Progressive failure on Israel & Jews
I have always been proud to call myself a progressive rabbi. The progressive movement in America emerged at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The social gospel of religious progressives preached every human being as created in the divine image. Political progressives championed equity and shared responsibility for the collective good. Together they defended society’s vulnerable and oppressed.
But progressivism today has suffered a breakdown over Israel and Jews because, as Natan Sharansky recently noted, “progressives see Israel as an oppressor and Jews as members of the privileged class.”
Israel is imperfect. I do not deny the injustice of its settlements on lands that should one day belong to a Palestinian state. I know Israel’s War of Independence resulted in the expulsion of several Palestinians from their homes 75 years ago. And I mourn the deaths of so several innocents in Gaza today.
But history is more than those snapshots. Israel did not start the 1948 war, or this one. And it should not be labeled an aggressor just because it exercises the power to fight back. Israel must do all it can to shield noncombatants in harm’s way. But it also must defend its land and people against a threat that renders a large swath of its small country uninhabitable. What other nation might tolerate on its border a terrorist regime committed to its destruction? What other nation might be asked to?
As for Jews being privileged, despite a legacy of exclusion from education, business, housing, and other opportunities, the Jewish community today enjoys success in every field of endeavor. And several Jews have achieved enviable financial security.
But it is also true that one in three Holocaust survivors live in poverty and one in four American Jews struggle to make ends meet. And since when is it a privilege to fear for one’s physical safety wearing a head covering or Star of David in public? Jewish institutions invest millions of dollars in security that Christian institutions fortunately need not. Where is the progressive critique of this inequity?
On campus and in the academy, progressivism’s failures of Israel and Jews have long been evident. Many students, who consider themselves progressive, arrive at college knowing little Mideast history. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict becomes for them a spectator sport for which to choose a side. Furthermore, Israel’s campus detractors often conflate the conflict with other liberation struggles, implicating Israel’s supporters in those societal injustices, excluding Jews from efforts to address them.
Inside the lecture halls political motivations often have colored the teaching of history. Israel has been judged by double standards, demonized as a purely colonial enterprise, and delegitimized as the historic homeland of the Jewish people whose presence there stretches back at least 3,000 years.
Even before Oct. 7, a concern existed at several colleges and universities for the safety of Jewish students. But what we have witnessed since then is shocking: not just the defense of Hamas as freedom fighters, but a rejoicing in their atrocities and a rallying to their side, with hateful rhetoric defended on grounds of free speech and free academic inquiry, as if the intimidation and fear felt by Jews did not undermine those very freedoms.
The congressional testimonies of the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania culminated months of failures by university leadership around the country to differentiate right from wrong with the safety of their own students at stake. To hem and haw about First Amendment nuance without first acknowledging the perils of a call for genocide is not just tone-deaf; it is negligent.
It also betrays a failure of several diversity, equity, and inclusion programs to treat anti-Jewish bias with the same seriousness as other biases. Because Jews are perceived as privileged, we are often deemed beyond the reach of prejudice, and the attention rightly paid to microaggressions against other minorities is not paid to microaggressions against Jews.
The global #MeToo movement, another groundbreaking progressive effort, similarly failed the moment. Why were #MeToo International and UN Women among others so slow to acknowledge the sexual violence and gender-based atrocities committed by Hamas against Israeli women? The double standard is undeniable; the refrain rings true: “#MeToo, unless you’re a Jew.”
Religious progressives, like me, believe faith demands we defend the vulnerable. As one whose people are enduring hatred, intimidation, and violence, I expect other progressives to extend to Jews and to Israel the same concern they rightly extend to other oppressed peoples and nations.
Davidson is the senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.
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