Alternative Judaism: Taking Israel Out of Judaism

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I have finally figured out the blight on American Jewry that is sweeping the nation, leaving few stones unturned, scaring nearly all of us into submission: We are raising a generation of Jews without Israel.

I swear I’m not a redneck. I’m not an Evangelical Christian. I am not a member of the Tea Party. I am just a Jew that loves Israel unapologetically and is brazen and loud about it, and for the first time in my life, this very fact is revolutionary.

Following the recent Anti-Israel and Anti-American happenings at Goucher College, Vassar, U Minnesota, UC Santa Cruz, and UCLA, the outcry on Columbia University’s Israel Week event page, my exchange with a J-Streeter, this exchange between another Israellycool contributor and a J-Streeter, this odd sighting at the Kotel, this Jewish mother bringing in the Tamimi family to brainwash children in Ithaca to believe Palestinian terrorism is somehow a noble endeavour, and the Paris attacks, I realized that our greatest enemies are our own people. I also realized why.

Progressive Zionist Club: My Introduction

I knew this was going on for awhile. Back in 2010, when I began my studies at McGill University, I had a brief stint as a radical leftist. I had been conditioned my whole life to believe that leftism is the solution to all the world’s problems, and that if I didn’t believe leftist ideals, I was a bad person. I became friends with a bunch of leftist Jews, having no idea about their thoughts on Zionism because that simply wasn’t on my radar when our own city was positively teeming with systematic oppression of every possible kind. One of them added me to a group called the Progressive Zionist Club (not to be confused with the Facebook groups “Progressive Zionists” or “Progressive Zionism”). Based on the name alone I thought to myself – wow – finally, some progressives who are also Zionist! I didn’t know such people existed! I didn’t really have time for the club until long after I left the radical leftist fold and started getting involved in pro-Israel advocacy again.

It was my persistent Zionism that sowed the seeds of doubt in my mind about the factors in radical leftism that were problematic. I wanted to really be sure antizionism was the way to be for someone genuinely interested in social justice before I went into it full throttle, because I also wanted to be extremely careful before going against something my family cares deeply about. So I did my research, and through my research I found nothing wrong with Zionism and a lot wrong with the arguments from the other side. I was kicked out of the feminist alliance for being a Zionist. It was my research into Zionism with the strong desire to find anything wrong with it that I could so that I could fit in with these people who seemed to care as much as I did about repairing the world and made that their priority, that made me so resolute in my beliefs. Having been raised on a steady diet of Western media, I was still a leftist Zionist, thinking Meretz and J-Street were forces of good, that the settlements were evil, and that the Israeli left needed to save Israel from itself. Obviously, the more I learned over time, the more things have changed.

In 2014, I came across the group Progressive Zionist Club again, when a post that defended BDS appeared in my newsfeed. Appalled, I browsed through the group and what I saw horrified me: A group of Jews who were vocally supporting anti-Israel organizations, thinking that Students for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR, our SJP) wanted peace more than the Israeli government did, and that they love Israel more than I do because they care about it enough to criticize it brutally and incessantly.

These same students were behind the cancellation of Ryan Bellerose‘s talk at Hillel Montreal. Hillel refused to back me, citing their desire not to alienate this fragment of the Jewish Community. Hillel is a Jewish student organization above all, more so than it is a Zionist organization, and it certainly isn’t a Zionist advocacy organization. After talking to a few more people from Hillel off the record, I learned that Hillel’s aim is to get donations, so they must be as uncontroversial as possible, and therefore avoid doing anything to rock the boat. The PZC folks definitely rocked the boat, even getting SPHR involved to cry victim and create a pandemonium of “controversy.”

Needless to say, Ryan didn’t stand back when they began publicly bullying him, and his very blunt and direct responses were seen as “unprofessional.” A few minutes after midnight on the day of his talk, Ryan was told it was cancelled. This was their way of deescalating the situation, it seemed. Apparently if you want to represent the Jewish people, you have to be timid and appeasing, at least according to Hillel. Of course, this allows leftist organizations like PZC, J-Street, Jewish Voices for PalestinianHegemony (which they call “Peace”) to walk all over it, causing Hillel to stay quiet instead of doing the right thing. I wondered: where did this warped mindset come from?

American Jewry: Same Excrement, Different Toilet

I moved to the U.S. for grad school and realized that the mainstream Jews on campus were the same type that would have joined PZC in Montreal. When I told the pro-Israel student group on campus that I have good connections that can act as speakers for pro-Israel events, the first thing they asked me was, “any democrats?” I made a terrible joke along the lines of “After the Iran Deal? Not anymore!” They rolled their eyes at me, sneered, and I never heard from them again. Republican, it seems, on college campuses, is synonymous with “Taliban sympathizer.” Although the leftists seem to have more sympathy for the Taliban than they do for Republicans.

#BlackLivesMatter but #JewishLivesDont

In October, I witnessed an anti-Semitic incident on the quad of my very university, with #BlackLivesMatter protesters going on about how “If the Jews were treated as blacks were in America, the government would care, they would do something!” They were using antisemitic tropes, implying that “Jews control the government” (or at least that they are in cahoots with it, which is ironic because the president is (half) black not Jewish), Jews have privilege, and Jews are on the side of the oppressors. None of the dozens if not hundreds of bystanders said or did anything.

I looked at the most menacing protester, a white male, the one ranting about Jews with a hateful fervor that ironically reminded me of a KKK demonstration I saw on TV, and implored, “did you grow up with pennies thrown at you in the cafeteria? Did you watch one of your closest friends get beaten up in the middle of the student lounge, their only crime admitting they were in fact Jewish? No? Then shut up and check your white privilege!” He scoffed and responded, “Jews are not systematically oppressed and disproportionately incarcerated as blacks are by the US judicial system,” to which I responded “Jews are the most persecuted group on the face of this earth. Check your privilege!” to which he yelled “my privilege? Look in the mirror!” That’s when I decided that engaging in this privilege-measuring contest was futile if not dangerous, and I fled.

I posted a status about it later that day, expecting support from my fellow Jewish classmates. The only response from a Jew from my campus was dismissive and patronizing, along the lines of: “but what about Islamophobia? Hopefully now you know what Muslims go through every day. Consider this an opportunity to build your empathy.” Whaaaaat?

Hillel’s Unsafe Spaces

Shortly afterward was the “safe space discussion” hosted by my school’s Hillel. Get this: the Hillel Israel fellow made the banner for the event that Hillel organized with JStreet and a group of other leftist Jewish organizations, the Israeli and Palestinian flags side by side. For an event to discuss a vigil to commemorate the victims of terror in Israel. I guess they can’t feel even-handed enough if they don’t include a Palestinian flag, even though the acts of terror they are condemning were committed in its name. Leftism is mainstream, and if you don’t agree with it, you’re seen as a stupid, closed-minded, anti-progressive, evil republican, racist, unsophisticated bigot without a conscience. You might as well be a redneck in their eyes.

How Paris Made me a Pariah.

Then came the events in Paris on Friday. I felt it was a natural response to see this as a warning against the unchecked stampede of Syrian refugees into Western lands, especially given the Trojan Horse efforts by ISIS, the corruption in the UN refugee bodies, widespread talk of passport forgery, and the direct relationship between the acceptance of Syrian refugees and antisemitism (which the Arab World, Syria included, is raised on). I was universally reviled by all my friends, especially the Jewish ones. I was accused of being a hypocrite, as my ancestors and relatives were indeed refugees from the Eastern European pogroms and the holocaust, and the reason I’m alive is the magnanimity of the western world towards refugees. I tried to remind them of the unique issues associated with the Syrian refugee crisis, but I am subsequently ignored and accused of being against humanity. To them, I was essentially a Nazi sympathizer who hated social justice. Who were “they”? Almost entirely young Jews.

Antisemitism and its Apologists in My Academia

In all my years as a student, I never experienced overt antizionism in Academia. It was always tiptoed around by professors in the name of professionalism. The closest it got was during my first year of undergrad, my Theatre Performance professor sang the praises of renown antisemite Caryl Churchill’s notoriously antisemitic play, Seven Jewish Children, talking about how great it was while the other Israeli in my class and I exchanged disgusted glances. She wished we could have examined this play instead of Churchill’s other play, Top Girls, but she was worried she would be given hell from her department because it’s “too controversial.”

Fast forward to Monday. Yes, three days ago. I’m sitting in class and the professor starts talking about the Paris attacks. The professor has a PhD in philosophy and is very down to earth. He isn’t one of those new age hipster philosophers, he is very lucid and concrete and can make anything make sense. He is also a Jew, which he displays proudly and mentions many times as an important part of his identity. His daughters both have very Israeli names. He was discussing a philosopher’s theory of how how we need to acknowledge our shared humanity, our human selves must recognize the human selves of The Other. Then he brought up the Paris Attacks. He made several disclaimers about not wanting this to become a political discussion, and not ever wanting to justify violence against the innocent people of Paris who were just enjoying a night out. He then said that the terrorists are people too who resent their civilians being bombed and their people’s way of life being colonized (I assumed this to mean by the host country).

I am not sure why he said this, maybe there was something I missed, because I ordinarily adore this prof and saw him as a grounded voice of reason. These comments seemed counter to his usual rational way of seeing the world. I wasn’t sure if he was trying so hard to eliminate his biases, with the two very left-wing, proud Muslims in the room, that he appeared too sympathetic to the side of evil, if he genuinely wanted to become more empathetic, or actually believes the anti-Western leftist rhetoric that the West are still colonizers and the root of all that is wrong with the world. I’m not sure if he wanted to avoid aggravating the extremely Islamophilic administration, which hired some of the most prominent anti-Zionist thinkers of all time as professors, and the Muslim student body, which cries “Islamophobia!” at even the slightest hint of criticism, which it cannot handle. Regardless, he actually tried to help us “understand” ISIS’ side of the story. I thought that was abominable and horrifying, and am drafting him an email with such grievances as we speak.

Or maybe he is one of those hardcore leftie Jews, the kind that joins JVP and speaks out extra loud against Israel because they represent him. The kind that feels that if we want to eliminate antisemitism, we need to do everything possible to avoid being confrontational and offensive, and just “accept being white.” Or perhaps he is the proud reform or reconstructionist Jew whose religious upbringing purposely excluded Israel.

“That Kind of Jew”: Anatomy of a J-Streeter

What is “that kind of Jew”? That kind of Jew seems to represent about half of American and Canadian Jews I’ve met. They believe in what J Street stands for. They’re embarrassed by Israel rather than proud of her. They think we are better off “accepting our whiteness” and never rock the boat, in order to eliminate antisemitism. They believe that any antisemitism is the fault of the “loud Jews” who don’t stay quiet and obedient, and the Israelis who won’t give Palestinians a state, who continue to “occupy Palestinian land,” or who refuse to uproot hundreds of thousands of Jews who live in the “settlements.” Since they see us as causing the antisemitism that can potentially harm them, they get really angry and critical of Israel and pro-Israel “right-wingers.” In sum, they don’t see the point of Zionism, so they see fighting it as a moral imperative, a way to keep themselves out of the danger that they believe Zionism and resistance to assimilation bring Jews. They see us as ruining it for everyone.

If they felt truly connected to Israel, this wouldn’t happen.

Antizionism is no longer a fringe movement. It has become more and more mainstream, to the point where most Jewish students I’ve encountered on campus are not completely comfortable in their Zionism, if they are even Zionist at all. The more I explored American Jewry and all its nooks and crannies, the more clues I uncovered.

Traditional Jewry: Zionistic but Unfriendly

For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I attended a Conservative service, ironically through Hillel. I felt more connected to my Israeli  roots than ever before, as every prayer, it seemed, reminded us of our connection to Israel as a people. Our religion is one with the land, and the land inspired our religion. It was very mainstream, but the people there were extremely cold and uninvolved. Not one person said hi to me or tried to make me feel welcome, ignoring me when I tried to introduce myself. The services were only in Hebrew and difficult to follow, even for someone like me with a K-6 Jewish Day School education and a reasonable command of the Hebrew language.

I understood how alienating that kind of Judaism can be, though I felt very spiritually united with Israel. When I left the service, it became indisputable that no group of people is more intertwined with Israel than the Jewish people, and that we had to do everything we could to protect this legacy and heritage that we pass down from generation to generation. Despite my spiritual reconnection with my Zionism, I felt disconnected from the other congregants and the clergy.

Alternative Judaism: Non-Zionist but Very Friendly

About a month later, my roommate took me to an alternative reform synagogue. The energy was infectious, the music was great, and there was an emphasis on friendliness and inclusion. It felt like going to church, which I have done a few times out of politeness with some evangelical friends who were clearly trying to convert me. What it was missing was any connection to Israel whatsoever.

For the Shabbat services, we used a prayer book written by the reconstructionist Rabbi, Marcia Prager. In the entire book, Israel was never mentioned as a nation, only as the nickname of the patriarch Jacob a few times. This shouldn’t be surprising from a rabbi who refers to Brooklyn as the “Promised Land” in her bio. There was zero connection made between our people and the land of Israel, which was a startling contrast to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. It was clear to me that they were careful not to alienate the Jews among them who are desperate to fit in with the “progressive” social justice contingent.

There was a band that played awesome music, with the feel of contemporary Christian music. In fact, the synagogue was hosted in a church building, with portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on the walls surrounding us. I thought the service was a beautiful embrace of our Jewish culture, but excluded Israel, which felt very wrong to me. I went to an Alternative service at Hillel with the exact same observations a few weeks later. I left both services feeling welcome and loved, but incomplete.

A Tale of Two Judaisms

In my Orthodox Jewish upbringing, my synagogue didn’t make me feel like I was part of a community. This feeling was shared, which is why my entire family turned away from Orthodox Judaism towards agnosticism and no longer observes Jewish ritual. The only synagogues that I didn’t find snobbish, cold, or unwelcoming were all unequivocally reform and reconstructionist. There is a reason why numbers in the latter contingents are growing exponentially. Mainstream Jews are leaving Orthodox and Conservative Judaism in droves, and the only thing keeping the former alive is the high birthrate among the ultra-orthodox, exacerbating the problem of the residual non-ultra-orthodox not feeling welcome. Mainstream Jews are leaving what was traditionally known as mainstream Judaism and creating a new mainstream. A mainstream that excludes Israel, that is raising a generation of Jews with no emotional connection to Israel.

I dug into my past and noticed a pattern.

The leader and most anti-Zionist member of the PZC? An avowed communist and observant reform Jew who teaches Sunday School at Temple Emanu-El. Yes, to children.

The Hillel Israel Fellow at my graduate school? He runs the “alternative” services and is part of the “Jewish Renewal” movement, an offshoot of reconstructionism.

That J-Streeter I debated with? A reconstructionist Jew who calls himself “white”.

That Jewish classmate who ranted about Islamophobia on my facebook post about antisemitism? A reconstructionist Jew who calls herself “white.”

The professor who empathized with ISIS? A reform Jew (who also likes Bernie Sanders, and yes I am a Facebook stalker). His synagogue has an extensive website, with zero reference to Israel in any of its programming or interest groups.

What is the solution? We need to create a Judaism that is comfortable in its Zionism, that is also warm, friendly, welcoming and tolerant of diversity but also one that venerates our rich Semitic Jewish heritage and traditions and fosters pride in the Jewish identity. Orthodox and Conservative Jews, we need to be welcoming and not just a bunch of religious Jews davening around the bimah while the rest fall asleep or gossip in the women’s section. We need a Judaism that is open-hearted and loving, where we all treat each other like the family that we are, no matter who we are. There are so few of us, we must preserve and appreciate the souls that we have. We must create a community people want to be a part of, and feel they can be a part of, and feel proud to be a part of.

Had I not been raised with a strong connection to Israel embedded in my Jewish identity, I would definitely have not thought twice about abandoning my Zionism to advance my social standing on campus, as I wouldn’t see why it’s worth preserving. I would probably still be a radical leftist, feeling like a hero speaking against my own people and heritage for what I would have perceived as the higher calling of “Social Justice.” So if we want to stop the rapid increase in antizionist Jews, we have to foster a deep spiritual and emotional connection to Israel and embed it deeply and universally into our Jewish culture, and create a community worth fighting for.

After all, a central tenet of Judaism: Kol Am Israel Arevim ze la’zeh (כל עם ישראל ערבים זה לזה). All Jews look after one another.

Let’s make that a reality.

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Depriving our children of this beautiful connection to the Holy Land that our ancestors have shared for nearly four millennia is to deprive them of the very essence of Judaism itself.

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