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College Student Responds to Anti-Zionist Intersectionality


Adam Chanes is a Northwestern University freshman, who wrote this as a guest columnist for The Spectrum, a student publication.  We reprint it with his permission.  He refers in the first sentence to Northwestern U. groups and another N.U. publication.  

Although a stickler on historical detail might have mentioned the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E. as the definitive start of Jewish exile from the ancient homeland (rather than the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E.), one has to be impressed by this young man’s thoughtfulness and sophistication.  And one is intrigued by his invocation of the late West Bank settler-peace activist Rabbi Menachem Froman as his “teacher”:  

There is no one Judaism, no one Zionism

Unshackle NU and Northwestern Divest inappropriately provided wholesale definitions of Jewish and Zionist identities in their letter to North by Northwestern [“Black-Palestinian solidarity is logical and necessary”] last quarter. By asserting that Judaism is “a religious identity” and that Zionism is merely a “political identity,” the two campaigns inexcusably lay a claim on the identities of others. They cannot accept that Judaism is not always “religious.” They do not appreciate that a Zionist identity is, for many like myself, an entirely religious experience deeply rooted in Torah thought and practice, a way I serve God. And they don’t allow a Zionist like me to fight Israeli racism and express solidarity against institutional anti-blackness.

When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, my Israelite ancestors, who suddenly faced an exiled, landless existence, began a two-millenia enterprise of self-examination, resulting in definitive heterogeneity. We continue to define Judaism in deliberately disparate ways.

Likewise, the dominant Zionist ideologies were always political — Labor, Revisionist, and others. Other important manifestations, however, by no means necessitated the creation of a political state. Are these voices to be automatically excluded because Zionism is a dirty word that represents only oppression — not a false representation — but nothing else?

The letter points selectively towards Jewish Voice for Peace and Neturei Karta as Jewish groups that oppose conflating Zionism and Judaism. Unshackle NU and NU Divest insinuate that these groups and “countless others” have exclusive license to define Judaism and Zionism for the rest of the Jewish people. The deep Jewish tradition of “mahloket,” creative disagreement in Torah study, insists that no one Jewish group can legitimately define either “identity” for everyone else. The two campaigns denounce the State of Israel’s engagement in that very act of “defining for everyone else.” But they themselves do just that by designating only two Jewish organizations to learn from.

My beliefs also defy categorical statements about either identity. My experience of Judaism is Torah-infused, “religious,” but certainly not just that: I’ve been attending secular Yiddish theater since early childhood and have participated in Jewish sports leagues. Many secular American Jews, and “hiloni” (secular) Israelis too, take umbrage at those calling their Jewish identities “religious,” yet they feel very Jewish. It is no coincidence that the debate over how and whether to define the state’s “Jewish character” is the reason Israel has no constitution.

The Zionism I identify with most is a religious identity. My religious practice, minute-to- minute, is predicated on an active orientation toward a land of eternal sanctity, “Eretz Yisrael.” My religiosity is Zionist. Every time I finish eating grain-based foods — a simple Clif Bar — I say an ancient liturgical passage that thanks God for agricultural sustenance and the precious land of our ancestors. This blessing, which was not written by Theodor Herzl or Ariel Sharon, continues by asking God for mercy upon the land and the ancient Temple, and that God should bring Jews up to the land — but not without compassion.

The intersection between food, geography and sanctity shows that the Jewish yearning for an ancestral homeland — Zionism — is a part of every bite, embedded in the ritual minutiae. And it’s not just a yearning. To serve God fully, there are agricultural commandments I feel obligated to fulfill — they require living in Israel.

The ancient Hebrew texts, particularly blessings of justice and ingathering exiles, require me to direct as much intention to ending anti-Black oppression and the Israeli military occupation as to a return to the land of Israel. When saying “May our eyes behold Your (God’s) return to Zion in mercy” in all three daily prayer services, another Jewish obligation, my intention is a thirst for the land, but one that must reflect God’s merciful side. I pray to realize the “natural morality” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook — the spiritual father of Religious Zionism — dwelled upon.

My teacher, the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, was a controversial and seemingly contradictory peace activist (he was a settler leader who opposed military occupation). He denounced the common, perverse Religious Zionist approach to the land of Israel, a racist approach that turns deep desire into ideology that conquers rather than integrates. The land does not belong to us, Froman said — we belong to the land, and the land belongs to God. Of course, it would be unjust to claim the nonexistence of legal land-ownership or to wield divine “ownership” as an excuse to settle anywhere, as Religious Zionist settlers have done. Such claims ignore decades of illegal Israeli theft of Palestinian land and acts of ethnic cleansing in 1948.

Rabbi Froman teaches that to live in God’s land, Jews must act with utmost sensitivity and love toward the Other, the human being, the infinite “image of God” in our midst, for they too —Palestinian tears, family, culture, humanity — belong to God’s land. We cannot reverse history. But secular and religious Jews and Zionists must look at history and recognize that there was a Palestinian Nakba, a catastrophic reality that did not end in 1948 and that the Jewish “aliyah” (ascent) to Palestine should not have happened at the cost of displacing 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes.

One of God’s many names in Judaism is “Shalom,” which means “peace.” To put an end to the desecration of God’s name, Israelis and Palestinians must learn to love one another today. But that can only happen in parallel with Jewish Israeli efforts — yes, even religiously-inspired efforts — to end the racism, the suffering, the occupation, the erasure of land and history.

From within Jewish secularism and religiosity can come Zionism, and from within Zionism a love of peace and a hatred of oppression can exist. Just as Judaism constantly develops, Zionism can and must take a courageous step outside of its own blemished history.

2 Responses to “College Student Responds to Anti-Zionist Intersectionality”

  1. Guest
    April 26, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

    Dear Adam,
    I applaud your opinion and essay. I simply would like to add my point which is you may be too tough on your Isreali brothers. You know, in Isreal, there are Arab MKs which is even more remarkable given their consistent anti-Isreal positions and speeches in the Isreali parliament. I doubt very much dissident is tolerated (we know its not) in the PA,, Gaza, etc. Look at Syria they are massacring shia versus sunni. When Jordan had the West Bank before 1967 was there “pace” …no. Ada, its not the Isrealis, its the other side who will not reconcile that jews (ie infidels) are there.

  2. Bar
    April 30, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

    A little disturbing to find the writer seeking to defend himself and his Zionism while then throwing Israel under the bus at the end of the piece. To be sure, there has been some, but relatively small amounts of “land theft” by “settlers” or other Israelis. That which has taken place finds itself reviewed by Israel’s courts regularly – along with plenty of legally purchased land and homes. Jews purchased every centimeter of land on which they lived until late 1947 when the Arab attacks began, often at unbelievably high prices. Land acquires subsequently, was won at high cost in lives and injuries due to Arab warmongering and losses. It also happens that the land claimed by many for Palestinians presently remains disputed from a legal standpoint, with many jurists claiming the rightful owner should be Israel. One may disagree and provide counter-arguments, but slogans about “land theft” do not make it so. One thing is certain: on 3 occasions in the past 16 years, Israel has offered statehood, 100 percent of Gaza and around 95 percent of Judea and Samaria (Jordanian-named West Bank) to Palestinians in exchange for permanent peace and has been rebuffed every time despite this being the first time in history the Palestinians would have had their own state.

    One may sympathize with challenging circumstances faced by Palestinians due to their own leadership’s choices (often, survey show, demonstrably supported by a majority of Palestinians), such as refusing peace deals or, in the case of Abbas and Egypt’s Morsi, refusing a tract of Sinai land that would have trebled Gaza’s size overnight, but blaming these choices and their outcomes on Israelis is false and a rewriting of history.

    The ’48 “Nakba” is the outcome of a war of ethnic cleansing and extermination launched by the Palestinian Arabs and then by neighboring Arab states. Who began attacking the day after UNGAR181 was passed at the UN? Arabs. Who proceeded with attacks and put the Yishuv in dire shape until January of ’48? Palestinian Arabs together with Arab irregulars from nearby countries. Who launched a war the day after Israel declared itself a state (accepted as such by the int’l community) in May, 1948? Several Arab armies. These are facts. The areas conquered by Arabs were rid of ALL Jews, followed by a Jordanian antisemitic law preventing only Jews from these areas to acquire Jordanian citizenship. While this was happening, Israel was absorbing 150,000 Arabs. It subsequently offered to take in another 100,000 Arab refugees but was rebuffed by Arab states who, simultaneously, refused to absorb these same refugees, making them into pawns in a chess match that lasts to this day.

    One may condemn many aspects of the present situation. However, it is clear from the historical record that time and again Israel sought to find peace and a solution with its neighbors. The Yishuv did so in 1937 and 1947, and Israel did so in 2000, ’01 and ’08. In fact, it seems that it quietly did so again several weeks ago when Biden visited Israel and met with Abbas offering him a deal – it’s hard to imagine a deal was offered without Netanyahu’s consent. At every turn, however, Arab states and Palestinians have rebuffed such offers, at times following with wars and “rebellions” targeting Jewish and Israeli civilians as they did in 2000-07. The claim? That Israel is actually “Palestine” though no such country ever existed and this land was not under Palestinian rule in the past. However, the idea that Jews might have sovereignty appears to be unpalatable to many and while Israel – a country that serves as home and refuge to most of Middle Eastern and North African Jews who left as refugees as a result of Arab attacks, threats and bigoted laws – finds itself under threat of enemies regularly, it has still managed to provide its minorities with freedom of worship and expression.

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