This week’s AIPAC conference in Washington wrestled with the crisis facing the Israel lobby: the growing partisanship of Israel support. AIPAC featured many Democratic politicians, and its panels made appeals to progressives, though AIPAC is a rightwing organization (as the young Jewish group IfNotNow reminds us).
In an AIPAC forum on “Progressive Zionism,” Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas said that Zionists could build alliances with leftwing groups by sharing their “vulnerability” and “pain and trauma” from Jewish history as a persecuted minority, because that way other marginalized and historically-oppressed groups will relate to Zionists.
Farkas serves a Los Angeles-area conservative congregation and is on the board of the Zionist group “Zioness” along with the Clintonite leader Ann Lewis.
Here are some of the rabbi’s comments. First, Zionism is progressive because it answers the question, How do Jews find security after “thousands of years living on the margins of society”?
The question I’ve always been thinking about is, How Zionism itself is a progressive value. Not necessarily the specific policies in Israel that make Israel a progressive nation. Or the specific policies that have yet to be realized in Israel that could make it a more progressive nation. But the idea that Zionism itself is a progressive value because Zionism is the idea that each and every one of us has a place to live in the world. And each and every one of us has a right to not feel other-ed by the larger society in which we live. And for the Jewish person, and in the Jewish heart, that idea is Zionism. That is the answer to the question of, What do we do after thousands of years living on the margins of society?
Farkas said that the reason young Jews are critical of Israel is that they are surrounded by progressives who deal in negativity: “tearing down what’s around you.” He tries to offer a more “constructive” path of using Jewish tradition to build “the democracy you want to see in the world.”
When you think about why young Jewish progressives feel against or negatively about Israel, or have apathy or distance from Israel, so much of it is because they take their cues from this deconstructive progressive body politic. I think the way you engage them is by engaging their allies, by engaging the historically marginalized, the black and brown people, the LGBTQ people, and that you have to get into relationship with them, and to bring them along in the process of a positively constructive progressive movement. That’s some of the work we’re doing in Zioness.
Farkas never spoke about Palestinian persecution or Palestinian conditions.
He repeatedly cited the need for Zionists to build relationships with leftwingers.
Our biggest mistake in the last 15 years is we have ignored progressives, we have ignored historically marginalized people. We made the story of Zionism only about us and the Jewish people, which of course it has to be in chapter 1 of that book. But chapter 2 of that book is how the Exodus story matters to other people. Because we were not in those spaces– we didn’t go to Black Lives Matter meetings when they first started, we didn’t sit with Occupy when it first started– the only people who showed up in those spaces were people who wanted to demonize Israel. And they built relationships, and because of those relationships, they shared their own vulnerability and through that shared vulnerability they came to policy positions that “other,” demonize and hate people like you and people like me.
Zionists need to work with the left on leftwing issues, then “make the turn” and show that Jews are vulnerable too.
What progressives Zionists need to do is show up in those meetings, not to engage on our issues yet, but to engage on those issues, create the shared vulnerability, open the door, create those relationships, and then make the turn and tell them about our pain.
And when we do that they will actually listen to us, because progressives respond– I respond, I think you respond– to someone else’s pain. And if we do that, we can create the relationships and build the progressive Zionist movement that is still missing in this country…
Farkas advised a Wesleyan University student who said she was caricatured as a Trump supporter and not welcome at the animal-rights club to hang in there:
The number one thing as a progressive you can lean into is empathy and pain and trauma…. you can show them, those who claim to be progressive, that all voices should be heard, and that your voice matters, and your shared vulnerability matters. And you’re not asking them to support what you believe, but you’re asking them to at least understand emotionally what you’re going through, and then that is how you begin to build that relationship and hopefully it will change over time.
No one can tell a discriminated-against individual that they’re not experiencing hatred, Farkas went on. “As a Jew if I experience something as antisemitism, then it’s antisemitism.” The same goes for the gay person experiencing homophobia, a woman experiencing misogyny.
And it’s working, Farkas says. Zioness is a “progressive organization” that has built alliances on progressive issues and gotten some allies to shut up about their anti-Zionism.
We’re getting bigger and bigger across campuses and in fact we’re neutralizing some opposition that we never thought we could neutralize before. That doesn’t mean they are going to be Zionists themselves but we’ve gotten several major black preachers for example who are friends of mine who are working on homelessness issues with me in Los Angeles — they don’t preach against Israel any more. They’re not Zionists, they’re not going to come– but they’re not preaching BDS any more. And that’s because we’ve developed relationships. I’m working on racial discimination in the homelessness sector in the Los Angeles with them, for them as a partner. That’s what Zioness does. We show up and we create proximity… being in intimate relationship with other people’s pain and that is what creates the opportunity for them to actually hear our pain and our desires.
Asked why AIPAC was a good place for progressives to invest precious resources, Farkas said that the only way to get power in the U.S. “if you weren’t born into a wealthy zip code or inherited certain privileges” is to organize. And: “AIPAC is the greatest organizing machine of the Jewish people in the United States.”
(The obvious critique of Farkas’s statements is that AIPAC is a very powerful organization indeed that operates by directing funds toward politicians who support occupation and ethnic cleansing, and its power is actually derived from many people born into wealthy zipcodes. This is the fundamental paradox of the Israel lobby, that it draws on a history of Jewish persecution and marginalization to justify the exercise of corrupt and brutal power. I wonder how many progressives even want to hear from Zionists who fail to acknowledge that Palestinians under occupation have no rights.)