Cantor Michael Smolash shares a perspective with the younger constituency, many of whom have characterized Israel’s actions as criminal or worse.
As a progressive Jew growing up with an Israeli father, I’ve always had a complex relationship with Israel. There was a saying that my dad loved and that made an impression on me: “Don’t be so open-minded that you fail to choose your own side in a fight.” So many years later, I feel this tongue-in-cheek truism has something important to teach progressives as we navigate the latest Hamas terror attacks on Israel as well as the troubling fallout here in America.
If you are following any of the online conversations, you can see that many younger members of the liberal community are calling for strong public statements condemning Israel’s response to the 4,000-plus rockets as too harsh or even as some sort of war crime. At the same time, older congregants and the Israeli community have been pressing for a clear stance in support of Israel with no equivocations or apologies. The result from many left-leaning organizations, such as the Reform movement, has been a sort of muted, even-handed stance that tries to please both sides — or at least offend neither.
Putting it in Perspective
Let me share a perspective with the younger constituency, many of whom have characterized Israel’s actions as criminal or worse. For those of us who voted Obama in for a second term and continue today to cheer him on as one of the most admired figures in America, we might take a look in the mirror of recent history. We all shrugged off Obama’s heavy-handed campaign of drone strikes around the world as a necessary evil. No one suggested that he was a war criminal or that the several thousand deaths in Pakistan alone over his presidency meant that America was a “terrorist state.” We dismissed civilian deaths with the Orwellian term “collateral damage,” and certainly never did the kind of macabre math that is being directed at the IDF requiring, heaven forbid, a minimum number of American casualties so that the enemy deaths would be proportional. Nor did we suggest limiting the use of American might or technology to allow anything resembling a “fair fight” as post after post is now suggesting Israel must do.
Considering that we accepted a years-long drone campaign waged against potential threats from literally across the globe where cutting technology was used to eliminate our enemies, it seems the height of ludicrousness for us to decry Israel’s 11-day operation to stop rocket squads who were launching thousands of rockets in real time at Israeli civilians just kilometers away.
We who have never in our lifetimes waged a war on American soil might try a reality check before tossing accusations of war crimes at Israel when we let our own lethal campaign, not to mention an ongoing 20-year war in Afghanistan, continue over drastically more distant and theoretical threats.
Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism
Another strategy that has emerged in our community is to try and distinguish between Israel and Jews. “Don’t equate Jews around the world with Israel” reads many a Facebook post or TikTok sound bite. “Attacking Jews in New York or Los Angeles is antisemitic because you are blaming the Jewish people for how the country of Israel is behaving.”
Unfortunately, we need to understand the inverse message we are sending with these kinds of statements. Defending ourselves as not to blame for Israel’s actions implies that attacking Israel isn’t antisemitic — only attacking American Jews. In other words, just leave us alone, and we won’t stand between you and the Jewish state.
It is this duck-and-cover response that has allowed the term anti-Zionist to somehow become acceptable in civil discourse as anything but hatred of Jews. Repeating the specious argument that anti-Zionism is not antisemitic will never make it true. Zionism means supporting the existence of the one Jewish state in the world as a Jewish state. Anti-Zionism, by definition, means you deny Jews the right to a state, which most every people from Italians to Russians to Brazilians enjoy.
Many Americans criticize our government, but none would accept the ending of the U.S.A. as anything but hatred of our nation. We should not be bullied into conceding that anti-Zionism is anything but antisemitism, no matter how many thugs in pickup trucks make trouble in our cities while chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” If we are tone deaf to the meaning of our silence, know that Israelis in America and Israel hear it loud and clear — just ask them. So do Israel’s anti-Zionist enemies, whether on the streets of New York and Los Angeles, the battlefields of the Middle East or the halls of Congress.
I do sympathize with the bind that younger left-wing Jews are feeling. Over the last decade, the progressive coalition has made being anti-Zionist an entry requirement for membership in the intersectional club that fights against important issues such as racism, sexism, poverty and many other causes we value as Jews.
It is hard enough during times of peace to balance our love of Israel with our commitment to the many social justice organizations that have been our allies on other fronts. But when rockets are striking kitchens, schools and buses across Israel, targeting and killing civilians, and when the Israeli military moves to end those strikes, as would any military on the planet, progressive Jews in America need to be more clear on our principles, not less. If that clarity means stepping in front of the speeding train that is the misleading intersectional narrative on Israel, so be it. Amanda Berman at Zioness has been one of the few progressive Jewish voices to truly stand by Israel’s side, and we should model after her courage and integrity.
Will this stance mean that we are excluded from the progressive coalitions that we work with on so many other issues? That depends on the integrity of those communities. If they are comfortable choosing Hamas, of all organizations, as their latest darling, then I would suggest they do not deserve the tacit stamp of approval of the progressive Jewish community. Nothing could represent our principles less than a terrorist group that deliberately commits the patent war crime of targeting civilians with rocket attacks while also opposing every cause the intersectional community supports. From freedom of religion to gay rights to women’s rights to the basic freedoms of democracy, Hamas ranks with the KKK or ISIS, and should be well beyond our red lines as liberals and liberal organizations.
It may not feel like an easy path, but as a major force in American politics, it is the responsibility of progressive synagogues, as well as our movement organizations, to step up and clearly defend Israel. We all fly the Israeli flag from our buildings, and we all travel to Israel during peace times. But what do those mean if we don’t pick our own side when rockets are landing in our homeland?
Cantor Michael Smolash sits in the Stephen Gottlieb z”l Cantorial Chair at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, where he has served since 2004.