Reclaiming Judaism From Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation

Edited by Carolyn L. Karcher. Olive Branch Press, 2019. 400 pages. $20/paperback.

Last October, I sat in the assembly room of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) watching a powerful documentary called Objector. It told the story of Atalya Ben-Abba, a 19-year-old Israeli who spent 110 days in prison for refusing to be conscripted into the Israeli military. After learning about her nation’s ongoing policies of dispossession, occupation, and discrimination against the Palestinian people, Atalya decided she had a moral duty to resist.

What struck me watching this film is that the demands of justice are rarely obvious, and that it is a remarkable spiritual achievement when people break from their society’s intense, well-organized socialization that justifies injustice—and then engage in noncooperation. Quakers struggled for over 100 years before they could say in one voice that slavery was a sinful violation of our faith—and then only 10 percent of the Quakers in the United States actually engaged in a boycott of slave-made goods.

Atalya, however, made her moral journey to noncooperation after just a couple years of getting to know Palestinians and visiting the Occupied Territories to see the realities hidden from most members of mainstream Israeli (and U.S.) society. Happily, while an unusual young woman, Atalya is not alone. Indeed, sitting in front of me during the film was Carolyn Karcher, a longtime member of Jewish Voice for Peace and the editor of a remarkable new anthology entitled Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation.

In this inspiring book, Karcher shares the stories of 40 Israeli and U.S. rabbis, scholars, and activists, almost all of whom were raised to embrace the ethno-nationalist ideology of Zionism and ignore or justify Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. Yet, as Karcher says in her introduction, the book’s contributors “tell a wide range of stories about the roads they have traveled from a Zionist worldview to activism in solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis striving to build an inclusive society founded on justice, equality, and peaceful coexistence.” These stories include rabbinic voices, stories of transforming engagements with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, student experiences fighting the good fight on U.S. college campuses, and many progressive Jews who struggled to come to the conclusion that Zionism’s apartheid-like policies violate the best ethical values of the prophetic Jewish tradition they still treasure.

One of Karcher’s main goals is “to introduce readers to the large and growing community of Jewish activists encompassed within such organizations as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Open Hillel, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and Students for Justice in Palestine.” One essay by Seth Morrison, entitled “From AIPAC to JVP: My Evolution on Zionism and Israel,” is emblematic of this increasingly common shift toward organizing for social justice in Israel–Palestine. AIPAC, of course, is the hardline Zionist group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which Morrison supported with both donations and his volunteer time during his strident pro-Zionist phase. This was a time, he admits, that he held no moral concern for Palestinians.

As Morrison met more progressive Jews who cared about the oppression of Palestinians, he began to shift his allegiance. His next step was to resign his membership in AIPAC and join J Street, a more liberal Zionist organization where he says he “finally had a political home where I could support Israel, but oppose the occupation and speak truthfully about the oppression of Palestinians.”

The next stage in Morrison’s journey was noticing that a “small but growing number” of his friends “supported Jewish Voice for Peace and the Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.” As he puts it, “I had some important debates with them.” However, as he learned more, and thought about their arguments, he became increasingly convinced that the State of Israel “was totally addicted to occupation” and would need a nonviolent international intervention like the BDS movement in order to move toward “peace, democracy, and coexistence between peoples.”

Many of the stories in this collection are less linear than Morrison’s and reveal more ambivalence, reflective zigzags, and internal and external resistance to giving up their early socialization. Yet the authors all now walk the path of human rights activism inspired by the values of justice, solidarity, and equality held sacred in the prophetic Jewish tradition. These very personal stories inspire compassion, moral reflection, and, yes, courageous action. Such stories nourish the soul and are worth reading whether or not you are Jewish.

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