Opinion

To Simone Zimmerman: Reform Jews Must Choose the Wall or the Palestinians? That's Wrong and Insulting

The suggestion that our fight for religious freedom in Israel means we're 'turning our back' on Palestinians is not only patronizing - it's a fallacy

Israeli protesters rally outside PM Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem against a government decision to abandon the Western Wall deal. July 1, 2017
U.S. Jews' fight for religious freedom isn't 'turning our back' on Palestinians: Protesters outside PM Netanyahu's residence against the Western Wall deal feeze. July 1, 2017 THOMAS COEX/AFP

Simone Zimmerman and I both plan to lead the next generation of American Jews and to shape their relationship with the State of Israel. She already succeeds in that role, as a vocal and fierce organizer of the IfNotNow movement. I am a Reform rabbinical student, doing a summer internship at a Brooklyn synagogue.

Unlike many narrow-minded Jewish leaders of our time, I know that Zimmerman’s activism around Israel and the American Jewish establishment is just as vital to the future of the Jewish people as my five years of rabbinical training.

So I was disappointed in the short-sightedness and limited perspective put forth in her op-ed, "It’s Only About Them: U.S. Jews’ Outrage on the Wall, Silence on the Occupation is Obscene." Zimmerman posits that the liberal Jewish response towards this week’s Western Wall decision is immoral because Jewish energy should be put towards humanitarian crises like the occupation and the American healthcare crisis.

This false equivalency dangerously suggests that Jews must choose between religious freedom and repairing the world. But it is a fallacy to say that the two struggles do not go hand in hand.

As a leader of IfNotNow, Zimmerman sees herself as outside of the American Jewish establishment. As a future rabbi, I am heading straight into the arms of establishment Judaism.

Yet our goals and our challenges are the same. We both work to create a world where people can live in freedom and dignity. Critics of the American Jewish establishment either do not know or do not like to admit that Reform congregations across the country are waging highly organized fights against poverty, racism, and anti-democratic forces.

Take Reform California, Bend the Arc, Raise the Age, Get Organized Brooklyn, and the Religious Action Center, just to name a few of the hundreds of groups that are organizing Reform Jews. I laugh when, in the same day, I am criticized by my friends on the Jewish right for putting forward a Judaism that "only cares about tikkun olam" and am called out by my friends on the Jewish left for "not doing enough."

The very leaders Zimmerman insults are the ones doing the most to make space for criticism of Israel within the American Jewish establishment. Rabbi Rick Jacobs stood up for J Street at the Conference of American Presidents. He condemned the occupation at the last URJ Biennial. He met with the Palestinian leadership this March. This is not enough. The Reform movement must continue to fight for Palestinian lives.

Israeli and American activists holds signs during a protest against President Donald Trump next to the U.S embassy in Tel Aviv. May 22, 2017
Oded Balilty/AP

But Zimmerman’s accusation that "the only dirty laundry they [progressive Jews] are willing to air is the one that smells like their own victimhood" is also detached from reality. Our leaders have worked to make criticism part of a legitimate relationship with Israel in the mainstream Jewish world. Now we, the new leaders, must build on that foundation to turn that criticism into actual change.

Let’s be honest. IfNotNow and the Reform movement also face a similar challenge: many of our devoted members do not actually know that much about Israel and Palestine, or even about Judaism. Having participated both in IfNotNow trainings and in Reform events, both groups do as much to educate their own members as they do to engage them. They are both as much about building community and a sense of belonging as they are about making change. The enemies of IfNotNow and the Reform movement are ignorance and apathy. They are not one another.

Here is another person who should not be painted as an enemy of IfNotNow: Anat Hoffman. When Anat Hoffman is dragged away in handcuffs, when Jewish women hide and smuggle Torah scrolls in the folds of their bodies, when they chant Hallel over screams of dissent, their protest at Israeli policy is neither "polite" nor "nice", as Zimmerman describes.

Head of Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman, being arrested for bring a Torah scroll to the Western Wall. 12 July 2010
Michal Fattal

I and countless other Reform Jews fight for Anat Hoffman, not because we care deeply for a Wall which neither accepts nor represents our vision of Jewish practice, but because we understand that freedom of religion is paramount to democracy anywhere. Zimmerman suggests that by choosing to protest the Western Wall decision, Jews turn their back on Palestinians.

She suggests that by caring about women and religious freedom one somehow cares less about the Palestinian people. She implies that there is a limit to how much we can care and a finite resource of compassion. This is a fallacy.

Whether you view this from the perspective of intersectionality, as I do, or just common sense, it is so obvious that the fight for religious freedom in Israel is inextricably bound with the fight for freedom for the Palestinians. Hatred poisons Israeli society from the extreme religious right, and apathy coming from the secular left crushes Israel’s ability to make change. These forces working against equality at the Kotel are the same forces holding up the occupation.

When progressive Jews support and see themselves in this cause it is not “only for themselves.” It lifts up the entirety of Israeli society. Reform Jews do not fight for the Kotel because they see it as a "personal playground" any more than IfNotNow members host seders in the streets to get some fresh air. Both of these movements use the deep power of symbolism to illustrate the way that oppression grips elements of Israeli and American Jewish society.

My movement is neither as sexy nor as social media savvy as IfNotNow, yet it is and has for over 200 years been doing back-breaking work to improve the human condition. As a future congregational rabbi, I plan to work hard to ensure that there is room in my movement for people like Simone Zimmerman and others in IfNotNow because I believe that our futures are bound up together. I will never be made to choose between pursuing religious freedom and the fight for human dignity because they are inseparable. I will continue fighting for both until no American activist, Palestinian, or Western Wall visitor feels that they have to choose.

Rena Singer is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion living in New York City. She runs the new Jewish Instagram account, Modern_Ritual