The growth of the national organization Jewish Voice for Peace stems—in terms of recent history—from critical responses to Israel’s behavior during the 2nd Intifada, which began in late 2000. Among the local movements that have been incorporated into JVP is Not In My Name, a Chicago-based group to which I was connected at that time. These 15 years have seen increasingly open criticism and rebellion among Jewish-Americans against the policies and dictates of mainstream Jewish Institutions and their essentially unwavering support for Israeli depredations in occupied Palestine. In Champaign-Urbana, the recent formation of a local JVP chapter is significantly due to the efforts of Samantha Brotman, an Arabic-speaking scholar at the University of Illinois.
This current movement of conscience has deep historical roots which have been continuously re-imagined throughout the Jewish-American experience, including involvement in labor, civil rights, and anti-war movements.
As a 10-year-old in 1960 studying the Jewish Bible at a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles, I read the following words in a textbook written by the rabbi of that synagogue, Mordecai Soloff, in “When the Jewish People Was Young” (1934):
“Amos was the first prophet to write out his messages, and the others followed him.… In his own lifetime, the people paid very little attention to what he said. That is only natural. People did not like to hear him say that some of the Kohanim (priests) were not good Jews. … Amos explained to all his people that the rich should be fair to the poor, that the judges should be honest, and that all people should worship God. Amos explained that God did not want the Jews to hurt any of their neighbors, such as the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Arameans. Naturally, these neighbors were themselves expected to treat the Jews and each other equally well.”
Noam Chomsky, in my own view our most compelling living prophet, explains the notion of a prophet: “The word ‘prophet’ is a very bad translation of an obscure Hebrew word, navi. Nobody knows what it means. But today they’d be called dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical analysis, arguing that the acts of the rulers were going to destroy society. And they condemned the acts of evil kings. They called for justice and mercy to orphans and widows and so on.”
Chomsky grew up in Philadelphia in the 1930s and 40s in a family committed to the revival of Hebrew language and culture. He supported a bi-nationalist and non-statist Jewish homeland in what was then British-ruled Palestine. As the world’s most prominent linguist and cognitive scientist, he has since the 1960s opposed American imperialism, American support for Israel as a “stationary aircraft carrier” in the Middle East, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory—the West Bank and Gaza. He continues, at age 86, to tirelessly criticize elites who exercise illegitimate authority and serve only the powerful.
In the 1950s, the advent of the state of Israel was understandably seen by most American Jews as a miracle for a persecuted people, as a kind of redemption in relation to the Holocaust, and as an emergent model of a socialist society. But as the historical record makes clear, the Zionist movement and the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948 were consistent with the sort of European settler-colonialist movements that established societies in North America, Australia, and South Africa while largely marginalizing, removing, or eliminating the indigenous populations.
Jewish teachings prior to the advent of Zionism at the end of the 19th century in no way advocated the literal return of Jews to the land of their biblical origins, no less the establishment of a Jewish state, no less a state that has a “right to exist.” But in the Europeanized and Americanized world of the 20th and 21st centuries, a state is what we’ve got, and its evolution is consistent with the 500-year-old model of European settler-colonialist states: immigration, expansionism, economic development and technological progress, exploitation of indigenous peoples and resources, violent dispossession, and nationalist/religious ideologies glorifying all these things. The Jewish Israeli scholars Ilan Pappé and Shlomo Sand have brilliantly dissected the origins and evolution of Zionist ideology in recent books: The Idea of Israel : A History of Power and Knowledge, The Invention of the Jewish People, and The Invention of the Land of Israel.
Upon this colonial foundation add increasingly large disparities in wealth (including among Israeli Jews) and gross abuses of power, with class conflict sublimated by directing the attention of the population at a despised minority; in Israel that of course being the Palestinians, both those who are Israeli citizens and those who live under occupation. Given its evolution as consistent with European and American models, Israel has ironically become a sort of generically Christian nation, in the worst sense of the phrase. It’s not by accident that its most ardent supporters are among the Christian Right in this country, while more liberal Protestants are under enormous pressure to just keep their mouths shut, should they have any inclination to open them. Meanwhile, both here and in Israel, Jewish nationalism has been combined with religious fanaticism and extremism in volatile and dangerous ways, as documented by a much younger prophet named Max Blumenthal in his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.
However, it should be stressed that Israel’s development as a broadly militaristic and weapons-based economy and society is consistent with the geopolitical strategies of major American political parties and the secular elites whom they represent, as well as the liberal Israeli political party known as “Labor.” What has transpired in occupied Palestine can only be understood in these wealth/power frameworks: from neoliberal globalization and American wars for the control of Middle Eastern energy resources, to the local/state context which has generated the drama around the hiring and firing of Professor Steven Salaita; the latter events have been the most immediate provocation for the formation of a local JVP chapter.
Along with Palestinian resistance we have seen a revival of the prophetic tradition in some corners of Jewish political culture, including locally among a conscientious group of students, teachers, and workers. The basic elements of the prophetic tradition are quite simple: an inquiring mind, a consistent conscience, an open heart, and a rational voice.
David Green (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Champaign. He is affiliated with the local antiwar movement AWARE, and the national organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and End the Occupation. He contributes regularly to News from Neptune on UPTV.