The End of the Road for Progressive Jews and Israel?

When Rabbi David Gordis eulogized Israel as 'a noble experiment, but a failure' he was right about the distance between the Jewish state and progressive Jewish values – but gave up on changing it.

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Israelis holds-up banners as they march in the centre of the coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 30, 2011, to protest against rising housing prices and social inequalities in the Jewish state.
Israelis holds-up banners as they march in the centre of the coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 30, 2011, to protest against rising housing prices and social inequalities in the Jewish state.Credit: AFP
Rabbi Michael Lerner
Rabbi Michael Lerner

Can a rational progressive Jew still maintain hope for Israel?

My answer is yes, even in the face of despair by many who deeply love and care about Israel. The question arises because a short time ago one of Israel’s passionate defenders in the U.S., Rabbi David Gordis, finally gave up hope. 

Rabbi Gordis served as vice-president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (now American Jewish University). He also served as Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Committee and was the founding director of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel. He founded and directed the Wilstein Institute for Jewish Policy Studies which became the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies. David Gordis is President Emeritus of Hebrew College where he served as President and Professor of Rabbinics for fifteen years. 

So when Gordis published an article on Tikkun magazine’s website saying that Israel has failed and that today’s Zionism has little in common with the Zionism he supported for many decades, it was an important wake-up call to his former colleagues in the Jewish establishment. 

American Jews are no longer able to maintain the “united front” in which being a serious Jew is equated with giving Israeli policies their support. But don’t count on the establishment to hear the alarm—they’ve proved amazingly deaf to their own constituents, and may remain so even when one of their most powerful former colleagues speaks truth to power.

Gordis is certainly right in his description of the problem: “Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary. These values have been subordinated to a cruel and oppressive occupation, an emphatic materialism, severe inequalities rivaling the worst in the western world and distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behaviors rather than the best.”

Nor is he exaggerating when he describes the present reality in Israel: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is nearing a half century in duration. Netanyahu’s “facts on the ground” steps to make a two-state solution impossible are bearing fruit, and there still appears to be no significant opposition to these policies in Israel itself. In Gordis’ words, ”The right has triumphed; the left has been defeated. The Israel of today is very far from anything I dreamed of and worked for throughout my career."

Gordis is courageously stating what we Jewish progressives have been saying for the past several decades, a position that is now almost mainstream among younger American Jews: Israel’s policies have little to do with Judaism’s ethical vision, is in stark contrast to the Torah’s command to “love the stranger/Other,” its occupation of the Palestinian people makes its claim to be “democratic” a ridiculous attempt at propaganda, and the demands of the Jewish establishment to make loyalty to Israel a condition of Jewish identity makes zero sense. 

Yet I cannot fully buy Gordis conclusion when he says “I see no way out, no way forward which will reverse the current reality. Right wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire. So, sadly, after a life and career devoted to Jewish community and Israel, I conclude that in every important way Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure.”

There is a way out, but it won’t emerge from Israel or the current Middle East. I remember when I first worked on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s how otherwise progressive Israelis maintained deeply sexist views, and how in the 1980s Rabbi David Hartman, supposedly a champion of tolerance, resigned from Tikkun magazine’s editorial board when we called upon the Jewish world to embrace our gay and lesbian Jews. Today Israel is one of the more advanced societies in its recognition of women’s rights and in its acceptance of gays and lesbians. These changes did not originate in Israel, but in a fundamental transformation of consciousness in the Western world to which Israel still looks to for military, intellectual, and cultural support. 

When these changes were first proposed by feminists and gay liberationists fifty years ago they were seen as “utopian fantasies” in light of ten thousand year history of global subordination of women and gays. The “realists” who chided these “silly dreamers” were as wrong as those who thought that Zionism’s desire to establish a homeland for Jews in Palestine would never happen.

Western societies have long sought security by dominating others whom they thought of as “a threat.” In modern times the West’s debate between left and right has largely been about which strategy of domination is most effective, with the right clinging to a belief in the effectiveness of military might, while liberals have sought to use diplomatic, economic and cultural means to achieve Western domination, using military interventions only as a last resort. Both sides of this debate seek domination and “power over’ the “Other’; the ways to achieve it have differed.

The task for anyone who wants to save Israel from its current extremism is to join in an ‘unrealistic’ campaign started by the U.S. based interfaith and secular-humanist Network of Spiritual Progressives to seek a new paradigm for how to achieve “homeland security.” 

We call for a fundamentally different approach: A Strategy of Generosity. In the 21st century, the major problem facing humanity is how to save human life from the destruction of our planet’s life-support-system. The generation reaching voting age in the next twenty years has a much greater awareness and sensitivity to this problem than most of those who were born in the 20th century. They will have little tolerance for the kinds of nationalist ambitions and struggles that dominated so much of the past, realizing that their own lives are likely to be dramatically impacted and their quality of life undermined by the environmental crisis. 

In this newly emerging reality, “homeland security,” for the U.S. but also for Israel, will be more achievable through developing ties of mutual aid, caring for each other and caring for the earth. As a step in this direction, the NSP has developed an outline for a Global Marshall Plan. Unlike previous aid plans, this one gives at least as much focus to developing a sense of caring for “the other” as it does for providing direct material aid to people without jobs and without hope. Its first goal will be to end poverty in the Middle East, provide reparations for Palestinians as well as for all who have suffered in the West’s repeated violent assaults on Muslim countries, while ending the poverty that afflicts so many Israelis who live outside the wealth belts from Tel Aviv to Haifa. The aim is for Israel to become known as a country that excels in generosity as much as it now excels in electronics, armaments and medicine.

No, I don’t expect Israelis or the surrounding Arab states to jump quickly into a strategy of generosity. It will take several decades to get this worldview accepted in the West, where is most likely to be greeted at first with the same ridicule that greeted the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and the call for legalizing gay marriage received in the 1980s and 90s. 

So there is something American Jews can do to help Israel, and no, it’s not too late. We can become pioneers in a new way—by challenging the ethos of competitiveness, selfishness and materialism that has been the “common sense” of the global marketplace, and instead embrace a new bottom line of caring. This process has strong foundations in Jewish values. Progressive forces in Israel can reclaim Judaism’s social justice and environmental values, moving away from the 18th to 20th historical divide between religion and progressive politics. See the trajectory of environmental and social justice movements that are fast abandoning the militant atheism of past centuries and you begin to understand that ecological thinking welcomes and requires a spiritual component.

How far we succeed in the West to popularize this worldview, to show its effectiveness in contract to the domination paradigm, we will have an impact on the thinking of the generations arising in Israel. For those who think they have a quicker solution for Israel and Palestine, I say: Fine, try it. But in the meantime help us also build this strategy for the longer term.

We all owe Rabbi Gordis deep thanks for calling out the American Jewish establishment what Jewish progressives have long been saying, through J Street, through Jewish Voices for Peace, and through so many conversations among unaffiliated Jews as well: if Israel hopes to continue getting any support from American Jews in the coming decades, it needs to fundamentally change directions, end the occupation, and start living according to the love and justice values of the Jewish people. And in the voice of our prophetic tradition and our best Jewish visionaries, we proudly proclaim: Yesh Tikvah. There is still hope.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue, and author of 11 books including Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation and The Left Hand of God Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.  His most recent book is Embracing Israel AND Palestine

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