Progressive Zionists (of which I count myself) have long been calling for big tents in our Jewish institutions. Diversity, dialogue and pluralism have been our buzzwords. The broader the tent, we’ve known, the more likely it is that we will have our voice heard. The call has seemed especially urgent as our Jewish institutions have tacked rightward, following the lead of Israel’s government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And when it comes to our synagogues, places where we gather to serve our spiritual needs, the call has seemed especially important.
But here’s a bold proposal: what if progressive Zionists demanded that, rather than adhere to big-tent pluralism as a principle, our pulpit rabbis actually pushed values-based Judaism? If they did, they wouldn’t only give sermons condemning adultery, and they wouldn’t only call for congregants to get off their iPhone on Shabbat. They would remind us that there are an array of Judaic values that are simply incompatible with right-wing Zionist thought and practice.
Consider the ideas promoted by Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party. Despite his party’s name, Bennett’s vision is anything but Jewish – that is, if we think about the values embedded in Judaic teachings such as “love your neighbour as yourself,” or “in the image of God” were all humans created, or “justice, justice you shall pursue.”
In an opinion piece Bennett penned in the New York Times last year, he laid out his vision for the future of Israel and Palestine. Under Bennett’s plan, Israel would continue to occupy the Palestinians – well, 90 per cent of them at least, the ones who live in “Area A” and “Area B” – forever.
Under Bennett’s vision, only Area C would be annexed to Israel, with Israeli civil law extended over that area, and its resident Palestinians (who number 300,000, or a little over 10 per cent of the total of West Bank Palestinians) would be granted Israeli citizenship. This would mean keeping nearly 90 per cent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank – roughly two million Palestinians – under the power of a military occupation over which they have no electoral say. Yes, checkpoints in those areas would be removed, and sure, Palestinian control over local governance matters would be put in place, but democracy, rights and justice would not exist.
At the JSpace Canada conference I attended in Toronto earlier this month, rabbis who care deeply about shepherding healthier and more robust dialogue on Israeli-Palestinian relations talked of creating “safe spaces” for conversations around Israel to flourish. Of course, I understand their instinct, and if I were in their shoes, I might articulate things the same way.
But what if rabbis didn’t allow for every opinion to be considered valid? Just as most rabbis take a public stand on an array of behaviours – such as no cheeseburgers, no Ponzi schemes and no slander – what if they declared that the kind of Zionism being peddled by the far-right in Israel today flies in the face of timeless Jewish values?
There are a few possible outcomes, of course. The right wing might be chastened and consider a shift in viewpoint. Or the right wing, feeling alienated, might leave those shuls, with only progressive Jews remaining. More likely, though, the right wing of the tents that some rabbis have been careful to fashion might turn on them. Rabbis might in turn find themselves out of a job.
If I were an employment adviser, I don’t think I could, in good faith, recommend it. Unlike professional scholars, rabbis regrettably lack the security of tenure, a convention that affords scholars like me the ability to speak, teach and write directly from our own intellectual and ethical compass. But a little part of me – the part that longs for moral clarity from our spiritual leaders – wishes they might one day try it.