Elul is the Jewish month for soul-reckoning. Traditionally, Jews don’t make New Year resolutions, but they are expected to try harder in anticipation of the High Holiday Season. So in that spirit, I have a few practical suggestions for my liberal Zionist as well as my progressive non-Zionist and anti-Zionist brothers and sisters (and for myself).
1. Pay for a subscription to Haaretz, and read it several times a week. Sign up for the daily notifications. Read articles by reporters like Nir Hasson, Amira Hass, and Gideon Levy, and op-ed writers like Dimitri Shumsky and Daniel Blatman, among others. Read 972mag regularly. Get an education on what is happening to the Palestinians living in Palestine today. I am amazed at the people who have all sorts of views on Israel, but who don’t read keep up with Haaretz. Reading the paper on a regular basis not only shows support for its journalistic courage; it has a long-term cumulative effect.You can read Gideon Levy once or twice and be shocked. You can read him a third or fourth time, shake your head, and turn the page. But if you read him weekly, year in and year out, and if you have not hardened your heart, you will be transformed.
2. Read Palestinian policy voices, like the Al-Shabaka policy network. Those folks represent some of the most thoughtful Palestinian voices writing today. For too long discussion about Israel has been an intra-Jewish family affair. Jews need to be listening to Palestinians and working together with them.
3. Ban two words from your vocabulary when you refer to each other: ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘racist’. There are bigots everywhere, but hoping that the State of Israel will be replaced by a state that provides equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; saying that the Jews don’t have a right to a state is not anti-Semitic. What is anti-Semitic? Wishing Jews harm because they are Jews, or considering them to be objectionable because they are Jews. Calling a Jew who supports BDS an anti-Semite is often itself anti-Semitic, since it presumes to restrict what Jews can acceptably say. That’s the first half of the suggestion. The second is to reserve the term ‘racist’ for real racist statements, not for statements that are interpreted by other people as ‘dog whistles’. Yes, we should be sensitive to what we say. But we should also be charitable in interpreting what others say, all things being equal. Terms like ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘racist’ are terms of moral opprobrium. They represent the nuclear option, and their use should be restricted.
4. Learn about Zionism before you praise or condemn it. Don’t reduce it to a slogan or a category. From its inception Zionism spoke with several voices and appealed to different sentiments within the Jewish public. Its development was not linear and, like everything else, was a product of its historical context, and adapted to changing circumstances. For all its flaws in implementation, Zionism has provided hundreds of thousands of Jews with feelings of dignity, self-worth, ethnic pride, and security. The surge of Zionist identification among American Jewish progressives in the late 1960s and the early 1970s coincided with (and was influenced by) the Black Power and the Women’s Liberation movements. This does not justify the problematic aspect of Zionism, its inevitable clash with the rights of the Palestinian natives. It doesn’t justify the path it took, which was not inevitable, but was the product of decisions in historical context. Nor does it excuse some of its extreme versions. But both tactically and principally, the pursuit of justice for the Palestinians should not be held hostage to an ideological struggle over Zionism, especially when our identities are invested in that struggle.
5. Most importantly, the struggle for Palestinian rights must be placed front and center. Ending a long and brutal occupation must be the goal that brings together Palestinians and Jews, and Zionist and non-Zionist Jews It’s not about our own identity issues as Americans or as Jews, or Jewish Americans. Injustice is committed hourly in the name of the Jewish people. There are times when the pursuit of universal values should trump ethnic and communal loyalties. Even after Charlottesville, and the rise of the alt-right, the American Jewish community is still, barukh ha-Shem, very strong and safe. Jewish communities may be potential victims everywhere, but there is only one place where the Jewish community is a perpetrator. That puts upon us a responsibility to unharden our hearts and to do the right thing. It’s not about us; it’s about what is being done to them in our names.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on August 29, 2017, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume). It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.