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Rabbi Declares That She Is “Destined To Be an American, Not an Israeli, Jew”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May - June 2008

Comparing the role Israel and Zionism played in Reform Judaism in the 1950s and 1960s with that of the present, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, a Reconstructionist rabbi and Associate Professor of Religion at Temple University, notes that, “As far as my Reform synagogue in the 1950s and 1960s was concerned, Israel did not exist. Although there were exceptions, most of the Reform movement was in the non-Zionist camp. Israel wasn’t part of our Hebrew school curriculum ... my rabbi never gave a sermon about Israel, and not one dime was raised to support the new nation. All I knew of Israel was from what I read in the newspapers or learned in Social Studies class in junior high school.” Writing in Tikkun (May/June 2008), Rabbi Alpert, author of the forthcoming book “Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism” (The New Press, 2008), recalls that, “In June of 1967, all that changed. The Six Day War put Jewish communities around the world on notice that Israel was vulnerable but also powerful. Its military exploits in defense of its right to exist against Arab nations bent on its destruction were an instant source of pride. Almost overnight, Israel became the focus of American Jewish life. Any group that had previously considered itself non-Zionist quickly changed its tune. It was not possible to imagine that Israel was anything less than perfect and that the survival of Judaism depended on what happened in this tiny country.”  
To understand this phenomenon, Rabbi Alpert spent her junior year of college (1969) at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She writes that, “I heard the inspiring words of David Ben Gurion ... who told this group of young Americans that Israel was the key to the survival of the Jewish people. It was hard not to fall in love with the place. And then they took me to Gaza ... Perhaps they meant to show us the cruelty of the Egyptians in forcing their Arab neighbors to live in conditions that were not fit for human life. Girls wearing woolen dresses in sweltering heat, rationed food that consisted of small amounts of oil and grain, with milk only for nursing mothers and children under five, people begging us for our leftover lunches. It was hard to envision these people as the enemy. Why Israel wasn’t doing anything to ameliorate these conditions in its newly occupied lands was not explained.”  
Despite the rhetoric that what made Israel special was that Jews did all of the jobs, Rabbi Alpert observed that, “... the construction of my building was being done by an Arab work force. The women who cleaned our dormitories were Arab and so were the day laborers I observed coming from East Jerusalem early in the morning. Something was just not right.”  
By the end of the year, declares Rabbi Alpert, “I was convinced that I was destined to be an American, not an Israeli Jew. But my skepticism put me out of step in the American Jewish community, which was becoming more and more Israel-centered. I never questioned the need for a sovereign state, for a safe and secure place where Judaism could flourish and Jews could live in peace. I could not align myself with those forces on the American Left that turned against Israel, denouncing Zionism as racism after 1967. But I also assumed that Israel intended to return the land it gained during the war in exchange for peace. I never imagined an occupation that was to last for more than forty years and change the character of the country completely.”

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