking of some of the most significant proponents of a powerful new “Social Justice Zionism” as they each considered the core values of classical Zionism as contained within Israel’s M’gillat HaAtzmaut, its Declaration of Independence, and asked the most daunting Zionist question of our day: Has Israel in 2019 fulfilled the dream that the Third Jewish Commonwealth would become both a Jewish and a democratic state? 

Rabbi Rachel Adler, Hadeel Azzam-Jalajel, Dr. Ruth Calderon, Dr. Ruth Gavison, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Rabbi Levi Kelman, Tzachi Mezuman, Rabbi Uri Regev, Rabbi John Rosove, Rabbi Noa Sattath, Rabbi Judith Schindler, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, Rabbi Eric Yoffie and today, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, have not only been our teachers and analysts; they all are highly skilled activists who want to move liberal Zionism into a new era of Israel engagement. They want to start making a difference in the current troubling situation – now, and not just later.

At times sharply differing with each other, our authors still share some powerful and transformative language. They speak of partnership – full and equal partnership – between Israelis and American Jews. They draw upon the image of a two-way bridge being constructed between the world’s two greatest Jewish communities, a bridge over which ideas could easily flow, a bridge that permits liberal Zionists in both communities to leave their comfort zones and encounter their future partners; a bridge that proclaims that both communities must find ways to become better educated about the other. In other words, a bridge whose very pilings are constructed from an unshakeable commitment to a united and thriving global Jewish future.

Can a state ever truly be faithful to both its Jewish and democratic origins at the same time? Can Israel expect to remain a Jewish state if and when the coercive power of the official rabbinic bureaucracy is severed from its connection to and feeding upon the political apparatus of the state? Can a state ever be legitimate in its self-description as Jewish and democratic if racism, gender discrimination, and massive economic disparities are permitted to demonize, delegitimize, and isolate targeted sections of the population? Can a state ever be legitimate in its self-description as democratic if 20 percent of its citizenry considers themselves as not possessing the rights of the other 80 percent?

In his essay, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, answers perhaps the most significant question of all: How did we get here?  

It is hardly a mystery how we got to a moment calling for a book such as this: an illiberal Israeli government in power for more than a decade tolerated and emboldened the illiberal segment of Israeli society. Intolerance, whether in the civic or religious sphere, violates the core values and principles of most American Jews.

Proudly pointing to the ever-increasing efforts of the Union for Reform Judaism to deepen its ties with Israel, Jacobs nevertheless underscores his conviction that very little can be done to build a bridge of mutual understanding between American and Israeli Jews as long as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues. Of course, Israel’s security needs take the very highest priority. Of course, the responsibility for the current impasse rests heavily upon the Palestinian leadership – heavily, but far from solely. And that impasse is toxic; it poisons the waters of reconciliation between Israeli and Diaspora Jews; it dulls the Zionist commitments of millennials; it muddies the understanding about what benefits a liberal Social Justice Zionism can bring to our people and to our world.  

For Jacobs, the newly emerging form of liberal Zionism must be marked by lovingkindness (chesed), justice (tzedek), and equality (shivyon).

Gilad Kariv, CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), helps us see the powerful achievements and the startling potential of a strong, healthy Reform Movement in Israel. If you will, the IMPJ is the “boots on the ground” for a Jewish and democratic state. More and more Israeli Reform rabbis are being ordained. More and more Reform institutions are being organized.

The advent of a large Israeli public that sees in Reform Judaism a leading expression of their Jewish identity and the natural address for transformative Jewish experiences creates a real opportunity for a Zionism and Jewish Peoplehood based on interpersonal connections and relations.

Indeed, there are so many questions. This landmark volume will provide not only thoughtful responses, but also action plans that will help us launch Social Justice Zionism: the legitimate and potent expression of how liberal Jews today can actively partner with Israelis to build a brilliant Jewish future.

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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
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Rabbi Rick Jacobs on stage at the URJ Biennial
Dec 12, 2019|Rabbi Rick Jacobs
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