?הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.?וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָ
Hillel would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)
When it comes to Hillel’s famous quote, selective memories prevail. The Jewish left has a tendency to forget the first clause—if we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else will. And the right tends to ignore the second—if we’re only concerned about our own needs, what happened to our essential human empathy? Hillel knew that living in tension with these two values was the jumping-off point for much of Jewish ethics.
This tension surfaced on Thursday evening, as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston voted to prohibit Council member-organizations from partnering with or co-sponsoring events with “self-identified Jewish organizations...that declare themselves to be anti-Zionist”. This is a good and proper decision.
Some people may not think so. Some inside-the-tent groups on the Jewish left opposed the measure, arguing that we need to expand the Council, to be inclusive of the widest possibly array of voices that are found in the Jewish community. That dilemma—one which progressive minded people are especially sensitive to—was widely felt at the JCRC meeting.
The JCRC vote became a necessity when one of the Council’s constituent organizations—Boston Workmen’s Circle—suggested that its occasional partnering with anti-Israel groups, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, might mean that they are not in compliance with JCRC’s membership requirements. This prompted a close look at what, precisely, membership in JCRC means.
The JCRC was founded in Boston in 1944 as a coalition of organizations to act as a unified voice for Jewish concerns. First and foremost among those concerns was combating antisemitism. But JCRC also became the leading Jewish voice in New England for progressive causes, such as the labor movement, civil rights, women’s rights, etc. And fighting for a secure, Jewish, democratic, and peaceful State of Israel—which was a progressive cause then, and, for many of us, remains so today.
Thursday’s discussion was absolutely civil and occasionally emotional. Workmen’s Circle, with its Yiddish-socialist early 20th century roots, was a founding member of the Boston JCRC. Its representative, urging the Council to reject the measure, argued that if some groups haven’t found a place at the Jewish “table”, we should “make a bigger table.” As JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton pointed out, there was an appropriate sadness in the room—because it would be sad to lose organizations of good people, committed to righteous causes, over this issue.
Further, it’s terribly sad when Israel—which once was the great unifier of the Jewish people—becomes the thing that divides.
And it’s sadder still when the State of Israel behaves in such reprehensible ways (not only towards Palestinians, but also towards large swaths of American Jews) that some Jews feel that they have no choice but to abandon the Zionist enterprise altogether.
I felt all those things at the meeting—and I also felt a surging sense of pride to raise my card and vote in favor of the resolution.
Because, as Jeremy also pointed out, boundaries in fact mean something. They don’t merely exclude. They also define: what, precisely, do we stand for?
Granting legitimacy to anti-Zionist voices (which, noisy as they may be, are a microscopic constituency among American Jews) would be a disaster.
After all, among the greatest gifts that Zionism brought was the invigorated notion that the Jews are a people; that we are a cantankerous, often dysfunctional, but nonetheless-in-the-same-boat family wherever we are found. The State of Israel became the greatest expression of this, and the ultimate experiment in putting Jewish ideas into action (a government, a university, a military, a culture, a society) in two thousand years.
Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace jettison all that. They made explicit last week what has been obvious for much longer, when they issued a defining statement affirming that they are opposed to Zionism in all its forms. Let’s be clear: this isn’t an academic exercise. If that point of view gains traction in the American mainstream, the direct result will be the killing of more Jews.
It’s difficult to make those boundaries. Progressive-minded people quite appropriately want to be inclusive of as many others as possible; indeed, we are often stronger together.
But there are boundaries. For instance, most Jews recognize that the group known as Neturei Karta—an arm of the ultra-extremist Satmar Hasidic sect—are beyond the pale of mainstream Jewry. They’re the ones who show up and picket community Israel celebrations, or who meet with the most implacable leaders of Israel’s enemy nations to offer their friendship and support. They call Zionism a demonic abomination (and worse) and insist that it delays, rather than hastens, the world’s redemption.
Well, last week the JVP made it official: they are the Neturei Karta of the left. They chose the side of the Jewish people’s enemies, abandoned the notion of Jewish peoplehood, and rejected any awe of being part of a generation for which our ancestors desperately yearned (and often died). Their argument completely misunderstands or ignores history, utterly abandons the work of the Zionist left, and in fact strengthens those who oppose any vision of a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.
They inhabit that strange parallel universe where the fringiest extremes of the left and right bend around so far that they become ideologically rather close. It’s the sort of place where tiki-torch bearing MAGA extremists dovetail with the antisemitic extreme of elements of the Women’s March leaders, who somehow find it so difficult to disassociate from Farrakhan.
Voices like these are active opponents of the values inherent in the mainstream Jewish community, especially its civil rights elements—the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Labor Committee, etc. Not to mention the wonderful Zioness Movement—“unabashedly progressive, unquestionably Zionist.”
And then there’s Boston’s JCRC itself: historically standing for decency, justice, human rights, and peace for all. “For all” includes us, too, you know. Our opposition to Trumpism in all of its grotesque forms does not mean we have to join together with other kinds of haters, including antisemites.
Hillel himself would have appreciated the irony.