Zionism and American Jewish Identity:
A Report on Last Week's "Hot Topics" Event

“Israel occupies a place deep in our kishkes”. This is how Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld introduced last week’s “Hot Topics” panel.  No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, American Jews are pulled from somewhere deep inside of ourselves to talk about Israel/Palestine. We need to talk about it.  And we need safe spaces, where Jews from across the political spectrum can dialogue, question, grow and challenge each other and where a range of opinion as well as dissent from the mainstream are not only tolerated but welcomed.   Last week’s panel discussion “Zionism and Israel: How they Inform American Jewish Identity Today,” featuring a panel of three area rabbis – Brian Walt, Barbara Penzner, and David Starr – aimed to provide such a space.

Second in a 3-part series of “Hot Topic” events organized by our MidEast Working Group, the program opened with each panelist responding to two questions – “What is the relationship between Zionism and American Jewish identity?” and “Does Zionism define who’s in the ‘tent,’ and who decides?” – after which Rabbi Cohen Anisfeld, moderator for the evening, invited them to respond or react to each other, followed by questions and comments from the audience. 

While none of the panelists responded with a strong “you have to be Zionist to be a Jew” stance, their affinity (or not) to Zionism ranged from Rabbi Walt’s position that he “no longer feels that there has to be a Jewish state” to Rabbi Penzner’s viewpoint that, as David Hartmann of the Hartmann Institute once said, “Israel is a project that belongs to all of us,” and we have a responsibility to help Israel succeed in being a democratic, but thoroughly Jewish state. Rabbi Walt also spoke about not wanting Zionism to be the foundation of his Jewish identity, which was a painful thing for him to realize, having identified as a Liberal Zionist for most of his life. “Jews around the world created culture for thousands of years. Zionism has robbed us of this. I want to be nurtured by the old Judaism, by the mameloshen (mother tongue), and the Judaism of my ancestors who were strong, not weak, people.”

In response to the second question about the proverbial “tent” that looms large in Jewish tradition and contemporary life, there was broad agreement amongst the panelists that the tent should be open, like Abraham’s mythic tent that was open on all four sides, though Rabbi Starr questioned whether we should even care about the tent at all. “No, Zionism should not define who’s in the tent,” he said. “You end up with a lot of people inside the tent inflating their sense of self worth by excluding other people. And no one else even cares about the tent! So why should we? Glad we solved that problem,” he said. “We can go home now!” But on a more serious note, both panelists and audience members agreed that even rabbis are afraid to tell the truth about what they think about Israel. Mainstream Jewish institutions create a structure of intimidation around Israel, and this is something we, as a community, need to change.

We at the Boston Workmen’s Circle hope that events like last week’s panel can be a part of creating this change.  We want to thank everyone who attended, and extend our deepest appreciation to Rabbis Walt, Penzner, and Starr for sharing their viewpoints and listening with open hearts and to Rabbi Cohen Anisfeld for her skillful facilitation.

Stay tuned for a third “Hot Topics” discussion in the fall. If you have ideas for the series please don’t hesitate to get in touch at info@circleboston.org or 617-566-6281.