11/23/2011 12:25 EST | Updated 01/22/2012 05:12 EST

Progressive Jews Can Love Israel; Religious Jews Can Love Peace


Just the other day, a secular, liberal Jewish friend approached me for advice. He noted with some consternation that the leftist friends he cherishes are increasingly turning away from Israel. At the same time, he also loves his ultra-Orthodox relatives. How should he navigate his personal relationships in light of his connection to Israel?

Liberal Jews are increasingly finding themselves in this situation, and not only because of the well-known tension that can befall friends and family who part company on politics. Liberal Jews may identify with their leftist friends because of their friends' politics, while they love their ultra-Orthodox relatives in spite of their relatives' religious orientation.

But what I most continue to be struck by is the apparent automatic marrying of values to policy. Instead of a person's values coming to carefully inform one's opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what I'm seeing is the reflexive taking of sides. What could be a very fruitful discussion about values, ethics and policy instead comes to resemble a boxing ring, with everyone in their corners primed to fight.

Let's take religion. As I tell my students, religion can be either a stubborn obstacle to peace, or a powerful force for contemplating change. The perception of religion as giving rise to inflexible stances is compounded when rocks and dirt are attributed sacred status. How do you divide land deemed holy?

Early on in his new book, The Unmaking of Israel, Israeli commentator Gershom Gorenberg tells us that he is a religious Jew. But the narrative he espouses about Israel's current crisis of direction is a very different one from that promoted by many ultra-Orthodox Israelis and their supporters abroad. One wishes one could ask him how he is able to sustain a personal Judaic theology that departs so radically from many in the right wing, religious camp.

I happen to find myself slated to have dinner with Gorenberg this week, as he embarks on a North American speaking tour. I shall ask him. But I think I already know the answer.

Holding a belief in God, taking the notion of covenant seriously, and being committed to the enhancement and furthering of the Jewish people need not imply any particular policy stance vis-à-vis Israel's hold on the territories, its occupation policies, or its view of religion and state.

Many Jews of faith have drawn a certain picture of what the role of Israel within Judaic thought and practice looks like. But it's not the only possible picture. One picture, as we know all too well, promotes a sense of Jewish superiority, the maintenance of enemy images, and a sense that God belongs to one people only.

The other set of images also draw their contours from a religious sensibility, but they push a sense of justice and compassion. For these Jews, the mission of tikkun olam (repairing of the world), and the values of justice, peace and compassion, reign supreme. These images depict a view of religion as operating respectfully within a democratic framework, rather than trying to trample the liberal ideals that make democracy great. These images see Jewish spiritual emancipation as incomplete without a proper reckoning with the fate of the Palestinians.

Gorenberg, for his part, paints this sort of tragic yet ultimately hopeful picture. In the many projects associated with Tikkun Magazine and its related Network of Spiritual Progressives, people like Rabbi Michael Lerner do, too. Ditto, Rabbis for Human Rights -- with branches in both North America and Israel. And places like the Hartman Institute help marry religious thought with sensitive and thoughtful Israeli policies and practices.

And what of the general, Western left (both in its Jewish and non-sectarian form) appearing to turn away from Israel? The story is by now well known. Progressives who once viewed Israel as facing down an Arab Goliath now see the roles as being reversed.

Progressives value human rights. They value universalism, the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, and the casting of a web of respect across different cultures and religions. It is no surprise that progressives bristle at Israel's four-decade-long occupation.

But a progressive agenda need not exclude Israel's hopes and dreams from the conversation. Progressives can certainly support Palestinian dignity and freedom while also acknowledging Israel's desire to remain a Jewish state and fulfil the centuries-long dream of returning to Jerusalem and of exercising Jewish sovereignty. Progressives can decry midnight house searches, administrative detention, and settler vigilantism while speaking out against Hamas rocket fire against Israeli towns and cities.

Values can signal collective affiliation, serving as a social shorthand. But we need not assume a particular party line from a given ideological or religious orientation. Let's sever the uncritical link between values and policy for a moment, carefully, and with everything on the table. Maybe then we can try to cut through the Gordian Knot of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma.

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