Why we define as a non-zionist havurah

What do we mean when we say we are a “non-Zionist” havurah?
Working notes toward a statement (2007)

Although our answer will continue to evolve and deepen, these points capture our initial thinking:

1. “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Virginia Woolf

It is consonant with our identity as Feminists to refuse to pledge allegiance to a nation state, and even moreso to refuse to connect our spiritual expression to governments, militaries, and other apparatus of control. As Feminists, our political goal is a fearless and unblinking analysis of the truths of power relationships, whether between women and men, white people and people of color, or Jews and Palestinians. To use Adrienne Rich’s words, this “powerful, womanly lens” brings into focus what has been missing from our spiritual practices, necessitating this havurah in which space for multiple expressions of gender is not separable from space for multiple expressions of understanding of Jewish peoplehood.

2. “Zion by itself/is not enough.” Adrienne Rich

We chose the name Fringes because we intend to open a space for those on the margins, including but not limited to the three of us. One important way we have been cut off has been our refusal to swear our love for the State of Israel. In this new sacred space we are opening, we understand Zionism to be one political strategy that Jews have used to address issues of oppression and cultural expression. It is a recent strategy, formed in response to historical events. It is not the only strategy, was not understood to be so by some of the best Jewish minds of our times, and is not the only answer from this point forward.

While we expect and invite a wide range of opinions on this in our community, we chose to define as non-Zionist because we feel strongly that the founding of Israel as a Jewish state has been used to re-write the meaning of too much of our liturgical lives. “Zion,” for example, has been used for thousands of years to invoke a time and place of nearly messianic perfection, a time of peace and justice for all peoples, when all the world lives in a state of unity. But too often now in our synagogues and prayer spaces, the power and beauty and yearning of our communal dream has been reduced to meaning only the state of Israel, and even that only for its Jewish citizens.

By making a prayer space defined outside of the view that Zionism is the only answer to the question of Jewish oppression, we hope to unpack and recover some of the power of words like Zion or Jerusalem. We want to proudly reclaim the history of Jewish universalism, and the voices of the millions of Jews who have cried out for justice for all. And we want this to be reflected and expressed in the words we use when we pray. We don’t know exactly what our liturgy will be or mean as we raise this lens and these questions, but we know the struggle will be worth the effort as we build honest voices for our prayers.

Rachel Adler says this about the “words of power” in liturgy: “Some words wear out and become empty. For others, new contexts render their power malign and not redemptive. Our present situation suggests, however, that the passing of old words of power and the birth of new ones is like the chevlei mashiach, the birth pangs portending the messianic time; people of good will hope for its coming, but would rather not be there before or after and not during the messy part.”

3. “Separatism is the antithesis of cooperation and results in an ingrown and clannish remoteness which leads to cultural stagnation. Otherness thrives best when accompanied by active cooperation and interaction with neighboring cultures and civilizations and achieves an individuality which is of universal significance.” Mordechai Kaplan, Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers, 1958

As Reconstructionist Jews, we find tremendous value in Kaplan’s understanding of living in two cultures. Because we know ourselves to be grounded in our lives as Jews, as U.S. citizens, and as so many other identities and relationships such as women, or, for three of us, as dykes, we reject the false dichotomy of Jewish life into the categories of Israel/Diaspora. While many communities of Jews within Israel are creating Jewish meaning and culture of tremendous value to us, we reject the notion that the only “authentic Jewish life” happens there. Jewish life as we know it exists only because of the religious, cultural, political, and intellectual innovations of Jewish communities across the world, historically and today. Much of Zionism as a political movement rejected this, insisting that Jews deny and abandon their rich cultures, languages and histories in favor of a single Israeli identity. Among many problems we have with this as Feminists is the erasure of the diversity that sustains us, and the equation of “Israeli” with a hyper-masculine aggression.

One clear example of the rejection of the Israel/Diaspora dichotomy in favor of making Jewish meaning comes from Jeff Halper, activist in the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, who to the question, “What can American Jews do to support Israel?” answered, “Get a life. Stop treating Israel like your synagogue.” He expanded this to explain that Israel is a nation with its own political, national struggles and issues. While urging those of us listening to support those Israelis struggling for the kinds of social justice we believe in, he also warned that Israelis can not and should not be seen as carrying our Jewish identity for us. “If you want a Jewish life,” he said, “build your own wherever you are.”

By saying we are non-Zionist, we mean that we are building a Jewish life where we are here and now, embracing fully our lives as Jews, as Feminists, as residents of Philadelphia in 2007, whatever the complexities and contradictions these different worlds embody. And by consciously forming a havurah around these values, we mean to use the complexities of our lives to build and inform a rich and shared Jewish practice.

Nu, do I have to agree with all this to come?

In short, no. You should know that this is part of the underlying ethic of this group, and be willing to live in this space for a few hours each month. Every other synagogue and Jewish prayer space in Philadelphia has Zionism in the center, and those of us who have critical opinions, or who are non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, accommodate ourselves to fit, or stay silent, or stop going. In this space, other opinions are at our core. What this might mean on the surface may not be very noticeable, since we’re coming together to pray, not to debate politics. We know, for example, that we’ll be clear to use the phrase “the people Israel” in the liturgy, to clearly distinguish between that concept and the actual State of Israel, but this is not a rupture from what our liturgy already says.

Our statement does mean that, like the Feminist analysis, the presence of a non-Zionist analysis is a given in our intentional community. What either of this might mean is open-ended and will be shaped in many ways by the coming together of this thoughtful group of people, but, as one example, we will never be saying a prayer for any nation state.

If you are certain you cannot daven in a space not centered on Zionism, then this havurah isn’t for you. If you aren’t sure how it might feel, please come and visit. If you have more questions, feel free to contact any of us to set up a discussion.

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