Israel in December

Naomi Klein, whose eco activism I admire, published a talk that she gave in the Passover Seder in The Guardian. You can read that talk here.

The article itself was entitled We Need an Exodus from Zionism, in which Klein stated that Zionism had accomplished nothing but aggression, brutality, arrogance, and death. “It has brought us to our present moment of cataclysm and it is time that we said clearly: it has always been leading us here. It is a false idol that equates Jewish freedom with cluster bombs that kill and maim Palestinian children… The false idol of Zionism has been allowed to grow unchecked for far too long. So tonight we say: it ends here.”

She also re-defined her religion: “Our Judaism cannot be contained by an ethnostate, for our Judaism is internationalist by nature … Our Judaism is the Judaism of the Passover Seder: the gathering in ceremony to share food and wine with loved ones and strangers alike, the ritual that is inherently portable, light enough to carry on our backs, in need of nothing but each other: no walls, no temple, no rabbi, a role for everyone, even – especially – the smallest child. The Seder is a diaspora technology if ever there was one, made for collective grieving, contemplation, questioning, remembering and reviving the revolutionary spirt.”

Beautifully said. I want the war in Gaza to stop immediately, for aid in all its forms to get into Gaza, for hostages to be released, and for Palestinians and Jews to live in peace. In years past I worked towards the latter goal.

Klein also referred to a dimension of fear cultivated by many Israelis as well as older American Jews. I remember pruning vineyards in a kibbutz by the Dead Sea and, in the middle of laughter and teasing over which is the better country, being told by one Kibbutz member: “You just watch. One day, when the shit hits the fan in America, you’ll come crawling to us for shelter and safety.” Even then, at the age of 20, I recognized fear-mongering when I heard it.

I won’t deny it, on October 7 I felt a deep fear, for the first time ever, of what might happen to Jews if there was no Israel for refuge. But I knew even then that seeding fear wherever you go is responsible for building an Israel like today, a fortress on the Mediterranean, a doughty mentality inculcated in young people from their earliest school years that glorifies the military, reminding generation after generation that it’s their job to serve and sacrifice just as their parents had done.

My husband went to Israel in the early 1960s to consider settling there. He came back after a year because, he told me, it felt like Sparta.

But Israel is part and parcel of Jewish identity. All great rabbis and scholars knew that a crucial part of their spiritual identity lay there, not everywhere. In the Old Testament, read and studied by Jews and Christians, God tells Abraham that his descendants will return to Israel one day. DNA testing and archeology show over and over again a long Jewish presence in Israel. In fact, the Bible lists mitzvot, or good deeds, that can only be performed in Israel, especially relating to agriculture.

Jews carried this love of the Promised Land in their hearts for myriad generations. I still remember my mother reminiscing what it was like to grow up in Czechoslovakia and someone would return from visiting the Holy Land. It was as if an aura surrounded their heads, she related; awe descended in the room. It was as if the guest had returned from the Garden of Eden itself, from which all humans had been banished.

I think that those who understand this best are indigenous nations. The Lakota won their case against the United States concerning ownership of the Black Hills, but the Supreme Court ruled that they give it up for compensation. To this very day they have not taken the hundreds of millions of dollars accruing in a government account in exchange for their sacred land. They point to Wind Cave, from which they emerged, to Buffalo Gap and Bear Butte. How can they give that up? Is their spirituality, the essence of their nationhood, “internationalist,” in Klein’s words, something portable that can be carried on their backs?

That is also the reason why Jews rejected Uganda, or part of what was then the East Africa Protectorate, as a possible homeland when the British government suggested it in 1903. Had they accepted, they would have truly been colonizers because they had no historical or cultural connection to that land at all.

Judaism didn’t start in Poland or Ukraine or in the US, and certainly not as an “internationalist” tradition. As millions of Sephardic Jews, DNA testing and archeology can attest, it started in the Middle East and continues to carry that distinct flavor. In driving around the country, any guide could point out Gilboa Mountain, where King Saul met his tragic end, the Galilee where Jesus grew up among other Jewish families, Sodom and Gomorrah, eternally filled with salt. Not New York City, not Lublin in Poland, or Minsk in Belarus. Place has everything to do with it.

Which brings me back to Klein calling Judaism internationalist. In some sense, you could say that about all religions because they try to address basic social, economic, and environmental ills: racism, poverty, climate change, etc. But each is also highly specific, with its own rituals, holidays, prayers, songs, dance, robes, history, and, in some cases, homeland. As any poet and artist knows, the life is all in the specifics, not in some abstract concepts.

To make of Judaism, or any religion, some kind of cosmopolitan, generic fix-it is to rob it not just of its uniqueness, but also its mystery, the not-knowing at its center. It reduces it to a kind of generic hospital addressing our needs and wants, and excludes everything that can’t be defined, that is unknowable

No matter how well-intentioned our ideas are, they are the product of a linear way of thinking. Something lies beyond our limited understanding that is at the very essence of Life. Not everything is accessible to our senses; we experience it, but don’t notice or even perceive what we are experiencing.

I agree with Klein that in recent history, and especially since 1967, something has gone awry in some people’s understanding of Zionism, mistaking it as an excuse for grabbing land and homes, for punishing and even killing people who are perceived to be in the way of a divine-sanctioned vision, and for enforcing a kind of apartheid. Show me an idea or concept that has never been co-opted by humans to meet their own self-centered, egoic desires.

But not all Zionists are like that. My brother, a religious Jew who lives in Jerusalem, told me before the holiday that he and many friends and associates see the Passover story not as some self-congratulatory saga of God freeing them from bondage. “Why did God bring Abraham’s descendants into Egypt to begin with?” he told me. “Because God wanted them to experience what it is to be strangers in another land, what it is to be hated, enslaved, and killed. Only then God liberated them, so that when they arrived in their own country, they would remember what it felt like to be Other, and act accordingly.”

That, too, is Zionism.

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