Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians

Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians

by Atalia Omer

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For many Jewish people in the mid-twentieth century, Zionism was an unquestionable tenet of what it meant to be Jewish. Seventy years later, a growing number of American Jews are instead expressing solidarity with Palestinians, questioning old allegiances to Israel. How did that transformation come about? What does it mean for the future of Judaism?

In Days of Awe, Atalia Omer examines this shift through interviews with a new generation of Jewish activists, rigorous data analysis, and fieldwork within a progressive synagogue community. She highlights people politically inspired by social justice campaigns including the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against anti-immigration policies. These activists, she shows, discover that their ethical outrage at US policies extends to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. For these American Jews, the Jewish history of dispossession and diaspora compels a search for solidarity with liberation movements. This shift produces innovations within Jewish tradition, including multi-racial and intersectional conceptions of Jewishness and movements to reclaim prophetic Judaism. Charting the rise of such religious innovation, Omer points toward the possible futures of post-Zionist Judaism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226616100
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/21/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 903,575
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Atalia Omer is associate professor of religion, conflict, and peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

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Questioning the Narrative

Which Side Are You On?

The stories by which we make sense of ourselves account for the formation of our ethical commitments on behalf or under the directives of others — whether near or distant. Such ethical commitments — and solidarity in particular — manifest in and through narratives. In my journey with American Jewish Palestine solidarity activists, I trace how they question the narratives they once embodied — narratives that taught them to stand in solidarity with Israelis and positioned Israel as a pivot (and telos) of Jewish identity and history. I also trace how and why the activists are shifting sides and decentering Israel as a touchstone for articulating their Jewishness. But before unpacking the formation of Jewish Palestine solidarity and how it relates to reimagining Jewishness, it is crucial to examine what solidarity actually means.

Solidarity, according to Richard B. Miller, "is a shared, socialized emotion, not one that can be held by individuals alone, like fear or envy. To exist, it must be intersubjective." This means that, even when expressed through individual actions and commitments, standing in solidarity requires a social narrative about who we are and what ethical values guide our lives. Miller also challenges "depoliticized and depolemicized" analyses of solidarity that describe it as "a nonpartisan, cosmopolitan ideal, conceived either on the basis of an objectivist vision of common human nature or on a rejection of precisely that way of thinking." Such accounts, he argues, founder on their inability to respond to the crucial question that Michael Walzer poses in his Politics and Passion: "Which side are you on?" In contrast, Miller advances a conception of solidarity much more in line with the strong normative commitments I witnessed in Jewish Palestine solidarity work. The activists are clear about which side they are on. Genuine solidarity, as Miller contends, is not "universalist and utopian," but "a social relation that is partisan, primed for struggle, mindful of itself as organized (or close to it), and energized by feelings of resentment and indignation (among other emotions). Solidarity ... is preferential, and it draws lines." As a political form of moral agency, solidarity is always "collectively expressed in terms of organized political affiliation, a culture of shared expectations, mutual understanding, and resolve." But while Miller's definition captures the collective expression and preferential commitment characteristic of solidarity, it does not convey how such moral commitments are in fact reshaped in and through the social movement within which solidarity takes actual shape. This complex process of reshaping commitments will be crucial to this book's analysis.

Nor is solidarity itself an unqualified good. Solidarity and the new communal meanings it generates do not necessarily lead to the formation of a virtuous community or, as Miller puts it, one determined by "a commitment shaped by shared norms and ideals" that are egalitarian rather than partisan. The kind of solidarity formed among white supremacists, for instance, is clearly ethically undesirable, even if white supremacists themselves intensely desire and authorize it through narratives of grievances as just and normative. A desirable form of political solidarity must involve a spectrum of what Miller calls "moral reactive attitudes," which may include resentment, indignation, and guilt. It must also be subject to egalitarian claims to justice. All these features, I will argue, are operative in the formation of Jewish Palestine solidarity. But how have American Jews come to develop such attitudes? This chapter focuses on one basic factor that has made solidarity possible, namely an erosion in the hold of a narrative that, through claims to necessity undergirded by basic discursive formations, had come to determine what things were capable of generating outrage, indignation, and guilt on the part of American Jews. In so doing, that narrative had diminished the humanness of Palestinians and denied the validity of their ethical claims.

In what follows, I first discuss the changing terrain of the American Jewish landscape in recent decades, before mapping the landscape of the "pro-Israel" American Jewish lobby, which Jewish Palestine solidarity activists disrupt. I then analyze the global efforts of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement both to subvert the logic of discourse on Israel/Palestine and to generate moral reaction and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, thus opposing the silencing tactics typically employed to control the narrative. The chapter concludes by examining the ultimately dissatisfying attempt at a new mode of Jewish advocacy work on Israel by the group J Street.

The "Establishment"


The Pew Research Center's 2013 survey of US Jews maps the changing topography of American Judaism. Pew's analysis suggests significant intergenerational shifts. For instance, while 93% of aging Jews (Greatest Generation) describe themselves as "Jews by religion," only 68% of younger adults (Millennials) describe themselves this way. The survey also indicates that over a third (35%) of US Jews identify with the Reform movement, which retains its status as the largest denominational movement within Judaism. Only 18% associate with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox currents, and 6% with smaller movements such as Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal. However, about three in ten American Jews (including 19% of Jews by religion and two-thirds of cultural Jews) do not affiliate with any specific movement or denomination. The majority of my seventy Jewish interviewees had a strong background in the Reform movement, but had grown increasingly critical of the Jewish establishment's position on Israel. Other respondents came from various backgrounds in religious Zionism, Orthodoxy, Reconstructionist, and Conservative currents. While critics of Israel do emerge from across the Jewish spectrum, there are clear correlations between "denominational" affiliation and emotional attachment to Israel, an attachment often framed in Zionist terms.

Overall, the Pew survey might suggest a positive correlation between level of religiosity and unconditional support of Israel. This apparent correlation is a testament to the Zionization of the American Jewish landscape. But the survey suggests that Zionism may be losing its traction: American Jews over the age of 50 tend to express a deeper attachment to Israel than do their younger counterparts: 53% of Jews 65 years and older and 47% of Jews ages 50–64 said that Israel is essential to their understanding of Jewishness. But only 38% of Jews in their thirties and forties, and only 32% of Jews under 30, attribute such centrality to Israel. Indeed, other aspects of Pew's findings illuminate the complex dynamics of the American Jewish landscape and point to the multiple meanings of Jewishness that lie outside Zionist scripts. One key question animating the survey was "What does it mean to be Jewish?" Significantly, 62% of respondents understand their Jewishness in terms of ancestry and culture. Hence, the particular features that American Jews identify as essential to their culture are notable: 73% identified remembering the Holocaust as an essential part of being Jewish. A close second, and potentially related to the first, was leading an ethical/moral life, which 69% reported as constituting an essential aspect of being Jewish. Third, 56% highlighted work for justice/equality as the key meaning of being Jewish. "Caring about Israel" came in fifth place (43%), after the 49% who indicated that "being intellectually curious" was essential to being Jewish. While "remembering the Holocaust" sometimes correlated positively with a sense that support of Israel — including support of its policies — is essential to Jewishness, for many of the American Jews I interviewed, it was precisely the first three of these features — remembering the Holocaust, a commitment to ethical and moral life, as well as actual social work for justice and equality — that informed their critique of Israel and their solidarity work on behalf of Palestinians. This amounts to nothing less than a self-transformative process that led them to reconnect to the legacy of the Jewish Left in Europe and North America, especially its antiracist, Marxist, and socialist legacies.

When I asked Rebecca how she understood her Jewishness, she told me: "I have always maintained that the basis for my activism was my Jewish ideals, the radical equality I had absorbed at home. Communism is a part of my Jewish heritage." About the cultural memory of the Holocaust, she stressed, "Growing up in Hebrew Schools, you grow up with the nightmarish Holocaust films. The conclusion of this education should have been clear: 'You can't do it to another group of people!'" Another interviewee likewise asserted that her solidarity with Palestinians is grounded in the legacy of the Holocaust: "I consider myself to be in solidarity with the Palestinian people. For me, understanding the Holocaust was hard because of the enormity of it — it happened because masses of people made a conscious decision to do nothing. I didn't want to do nothing." Thus, Pew's findings on the changing attitudes and resignification of the Holocaust as a universal lesson and experience appear to be more in line with narratives of Jewish humanism than with the Zionist narrative, which appeals to the Holocaust to posit Israel as the pivot and telos of Jewish history and solidarity. Nevertheless, as the Pew study suggests, as the American Jewish landscape is changing, so are its undergirding narratives. Even if attachments and commitments to Israel still appear to dominate the narration of Jewish identity, the significance Jews attribute to the memory of the Holocaust and to living an ethical life — aspects of Jewishness that do not require the state of Israel — hints at the undercurrents informing the grassroots transformation that is actively reframing Jewish narratives.


Despite its apparently axiomatic hold, the traction of Zionism as a narrative frame among American Jews is quite recent. Its dominance is highly contingent on events of the past century — the intensification of antisemitism and eventually the Holocaust in Europe — as well as on local concerns with integration and assimilation into American sociocultural and economic mainstreams. Thus, only since World War I has (statist) Zionism become an acceptable, even if deeply ambivalent, currency in Jewish exchanges. Furthermore, in the two decades immediately following the Holocaust, Judaism was increasingly construed as a religion rather than an ethnonational identity, and thus as highly consistent with both American civil religion and the Enlightenment project of universalizing the "Jewish message." This universalizing spin was further compounded with an idealized projection of Israel as an extension of American ideals and values, a projection that excused the need for factual grasp of the situation in Israel. Concurrently, the early decades of the Israeli state were peak years for the ethos of "the negation of exile," including provocative calls by David Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders for American Jews to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) or, in other words, to actualize their Zionism. In 1959, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was convoked in an effort to consolidate a representative body that would convey American Jewish positions on Israel to American decision-makers as well as ensure that philanthropic commitments to Israel were institutionalized. The Conference, Ofira Seliktar explains, "tried to present a unified front by denying that significant differences over Israel existed." Along with the American Zionist Council on Public Affairs — established in 1954 and later renamed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — it became the center of the Jewish establishment in Washington, DC.

Furthermore, no sooner had Israel gained a central place in the American Jewish imagination than it began, especially with the watershed of the Lebanon War of 1982 and the Sabra and Shatila massacre, slowly to lose "its aura of innocence and heroism" and to face critical engagement by American Jews who disapprove of such Israeli belligerence. One commentator, Dov Waxman, sees such criticism as emerging not from alienation, but from love, with all the disillusionments — but also the enduring commitment — that mature love entails. But this is not what I heard from the Jewish Palestine solidarity activists I encountered. Their motivation in expressing outrage with their communal leaders and affirming ethical commitments to Palestinians was not love of Israel (in fact, many reject Zionism altogether) but indignation against injustice done in their name. What I saw was a clear politics of passion, which made it increasingly clear that the question "Whose side are you on?" could not be answered with "both," apart from a significant dismantling of Zionism's hold on Jewishness.

This brief historical overview highlights the way that crises and subsequent developments are capable of generating a paradigm shift. The twentieth century witnessed precisely such a shift among American Jews, who went from rejecting Zionism as a threat to the minority-rights discourse central to Jewish flourishing in the diasporas, to embracing it as a paradigm for Jewish identity. AIPAC and other engines of the American and Israeli Jewish establishments have sought to dominate the production of an exclusionary form of solidarity and Holocaust memory. Yet the current Zionist orthodoxy, while deeply entrenched, is itself subject to such subversion by historical contingencies and the production and retrieval of alternative meanings. Here, it may be helpful to appeal to the concept of doxa, as cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu employs it.

"Every established order," Bourdieu explains, "tends to [naturalize] its own arbitrariness." Doxa describes a condition where "there is a quasi-perfect correspondence between the objective order and the subjective principles of organization" such that "the natural and social world appears as self-evident." Or, to use anthropologist Clifford Geertz's analogous terms, ethos and worldview are here thoroughly consistent. Bourdieu distinguishes the experience of doxa from "an orthodox or heterodox belief," for these imply an "awareness and recognition of the possibility of different or antagonistic beliefs" in a way that doxa itself does not. Indeed, both orthodoxy and heterodoxy are reinforced by an underpinning doxa. While orthodoxies need to be defended, doxa imprints itself in us as "self-evident and natural," an objective standard that determines how things are and ought to be. Nonetheless, Bourdieu stresses, doxas are themselves socially constructed, historically embedded, and reflect the dominating classes' objective to retain their privilege. They are produced through "political instruments which contribute to the reproduction of the social world by producing immediate adherence to the world, seen as self-evident and undisputed, of which they are the product." As an ideology, Zionism employs precisely such instruments to reproduce itself, thus (even when internally contested) preserving its hegemony by cultivating habitus or certain embodied dispositions that predispose Jews to authorize its legitimacy and accept without indignation its implications for Palestinians as well as non-Ashkenazi Jews (those who cannot pass as white). At the same time, the reproduction of orthodoxy relies also on orientalism, Islamophobia, and the presumption that normative Jewishness is Ashkenazi and consistent with the political and cultural project of European modernity.

The reproduction of pro-Israeli advocacy is currently threatened by a crisis in narrativity (and authority) that constitutes, in Bourdieu's words, "a necessary condition for a questioning of doxa." Questioning, however, is not a sufficient condition for overcoming doxa. Only when "the dominated have the material and symbolic means of rejecting the definition of the real that is imposed on them through logical structures reproducing the social structures ... and to lift the (institutionalized or internalized) censorships which it implies," can the work of denaturalizing unfold, exposing doxa as orthodoxy or mere "opinion." Thus, to retain its hegemony, Jewish Israel advocacy in the US exhibits a concentrated effort to delimit questioning, all the while deploying a variety of mechanisms to reproduce authorizing narratives that serve to maintain the doxa that renders Zionism as orthodoxy. Such an effort is especially obvious in AIPAC's recent history.


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Table of Contents

A Note about Spelling and Acronyms
Living the Days of Awe, Relentlessly: An Introduction

Part I

1 Questioning the Narrative
2 Forming a Social Movement

Part II

3 Unlearning
4 Remapping the Destination
5 Employing Communal Protest
6 Reimagining Tradition

Part III

7 Making Multidirectional Memory
8 Decolonizing Antisemitism
9 Decolonizing Peacebuilding

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