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Examining American Jews' Relationship With Israel, Zionism


Not for the first time, a war in the Middle East is causing some American Jews to rethink their relationship with Israel. One of many, many voices we're hearing on the conflict is Rabbi Miriam Grossman, who's been rethinking her view of Israel for years. She is the rabbi for Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive congregation in Brooklyn.

MIRIAM GROSSMAN: I was really immersed in Jewish community my whole life. I went to Jewish day school that really centered Israel. And the same was true of my Jewish summer camp, and also my entire life my father was the rabbi of my congregation. All were places that really centered Israel.

INSKEEP: She says she did not hear the Palestinian perspective and was even told not to listen for it.

GROSSMAN: I was really specifically taught not to trust or empathize with Palestinians and how to dismiss charges of anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism.

INSKEEP: A lot has changed for her since then.

GROSSMAN: I used to consider myself a Zionist. I don't consider myself a Zionist. And the way that that happened is that out of that really beautiful Jewish childhood, years after that, I spent time on Standing Rock Reservation, the Lakota Reservation in North Dakota that folks may recognize from recent events. And I was working with the tribe essentially to protect sacred sites.

INSKEEP: They were protesting a pipeline.

GROSSMAN: Yes, that's right. But this was in 2008, a different pipeline.


GROSSMAN: That's an ongoing issue, the issue of sort of native sovereignty and access to holy sites. And in being there, I talked a lot with people about Holy Land. And at one point in that journey, a very dear friend said to me, I know that all around the world, people have always gotten a piece of you. And I'm glad you're still here in the world as a Jewish person. And I'm glad you get to be at your holy sites and Holy Land. She said, and my people are among the most oppressed in the world. And when I look to the Palestinian people, she said, I see my own story and in certain ways I think they are more oppressed than I am. So when she said that, I could see in that moment that it did not feel like anti-Semitism. And I could see in that moment that she acknowledged my history. And I could see in that moment that she even was acknowledging that there is land that is holy to me. She could see all of those things and name that and also talk about the history of displacement and the history of settler colonialism that had displaced her people and that displaces Palestinians.

INSKEEP: I'm sure there are people listening who have said I am a Zionist, but I have certain concerns. I am a Zionist...

GROSSMAN: Sure, sure.

INSKEEP: ...But I wish the government of Israel had a different policy or that there was a peace agreement. Why not choose that answer for yourself?

GROSSMAN: First of all, I think that personal identification isn't the most important part of this issue. I think that whatever people call themselves, there is space to find common agreement for action. And I think beyond the question of how people identify, the deepest question is dignity and equality. The deepest questions are about an end to the occupation, an end to the siege on Gaza, an end to continued displacement and ethnic cleansing. Those are the questions that are most important. So in my congregation, we have a really big spectrum of how folks feel. My community is not a monolith. And we have liberal Zionist, anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, people who don't identify. People have been really proud of our community that people are able to stay in conversation, stay in relationship, love one another, listen to each other's differences and different stories and just remain a really tight-knit community.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, are you hearing from some of the more Zionist members of your congregation?

GROSSMAN: Yeah, I have to honestly say I am shocked by this, and I think maybe I underestimated what our community was possible of holding together in love and difference. And I honestly can say that I have received only positive support, regardless of if folks disagree with me and feel differently. And I do think that's because we've built this culture of speaking out across lines of difference, trying to live with integrity, trying to tell your own story. What matters to me is that people understand that I hear their family histories, I hear their stories. I hear and understand the fear and the trauma that they may be carrying as Jewish people.

INSKEEP: What was it like when you shared your view of Israel with your parents?

GROSSMAN: That's a great question. Yeah. And I will say, I could get a little emotional. My father has dementia, and so he's not...

INSKEEP: I'm sorry to hear that.

GROSSMAN: Thank you so much. He's not aware of the situation as it's happening now. But I've been thinking a lot about when I first told them that I didn't think I was a Zionist anymore. My father, as I said, was a rabbi, and he was an AIPAC Rabbi, which means that he was on the more conservative end and...

INSKEEP: It's the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

GROSSMAN: Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: These are people who lobby for Israel. OK.

GROSSMAN: Exactly. And that was a huge part of his life and a huge part of his rabbinate. And his creative and joyful Jewish self was - you know, he was my rabbi. And so when I told him coming out of Standing Rock that I saw this - that there was this way that I was beginning to criticize the United States and that I was starting to feel that way about Israel as well, and that I was starting to ask questions about Palestinian voices and stories the way that I had not also been taught to look at Native voices and stories - I identify as queer. And this was harder than that. And it was very emotional. And, yeah, it was very emotional. When ultimately I became a rabbi and there were two Rabbi Grossmans in the world and he said to me - he said, you know I don't agree with you, but at the end of the day, you don't just have to be a rabbi. You have to be a rabbi who can wake up every morning and look at themself in the mirror with integrity. And so I love you, and I'm proud of you. And I get a little emotional even thinking about it. And I think...

INSKEEP: Well, me, too, so go on.

GROSSMAN: Yeah (laughter). And we continued to disagree. I continued my activism. He continued his. Perhaps if he would have, you know, remained healthier as he aged, you know, there might be a world where we could have been on opposite sides of a protest. I don't have a hard time imagining that. And I think that there - he gave me this gift that I feel has carried me really far. So I don't think that's everyone's story, but it's also a story that's worth telling.

INSKEEP: Rabbi Miriam Grossman of congregation Kolot Chayeinu.