Will Diaspora Progressive Zionism Still Be Around in 2030?

Stories and Reflections from the Lonely Front Lines

It was spring 2002; I was a sophomore in college.  I was horrified by the second intifada unfolding in the news, and the campus dynamic was quickly deteriorating into combative shouting matches without any ability or interest in listening or learning from those who think differently.  I joined a few like-minded friends to start a progressive Jewish campus group that identified as pro-peace, pro-Israel, and pro-Palestinian, aiming to cultivate understanding and empathy.  Initially we were not interested in attending the pro-Israel rally scheduled to take place in DC that April, but a mentor encouraged me to attend, pointing out that our progressive voice and presence was sorely needed in that space.  So a few of us chose to attend, wearing t-shirts that said “Shalom | Peace | Salaam” and carrying signs that said “I am Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestinian” and “We Have Faith in Co-Existence”.  Our experience at the rally was both formative and traumatic: we were shouted at, pushed and shoved, and spit on by pro-Israel Jews that day.

About eight years later, as a young Jewish professional, I attended the GA (the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America) for the first time and got to see the Prime Minister of Israel speak in person.  But that day in New Orleans, November 8, 2010, turned into another formative, traumatic event for me and other young progressive American Jews in attendance, when young Jewish protestors interrupted Netanyahu’s speech chanting “The Occupation Delegitimizes Israel!  The Occupation Delegitimizes Israel!  The Occupation Delegitimizes Israel!”  For at least 10+ minutes–and what seemed like an eternity–they repeatedly interrupted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to several thousand American Jewish leaders from all across the country.  The crowd was shocked at first, and then increasingly angry – and I watched alongside a good friend as the protestors were dragged out of the convention hall as they continued to shout words we actually agreed with, while furious attendees shouted back at them, clearly overcome with rage.  My friend and I looked at each other in that moment, shocked, and then she said to me: “I never want to go to Israel ever again.”

Later that year, after stepping into my first Jewish nonprofit executive leadership position, I participated in a gathering of Jewish social and environmental educators, activists, and leaders from Israel, America, and Europe – many of us just meeting for the first time, and all of us trying to learn from and support one another in our sacred, difficult work.  During an unforgettable dialogue session over Shabbat, Israeli social justice leaders lovingly called us out, their American counterparts: “Your silence on Israel was deafening,” they said, “and we – your Israeli counterparts – need your support.”  Then, one after another, American Jewish progressive leaders stood up to talk about how silenced they/we feel, how we could lose funding or our jobs if we criticize Israel. Senior, veteran and trailblazing leaders admitted – collectively and individually – to feeling great pain over the silence that American Jewry indirectly imposes on them. The heartbreak in that room was palpable.

Just a few years ago, after many years of relationship-building and impact in my work, I participated in an Israel dialogue experience with a group of lay leaders who wanted to break through the difficulties in talking about Israel and cultivate a more respectful, genuine understanding of different views about Israel.  At one point we were asked to discuss the question, “Should American Jews be allowed to criticize Israel in public?”, and I said to my small group, “Put another way, this question is asking whether we think J-Street should be allowed to exist…” to which a powerful community leader responded by asking me, “So you support BDS?”. Panicked and upset, I assured him that was not the case, and was much quieter throughout the rest of that dialogue experience, fearing for my reputation and job security.

In November I sent out an essay to the 20,000 people on our national list–people who are interested in the intersection between Judaism and sustainability, and the powerful work we do in cultivating vibrant Jewish life in deep connection with the earth.  I wrote about my recent experience on the Arava Institute-Hazon Israel Ride, how inspired I was by that experience, how much I believe in the work of the Arava Institute as a global leader in peace-building through environmental cooperation, and how despite–and in some ways, because of–the dismay that many of us feel facing the outcome of the recent Israeli elections, we must invest in building grassroots Israel-Diaspora connections, now more than ever.  My message was criticized and challenged, not by far-flung outsiders, but by core leading constituents representing both the center/right and left of my constituency.

I share these stories–and there are many more–to reveal the excruciating experience of what it means to be an American Jewish progressive Zionist over the past 10-20 years.  These experiences haunt me–how they felt, what they meant, and how they foreshadow where we’ve come and where we may be headed.

I hardly ever use the “Z word” anymore, and the “P” word is quite challenging now as well: progressive.  There are very few American Jewish progressive organizations leaning into Israel engagement like we do, and these days feel like we’ve entered a new chapter.  Maybe I’m a dinosaur from a time gone by; I mean after all, I’m now 40 and first visited Israel as a 17-year-old in 1999, back when there was still abiding hope–for many–of some kind of near-term achievable peace and resolution to the conflict. That was a long time ago–I have visited Israel many times since, and often dreamed of living there.  But today, there are two generations of adults younger than me (I’m a very old millenial) who have grown up with Israel constantly mired in tragic violence destroying innocent lives, Israeli and Palestinian.  And while the conflict is complicated and Palestinian leadership is nowhere near innocent, our polarized political discourse has now evolved to the point where to be progressive one is expected to be anti-Israel.  In that context, we must face a painful truth: young, liberal and progressive diaspora Jews are unlikely to embrace Israel on any large scale as long as the conflict rages on. We may not like it, we may think it’s unfair, we may even point to the inspiring work of Israeli progressives on social justice and sustainability issues impacting Palestinians and Arab Israelis–and I resonate with all of these responses! – but none of them change these clear demographic and attitudinal trends across the younger generations of Jews in the Diaspora.

At a more recent GA, I attended a session focused on the disturbing rise of anti-semitism nationwide, and especially on college campuses–where anti-Israel rhetoric has reached fever-pitch.  One speaker spoke eloquently about how anti-Zionist forces present a maddening one-sided, brainwashed view of what is clearly a much more complex, nuanced reality on the ground.  The room nodded in strong agreement.  An amazing woman agreed, and then said one of the most courageous things I’ve ever witnessed at the GA; she made the inverse point: yes, that one-sided view is profoundly problematic, and we commit the very same harm against our own kids.  They grow up in sheltered Jewish communities hearing only one-sided, incomplete histories and narratives about Israel, and then they are confronted by something very different on college campuses.  Why?  Are we afraid to talk openly about the good, bad, and ugly parts of both the Israeli and Palestinian stories?  Why don’t we trust our kids enough to empower them with a more nuanced story?  Why don’t we trust ourselves?  Do we think we can’t handle it?  That our kids will walk away?  Is not critical thinking and robust debate and discourse a bedrock foundation for Jewish learning and community?  When did we diaspora Jews become so delicate as to be afraid of debate?  And surely now, now that the new Israeli government coalition includes heinous leaders who have profoundly violated our Jewish values of tolerance, compassion, justice and love – now can we find our voice?

Authentic, healthy relationships are based on mutual respect and trust.  Israel-Diaspora relations badly need to heal, starting with a fundamental pivot away from the fear-based model that has brought us to this point.  We are equal stakeholders in the Jewish future, equal stakeholders in what Judaism means in the 21st century, and equal partners who must be able to air our disagreements and challenges openly, honestly, and without judgment.  In the Diaspora, we have to be comfortable and confident enough in ourselves to be radically more open than we ever have before.

And from that genuine posture of humility, open-mindedness, and open-heartedness, let us find meaningful shared work that we can do together as one Jewish people – to manifest our shared values and achieve big things that we cannot do alone.

“Climate Change will have a decisive impact on all areas of life in Israel, including: water, public health, agriculture, energy, biodiversity, coastal infrastructure, economics, nature, national security, and geostrategy.  Israel’s poor, elderly, and chronically ill will be disproportionately harmed.  Anticipated rainfall reduction could decrease the flow of the Jordan River by 22%, imperiling the region’s freshwater. The agricultural sector will be damaged, as will livestock and fishing. Rising sea levels will impact Israel’s coastline, potentially leading to saltwater infiltration of aquifers and degrading coastal cliffs, displacing residences, hotels, heritage sites, factories, and more.”[1]

The existential threat and moral urgency of the climate crisis compels us to respond with the full force of the Jewish people.  We need all of us in this moment–all our brilliance and creativity, our resourcefulness and resilience, our power and influence–and we are activating a global Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition in order to mobilize Israeli and Diaspora leadership, to bring us together to tackle this crisis as one people.

There’s been a beautiful tradition of Hazon bike rides, where a mini-Torah scroll is passed from one rider to another each day, carrying the Torah along for the journey.  After the ride, the Torah was passed to me, and since then I carried it from Israel to Egypt, to COP27, and now back home.  It is an awesome feeling–literally, full of awe–to carry a Torah wherever I go.  And it’s the physical embodiment of a deeper truth: that in every generation, we carry Jewish tradition forward, and we make it our own.  That journey and that Torah will be infinitely stronger when we travel together.

If only we can find a way to do so… let’s not pretend that today’s Israel-Diaspora relationship feels inclusive, aligned, or even all that trusting and safe, especially for the Jewish left–progressives inside Israel and across the diaspora.  And unless the structural dynamics of American Jewish life change dramatically, it is not so difficult to foresee a time in just a few years when there will not be any American Jewish progressive zionist leaders/organizations strategically prepared and motivated to make Israel-Diaspora engagement a priority, despite the pain that comes with such a choice.  The solution is not easy or quick: we need to build a powerful coalition of impactful and influential Jewish progressive leaders across the United States, the Diaspora, and Israel in order to break through this cultural paralysis and decline.  We need to listen to and learn from those on the frontlines of this divide – and then creatively and collectively experiment with interventions, over time, to learn how we might turn the tide.  As we face this task, the cultural dynamics are daunting – almost as seemingly insurmountable as the climate crisis.  But as the anthem says, our hope is not yet lost.