As younger non-Orthodox Jews increasingly grow wary of the American Jewish establishment’s unconditional support for Israel, fractures within the American Jewish community continue to deepen. Bitter disagreements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have developed in synagogues, Jewish federations and other American Jewish institutions. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are frequently caught in the middle, being forced to take positions and demonstrate leadership on these issues.
While the organized Jewish community is rather uniform in its support for Israel, Reconstructionist rabbis, as well as members of Reconstructionist congregations, tend to be more diverse regarding our politics on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ranging from support of AIPAC on the right to Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) on the left. While the majority of the movement’s rabbis and congregational members support a political platform best represented by J Street, the presence of Reconstructionist rabbis and congregational members on the left is notable, especially because the other movements tend to skew more center and right.
This essay explores why a disproportionate number of Reconstructionist rabbis have found a political home on the left, demonstrated by their involvement in the Palestinian solidarity movement and affiliation with JVP. It also addresses why rabbis who are aligned with this movement will choose solidarity with Palestinians over support for ethnic solidarity (which in the Jewish community is expressed as support for Israel as a Jewish state).
Reconstructionist Rabbis’ Embrace of Palestinian Solidarity
While only about 10 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis embrace the Palestinian solidarity movement, most rabbis who identify with the Palestinian solidarity movement are Reconstructionist.
To explore whether Reconstructionist ideology explains this phenomenon, we can turn to Rabbi David Teutsch’s essay “A History of Reconstructionist Zionism.” He writes that Reconstructionist positions on Zionism have been strikingly uniform over the past 80 years. Kaplan believed that Jewish life would normalize and Jewish culture would thrive in a majority Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionism, therefore, was central to the future of the Jewish people. Additionally, Teutsch writes,
From its earliest days Reconstructionist Zionism has been committed not just to establishing a Jewish homeland but to developing a Jewish homeland characterized by the fulfillment of the Jewish tradition’s vision of social justice, which in the Reconstructionist understanding includes equality for all citizens, peace with its neighbors and care for the needs of the less fortunate.
His essay places non-Zionist Reconstructionist rabbis outside of majority Reconstructionist thinking on Zionism. While that may be true, it is also worth examining Rabbi Rebecca Alpert’s understanding of Kaplan’s vision of the evolving nature of Jewish life. In her essay, “Reconstructionism Without Zionism,” she writes that Kaplan saw the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as part of a larger project of reconceptualizing nationalism as ethical nationhood. While Kaplan’s vision of the Jewish people and Jewish culture thriving alongside other peoples and cultures resonates for her, the reality is in sharp contrast with the vision. She writes,
Zionism that is defined by support for the State of Israel (even when the support claims to be progressive and includes a call for the occupation to end and a commitment to a two-state solution) is not ethical nationhood. It can’t be transvalued while Israel continues to oppress the Palestinian population.
These conversations about Reconstructionism and Zionism are important, but they only get us so far in understanding why so many rabbis in the Palestinian solidarity movement are Reconstructionists. Instead, I would like to focus on who decides to become a Reconstructionist rabbi and what kind of education rabbinical students receive at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC).
Jews who grew up in the Reform or Conservative movements who were largely satisfied with their religious upbringing will most likely attend the rabbinical schools of these movements. The majority of these students grew up within their movements and attend these schools because they want to promote the ideas of their movements. They are less likely to bring with them a commitment to challenging Jewish practice, ideology and community.
Conversely, RRC overwhelmingly attracts a different type of student. Most RRC students were not raised in the Reconstructionist movement; therefore, deciding to attend this rabbinical institution requires them to question key elements of their Jewish upbringing, ask difficult questions and seek a different path for their rabbinates. This usually means that they are more inclined to think in creative and unconventional ways, and outside the norms of the mainstream American Jewish community. Deciding to affiliate with a different movement is a risk, and the people who do it are often drawn to RRC for more ideological reasons.[fn]Hebrew College has a similar student body, and some Hebrew College graduates have become involved in the Palestinian solidarity movement as well.[/fn]
Not only is the student body at RRC highly creative and open to considering a wide range of thought, but RRC actively encourages its students to engage in critical thinking and self-reflection. Faculty members expect their students to identify and challenge problematic assumptions, ideas and practices in Judaism and in the Jewish community when studying Jewish history and texts, as well as in developing new rituals and reconstructing old ones.
The combination of the particular students who attend RRC and the education they receive at the institution makes graduates of RRC uniquely suited to developing a comprehensive critique on Israel and Zionism, and to write, speak and organize on these issues. This follows a tradition of RRC students and graduates embracing other difficult issues, such as promoting feminism, fighting for LGBT rights and questioning gender norms. The significant difference with Israel and Zionism, however, is that while there was (and to a lesser extent still is) pushback from the larger Jewish community on feminism, LGBT rights and gender diversity, it was not nearly as well-organized, well-funded and acrimonious as it is when Jews challenge Israel and Zionism.
The Reconstructionist movement prizes intellectual engagement not only of its rabbis, but also of its lay members. This tends to lead to a more complex discourse in Reconstructionist congregations. At the congregation where I work, for example, my congregants expect that I will challenge them and debate with them. Our vision statement specifically champions this sort of dialogue as necessary to creating vibrant community.
My own story illustrates the trajectory of moving from Reform to Reconstructionist Judaism, slowly questioning Zionism and ultimately embracing Palestinian rights. I grew up very active in the Reform movement, but found congregational life stifling and lacking in creativity and intellectual engagement. When I was in college, I learned about Reconstructionism, and I made the difficult decision to apply to and then attend RRC. I was seeking something different from how I was raised, and I saw Reconstructionism as a unique means of creating a more dynamic form of Judaism and Jewish community.
I applied to RRC in my senior year of college, and I devoted much of my RRC application to discussing my commitment to Zionism and Jewish peoplehood. I had spent my junior year in Israel and was passionately committed to Israel. I wanted to be a rabbi largely because of the experiences I had that year.
While a student at RRC, I spent another year in Israel. This year was markedly different. My experiences as a rabbinic intern at Rabbis for Human Rights opened my eyes to the disaster of Oslo with its overwhelming settlement building and Palestinian home demolitions. I also spent a day in Gaza sight-seeing with a Palestinian tour company. Our tour guide took us to an amusement park, the beach, a beekeeping warehouse, archeological ruins, a café, a purse shop and a refugee camp. In the refugee camp, we sat with a Palestinian family in a tiny room where nine people lived in utter squalor. This was before three wars pounded Gaza to rubble, destroying its economy, water supply and civil society. That day in Gaza changed me forever. A month after I returned from Israel in 2000, the second intifada erupted. That was my moment of awakening, when I experienced a crisis between the uncritical Zionism I had been taught my entire life and what I had seen in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
I credit the RRC faculty for encouraging me to delve into the history and politics of the region. While my professors overwhelmingly disagreed with my thinking, they taught me how to ask challenging questions, analyze academic arguments and explore divergent historical perspectives. I am forever grateful that they helped me develop these skills.
Why would Reconstructionist rabbis in JVP choose to align themselves in solidarity with Palestinians?
In my last few years at RRC, I became involved in the Jewish anti-occupation movement. It began with a conference, Jewish Unity for a Just Peace, which occurred about six months after the beginning of the second intifada. The people involved at this stage eventually split into two movements: Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (which later became J Street and could be labeled liberal Zionist) and groups to the left of Brit Tzedek (which later became Jewish Voice for Peace, which had previously been a small group in the Bay Area, and could be labeled non- or anti-Zionist, though it currently does not take a position on Zionism).
At the time, speaking against the occupation was the red line that the Jewish community drew to determine who was welcome in the community and who was not. Before that, during the first intifada, it was speaking in favor of a two-state solution. Now the red line is supporting the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The American Jewish community frequently draws red lines, and these lines are forever shifting. I knew as I was leaving RRC that I could not work with integrity as a rabbi if I was silent about the occupation, and I crossed that line carefully. I am lucky to work at a Reconstructionist congregation whose members believe that imposing red lines prevents us from exploring difficult issues.
I was content to be part of the Jewish anti-occupation movement at the time. The discourse has changed, however, and while the Jewish anti-occupation movement still exists (which is best represented by If Not Now), JVP has transformed itself into a Jewish Palestinian solidarity organization, and J Street has moved more to the center, focusing on a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” platform.
In exploring why Reconstructionist rabbis would align themselves with the Palestinian solidarity movement, it is helpful to articulate the core differences between JVP and J Street.[fn]I use JVP and J Street as shorthand to describe the political differences between the Jewish Palestinian solidarity movement and the “pro-Israel pro-peace” movement. Clearly, there are differences within each group, as well as some similarities between the organizations.[/fn]
1. JVP’s focus on 1948 vs. J Street’s focus on 1967
When I was part of the Jewish anti-occupation movement, we focused solely on 1967 as the root problem. This was the beginning of the Israeli occupation, which led to Palestinian land confiscation and settlement-building. We believed that if we could end the occupation, we would be able to create peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
I no longer believe that we can focus on the Israeli occupation and ignore the events of 1948. What most Jews call the War of Independence and Palestinians call the “Nakba” entailed the expulsion or flight of more than 700,000 Palestinians and the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages. Being a free people in our own land meant catastrophe for another people.
Many Jews blame these historical events on the Palestinians, argue that it was an unfortunate by-product of state building, invoke the Holocaust, or simply say that no other options existed. I used to say this, too. But once I started immersing myself in historical accounts, novels and films that address 1948 from a Palestinian perspective, I found it difficult not to think more in terms of justice and teshuvah.
I do not believe that we will ever come close to creating a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict if we do not fully grapple with the issue of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian demand for the “Right of Return.” There are now 5 million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the world, and while it is highly unlikely that they would or could all resettle in Israel, I find it exasperating that the Jewish community refuses to discuss the issue in terms of moral responsibility, compensation and family reunification. Of all people, Jews should be especially sensitive to this.
2. JVP’s and J Street’s Understandings of Zionism
Focusing on the occupation and advocating two states for two peoples is essentially no longer possible given the persistent and widespread settlement building. Moreover, a two-state solution does not address the massive refugee issue, nor does it address the growing Palestinian population who are citizens of Israel. To call Palestinians a “demographic threat to the Jewish character of the state” is tantamount to population control, structural racism and inequality before the law. Even more than the anti-democratic policies of the Netanyahu government and the latest nation-state bill that enshrines Jewish supremacy into the constitution, numerous laws concerning employment, education and land ownership routinely privilege Jews over non-Jews. Much of the impetus for the two-state solution does not derive from a desire to effect Palestinian liberation from occupation; rather, it is about a Jewish fear of this “demographic threat.”
In principle, I resonate with the idea of a Jewish democratic state, but it is not possible for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic. Even if a viable Palestinian state were to be created, how would one deal with the growing Palestinian population within Israel that has lived there for generations? Expel them? Give them incentives not to have babies? How would one deal with the refugees who are living in horrific refugee camps, holding onto the keys to the houses they were forced to leave during times of war?
Ultimately, my Jewish values will not allow me to accept a state that privileges one people at the expense of another people, and for that reason, I cannot call myself a Zionist. While this is a difficult statement to make as a rabbi working in the Jewish community, I believe that this position holds moral and intellectual integrity.
3. JVP’s and J Street’s understanding of Jewish peoplehood
Neither organization frames these issues in terms of Jewish peoplehood, but a basic premise of Jewish peoplehood is a sense of the importance of upholding one’s obligations to the Jewish people. These obligations can certainly be intertwined with obligations to others, but at times one must prioritize whom you support, advocate for or feel most accountable to.
In this way, I want to link peoplehood to accountability: Are we most accountable to the Jewish people, or are we most accountable to others? In exploring the tensions between JVP and J Street, the issue of accountability is important because it shapes each group’s discourse and behavior. J Street speaks to the Jewish community, and it sees itself as accountable to the Jewish community, so the issues are framed to make Jews feel comfortable, safe and positive about their message. This is also why it condemns BDS. If their primary audience is the Jewish community and that is the red line not to be crossed, then it is not going to cross it. It needs legitimacy from the larger Jewish community so it can challenge the right wing within the community.
Conversely, the Jewish community is only one group that JVP speaks to, and often not the primary group. This is partly based on an analysis of who they can move and how they can make change most effectively, and also on the deep belief in working together with Palestinians—the people who are the most oppressed. But it is also partly based on the experience of being shut out of the Jewish community for so long. Once the door gets slammed often enough, you start looking elsewhere. So they speak to anyone who supports its core principles of a “lasting peace for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis based on equality, human rights and freedom.”
I do not think you can privilege the idea of Jewish peoplehood if you also believe in the idea of being most accountable to those who are most oppressed. I feel extremely committed to Jews, to the Jewish people and to Jewish community—I would not spend the vast majority of my day serving Jews in my congregation and in the larger Jewish community if I did not—but you cannot uphold the idea of Jewish peoplehood as an ultimate value if you also see yourself as deeply accountable to Palestinians. At some point, a conflict arises, and you have to choose.
While we should not have to choose, in this difficult political environment, when the politics are so polarized, this attitude evades the core issue: Do you stand with your people, or do you stand on the side of the oppressed?
Many of us believe in solidarity with Palestinians not because we are indifferent to Jews, but because there is an immense power imbalance between Jews and Palestinians, and we know that our voices are critical to creating change. We have a real fear of ongoing war and occupation, and further destruction of Palestinian society. Also, while the current situation is certainly “good for the Jews,” I fear that the intransigence of the Israeli government will only lead to disaster for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, and likely Jews living outside of Israel, in coming years.
All this being said, I’m not necessarily ditching the idea of Jewish peoplehood, but I do question it as a primary loyalty, which I discussed in a sermon for Yom Kippur after the war in Gaza. As intermarriage becomes normalized, our notion of community expands, Israel continues to move to the right, and the gap between liberal and ultra-Orthodox Jews widens, peoplehood as the glue keeping us together will no longer hold. We need new ways to think about peoplehood and community.
So what’s my affirmative vision of what Israel could become? I do not have a political framework to offer, but I believe that Jews cannot wish the Palestinians away, and for real reconciliation to occur, we must honestly try to understand Palestinian history, community and lived reality from their perspective. I believe that the Jewish future is intimately linked to the Palestinian future, and that the destruction of one people will entail the destruction of the other people.
I do have faith that Israel/Palestine could be transformed into a land of peace, justice and equality, for all people who live there, and that they could all live in safety and with dignity. That is my vision, and whether that means two states, one state or some other formation is less important to me.
Questions for Further Discussion
In writing this, I came up with some questions, either for a future discussion or other opportunities for reflection.
1. What kind of relationship do we want to have to the Jewish community’s red lines? Do we want to cross them, uphold them, critique them, ignore them, provide space for others to cross them, etc.?
2. Do you feel that land confiscation, building of settlements and overall Israeli occupation are immoral? If so, do you feel called to speak out about them? If you’ve ever had the opportunity to speak up and you decide not to, how do you square your beliefs with your actions? (I’m asking this without hubris; I’ve been in this position many times and always struggle with it.)
3. I didn’t touch on BDS above, but as a tangential issue, I think it’s important to flesh out why you don’t support it.
3a. Is it that you oppose the principle of boycott and divestment as tactics to create change? If so, do you also oppose the movement to get corporations to divest from the Republican National Convention in opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump, the movement to get universities to divest from fossil fuels and RRC’s divestment from Sudan back in 2006?
3b. Do you oppose BDS because you don’t feel that Israel has done serious enough actions to warrant boycott and divestment? Could you imagine any circumstances under which you would feel that Israel’s behavior was so extreme—let’s say forcibly transferring Palestinians to other countries—that you would support boycott and divestment?
3c. Or do you oppose BDS because of its particular platform or culture of the BDS movement? This position might look like the Steven Levitsky-Glen Weil position articulated in their article, “We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel.” They support boycott but won’t align themselves with the movement.
4. What kind of tactics do you support that could actually change the power dynamic, and force the Israeli government into a peace deal that would protect the rights and aspirations of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians?
5. How do you imagine that a democratic, Jewish state is possible, taking into account the quickly disappearing possibility of a viable Palestinian state, the massive refugee issue, and the growth of the Palestinian population who are citizens of Israel? In this context, what does democracy mean and how do democratic values square with this reality?