In the era of Donald Trump, we are witnessing the emboldening of nativist and racial populism from rioters in Charlottesville, Virginia, to Viktor Orbán in Hungary. In Charlottesville, a hateful display of white ethno-nationalists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan was organized under the pretext of protesting the removal of monuments representing the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans, but involved Nazi chanting and explicit antisemitism. What turned out to be a deadly day on August 12, 2017, also revealed how antisemitism is hardwired into, as noted by Eric K. Ward and Ben Lorber, anti-Black and other forms of white (Christian) American racism. In Hungary, as well as other locations in Europe, the Holocaust survivor and philanthropist George Soros has been the target of explicit, state-sanctioned, anti-Semitic attacks and vilification.
The Israeli government winked at such open expressions of antisemitism, with a tacit understanding that Islamophobic and xenophobic governments are more inclined to endorse the enduring and deepening occupation of Palestinians. This (not so) curious complicity (see here and here, but also here) exposes the relationship between Islamophobia and antisemitism and how these two hatreds also dovetail with homophobia, misogyny, and patriarchy. This suggests that peacebuilding and conflict transformation will need to involve deorientalizing and decolonizing Jewish meanings and experiences. Jewish meanings in modernity are embedded in Eurocentrism and the colonial legacy of Western Christian powers that Orientalized the Arab and Muslim as the “other” of modernity, which contributed to assimilating the Jews of Europe into a civilizational colonial and neocolonial narrative and, in the United States, into the category of whiteness. As Gil Anidjar wrote, Muslims and Jews, the two “others” of (Christian) Europe are intricately connected. Their connectivity is a site of self-transcendence and communal transformation for Jewish activists who endeavor to unlearn their narratives through intersectional solidarity (connecting various sites of injustice through a lens of co-resistance) and through foregrounding the experiences and perspectives of marginalized Jews.
The parading, in broad daylight, of Nazi symbols, slogans, and paraphernalia prompts the question the editors asked us to ponder, “Is this all there is?” Are we doomed to live through the cyclical unfolding of the same human tendency to scapegoat and treat other humans as ungrievable? This most recent manifestation of “nothing new under the sun” reveals how facile identity politics glosses over the task of engaging in intersectional critiques of capitalism and neoliberalism. While scapegoating and white supremacy are back in daylight, new coalitions of critics refuse and challenge what they identify as false boundaries. The latter are always articulated through appeals to exclusionary interpretations of race and religion and likewise entail multiple levels of social and cultural violence, including sexism, homophobia, heteronormativity, and a nostalgia for a golden age when masculinity was not ostensibly threatened. The waves of white populism stress, therefore, the importance of thinking expansively about the interrelations of religion in the production, reproduction, and denaturalizing of conceptions of racial, national, ethnic, and other facets of identity and solidarity. What is left after we have done all that?
When the youth-led Jewish movement If Not Now (INN) stood in front of the Trump Tower in Chicago to protest white supremacy and antisemitism (August 20, 2017) and to reaffirm a commitment to solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, Latinx, gender non-conformists, queers and gays, immigrants and undocumented persons, it refused imposed boundaries that differentiated those sites of struggle. “We know that antisemitism is only one piece of the puzzle of white supremacy,” one activist proclaimed, echoing Judith Butler and other critical Jewish reflections. The same activist continued: “The best way to combat white supremacy is to dissolve the false boundaries that it creates and build a strong united front, to link arms and support one another when our communities are attacked.” What does it mean to be rooted, as Jews, in solidarity with Palestinians, but also with many others whose lives or genocidal experiences seem to have mattered less or not at all? To be rooted as “Jews” means we must question European Jews’ white privilege as well as the various ways in which they benefited from white supremacy and in which their oppression is different than that of African Americans and Jews of Color. As one African American Jew remarked in the aftermath of Charlottesville: “Black people did not need to be reminded by hoods and swastikas that we live in a dangerously racist country.”
Born in the face of the failures of institutionalized Judaism in the United States to respond ethically to the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014 and to the enduring occupation of Palestinians, INN’s core objective is to challenge the “out-of-touch establishment claims to speak for our community.” Its logo, a representation of the burning bush, signifies “our generation’s call to leadership in the Jewish community” but also the realization that the liberation of Jews “is bound up in the liberation of all people,” so INN’s website reads. Beyond an analysis of power and ideology, for the activists of INN, rootedness in Jewishness means that their point of departure is found in ancient questions. Rabbi Hillel famously asked in the first century CE: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” These questions were reasserted in 2014 by INN with an urgency generated by the images of the Israeli assault on Gaza and with the crisis of authority within the American Jewish community. For INN’s activists, the time is now. They are tired of their elders’ complicity with “mowing the lawn” in Gaza and see themselves as the generation to end the occupation (and white supremacy) as their hashtag #WeWillBeTheGeneration captures.
How might we understand why they reached back to Rabbi Hillel? One activist told me she resents the assumption one knew what was meant by the phrase “Jewish values” (a supposed reified set of principles and norms) as what motivates Jewish activists to engage in social justice work. “For me,” she underscored, “Judaism is texts and interpretations over centuries” and Shabbat Hazon (based on readings from Deuteronomy and Isaiah and grappled with on the Shabbat before Ninth of Av to mark the destruction of Jerusalem), for instance, is as relevant to her now as it was then. Because Shabbat Hazon revolves around the prophetic calling-out against the difficult ethical predicament of Jews, its meaning is deeply applicable for this activist’s wrestling with the sins of her contemporary community. To be rooted in Jewishness means reaching out internally to different times and places and resources of tradition, but that is not all there is. Participation in a broader social justice movement and multiple social fields, the experience of being “woke,” and tangible relationship-building across communities constitute engines for creating new collective meanings.
This is grassroots transcendence within the immanent frame. Destabilizing ontological certainties through critique and unlearning produces “porous selves” that, while distinct from Charles Taylor’s use of the concept, are nonetheless open to transcendence through relationship-building and solidarity movement work with others. For Ilana Sumka, the founder and executive director of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV), working in solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank channels Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s prophetic commitment to praying with one’s legs. Jewish Palestine-solidarity activists retrieve this memory of Heschel’s march in Selma in 1965 to embolden their understanding of Jewish resources for nonviolent civil disobedience as well as embeddedness within a Jewish prophetic tradition that focuses, as Susannah Heschel writes in her Introduction to the Perennial Classics Edition of The Prophets, not only on the prophetic message but also on the religious experience the prophets, such as those of her father and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Whether it is through contemporary midrash on the story of the midwives Pua and Shifra’s resistance to the Pharaoh’s decree to kill newborn males or attentive listening to Jewish veterans from the Student Nonviolent Committee, Jewish activists interpret their struggle against injustice as Jewishly meaningful. To pray with their legs is what they do when they create a wall with their bodies, blocking violent, right-wing Israelis from parading through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem during their infamous Flag Parade on Jerusalem Day. Praying with one’s legs means that the prophetic is not a mere message on the level of cognition but an embodied spirituality. Cornel West recognized this prophetic spirit when he showed up to accompany INN’s protest of The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference in March 2017. What time is it? For these activists who are willing to use their privilege but risk their safety, the time is both too late and now.
Leading a delegation of 130 mostly American Jews and working closely with a historic coalition consisting of other diaspora Jews as well as Palestinian and Israeli partners committed to nonviolently ending the occupation, Sumka co-launched “Sumud: Freedom Camp” in the southern hills of Hebron. Sumud was established on the site of a Palestinian village of Sarura and marked fifty years since the occupation of 1967. Sarura was declared a military firing zone in the 1970s and its inhabitants were mostly displaced by 1999. After extremist Jewish settlers moved in to the illegal settlement of Havat Ma’on in 2001, the remaining Palestinian villagers faced constant vandalism. The Sumud Freedom Camp (employing the Palestinian concept and practice of steadfastness) was meant to facilitate the return of a few Palestinian families to their land and to resist the system of the occupation. The resistance is embodied by diaspora Jews “praying with their legs” and putting their bodies at risk, but also joyfully celebrating iftar and Eid ul-Fitr or playing with the kids of the villages of Susiya or Umm al-Khair. For the CJNV’s activists, the time is now and it is urgent as well as complicated. Many of the activists with the CJNV sang Hebrew Jewish songs while subject to repeated raids by the Israeli Defense Forces. Why did they sing Jewish songs in proximity to the Palestinian partners for whom Hebrew is the language of the military and settlers? The Palestinian partners were supportive of public expressions of religiosity, but why were such needed then? If not then, when? To stand there in Sarura wearing t-shirts that read “occupation is not my Judaism” and going through a ritualistic liturgy for Shabbat is to generate transcendence in the immanence of the arid landscape of the southern hills of Hebron.
The case of Jewish Palestine-solidarity and/or anti-occupation work sheds light on mechanisms for transcending ideological constructs (i.e., the false boundaries that activists disrupt) that narrate Jewish history in ways that authorize direct and systemic violence against Palestinians. Jewish activists in INN, CJNV, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and other similar groups demonstrate that religious peacebuilding can and does involve discursive or critical interpretive work that highlights the operation of violence and power in their multiplicity. At the same time, religious peacebuilding invites an elastic, embodied, and discursive conception of tradition. Reimagining Jewishness as transcendence entails a critique of Jewish whiteness as a moral choice and the assimilation of Jews into American white supremacy; it also entails foregrounding the experiences of Jews of Color and Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews.
One mechanism for reimagining religiosity is through the rewriting of liturgy and the reinterpreting of symbols. The reimagined liturgy of the intentional, non-Zionist Jewish community Tzedek Chicago, for instance, flexibly interrogates and poetically revises the liturgical content, identifying and confronting not only apparent genocidal passages, but also pervasive patriarchal norms. Insights from the study of material culture illuminate the power of symbols to be themselves agentic and transformative in processes of renegotiating and reimagining communal meanings and boundaries. For instance, carrying a large symbolic Hanukkiyya, where each candle holder stands for an injustice Jews stand against, in front of a building associated with institutionalized Judaism functions, as in the case of Shabbat services in Sarura, as an instrument of protest. However, it also carries causal capacities in transforming Jewish communities and constructing aspirational communal spaces. If I am only for myself, what am I?
So is this all there is? The activists of INN retrieved Hillel’s timeless insight, but its timelessness does not denote fixity. Nor does it suggest that there is nothing new under the sun and that this is all there is. Religiosity is not reducible to ideology and power nor should religious meanings, symbols, and texts only be understood in terms of a social movement’s objectives and repertoire of protest. Power reductionism that tells us power is all there is and “religion,” as a legal and political (and theological) category, is only an instrument of hegemony constitutes an inadequate lens for us to respond to the question, what time is it? In Sarura or Tzedek Chicago, we observe transcendence unfolding through an intersectional critique, dispelling false boundaries, and reclaiming porousness through an analysis of race and interlocking systems of oppression. Praying with one’s legs also illustrates that transcendence does not only demolish, but also produces new meanings. For Heschel, praying with his legs in Selma amounted to the experience of holiness. This leads me back to Hillel’s inquiries from a different time and place to recognize their force: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?