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The Danger Of Redefining Judaism By Executive Decree

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2020

At a Hanukkah party at the White House in December, President Trump issued an executive order that, in effect, redefined Judaism as a nationality or race, rather than a religion. He did this so the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race or national origin, could be applied to Jews. The Civil Rights Act does not mention religion.  
What the president was seeking to do was limit criticism of Israel at universities by defining it as “anti-Semitism” and placing this in the category of prohibited discrimination. The New York Times editorially called this executive order an assault on the First Amendment and freedom of speech.  
Evan Carr, the administration’s anti-Semitism envoy, equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and considers Israel a key tenet of Judaism.  
The president’s attempt to redefine Judaism by executive order flies in the face of how American Jews view themselves. Judaism, they believe, is a religion of universal values, not a nationality. While Israeli leaders claim that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews, in fact, American Jews are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim. The homeland of American Jews is the United States. Indeed, the United States has the largest Jewish population in the world, significantly higher than that of Israel.  
Jewish Community Has Grown  
In the last seven years, the American Jewish community has grown by 10 per cent A Study conducted by the Steinhardt Center at Brandeis University found that as of 2018, there are approximately 7.5 million Jews in the contiguous United States. According to recent government statistics, Israel has 6.7 million Jews. It is fanciful in the extreme to believe that the “homeland” of American Jews is anyplace other than the United States.  
This has been the belief of the vast majority of American Jews through our history. In his dedication of America’s first Reform Synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1841. Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared: “This happy country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple. As our fathers defended with their lives that Temple, that city and that land, so will their sons defend this temple, this city and this land.”  
Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, is a new political idea developed in the 19th century by journalist Theodor Herzl. Herzl himself did not believe in God or Judaism. The state he sought to create would be secular, based on the idea of Jewish “national” or “ethnic” identity and incorporating features he found most attractive in Europe, particularly Germany. This immediately brought opposition from Jews of a variety of viewpoints, including the Orthodox and those Jews who considered themselves full members of the societies in which they were born or lived.  
The Mirage of Jewish Nationalism  
The chief rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, denounced the mirage of Jewish nationalism. “Belief in one God is the unifying factor for Jews,” he declared, and said that Zionism was incompatible with Judaism’s teaching.  
For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal prophetic Judaism. The first Reform prayer book eliminated references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel and who would rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The most articulate spokesman for the Reform movement emerging in Europe was Rabbi Abraham Geiger who argued that revelation was progressive and new truth became available to every generation. The Jewish people were a religious community destined to carry out the mission to serve “as a light to the nations’ —-to bear witness to His moral law, he argued. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins. But part of God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism.  
In 1885, Reform rabbis meeting in Pittsburgh wrote a platform that declared, “We recognize in the universal era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine nor a sacrificial worship nor the laws concerning the Jewish state.” It is this vision of America’s original Reform Jews that the American Council for Judaism has sought to preserve and advance.  
Complete Break with Judaism  
In his book “What is Modern Israel?,” Professor Yakov Rabkin of the University of Montreal, an Orthodox Jew, shows that Zionism was conceived as a complete break with Judaism and the Jewish religious tradition. He believes that it must be seen in the context of European ethnic nationalism and political interests rather than as an incarnation of biblical prophecies or a culmination of Jewish history. The religious idea of a Jewish return to Palestine had nothing to do with the political enterprise of Zionism. “Jewish tradition,” he writes “holds that the idea of return must be part of a messianic project rather than human initiative of migration to the Holy Land. There was little room for Jewish tradition in the Zionist scheme. ...It is not the physical geography of the Biblical land of Israel that is essential for Jews but the obligation to follow the commandments of the Torah.”  
The early Zionists not only turned away from the Jewish religious tradition but, in their disregard for the indigenous population of Palestine, Jewish moral and ethical values as well. They spoke of “a land without people for a people without a land.” In fact, Palestine was fully occupied. In his book “A Colonial Settler State,” the French Jewish historian Maxim Rodinson writes that, “Wanting to create a purely Jewish or predominantly Jewish state in Arab Palestine in the 20th century did not help but lead to a colonial-type situation and the development of a racist state of mind and in the final analysis to military confrontation.”  
Only with the rise in anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, followed by the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, did sympathy for Zionism and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine begin to grow. Even then, many Jewish voices warned against the rise of nationalism. Albert Einstein, alluding to Zionism, in 1938, warned an audience of Zionist activists against the temptation to create a state with a “narrow nationalism within our own ranks against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state.”  
The Aim of a Minority to Conquer  
Another prominent German Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, spoke out in 1942 against “the aim of the minority to conquer” territory by means of international “maneuvers.” From Jerusalem, in the midst of the hostilities that broke out after Israel unilaterally declared independence in May, 1948, Buber cried with despair, “This sort of Zionism blasphemes the name of Zion, it is nothing more than one of the cruel forms of nationalism.”  
After Israel’s creation, the organized Jewish community embraced it and made it “central” to Jewish identity. Israeli flags were displayed in synagogues, lobbying groups were created to promote Israel’s interests, making it the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world.  
In recent days, more and more voices are being heard associating Israel and its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza with some eternal plan. This is particularly true of those within the Trump administration and close to it.  
A Kind of Biblical Moses  
Nissim Levy, the chairman of the Board of Governors of the Herzl Center in Jerusalem, declares that, For Jews, “Theodor Herzl is not only the visionary of the Jewish state. For the Jews, he is a kind of biblical Moses.” U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who is an ally of the Israeli settler movement, and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, referred to the relationship between the U.S. and Israel as “an altar of holiness,” and the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as a “shrine.” At a ceremony in Jerusalem, he declared that Israel “was on the side of God.” The U.S. and Israel, he said, should grow even closer, which would be a sign of “holiness.”  
Making the Israeli State “holy,” and therefore a legitimate object of worship, has been accompanied by the virtual canonization of those who embrace its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  
Miriam Adelson, wife of billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and a major contributor to the Trump campaign as well as Birthright Israel and other Zionist causes, in June 2019 proposed that the story of Donald Trump, “hero and patriot,” ought to be added to the Bible. Her articles, entitled “A Time of Miracles,” appeared in the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which her husband owns and she publishes. The paper supports Prime Minister Netanyahu, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, and supports the annexation of parts of the West Bank.  
Transactional Presidency  
According to Open Secrets, the Adelsons have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party and tens of millions of dollars to Donald Trump. In November 2018, Miriam Adelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A gesture which ABC’s Robert Schlesinger said, “perfectly captures the crassly transactional nature of Donald Trump and his presidency.”  
In her branding of Trump as a modern-day prophet, Miriam Adelson framed his unpopularity among Jews in biblical terms: “scholars of the Bible will no doubt note that the heroes, sages and prophets of antiquity were similarly spurned by the very people they came to raise up. Let us at least sit back and marvel at this time of miracles for Israel, for the U.S. and the whole world.”  
President Trump may find widespread support for such views among a small group among ultra-Orthodox right-wing Jews and Evangelical voters. This embrace of the idea that total support for the most extreme positions adopted by the Netanyahu government is a way to appeal to large numbers of Jewish voters is mistaken. Jewish opinion, and that of more and more Americans in general, believes that Israel’s occupation and rejection of the creation of a Palestinian state is a serious obstacle to peace. In a debate by Democratic presidential hopefuls in December 2019, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind-V T) labeled Netanyahu a “racist.” Former Vice President Joe Biden referred to Netanyahu as “outrageous.” Both statements received widespread support.  
On June 4, 2019, Sen. Sanders told the American Jewish Committee that anti-Semitism was not abstract for him. He said: “I am Jewish and very proud of my heritage.” His father emigrated from Poland at the age of 17 to escape discrimination. Those in my family who remained in Poland after Hitler came to power were murdered by the Nazis. He said that, “Anti-Semitism is not some abstract idea to me. It is very personal. It destroyed a good part of my family.”  
As a result of their experience, Sanders says, Jews have a special role to play: “Jews who have been victims of discrimination for centuries must help lead the effort in fighting back against hatred and racism wherever and whenever we see it.”  
That, in Sanders’ view, includes Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. He calls himself someone who believes absolutely and unequivocally in Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, who, as a young man, lived in Israel for several months. “But we must say loudly and clearly that to oppose the reactionary policies of Netanyahu doesn’t make anyone anti-Israel. Let me say it again. I am vigorously opposed to the reactionary, racist policies of Donald Trump. That doesn’t make me anti-American.. I am not anti-Israel because I oppose Netanyahu’s policies.”  
What he sees, Sanders notes, is a Palestinian people “crushed and humiliated” by a half-century of occupation. In the Gaza Strip, “poverty, rampant for 53% of the people, who are unemployed, and the number of unemployed is even higher among young people. And 99% of the residents cannot leave that area. This is not a sustainable situation. Ending that occupation and enabling Palestinians to have independence and self-determination in a sovereign independent, economically viable state of their own is in the best interest of the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians and the entire region. It is a necessary step in insuring that Israel is accepted into a region it has so much to offer.”  
J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, recently asked Jewish voters to name their two most important values. Just 4 per cent chose Israel. The same survey found that 65 per cent said they were somewhat or very attached to Israel.  
The J Street survey is not an outlier. The American Jewish committee found a similar result in a 2015 poll.  
In fact, Jews are playing an important part in defending the rights of Palestinians and making the case that Israel’s occupation and denial of rights to the inhabitants of the West Bank violates Jewish moral and  
ethical values.  
In October 2019, for example, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) endorsed legislation designed to protect the rights of Palestinian children imprisoned by the Israeli military sponsored by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN). H.R. 2407 would prohibit U.S. funding to “the military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment of children in violation of international humanitarian law.”  
Since 2000, an estimated 10,000 Palestinian children have been detained by the Israeli military in the West Bank. Rabbi Alissa Wise, acting co—director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) points out that, “A few years ago the idea of legislation for Palestinian rights introduced in the U.S. Congress was inconceivable, let alone that a leading association of rabbis would endorse it. The RRA decision to endorse H.R. 2407 is the clearest proof yet of the American Jewish community’s growing support for human rights.”  
In Rabbi Wise’s view, “The RRA’s endorsement powerfully contradicts previously held orthodoxies about American Jewish communities and advocating for Palestinians, act as a bellwether of a seismic shift in what is possible. In this volatile and uncertain political moment it is a welcome and needed reminder of the dynamism in D.C. and the American Jewish community more broadly. I am deeply proud to be a Reconstructionist rabbi.”  
JVP Government Affairs manager Beth Miller said: “This bold and historic stance from the RRA clearly shows that the ground is shifting. Progressive movements across the United States, including progressive American Jews, demand concrete steps toward justice and equality for Palestinians. We are thrilled and grateful to the RRA for sending a clear message to Capitol Hill that blind support for Israel is no longer the status quo and Congress needs to catch up.”  
The concern American Jews are showing about Israeli policies are already having an important impact on the debate over US. Policy. Reporting on the J Street Conference held in Washington in October 2019, The New York Times (Oct. 28, 2019) reports: “Pete Buttigieg compared Israel’s relationship with the U.S. to a close friend—-one who needed and should accept more guidance. Bernie Sanders put it in starker terms, saying the U.S. should demand more from Israel. But whatever the language, one thing was clear: Democratic attitudes toward Israel are shifting in the highest echelons of the party.”  
Among the speakers at the J Street conference, which attracted thousands of Jewish activists, was Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of the New Israel Fund. She said that American Jews are losing interest in Israel, are tired of fighting over Israel and that rabbis are quietly dropping Israel from Hebrew school curricula and no one is noticing.  
She said: “when I think about the language of a rift, I think about angry conflict. I think about moments that have stood out as crisis points between American Jews and Israeli Jews—-I’m sure that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, the whole issue around the Iran deal, the Jerusalem embassy. But I think on a daily basis...what we are experiencing is a very troubling cooling of interest, of curiosity, of engagement between American Jews and Israelis and vice versa. I think for many of us it’s about despair, it is about averting our eyes, it’s about misalignment of values...People who were deeply connected to Israel are tired, they are constantly finding a need to justify why they feel connected to this place, they’re constantly disappointed, experiencing a lot of shame about this place—-always hoping that it will rise to the occasion, to be something it is not.”  
Rabbi Cohen urges American Jews to listen to the voices of Israeli Jews and Arabs who challenge their government’s violation of human rights: “The best thing we can do is connect with and hear from Israeli activists (like those appearing at J Street) who are deeply concerned with what’s going on. The best thing we can do is tell their stories, lift up their voices, remind ourselves that as American Jews that there are Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, who are working every day. They do not have the luxury of averting their eyes. It is not an option. So for us to be truly in relationship, we have to look too and have to listen.”  
Clearly, there is now a major transformation in the thinking of American Jews. In the book, “Reclaiming Judaism From Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation,” editor Carolyn L. Karcher, Professor Emeritus at Temple University, are gathered a powerful collection of personal narratives from forty Jews. They represent diverse backgrounds and tell a wide range of stories about the roads they have traveled from a Zionist world view to activism send solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis striving to build an inclusive society founded on Justice and equality.  
Rabbi Linda Holtzman, one of the first women rabbis to preside over a synagogue, describes her movement away from Zionism: “Golda Meir was my hero and when she said there was no Palestinian people, how could I not believe her? Israel really was, as I learned over and over again, ‘A land without people for a people without a land.’ I did not know the truth for a long time. I did not try to learn the truth. ..When signs proclaiming ‘Zionism is racism’ appeared at rallies that I went to or at protests that I marched in, I worried about the other causes I was supporting. I tackled the question of Zionism and racism myself...I can no longer call myself a Zionist because the memories of Palestine will never let me. I am deeply saddened by the loss of something I treasured...Now as I serve on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, or work for Palestinian rights in any way that I can, I feel a connection to the values that underline my Judaism.”  
In an essay, “Moving Away From Zionism,” Gael Horowitz, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, writes that, “During my gap year in Israel there was very little explicit education on the occupation...In this narrative, the occupation was only a post-1967 issue and not a larger issue of settler colonialism...Two friends and I decided to take it upon ourselves to complete the part of our experience that seemed to be lacking. We went on a trip to Hebron, Susya, and the South Hebron Hills with a group that included ...a tour guide from the Israeli veterans organization, Breaking the Silence, dedicated to informing the public about the violence that maintaining the occupation requires ...We saw Shuhada Street and the settlement on top of the hills. The intentionally crafted and manipulated geography of settler colonialism became clear and I began to wonder why this was the first time I had been able to see it...We learned about the morally reprehensible occupation, but the movement’s belief system did not, and perhaps could not entertain the idea that nationalism was inherently toxic.”  
Horowitz concludes: “I deeply understand that my Judaism is political and as Jews we have a responsibility to be in solidarity with Palestine —-not because it proves expectations wrong but because Israel is a country that says it speaks for all of us. If we remain silent we are tacitly agreeing. We must be able to speak up powerfully, Jewishly and consistently be able to say ‘not in my name.’”  
Professor Karcher argues that, “The Zionist leaders, from the very beginning, sought to remove as many of the indigenous Palestinian population as possible by a calculated campaign of ethnic cleansing.” In this connection, she reports that in March 1948, two months before the end of the British mandate, the Haganah adopted “a blueprint for ethnic cleansing: Plan Daley.” This plan, she notes, “involved terrorizing the population through massacres that involved mass flight, driving Palestinians out of villages and urban centers, and reducing nearly all the structures in the populated areas to rubble...The number could rise to between 700,000 to 800,000 when the organized ethnic cleansing really ended in the summer of 1949.  
The very idea of redefining the nature of Judaism, as President Trump has done with his executive order is a historical and violates the principle inherent in the First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom and making government neutral with regard to the many religions American practice.  
Rabbi Brant Rosen of Congregation Tzedek Chicago declared: “My faith is not a nationality and not to be used to justify other people’s political agendas.” An attempt to win popularity among right-wing Jews and Evangelicals by embracing the idea that Judaism is something other than a religion may represent a major political miscalculation. As we have seen, American Jews are increasingly alienated by Israel’s policies, which are in violation of the values of most American Jews.  
When people look back at the time when narrow nationalism replaced Judaism’s historic religious contribution, a belief in ethical monotheism and in a God who created men and women of all races and nations in His image, they will honor those who kept that tradition alive. Those who now embrace Israel’s occupation and welcome its lack of religious freedom will not be among them. The Trump executive order may please Prime Minister Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson, but it is, in fact, a violation of the First Amendment and misunderstands almost completely the real nature of Judaism. *

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