In May of 2017, I traveled to the West Bank as a member of a delegation organized by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV). We were 130 Diaspora Jews, mostly Americans, working in partnership with Palestinian and Israeli resistance organizations to peacefully oppose the occupation of the East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza—an ambitious mission to be sure, yet the group strived for even more: a challenge and wake-up call for the Jewish religion and tradition itself.
In the words of its organizers, the group’s work is at the “center of Jewish Transformation and Palestinian Solidarity.” It rejects many conventional notions in the West about the relationship between Jews and Israel, such as the idea that Israel represents the Jewish people as a whole, and that any criticism of the Israeli policy constitutes anti-Semitism. Instead, in its motto, CJNV boldly proclaims “Occupation is Not My Judaism.” In other words, we can be proudly and fully Jewish while forcefully rejecting the actions of the so-called Jewish state.
In Palestine, we heard extensively about the occupation from its victims. One resistance organizer noted that Palestinians are “stereotyped as terrorists like chocolate is stereotyped as sweet.” I believe Judaism is associated with Israel in a similar way. Any decoupling of Israel from Judaism, such as our mission, disturbs or least jars many observers—they might express surprise or even call Jews who challenge Israel “kapos,” traitors, or self-hating Jews.
Indeed, when I told friends and relatives that I was going to the West Bank to resist the occupation, some did point-blank call me “traitor” and an “enemy.” Others who were less vitriolic generally had a difficult time understanding how a Jewish person could possibly go against Israel—they tended to think I was a bit weird (which is true, but that’s another story), or that I wasn’t really Jewish.
A commentator on an article I previously published about the delegation’s work brings this point home well, if a bit, hyperbolically:
“Mr. Zimmerman represents the crypto-enemy of Zionism and the so-called ‘Jewish State’ of Israel; and every unacceptable, immoral and unjustifiable policy they stand for: he penned his observations having been there with the Jewish group CJNV and – however secular by his own averral he may be – he’s Jewish. He is thus the detested and reviled JINO, the ‘Capo’, the ‘self-hating Jew’ whose criticism of the Zionist project and of the Hasbara-im’s beloved, flawless, sacrosanct Israel is the crime for which no punishment can be sufficient; criticism, express or implicit, by a Jew of Zionism and the State of Israel being worse than child-abuse, cannibalism and robbery-with-violence combined. [sic]”
In hindsight, I realize that, prior to my participation in the CJNV delegation, even I unconsciously thought of the Israeli state and Judaism as equivalent to some degree. I knew that CJNV’s slogan was “Occupation Is Not My Judaism”, but, unconsciously assuming that opposing Israel could not be authentically “Jewish”, I thought that we would focus only on the “Occupation” part of the mission. I assumed that Judaism would only enter the picture peripherally if at all, or maybe even cynically as a strategic way to advance our agenda.
My experience in the delegation proved these assumptions dead wrong. Though some secular Jews and atheists were present, the majority of participants, including at least ten rabbis, were very committed to Judaism. Their religion and tradition compels them to pursue justice for non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel and therefore actively resist the occupation. And they could support this position with plenty of Torah passages, commentary, and interpretation.
“Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), for instance, is a central tenet of Judaism. Pursue—not value, love, or think it’s just dandy: we must always seek and struggle for justice. The CJNV activists lived this principle. Many are active members of Jewish groups opposing the occupation such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. In that capacity, they devote much time and effort towards their goal of reversing unconditional support for Israeli policy, often putting their bodies on the line and risking arrest. And they did the same in Palestine when working to build and sustain the Sumud Freedom Camp in the South Hebron Hills village of Sarura. The IDF forcibly evicted Palestinians living in Sarura from their cave-homes about 20 years ago, and our mission was to rebuild these homes and move one of its former inhabitants and his family back in. Though CJNV officially asked us to participate in this action for only one full day, many activists camped out in Sarura for five days straight, engaging in physically intensive construction work while eschewing cell phone service, electricity, and indoor plumbing. Some even stayed in the camp up to a week or more after the delegation was officially over. Justice, justice they did pursue—and then some.
Additionally, the more religious participants had a take on concepts such as “Aliyah” and “Israel” that differed from convention and what I learned growing up—in their view, both refer to spiritual abstractions rather than concrete entities or actions. Aliyah refers to an unattainable goal of ascending (the term literally means “ascent”, not, as widely believed, “return”) to the ways of God in one’s thoughts and action. As God is infinite, this is an unattainable goal, but those who yearn for it continually strive to act morally and improve themselves.
And “Israel” is seen both as a verb that means to struggle or wrestle with God and a noun referencing God’s covenant with the Jewish people. The struggle means one seeks God’s wisdom and guidance, but it also implies a dialectic partnership with God that affects both parties. The covenant represents a commitment of God to the Jews and vice versa. Jews honor this commitment by living ethically and seeking justice according to God’s will, which they continuously seek to discern.
Thus, in naming the Zionist state Israel, its founders debased the spiritual realm by implying that one could attain transcendent goals that we should strive for but are always beyond reach in the physical realm. According to one rabbi who participated the delegation, the Israeli state’s primary founder David Ben-Gurion’s advisors warned him that the name “Israel” would lead Jews to falsely conflate the spiritual concept with the new state. Ben-Gurion’s response: “That’s fine with me.”
All this armchair theology relates directly to CJNV’s idea that occupation resistance intersects with Jewish transformation. To the degree that we identify Judaism with the Israeli state, it would be impossible to oppose the latter without transforming the former. And despite what some of its Orthodox adherents might believe, Judaism is a living religion and tradition: Jacob’s wrestling with God (he cannot take the name “Israel” without engaging in this struggle), Talmudic debates, and evolving and differing viewpoints about the role of Zionism all exemplify a religion and tradition that at its essence embraces dialectic interaction and change.
So in supporting, opposing or remaining neutral on Jewish resistance to occupation, we are also staking out positions on the future of Judaism itself. Do we want our Jewish identities defined by allegiance to a nation-state, or do we recognize this as perhaps the clearest, most dangerous, and historically common example of idol worship there is? Do we say “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so now it’s our turn to victimize others” or “we have experienced persecution throughout history, so we should ensure at all costs that we never perpetuate it ourselves?”
Maybe this struggle for the soul of Judaism is one reason why I have observed an increase in visibility of and support for Jewish anti-occupation organizations in the Diaspora. More and more of us, in addition to pursuing justice, are fighting for Jewish identities we can embrace proudly and to keep our tradition alive, compassionate, and meaningful. Diaspora Jews, for the sake of Palestinians, ourselves, and our tradition, must continue to raise our voices and insist that injustice being perpetrated in our name and on our dime must end.