The 2010 U.S. Assembly of Jews, a national conference held in Detroit in late June, began at an unusual hour for a Jewish conclave: late on a Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t the most accommodating move for participants who observe the Sabbath, but then, the conference’s organizers may not have expected any: This was the first major gathering of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Given that the term “anti-Zionist” is an epithet to many in the organized American Jewish community, one might assume that any American Jew who’d schlep to Michigan to discuss strategies for “decolonizing Palestine” would fall outside that community’s religious and cultural margins as well.
So, it came as a surprise when, at 11:30 on that first Saturday night, after an exhausting opening session, about a quarter of the 200 conference-goers, overwhelmingly under 30, gathered to celebrate havdalah, the ceremony that ushers out the Sabbath. As they swayed in a circle singing “Lo Yisa Goy,” a Hebrew folksong—“and into plowshares beat their swords, nations shall learn war no more”—the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network felt for a moment like Jewish summer camp. Many Jewish community leaders would not have been enthusiastic about the scene. And, in echoes that reverberated throughout the conference, neither were some leaders of the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.
A growing cohort of young Jews actively involved in Jewish life—often in alternative realms like independent minyans, the Yiddish-revival movement, and social-justice organizations—are taking left-wing positions on Israel that leave them feeling marginalized even in the Jewish communities they call home. Ideologically, they range from those who couch their politics in the language of international law and ultimately favor a two-state solution to those who use the more radical language of anti-imperialism and insist that true democracy can never happen within a Jewish state—with countless shades in between. By flirting with the labels “non-Zionist” and “anti-Zionist” without abandoning other traditional affiliations, they have crossed a line into territory where there exists no well-marked space on the American Jewish ideological map.
Into this vacuum came the first conference of the two-year-old International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, a still-obscure organization (though one now on the watch list of some mainstream Jewish organizations) with a moniker echoing those of long-defunct groups, like the Jewish Communist Labor Bund, that tethered Jewish specificity to the international left. For many of the young Jews who turned out in Detroit—most en route to the U.S. Social Forum, a major activist expo that was held in the city later that week—the Assembly seemed to promise a distinctly Jewish space in which to engage in or try on the ideas that Zionism does in fact equal racism and that only a one-state solution can mean justice for Palestinians—regardless of whether they take such a hard line in their day-to-day lives.
But then they encountered a new problem: Their elders on the radical left didn’t know what to do with them either. They were too Jewish.
“Folks like us get it from both sides,” said a 27-year-old Jewish religious professional at the conference who requested anonymity because, she said, she feared repercussions if her views became known. “We’re not loyal enough to the Jews and we’re not pure enough for the anti-Zionists.”
The existence of non- and anti-Zionist Jews is in itself nothing novel; from socialist Jewish movements in prewar Eastern Europe to the ultra-Orthodox sect Neturei Karta, they have been around as long as Zionism itself. What may be new is the emergence of a group of Jews whose leftism does not automatically equal secularism, as it did for generations of Marxists, and who, at the same time, grew up in or were welcomed into a liberal sector of the religious landscape that has grown exponentially over the past few decades. It’s not hard these days, at least in most American cities with large Jewish communities, to find synagogues or minyans that explicitly welcome feminists, gay Jews, and those suspicious of religious hierarchies—as well as spaces next door for those more interested in Yiddish culture or social action.
“For the past 10 years, and particularly from the Second Lebanon War up to the present, there’s been a resurgence of Jewish anti-Zionism where Zionism had once been strongest: among secular liberal Jews,” said Sam Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor who has covered the American Jewish community for decades. In a recent New York Times column, he discussed the revival of the American Council for Judaism, a non-Zionist spinoff of the Reform movement. “It’s gone from being a totally peripheral part of the Jewish scene to some growing minority of the Jewish scene.” (According to Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven M. Cohen, no numbers yet exist on the size of the trend.)
The members of this demographic who turned up at the Assembly of Jews voiced a range of complaints about the Jewish institutions in their lives. A 25-year-old environmental activist named Hillary Lehr from Oakland, California, said she no longer wanted to visit the Reform synagogue she’d attended as a child because its pro-Israel stance was casually embedded into ritual life, from prayers for the Jewish state to tzedakah boxes for the Jewish National Fund. “I want to de-Zionize my synagogue because it’s not about being a Zionist, it’s about Judaism,” Lehr said. “There’s a generation that’s ready to go back to those religious and spiritual spaces. I want to say to my rabbi, ‘I want to come back to my spirituality and I want there to be space for all of us because we’re all Jews.’ ”
Avi Grenadier, 27, who helps run a progressive Jewish radio show called Radio613 in Kingston, Ontario, voiced similar objections about his religious education at a Conservative synagogue in a small Ontario town: Israel, he said, had taken the place of religious content—which meant that when he became disillusioned with the Jewish state, there was no other iteration of Judaism to fall back on. “I knew more about Mossad agents’ biographies than about the Nevi’im,” said Grenadier, who said he studied Jewish texts for the first time last year at Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva in Manhattan. He now wears a yarmulke and observes the Sabbath.
Others voiced a complaint specific to institutions at the left-most edge of the mainstream Jewish world: Because opinion on Israel can be expected to vary widely—and explosively—in such congregations and organizations, some, by dictate or custom, have simply made discussion of Israel taboo.
Some non-Zionist Jews say they want what more pro-Israel factions of the community have: spaces where the Jewish state can be freely discussed and, indeed, turned into a political cause. But others questioned whether creating congregations that organize around the Palestinian cause would simply replicate the inextricability of Judaism and Zionism at more traditional places of worship.
“It’s not like I’m trapped in this synagogue where there’s all these Zionist politics on Shabbat and I want to create a Shabbat where there’s all these anti-Zionist politics,” said Aaron Levitt, 40, a former board member at West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionst congregation in Manhattan, who left the shul after several years of trying to unmoor it from allegiance to Israel (and who was not at the conference). “It would be just as bad; it might even be worse.”
Levitt helped start a non-Zionist minyan this year called Page 36 with fellow Jewish pro-Palestinian activists including a young Reconstructionist rabbi, Alissa Wise—not, he said, because he ultimately wants to pray only with political comrades, but as a kind of stopgap measure while truly “Zionist-neutral” congregations remain few and far between. At the same time, he added, the minyan was inspired by frustration with what he sees as a lack of interest among many of his coreligionist political comrades in aspects of spirituality and peoplehood that go beyond Jewish-flavored universalist politics.
“I care about Palestinians as much as anyone else,” said Levitt, “but I’m engaged in all this stuff because I care about Jews and Judaism.”
It was around precisely these questions of priorities—whether anti-Zionist Jewish movements should be motivated at their deepest level by concern about Jews, or about Palestinians—that the Assembly of Jews became to some extent factionalized. At one end of the spectrum were Jewish Anti-Zionist Network leaders who argued that Jewishness was relevant to the group’s mission primarily to the extent to which it could be used strategically in the public-relations battle over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and that to center their own identities much beyond that would, ironically, become another vehicle for Jewish self-obsession.
“Lots of successful movements have found resources and inspiration in spiritual and cultural work, and none of them have mistaken spiritual and cultural work for the movement itself,” said Sarah Kershnar, one of the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network’s founders. “The reason we pushed back on identity being the central place to act from is it sometimes lacks that connection with what’s really happening in the world.”
That reasoning went down well with some participants, particularly older ones who, in many cases, described themselves as red-diaper babies or as having been alienated from an older and more conservative iteration of the Jewish world for decades over anything from politics to sexuality.
At the other end of the spectrum were those who hewed more closely to Levitt’s view. They got their havdalah service on the Assembly’s program (though everyone else left the conference center before it began) and led workshops on “Jewish Anti-Zionist Spiritual Reclamation” and “Reclaiming Ashkenazi Cultural Spaces From a Zionist Agenda.” But tensions repeatedly surfaced, at public discussions and behind the scenes.
“It’s startling how much easier it is to bring my politics to Jewish spaces than to bring my Jewishness here,” said a participant active in the Boston minyan scene who wanted to remain anonymous because she hopes to apply for Hebrew school teaching jobs. “The organizers kept asking, ‘What is the material benefit this will have? How is this going to end Zionism?’ And it was like, we don’t want to justify why we pray.”
For those who left the Assembly of Jews with mixed feelings, the conference may ultimately have connected them less to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network than to a nascent, nameless network of similarly minded young people. Interested parties passed around sign-up sheets for non-Zionist Yom Kippur retreats and hatched an idea to participate in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement to isolate Israel by selling their own, emphatically Diaspora-made, Jewish ritual objects.
A few days after the Assembly ended, some participants who had stayed in town for the Social Forum held a non-Zionist Shabbat dinner along Detroit’s waterfront. And almost immediately, they encountered a challenge: One of the few other Jewish contingents at the Social Forum had come from Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement. How to integrate the two groups while giving the anti-Zionists the Shabbat they had been promised? The event’s coordinator crafted a text message that she hoped would address the concerns of Assembly folk while also engaging with their Zionist colleagues.
“As most Jewish spaces marginalize the voices of non- and anti-Zionist Jews, this space will privilege the voices of those Jews,” she wrote. But, she added: “All are welcome.”
Marissa Brostoff, a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a former staff writer at Tablet and the Forward.
Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.