Liberation Itself Is Sacred

Shane Burley


As Israel began its worst assault on Gaza since 2014, the mainstream media defaulted reflexively to their standard line. The American press set about sanitizing Israel’s actions by framing narratives and headlines in ways that suggested the strikes were merely a proportional response to provocation by Hamas and its rockets. Such renditions obscure the fact that it is disproportionately Palestinian civilians who will suffer in the ensuing conflict. Leaked footage revealed deeper context as far-right Israeli settlers, the extremist edge of the Zionist movement, sung passages about revenge from the Biblical story of Samson and danced at the sight of fire on the Temple Mount, amidst conflict near the al-Aqsa mosque. These nationalists have been storming through Palestinian neighborhoods, across the Green Line and into the West Bank, to assault Arabs—violence that derives, in part, from a decades-long campaign by the far right to “cleanse Eretz Yisrael” of its Indigenous Palestinian character.

Stateside, any criticism of Israel’s indiscriminate violence was met with a wall of ferocity from conservatives. “If you are Jewish and you are a Democrat and you are living in America today, how do you support an administration that turns its back on your home country?” said Grant Stinchfield, a Newsmax host. That he refers to Israel as the home country of American Jews is telling. One of the key facets of America’s bond with Israel—financially, militarily, and rhetorically—is that it is, in profound ways, “about us without us.” America’s Zionist political force is rooted largely in Christian Zionism; it is far from a sole product of the Jewish community. Organizations like Christians United for Israel (CUFI)—the U.S.’s “largest pro-Israel organization”—were instrumental in Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Believing that Israel’s existence was preordained by God, their advocacy derives from a combination of anti-Muslim bigotry, reactionary nationalism and militarism, and end-times evangelicalism. Some recent polls found that nearly 80% of evangelical Christians believe that the creation of the State of Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, and American evangelicals have invested $65 million into settlements in the West Bank over the last ten years.

One key insight in the study of antisemitism is that the prejudice often has little connection to actual Jews or Judaism. As David Nirenberg discussed in his book Anti-Judaism, a phantom image of Jewishness is instead a tool used by other cultures as a foil in their own narratives. Judaism was founded on Mitzvot, the observance of Torah commandments, and associated ritual traditions passed down between generations. Early Christians decried such practices as “carnality,” a condemnation of Jews for their commitment to a religion in the living world of the flesh. These Christians asserted that they were more spiritual and introspective, less concerned with worldly matters than the Jews. It was therefore of paramount importance that they stay vigilant against “Judaization” that could pervert their connection to God.

Countless other characterizations of Jews run throughout Western history: Jews are weak, so we must be strong. Jews are materialistic when our eyes should be pointed to heaven. Jews are secretive, just as we are forthright and honest. These characterizations are little more than projections, hinting that antisemitism is often less about Jews themselves and more about creating a compelling narrative about the world that validates self-conceptions and ideological rationalizations. Historically, antisemitism has hijacked human impulses to confront power and substituted Judaism as the source of oppressive and conspiratorial acts, inviting retaliation on a marginalized group of people. The actual story of Judaism is so distant from Christian recountings that it can be hard to believe that they’re reading some of the same source material, as if each are seeing different vowels between the Hebrew letters.

The same self-serving instrumentalization of narratives about Jews continues to this day—though often in the guise of philosemitism. In article after mainstream article, the actions of Israel are portrayed not as state violence in service of material resource extraction and land grabs, but idealistically, as the defense of Jewishness itself. Another influence is also present: the Christian Zionist voices, prominent on the American right, who make blanket support for Israel a litmus test—not out of any sincere concern for Jewish safety, but rather as part of their defense of the covenants that they believe are essential to the fulfillment of eschatological prophecy. Their political wings have helped to dictate which Jews are allowed a platform on these issues, normalizing the far-right politics of the Israeli settlement movement and sparking disputes about who speaks for Jews, about who may shape our narratives about Jewish safety and sovereignty. The IDF, nationalist landlords in Sheikh Jarrah, and evangelical NGOs present themselves as primary authorities on the Jewish experience. This is in keeping with the historical denial of Jewish subjectivity, which is highly diverse and far from reducible to uniform support for Israel and its politics of border expansion.

The Judeo-Christian Construct

There’s an old joke: “a philosemite is just an antisemite who likes Jews.” The right-wing conception of Jews is a false frame that elides the historical legacy of brutal reactionary antisemitism that stretched throughout Jewish history. The growth of the far right post-World War II has paralleled the rise of philosemitism in many nationalist political parties, particularly among those who have tried to refocus their conspiracy theories away from overt antisemitism and onto Islam and Muslim immigration. Just as with the Christian right, their courtship with Jews is premised on how Jews fit into their narratives about cultural warfare. “A shift from antisemitism to philosemitism has originated from a fundamental re‑imagining of Jewishness, where Jews and Judaism are understood through far‑right framings in order to legitimize existing ideologies. For example, by seeing Jews as European, pro‑Israel and anti‑Muslim, the far‑right allows itself to align philosemitism to its own interests,” says Hannah Rose in her report on philosemitism for the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. “[Deliberately] positive sentiments of Jews based on stereotypes are rooted in the same processes as antisemitism, whereby the two phenomena are two sides of the same coin.”

But the alliance is fragile, and when Jews step out of the acceptable frame, antisemitism again rears its head. The right has little use for the Jews of the Diaspora, or those concerned with anything other than Zion, and treat Jews who oppose nationalism with nothing but contempt. In Spencer Sunshine’s 2018 study of far-right news outlet Breitbart, he identified a process that is common on the right: antisemitism is condemned when it can be weaponized against the left, but is reasserted when Jews step out of line. This has created a “good Jew/bad Jew” dichotomy, where an increasingly radical Christian right helps to determine the range of acceptable Jewish voices—who often sound a lot like radical religious Zionists in the West Bank.

This overseas support network has strengthened the Israeli far right and the expanding “outposts” of the settlement movement. Christians United for Israel (CUFI) has lobbied heavily on behalf of Israel in the U.S., helping to create a “support at all costs” mentality. Advocacy of the Israeli project became a central tenet of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, as figures like Frank Littell organized the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel (NCLCI), based on his belief that unconditional support for Israel was necessary after the Six-Day War in 1967.

Such Christian Zionist organizations in large part serve as the American wing of the settlers’ political influence. In the U.S., dozens of tax-exempt evangelical charities are openly funding settlement projects in the West Bank; settlements like Har Bracha receive both money and volunteers from evangelical organizations. Further consolidation occurred during the Trump years, as he installed settlement supporters in key administration roles, validated settler claims to Jerusalem by changing the embassy location, and supported annexation.

The settlers and the growing Israeli right have banked on this allegiance with Christian Zionists, willing to entertain dispensationalism if it provides cover for Israeli nationalism. Christian envoys make their way to the settlements each year, often volunteering as farm hands, working for free to ensure that Jews are harvesting the fruit of the vine from the hills of Samaria—a literal fulfillment of prophecy. There is an anti-Diasporic quality to this, rooting Judaism in geography rather than tradition and reframing the story of the Jews. The Christian and Israeli right have attained a certain synergy in their attempts to monopolize the story of Jewish identity, and to dictate what it means to support the Jewish people.

As Rammy M. Haija outlines in his essay “The Armageddon Lobby,” Christian Zionists have pushed back on Jews that do not match their hardline, expansionist policy in Israel, casting them as disloyal to the Jewish cause. At the 1985 inaugural meeting of the Christian Zionist Congress (CZC), which featured both Christian and Jewish participants, an Israeli Jewish speaker noted that about a third of Israelis would give up the West Bank settlements in exchange for peace. A representative for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem responded, “We don’t care what the Israelis vote! We care what God says, and God gave that land to the Jews!”

Some Christian eschatology positions the rapture as not just occurring after the creation of the State of Israel, but as reliant on the wholesale takeover of the Kingdom of Israel, also called Eretz Yisrael. That includes what the Christians and the settlers jointly call Judea and Samaria: the West Bank of Occupied Palestine. An irony of this alliance is that, in the apocalyptic Christian Zionist narrative, at the end of the story lies the total annihilation of the Jews. In such dispensationalist end-times fantasies, most Jews are massacred by the Almighty himself, with the rest forced to convert to Christianity and admit the wrongness of their heretical religion. Christian exegesis tells of a Rapture predicated on the elimination of Jews and the reconquest of Israel by Christians, the New Israelites.

This continues the legacy of figures like William E. Blackstone, who declared the establishment of the State of Israel a prerequisite for the rapture. His 1889 book Jesus Is Coming depicts an apocalypse in which the emergence of a Jewish state triggers the events of Revelation, including a genocide of Jews (as faithfully retold in the popular evangelical series Left Behind). Single-minded faith in this tale—which some might consider a bit antisemitic—lies at the heart of evangelical support for Israel and their supposed celebration of Jews.

Negating the Diaspora

Who tells the story of the Jews? And of which Jews does it tell? In a 1942 short story by Israeli author Haim Hazaz, a man named Yudka stands nervously before his troop of fighters from the Haganah, the early Israeli militia force, to declare his opposition to the teaching of Jewish history. “[We] really don’t have a history at all… we never made our own history, the Gentiles always made it for us. Just as they turned out the lights for us and lit the stove for us and milked the cow for us on the Sabbath, so they made history for us just the way they wanted and we took it whether we liked it or not,” declares Yudka to an increasingly agitated squad. The history of Jews was not a history after all—it was an anti-history, a story told without heroes and conquest—a “sky without eagles,” to use a favorite phrase of the right. Only once we had a nation of our own could we write our own story. Only then would our history begin.

There is a vein of Zionist writing that suggests the nation-building project was necessary to “redeem” Jews, as if the Diaspora was a disease that weakened the Jewish character. The Christian Zionist and American right-wing fantasy about Jews also centers the redemptive figure of the Israeli, the Jew refashioned into an image the West deemed respectable: domineering and powerful. The Western right’s celebration of Jews has nothing to do with praising the beautiful Jewish history, religion, culture, or international community. Their obsession with Jews derives from the growing militancy of the anti-Arab Israeli far-right—the kind of Jew that Western reactionaries can understand.

There were some in the Zionist movement who also embraced this image in reaction to the warped image of Jews crafted by Christian antisemites. Now they quested to embody the “New Jew,” whose strength was honed tilling the soil of the kibbutz, rather than working in “shameful” trades like moneylending or diamond cutting. “One of Zionism’s key aims was shilat ha’golah—the negation of the Diaspora, which Zionists viewed as parasitic and debased,” writes Susie Linfield in The Lion’s Den, her book on the relationship of the left to Zionism. “Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Zionist depictions of the Diaspora Jew often bore a creepy resemblance to anti-Semitic depictions of the Diaspora Jew.” (I will note that while this is a genuine phenomenon, the Zionist movement is not monolithic, and its extent should not be overstated.) Still, the New Jew proliferated despite—or more accurately, because of—the fact that it was disconnected from many actual Jews and their Judaisms.

“Philosemites may also select a particular kind of Jew for their love and either ignore or damn the rest,” writes Keith Kahn-Harris. The example he gives is that of reactionary Sunday Telegraph columnist Julie Burchill, whose obsessive philosemitism led her to convert, as recounted in her memoir Unchosen. Her image of Jews was of musclebound Israeli men on Tel Aviv beaches. But, as Kahn-Harris describes, when she attended a progressive synagogue, she was jarred when confronted with the Diaspora: actual people, actual Jews, outside of the Zionist projection she had built in her head. (Recently, Burchill was forced to apologize for defamatory and Islamophobic comments aimed at Muslim journalist Ash Sarkar.)  The “strong” Jew that Burchill fetishized would not suffer the alleged maladies of the Diaspora and would initiate a new stage in Jewish history, a real Jewish history, its legitimacy deriving from the cultivation of power.

A rabbi I know once described two distinct impulses within Jewish communities—and really, within all communities. One is the Exodus impulse: to protect and empower one’s people. The other impulse is that of Sinai: contact with the universal, the connection of all mankind in the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, the salvation of the world. He believed that the two must be in balance. Yet now, the Exodus impulse, in the form of nationalism, has overtaken aspirations to universality. Nationalism is accelerating as populist and far-right movements explode in Israel, the West, and indeed worldwide. It is this nationalism and militarism that the right celebrates, where Jews are to be lauded only when they make their exodus from Sinai, rejecting universal human emancipation.

New Jews are the ones who battle for Eretz Yisrael, who declare sovereignty at any cost. These are the Jews that now “make history,” to whom right-wing politicians around the world turn in order to explain the Jewish experience. Expansionist settler ideology hinges on the exclusion or subjugation of Palestinians. It elides and disparages both the context of diverse cohabitation in which much of Jewish history was forged, and the values of democratic pluralism necessary for a just world.

The current escalation in the West Bank and Gaza is occurring in the middle of Jewish Heritage month, which in the Jewish calendar falls during the months of Iyar and Sivan. A series of holidays lines up with Ramadan: the celebration of “Israeli independence,” a day of mourning for fallen IDF soldiers, and Jerusalem Day, where nationalists parade across the Green Line and into the occupied areas of East Jerusalem to celebrate its capture from Lebanon in 1967. This is not unlike the Orange Parades in Belfast, where Protestant militants would bash their way through Catholic neighborhoods to celebrate the defeat of Irish sovereignty and the triumph of colonial occupation. This caustic display highlights the fact that the Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarrah continue to face evictions (more accurately, ethnic expulsions). The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced out of their homes in 1948 are still denied their right to return to them.

The next holiday on the calendar was Shavu’ot, which celebrates the revelation we received on Mount Sinai. Yet bombs were still falling while Israeli nationalist mobs rioted through Palestinian areas and attacked Muslims, followed by Palestinian groups targeting synagogues and Jews in retaliation. Settlers have long been using violence to police the borders of Jewishness, recently attacking Rabbi and peace activist Arik Ascherman and savagely beating a man in Bat Yam that they believed to be Arab, revealing their assumptions about who a Jew should be.

“The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong,” wrote the official Twitter account for the Israeli Prime Minister’s office on August 29th, 2018, during Netanyahu’s term. A call for Israeli empowerment in service of justifying oppression, without apology.

The Story of the Jews

Jewish peoplehood has always been a community that defied the boundaries drawn by nation-states. Yet some of the Jewishness forged in the Diaspora has been usurped by voices who suggest that Israeli and its attendant nationalism are central to what it means to be Jewish. There is a story being told about the Jews—about the triumph of Israel’s founding, and the irrationality and inhumanity of its enemies. This story is told in the name of a supposedly homogeneous global “Jewish community,” leaving out anyone whose story of Jewishness simply arrives at different conclusions. Which Jews are these? What is the supposedly homogonous, global Jewish community of one heart, who speaks with one voice? Are these Jews of color, converts, children of Jewish fathers, historic Diasporic communities, or those rediscovering Jewishness? Do they have one story?

Some of the narratives we are being fed assert that, while tragic, the historical oppression of the Jews robbed us of many of the qualities necessary for survival and flourishing; now, we must shed our victimhood. But it is this misgiven notion that truly makes us powerless. Why must our history of violence and oppression be told as one of pure victimization? Why can’t we tell it as a history of Jewish uprisings? Why isn’t the power of resistance and solidarity across lines of identity enough? To redefine the story of pre-Israel Jewish history as one of complete powerlessness is to suggest that power and strength are only the province of oppressors.

The Jewish story is one of perseverance, struggle, rebellion, and, ultimately, survival, filled with powerful people and communities and fables and spirit. The revelation on Sinai revealed God’s oneness, the universal truth that we are all connected, that we all share a humanity. Moses received this message in thunder: that the borders that divide people and nations are illusions. If there is a unified Jewish story at all, it would have to be this one.

While Jewish history is particular to Jewish people, it is not isolated. Jewishness comprises innumerable interlocking communities with radically different stories, bound together by shared traditions. Jerusalem has stood for thousands of years with countless religions within its walls; our history is inextricable from a multitude of peoples. The founding story of the Jews has a resonance far beyond its particularities. It is that history of struggle that points to central reality of Jewish survival: we cannot do it alone.

There may be little agreement about what the “self-interest of the Jewish people” actually is, but we may still look to the Biblical story of the Jews, which is one of a people’s journey towards liberation, and the constant rediscovery of who they are. Jews from around the world are speaking out in solidarity with Palestinians, and their own story includes a shared pathway to liberation. The interests that seek to silence them—some Jewish and some not—are invested in the notion that there can be only one way to support the Jewish people, that only one story is valid.

The notion that nationalism will keep Jews safe is ahistorical—a modern fable, a simplistic and reductive reflex. Increasingly the Israeli state defines itself by its willingness to visit hell upon Palestinians, sabotaging the kind of multiracial solidarity that is the heart of any real liberation story. “Liberation itself is sacred. To come out of bondage is to discover God, even if you don’t call it by that name. To exult in freedom is to reclaim the divine image that has been robbed from you by your oppressor,” writes Rabbi Arthur Green in Judaism for the World. Rabbi Green acknowledges that many of us are still stuck in Egypt, robbed of our ability to realize freedom. “[We] must remember that the gift of liberation was not given only that we might sit back and enjoy its blessings…That has to mean active concern for the liberation of others. We cannot make an exception when there is a conflict between their liberation and the self-interest of the Jewish people.”

On the first night of Shavu’ot, it’s traditional to stay up late reading the Book of Ruth, a book that has helped to form some of the foundations of Jewish feminist readings of the prophets. It is one of the key stories from which the process of Jewish conversion emerges, and it also speaks to the potential universality of the message. Jewishness is founded in the multitude of intersecting and interlocking identities who come together in a shared tradition aimed at making sense of the crisis of living. We are invited to be active participants in and to contribute to a messianic path of exaltation: a process by which we intend to free ourselves from captivity. Judaism is performed in minyan—collectively, communally—not simply alone, sequestered from the rest of the world. This collective story has transformed the world, just as it inspires the thousands of Jews now voicing solidarity with communities facing subjugation. Those in the streets to speak out against the oppression of Palestinians are faithfully continuing the Story of the Jews. It is through our chorus of voices speaking in unison that we may intone the truth: that we will not reach Sinai alone. ♦

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