Israel, Idea and State

How should Progressive Jews reconcile the changing nature of Israel today as state and ideal? 

Jewish protestors and allies advocate a ceasefire in Gaza, U.S. Capitol, October 18, 2023

Jewish demonstrators and allies protest at the U.S. Capitol’s Cannon House Office Building, October 18, 2023, advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza. | Photograph by aLLISOn BAILEY/nURPHOtO/SHUttERStOCk

Frankfurter professor of law Noah Feldman, a leading scholar of the Constitution, is also an experienced thinker about the Middle East (see “Near and Distant Objectives,” September-October 2020, page 35). His To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $32), arriving at a fraught moment, melds history and personal reflection to an unusual degree. Feldman’s argument bristles with broad, bracing syntheses, like this sample from chapter II:2, “Israel in the Jewish Spirit”:

It emerges that young Progressive Jewish critics of Israel feel an unstated connection to Israel even as they resist and reject it. They do not feel committed to the actually existing state nor connected to the secular nationalist Zionism on which it was built. But while they feel no special duty or obligation to criticize most other illiberal states around the world, they do feel a particular need to criticize Israel, because it matters centrally to their worldview as Jews. They cannot easily ignore Israel, like early Reform Jews ignored Zionism.…So they engage Israel—through the vehicle of Progressive critique. The phrase “Not in Our Name,” sometimes used as a slogan of this critique, captures the sense of personal implication in Israel’s conduct that both marks and challenges their sense of connection.

That is why many young Progressive Jews are at the forefront of the pro-Palestinian movement on college campuses. Difficult as it is for older generations to accept, the cause is not self-hatred, a tendency characteristic of an isolated and scorned minority, not a successful and powerful one. It is, rather, that criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause is the very essence of their Jewish self-expression.…

As today’s college students become adults and gradually assume leadership of their movements, however, Progressivism will have to work out its attitude toward Israel—both the idea of Israel and the actually existing state. Whatever solutions it reaches will have to be innovative. Going back to the old Progressive model of ignoring Zionism would be hard to do, at least for now. But so is embracing simultaneously a God of loving social justice and a state that rejects the path of liberal democracy. Israel will not change just because Progressive American Jews want it to. They will have to find their own answers to the looming crisis facing them, and soon, before a new generation finds itself alienated from a Jewishness whose inner contradictions it cannot reconcile.

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