The History of the Reconstructionist Approach to Israel, Zionism and the Treatment of Palestinians

Based on a talk delivered at “Reconstructionists Expanding Our Conversation About Israel/Palestine

I begin with three short framing thoughts:

  1. My parents were expelled from middle school by the Nazis in Germany, and they were among the last people to get permission to enter the United States before the beginning of World War II. They arrived in the United States in December of 1939. My father’s parents were scheduled to leave in February 1940. That was the earliest set of visas they could get, but it was too late. They were murdered in concentration camps. So one of the frames through which I look at Israel is a version of “We were slaves in the land of Egypt.” That is, we all have the possibility that we could be forced to become refugees. I worry about that regarding Jews, and no less about Palestinians.
  2. In 1982, I was asked to speak about Israel by Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, Calif. I offered a pretty tough-minded critique of what was going on there and cast it in Kaplanian terms. To my surprise, the audience was overwhelmingly supportive. The historical Reconstructionist perspective has more power to more people than we usually recognize because the naysayers scream so loudly. I see no contradiction between my having served as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as a longtime professor there and as an ongoing leader in our movement, and being co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet. I think that 90% of the values of J Street and the Reconstructionist movement overlap. Deep in the DNA of the Reconstructionist movement is the drive for justice for all peoples.
  3.  I deeply believe in the power of dialogue with anyone willing to be open to it. I believe that’s how minds get changed. I have a deep faith that when people of integrity with a huge diversity of views come together in honesty, they can create the possibility of working together in a way that most people don’t really have faith in. I have found people of great integrity on the far-left on Israel issues, in the center, and occasionally, on the right as well. I believe that it is vitally important that we talk across our differences, creating dialogue and maintaining integrity as we struggle with painful issues.

Central to Reconstructionism is the idea of Jewish peoplehood. The parallel traditional formulation states that kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (Talmud, Shevuot 39a) — that all Jewish people are bound together and responsible for each other. Kaplan understood that human beings are essentially tribal. Coming from deep in our DNA is the fact that we relate first to family and then to extended family, clan and tribe; it is only through our tribe that we can effectively move to the universal. Reconstructionists formulate the challenge as how we take pride and pleasure in being part of the Jewish people, while at the same time rejecting all forms of triumphalism. That’s why Kaplan took all the chosenness language out of the Reconstructionist siddur and why we made sure that language stayed out when we produced the new Kol Haneshamah prayer books in the 1990s.

The challenge for our world is how we take pride in our cultures and ethnic identities without crossing the line into the arrogance of the assertion that my culture is better than your culture, or my civilization is more worthwhile than yours. I don’t believe that the vast majority of human beings are capable of jumping from the individual directly to universal commitment to every human being in the world. I believe we learn to move towards concern for all of humanity through peoplehood. At best, human concern expands from person and family to community through peoplehood and then to transnational commitment. And that’s one of the reasons why I take the position on Israel that I do. I will not write off the Jews of Ukraine or Uganda or the enormous number of Jews living in Israel — the biggest Jewish community in the world today — even if I were tempted to shrug my shoulders and say that Israeli politics is such a mess that I don’t want to deal with it. I am profoundly aware that what happens in Israel has a powerful impact on Jews around the world, and even more on younger Jews, including American Jews.

One of the reasons why we ignore the difficulties in Israel at our peril is that they’re so disruptive to young people’s Jewish identities. We need to face the challenges, and we need to help young people find their place in the Jewish people, while at the same time helping them to find a legitimate and powerful personal Jewish moral voice. It’s hard now to separate the rising tide of antisemitism in the world from people’s attitudes towards what’s going on in Israel today. I certainly do not link those two in any kind of one-to-one relationship, but I do think real antisemites have found a new weapon based on the conduct that they read about in the newspaper. One of my fundamental assertions is that the reprehensible behavior of the current Israeli government and the previous one is not a reason to abandon the Jews of Israel. Quite the reverse: The current situation demands greater involvement.

With that said, I want to back up and say a bit more about Mordecai Kaplan. In the 1982 California speech I referred to earlier, I focused on a book of his that’s rarely referred to. It’s one from the early 1950s called A New Zionism. In that book, Kaplan said several important things. One of my favorites is his statement that without the diaspora, Israel would become just another Levantine state. Those of us who are unhappy with the positions of the government of Israel need to face up to the fact that Kaplan was right about that. Israel is far too much acting like just another Levantine state. And I hold us in the diaspora as much responsible for that as I do Israelis. Kaplan said that we North American Jews are in a position to raise a moral and spiritual voice and make it clear that what is going on in Israel is morally unacceptable to us. More than 70 percent of American Jews favor a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but the vast majority have remained silent as the Israeli government has done its best to make such a solution impossible.

The majority of American Jews have not banded together to speak up. In fact, they have largely left the stage to the center-right and the extreme right. It is insufficient to condemn Israel for its ethnic triumphalism and for what it has done wrong in its relationship to Israeli Arabs and to Palestinians. We need to say that we North American Jews have failed in not holding our fellow Jews responsible to act in a way that rejects that kind of ethnic triumphalism. Another point that Kaplan makes in A New Zionism is that democracy is essential to fulfilling our values and ideals, which were the basis for Israel’s creation. Kaplan recognized that democracy requires an end to theocracy, an end to allowing the chief rabbinate to dominate the religious life of Israel. A commitment to democracy also means taking seriously the civil rights of every person who is governed by the Israeli government.

The commitment to Israel’s founding values is critically important, and we American Jews have not raised our voices about that. Not about the mistreatment of Black immigrants, not about the horrendously bad treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and not about even the shredding of the social safety net over the Netanyahu years. In the earlier years of Israel, that safety net represented a vital effort to create dignity and economic sufficiency for every Israeli, and that included every Israeli Arab — not just every Israeli Jew. On a trip to Israel in 1980s, I spent a lot of time with Interns for Peace, exploring not the West Bank, but Israeli Arab villages and working towards creating dialogue between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. What I found incredibly painful was driving off the nicely paved road of the nearest Jewish villages onto dirt roads leading to the Arab villages and finding that not only were the roads not paved, but that the Israeli government hadn’t even provided adequate water pipes or sewage disposal. Unequal treatment has characterized the entire history of Israel.

Inequality has existed in the State of Israel since its beginning, and it’s up to us to shape a moral voice, to call Israel back to the vision of A New Zionism. The third point I want to bring forth from Kaplan is that he saw Israel as the Jewish body: a cultural center, the center for the revival of Hebrew, of Israeli arts, dance, music, literature and other aspects of culture. And he saw the diaspora as the moral and spiritual soul of Israel. We American Jews have not been acting like the moral and spiritual soul of the Jewish body. So how do we go about getting full human rights for every person in Israel? I argue that the only way to achieve that anytime soon is through Palestinian statehood. Many people have pointed out that pushing Israel to grant statehood for Palestinians is going to be a long, slow process. It is particularly difficult to negotiate both because of the resistance by the current Israeli government and because the Palestinian Authority leadership only has a 20% approval rating among Palestinians. That makes achieving any solution fraught with challenges, but it is not impossible.

I am not going to claim that this is something that can happen tomorrow, but consider the only other imaginable alternative, which is a one-state solution. Think about what happened in Serbia and Bosnia, when two ethnic groups decided that they couldn’t live together any longer. Think about how the effort to get Muslims and Christians to share governance in Lebanon has disintegrated not only in corruption, but in violence and the imposition of the will of one well-armed minority group on the others. Think about the division in Cypress as a result of conflicts between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Folks who think that there’s a way to create a real peace in mutual respect with a democratic, one-state government are imagining something that to me, is truly unimaginable — not because I wouldn’t be thrilled to see it work, but because I can’t imagine that it would.

Many people are saying the two-states possibility is dead because of the enormous number of illegal settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank. That certainly has created a formidable obstacle, which has been the intention of the Netanyahu and Bennett governments in expanding the settlements. However, an excellent solution has recently been proposed by a group of Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals led by Yossi Beilin, an important peace negotiator in Israel for the last 30 years. His group has developed a fresh version of how to achieve a two-state solution and, beyond that, a confederation. This proposal is the most promising I’ve heard in at least the last 20 years. One key piece of that proposal is that, for every settler who chooses to stay in the West Bank, which will be part of a Palestinian state, one Palestinian refugee would be allowed to move back to Israel proper. In Beilin’s version, that step to a two-state solution could lead to a confederation with open borders. Each people would govern themselves, but there would be an open flow of people and commerce between them, like there is within the European Union. And, of course, people would only be able to vote in their own country, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t live elsewhere.

In the existing one-state structure we now have, Palestinians have no vote, which means there is no democracy. It’s a single state that Israel is running. It includes both the Palestinian part and the Israeli part, depriving Palestinians of their rights. Given that and the Israeli refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians, it’s not surprising that the response of some in the angry and abused minority is terrorism. I don’t condone terrorism, but I fully understand that if you repress people for long enough and they have the capacity to resist violently, that’s what they will eventually do. At no time in the foreseeable future will Israelis be willing to make the entire Palestinian population equal citizens, which would make Jews the minority. Why would the Israelis choose to lose control? Another reason why I’m committed to the two-state solution is that I believe any one-state solution in which every adult can vote and there is an Arab majority would certainly quickly end the Law of Return, and I have the specter very much in mind, not just of my grandparents, but of other immigrants needing to flee the countries they’re in around the world. I think the way Ethiopians have been treated in their efforts to immigrate, and some Ukrainians very recently, shows the inadequacy of the present system, but I have faith that if we all raise our moral voices, we can bring about meaningful moral change.

When I was in rabbinical school in the 1970s, Breira was coming into existence, and people asked me — given that my political views on the importance of equal treatment for Palestinians were clear already then — why I didn’t join Breira. My answer was while I agreed with them totally in their understanding of the facts, they were not going to have the kind of effect on the Jewish community that they were seeking because their tactics and approach to bringing change would create heat rather than light. Breira died, not least because the establishment Jewish community did its best to crush it. New Jewish Agenda came next and had many of the same problems. Next in that chain came Jewish Voice for Peace. I have great respect for the integrity of most of the people in Jewish Voice for Peace, but we have a substantial intellectual and political disagreement. This does not stem from JVP’s presentation of the facts, which correlates closely with mine. Where we differ is that I am both morally opposed to intellectual boycotts and politically opposed to them because I believe they are counterproductive to bringing change. More important, I don’t believe that we are going to bring change unless we work through the American government and engage with Israelis in a way that creates genuine dialogue.

On the other side of the spectrum, AIPAC — the strongest and oldest pro-Israel lobby in the USA — has betrayed us in many ways. The word betrayal is not a word I would ever use about Jewish Voice for Peace. But AIPAC recently has abandoned its commitment to democracy in the United States. It supports the Israeli government whether it is right or wrong, which is a betrayal of American Jewry’s obligation to provide moral leadership. Americans know better than to say, “We’re going to unequivocally support every president of the United States, no matter what that president stands for.” American Jews as a group invested an enormous amount of energy to resist Donald Trump and to ensure that he wasn’t re-elected. But most American Jews as a group — there are plenty of exceptions but as a whole — have said, “We will always support the government of Israel.” And that is certainly the voice we have heard through the Federations and through AIPAC. That is a profound error. We need to support the citizens of Israel, and that requires our critiquing the policies of the Israeli government. Yet worse than AIPAC is the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which in my view is flat-out racist.

For all those reasons, I have become deeply involved with J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy organization that lobbies in the United States to pressure Israel to change. J Street works through American democratic processes to raise a united voice that takes a form that continues to gather strength. When it is strong enough, Israelis will recognize that they must heed that voice. For example, J Street has strongly supported Congressman Andy Levin’s bill, which would impose end-use restrictions to prevent our aid from being used for settlement expansion or home demolitions, finally putting teeth in protestations against the continued expansion of settlements. In its dozen years of existence, J Street has become a formidable force in Washington. American Jews living here have a pivotal role to play, and I’m deeply disappointed by their current failure to do so. I’m not talking about every Jew; I’m talking about the large majority of Jews who’ve quietly gone along accepting whatever their Federation does, whatever the Israeli government does, instead of raising their voices the way they could and should. Together, we can create community-wide Israel-education programs that help people to understand some of the tragedies that are occurring in Israel because of governmental decisions. It means organizing people to do a much more effective job of lobbying Congress so that the evangelicals and the ZOA are not the ones who are the dominant voices on Israel issues. It means making sure that progressive rabbis are welcomed in congregations. It means writing op-eds and circulating letters to the editor. It means supporting candidates that are aligned with our democratic and our peace-oriented values on Israel. And it means not only our individual activism. We also need to put our money where our mouth is and make sure that candidates know that if they back away from AIPAC, we will raise enough money to fill their loss in campaign funding. When J Street got started, nobody wanted its endorsement. One of the reasons why there are so many now who seek J Street’s endorsement is that J Street has shown that it can raise money and recruit voters for progressive candidates. More than 90% of the candidates backed by J Street in the last election won. And that’s part of what we need if we’re going to change the direction of Congress on Israel.

If we combine strategic political thinking with a strong moral voice, we can change the way Israel issues are framed in the establishment American Jewish community and in the halls of the American government. That, in turn, can change what happens in Israel and Palestine. Those of us who care can move together with much more effectiveness than we have to date to bring American Jewish power and American political power to bear on justice for Palestinians, and the creation of a safe and viable two-state solution.


Q & A

Right of Return

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the Palestinian right of return, both from a moral and a pragmatic perspective?

David: Before I do that, let me talk about Arabs in Israel for a minute. Palestinians, or as some of my Palestinian friends call themselves, 48ers — meaning, people who’ve never left their homes in Israel at any point. Many of those people have had their land confiscated in pieces, or in one example I was involved in, a kibbutz completely encircled a Palestinian farm and then denied the farmer access to his own land. So we need to deal first with the rights of Israeli Palestinians, Israeli Arabs who have stayed in the state and have been really patient working this through, even though they have not had fully equal rights. To my mind, it is just an outrage that has been the case since 1948. It didn’t start in 1967, when Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza.

Recent Israeli scholarship has proved that large numbers of Arabs were driven out of Israel in 1948 as an intentional Israeli policy. Despite that, it will not be feasible for Palestinians to come back and claim all the land that they had in Israel before 1948. That land does not look the same. In many cases, swamps have been turned into cities. Perhaps more important, under Ottoman rule, the farmers were mostly sharecroppers who did not own the land but had rights to it as long as they farmed it, which means they do not have deeds they can present to establish a claim to the land. That land is not going to go back to them, but they deserve reparations for their losses. Israel and its partners will need to fund a system of reparations, so that there is reasonable compensation for Palestinians’ enormous losses. And along the way, maybe to make that politically plausible, there can be compensation for the Jews from Arab lands who left without compensation when they lost their land. 

In the long run, what will help the most is genuinely complete economic and educational opportunities for Palestinians, whether they’re working in Israeli companies or Palestinian companies. When they are economically successful and capable of going to the best universities of their choice anywhere in the world, they can come back, create companies, buy land and feel safe. That is the pathway to justice, stability and peace. Often people ask, “Well, what about Gaza? We gave them back Gaza, and look what a mess that is!” My response is that we should compare and contrast World War I and World War II. After World War I, we left Germany in ruins and made it extremely difficult for Germans to earn a living. And the result of that mess was World War II. After World War II, the United States created the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Germany and created the possibility of the economic prosperity that we see there now. And Germany is now a major democratic partner in the European Union and in the Western world.

We destroyed Gaza, and then we blamed the Gazans for not having a way to support themselves. The only sensible way to have withdrawn from Gaza was with a Marshall Plan that helped the residents create an economically viable mini-state. And we utterly failed in that. Quite the reverse. One of the things that happened as we withdrew from Gaza is, insofar as there were Jewish businesses in Gaza, including agricultural businesses, most of them were destroyed by Jews as they left. If we are going to move towards peace, we need economic plans that are going to make comfortable living possible for the people whom we want to be able to live in a country of their own. And it would be dangerous and ineffective just to create a Palestinian state without the equivalent of the Marshall Plan alongside it.

Q: In a two-state model, how would the issue be handled concerning the appropriation of land in 1948, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families?

David: Probably about as well as the American government’s effectiveness in returning lands to Native Americans.

What we can do with these displaced people is help them become economically successful, help them build homes that are good to live in, but it’s just not imaginable that the land they left behind will be returned to them. They need compensation for that land so that they can build elsewhere. But we in the United States have neither compensated Blacks for their labor as enslaved people and the following century and a half of dispossession, nor have we scratched the surface at compensating Native Americans. Those reparations can compensate, but they cannot turn back the clock to the status quo ante.


Q: Do you support the resolution of the Tikkun Olam Commission of Reconstructing Judaism in support of reparations for indigenous people and people of the global majority?

David: I totally support that measure. I’m really committed to it, but I have no illusions that it’s going to be quick or easy. And I think we have to face that it’s not going to be quick or easy to get lands returned to Palestinians. It’s just not feasible, given what has happened in between, but that doesn’t mean that they should be left empty-handed. There are other ways to compensate people for their losses. That’s what insurance companies are about. And in this case, the amount of money involved is not an insurmountable sum. There are plenty of countries in the world that can help contribute to it.

Is Israel Democratic?

Q: Is an insistence on Israel having a Jewish majority inherently anti-democratic?

David: Democracy means that people who live in a certain place collectively get control over their own destiny. It would seem really odd to say, “In Utah, the majority of people are Mormons. Shouldn’t we do something about that, because why should they have enough votes to control their own state?” Obviously, no one is suggesting that there’s something undemocratic about Mormons in Utah voting the way they want to vote. And I would say the same thing about Jews in Israel. If they’re the majority, there is nothing undemocratic about their voting.

The sad part about Jews in Israel is that the majority has rarely won an election in Israel because of the splintering of the parties there. But as long as a country gives every citizen the vote, you have democracy, provided that elections are really free and open and the law-making process is free and open. And so it does not worry me that Israel is going to be majority Jewish, nor does it worry me that Palestine would be majority Palestinian. I actually think that’s really important. And as far as I know, Germany is majority German, and France is majority French. And that’s how we manage to create the capacity for ethnic groups to have amity across national borders … as well as a place of their own to develop their own culture.

Power Relations

Q: Isn’t the Bellin proposal a classic example of advancing a solution that’s predicated upon power relations that don’t exist?

David: I’m very concerned with power relations, but I don’t necessarily think I can change those power relations to reflect my values. If I had my way, we would have democratic socialism in America — and that would include equal health care for all, a genuine safety net, raising the minimum wage, huge taxation on the mega-wealthy and a whole host of other things. I have no illusions that power will soon be redistributed to allow for all these reforms, even though it works quite well in Denmark and Sweden.

So I don’t focus on ideal power relations. Rather, I focus on the power relations that are in place and how to use them to make things better for the real people who really live there. I don’t think that there’s any plan that’s going to get the settlers to move out of the West Bank, though I think it’s totally wrong that those settlements are there. There’s nothing I can see that we’re going to be able to do about it.  So the solution to that is to provide Palestinians more opportunity within Israel proper. I believe it is feasible we can negotiate that arrangement. I deeply, deeply hope for that, and that is a theological hope as well as an ethical and political one.

It provides the basis for moving toward greater equality, and that’s only going to happen step by step. There is no Israeli government that is going to withdraw the settlements from the West Bank. That is a power reality and a political reality that I abhor but can’t do anything about. And since that’s my view of the situation, I’m going to look for a plan that gives Palestinians the fullest rights we can give them as rapidly as possible. And that means a plan that doesn’t force the settlements to move because that plan would be dead on arrival. The only way we get a one-state plan with the settlements in place is the mess we have now, which is the subjugation of Palestinians in a way that’s completely intolerable.

Lobbying for the Two-State Narrative

Q: Isn’t your claim that American liberal Jews do not exert sufficient pressure out of date given the work of such organizations as BBYO, Young Judea and USY, who send tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel? They are very influential. Younger rabbis across the liberal spectrum generally support and demand a more just Israel. The split is really between the Orthodox, who have stronger influential connections, and progressives, with larger numbers, but not as many connections.

David: The fact that Young Judea doesn’t present a two-states narrative on its trips and that Reform youth trips don’t either (though they’ve gotten a little better) is because of the silent majority of American Jews. If parents demand a two-peoples narrative approach on those kinds of trips, we can achieve that. That is an achievable goal for American Jews. And, over time, that is an important step in winning the hearts and minds of young people to our perspectives. The Orthodox have very little involvement with BBYO and Young Judea, and none over NFTY and USY policies.

I do not believe that a love of the people in the land of Israel and a love of the land itself needs in any way to contradict a very, very sharp political and moral critique of what’s going on there. And if you visit Hebron and you talk to Palestinians, or you read the reports published by B’Tselem, you get a different perspective that’s really vital. We’re finally seeing the liberal rabbinical schools providing those opportunities for their students when they’re in Israel, and we need to be demanding the same for Birthright trips and for youth trips. If we mobilize effectively, we liberal Jews have the power to achieve that because it’s liberals who provide the lion’s share of Federation funding, not the Haredi Orthodox.

Q: How does one create change with Birthright or a Young Judea trip? What would that look like for a member of a Reconstructionist congregation?

David: I spend a lot of time organizing rabbis to join J Street and increasing the size of the J Street Cabinet, and getting people to attend J Street conferences. (There is an important one from Dec. 3-5, 2022, that is open to any of you who choose to attend.) We need to organize, and our congregations have the capacity to reach out to like-minded people on Israel issues in other congregations. If Not Now should not be organizing alone, nor should Reconstructionists be going it alone. We should be building coalitions with other rabbis and lay people to involve as many people as possible. A lot of that also involves dialogue. I am willing to sit down with Federation board people in Philadelphia because I think that’s part of what we need to be doing.

The Albuquerque Board of Rabbis just issued a formal condemnation of the Federation for improprieties within the Federation. There is no reason why we cannot create a lot more momentum if we do the kind of community organizing we’re capable of not just with rabbis, not just with lay people, but also with established leaders in the Jewish community. We do not spend enough time talking with them, lobbying them, bringing them into partnership with us. You don’t get very far by standing outside the doors and yelling, in my experience. You get a lot further by getting in the door and arguing, and we need a lot more people walking into those doors and sitting at the table.


Q: Could you reflect on what the creation of Israel meant to Palestinians? A Jewish majority was artificially created in Israel by expelling 750,000 Palestinians and not allowing them to return. Is that consistent with democracy?

David: We need to back up well before 1948 if we’re going to talk about this. In the large area controlled by the Ottoman Empire, Arab farmers were allowed to work their land in exchange for a portion of their crops, and as long as the sharecroppers produced enough, they were allowed to stay on their land, which they did not own. Some of the land was also owned by absentee Arab landlords from Egypt and elsewhere. The farmers were exploited by other Arabs and Turks. When Jews started buying land, they bought from the Turks and from absentee landlords, and they took over from sharecroppers who had been on the land for generations. When Jews started moving into what became Israel in greater numbers, they bought that land, some of it through the Jewish National Fund and some of it directly from absentee owners. The Arabs who lost their place were the victims of exploitation by their own people.

The 1948 war played out the way it played out because of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the actions of Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian governments. The Arabs who lived in the land were going to be victimized by that war no matter who won. That’s the context in which Jews, those who became Israelis, expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — the number is debatable, but it doesn’t matter because two would have been two too many — from their land in the same way that had the Israelis lost the war, the Arabs would’ve pushed the Jews into the sea.

Is that democracy? No. Is that acceptable human behavior? No. It’’s war and what happens in war. Do I wish the Israelis had allowed those Arabs to remain? Absolutely. But the way that played out—with the Lebanese putting Palestinians in refugee camps instead of allowing them to become Lebanese citizens and Syrians making it difficult for Palestinians to retain their identity in Syria and Israelis refusing to take back Palestinians who had fled in 1948 — cemented Palestinian identity by creating a minority that was not fully welcomed by anyone.

If the Palestinians in Lebanon had been allowed to blend in with the regular population, we would never have had Sabra and Shatila. So we need to understand that the Israelis did wrong. There’s no question. But we also need to understand that that was happening in a geopolitical context in which the Israelis were only one part of that wrongdoing. The Arab nations did not act to absorb as many Palestinians as wanted to move there even though the Arab nations’ attack on Israel created a key part of the situation in which Palestinians were forced into exile. In short, the Palestinians have been victims of everybody in the Middle East, not just Israelis. And I really believe it’s the responsibility of everybody who’s been part of that situation to help to rectify it, though the primary responsibility falls on Israel.

Someone who heard me say this recently said, “So then are you saying that Palestinian identity is not real?” That is absolutely incorrect. Ethnic identity very often emerges directly as a result of political and military situations that separate ethnic groups. Once that identity is created, it’s real, and it doesn’t matter that Palestinian identity only grew in strength during the 20th century. What matters is that it’s real and present, and it is a fact that we need to treat with utter seriousness.

Conditional Aid

Q: Our understanding is that J Street currently opposes any restrictions on U.S. military aid to Israel. How do you feel about that?

David: The Levin bill makes it really clear that American foreign aid should not be used for anything that will strengthen the military on the West Bank or strengthen the settlements. This is saying that there should be certain kinds of restrictions on aid to Israel as there are restrictions on every kind of aid the American government gives everywhere else in the world. I particularly commend to you the language of the Levin bill[i], which J Street has been very strong in supporting.


Q: What place do you or J Street see for Jerusalem in a two-state solution?

David: I’ll just give my personal view. I think it needs to be the capital of both nations. The symbolic importance of Jerusalem as a Palestinian city is really critical, and it’s one of the reasons why the present government is trying to ring the city so carefully with Jewish settlements, which I think is a tragic moral error, and to the degree that I can effectively lobby, I would want to see East Jerusalem be a Palestinian capital and that Palestinians have full free access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other parts of the city.

Ukrainians and Palestinians

Q: I was really moved by your submission to Evolve of the four questions for the Pesach Seder (Leviticus 19:17),[ii] raising the question about Ukrainian refugees coming to Israel and the sort of glaring contradiction to the treatment of any Palestinian refugees.Israel hasn’t let a single Palestinian refugee enter with full rights.

David: What do we make of the great willingness of the European countries to take in vast numbers of light-skinned Ukrainians? The same countries that have opened their doors to Ukrainians have done their very best to limit immigration from Africa. One of the really shocking things is: There are many African students studying in Ukraine — medical students and so on, and when those Africans tried to flee Ukraine and get into Europe, they had a really rough time, even though they’re coming from exactly the same conditions in Ukraine as the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Ukrainians who are so easily welcomed.

Ukrainians are not having the easiest time getting into Israel, but the ones who can prove their bona fides, either because they have relatives there or because they’re Jewish, are getting in. And that’s in real contrast to the mistreatment of Black refugees in Israel. Jews from Ethiopia have experienced considerable prejudice in Israel. The treatment of Africans in Europe parallels the common Israeli view of Arabs as a lesser ethnic group, perhaps because of their skin tone, because of their language, because of their religions. And whether we call it ethnic triumphalism or racism, the result is the same. And given the values that we express at the Seder, it fills me with shame. And I dare say that if Jews needed to flee into Europe at the rates that Ukrainians are fleeing into Europe, we would not fare so well either. But while I can’t do anything or say much to Europeans, I can say a lot to the Jews of Israel about how wrongheaded these attitudes and the resulting behavior are. The goal of my four questions is for people to bring into their Seders the questions of ethnic triumphalism and racial prejudice. I was thinking about that in terms of what real liberation is like. I don’t believe you can separate the spiritual from the moral in that regard.

Jewish Peoplehood

Q: I think many who share my political beliefs about Israeli government actions may not have that sense of underlying love of the country and caring for its future and for the fate of our fellow Jews. I’m curious how you would reflect on that and the challenges that may pose to efforts to create confederations, add dialogue among people whose sort of baseline feelings may be in fairly acute conflict with one another.

David: Most productive dialogues are with people with whom we sharply disagree and often with people who don’t understand why we care about what we care about. The longing for a homeland in Israel has been an essential part of Jewish thought since the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. You cannot cling to Jewish peoplehood without recognizing its roots in the land.

So what if somebody says, “I don’t care about Jewish peoplehood, I’m just an individual who engages with Jewish religion”? (That was the stance of the majority of the Reform movement a hundred years ago.) My response is that you need to explore what it means to have a hybrid identity. Kaplan always talked about living in two civilizations, and most of us live in more than two at this point. Part of what has always distinguished the Reconstructionist perspective is that commitment to peoplehood and to Jewish community. You can’t have Jewish religion for any length of time without Jewish community, and the only kind of Jewish community that has staying power is one that is anchored in a commitment to the whole Jewish people. So when people say, “I don’t care about any of that,” my response stated very gently and not hostilely is, “Well, are you a Unitarian? Because Unitarians share a lot of the same values and beliefs we have. What they don’t have is any connection to Jewish peoplehood. Are you saying that you really don’t want to be part of the Jewish people? What are the implications of that for you and your kids in terms of anchoring yourself in Jewish religious life?” I think a lot of folks just haven’t thought about it that way.

A commitment to Jewish peoplehood necessarily includes a commitment to the citizens of Israel. Leviticus proclaims, “You shall surely reprove others” (Leviticus 19:17) when they do wrong. Jewish tradition has affirmed that responsibility for 3,000 years. If we are upset with Israel’s policies, that is not a justification for rejecting our responsibility to the people there. It is our task to offer loving reproof until together we find a better way forward.

[i] Link to Levin Bill


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