David Goldberg: A Progressive Reaction to Zionism

Those ‘Jewish values’ that are always cited as evidence of the special Jewish contribution to civilization—justice, a passion for freedom, love of one’s neighbor, sympathy for the underprivileged, improving the world—ring hollow when set against the bleak reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict…[1]

As a progressive liberal, Rabbi David Goldberg’s theology and political opinions have made a lot of waves in United Kingdom’s Jewish community, especially as the cousin of the retired Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. In an interview, Goldberg chuckled when relating the typical Zionist reaction to him: “there goes Goldberg, the anti-Zionist, self-hating Jew again.”[2] The sentiment is not quite true but does convey the disquiet Goldberg’s theology produces. Goldberg is concerned that whereas once Jewish thought revolved around its three pillars: God, Torah, and the people of Israel. In today’s post-modern world, these pillars have morphed into an obsession with anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the state of Israel. It is not a healthy cocktail.[3]

Goldberg points out several telling trends. First, Israel is steadily shifting away from the decent and humane.[4] At any given time, one million of Israel’s citizens live outside Israel—in fact reverse aliyah is on the rise—and many of these migrants are young, disillusioned Israelites. On the flip side, new immigrants to Israel are now predominantly religious Orthodox, people more likely to exacerbate the political situation by hard lining and settling in the West Bank.[5] Goldberg also points out the even if all the diaspora Jews moved to Israel, within a few generations there would still be more Arabs living in the region. Demographics are as much a threat as Israel’s increased military and political misconduct.[6] Goldberg argues that diaspora Jews have been in the thrall of a mythical vision of Israel, blithely overlooking the gross injustices perpetrated by the Jewish state.

As a young idealist rabbi-to-be, Goldberg was a volunteer during the Six-Day War; although by the time he arrived in Israel, the battle was won. Like many soldiers the reality was not all he’d chalked it up to be. As he later realized, he had took part in a slice of history that would come to embody Israel’s foundational myth. Into the dark chasm of post-holocaust introspection, Israel’s seemingly miraculous victory filled a spiritual void. Thus, after 1967, the Holocaust was memorialized and Israel was made sacred. The Holocaust came to be used as a raison d’être for military aggression and occupation, cheapening the horror of that genocide and giving Israel a carte blanche to do as it willed.[7] Goldberg resists the tendency of the Western world, particularly the diaspora, to blind itself with these sorts of ideologies and myths. “With the erosion of belief,” declares Goldberg, “God has been replaced by Israel as the credo of the Jewish people, to the benefit of neither.”[8]

In his book, This is not the Way, Goldberg rethinks some traditional aspects of Judaism. He argues that being Jewish is not a matter of descent or adherence to fixed beliefs but of voluntary self-identification.[9] Nor is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism, as so many pro-Israel lobbyists claim. He argues that in the last sixty years Zionism has sustained Judaism, as its “secular alter ego” and its response to modernity. “Those disillusioned with the credos of conventional Judaism…could find a new set of beliefs in Zionism. Unsurprisingly,” quips Goldberg, “the new religion has been no more successful in delivering salvation than the old one was.”[10] Goldberg sees himself as a representative of a non-vocal majority, Jews who no longer practice the rites of their ancestors or even believe in their traditional conception of God and his power, but who still embrace the culture, the ethic, that is Judaism. For these Jews, argues Goldberg, Zionism can and should be left at the wayside.

For Goldberg, most Jews no longer believe that God actually came down Mount Sinai and gave his chosen people the Torah. Nor do they believe in a omnipotent, omniscient creator who guides history with perfect goodness and justice. Instead, the Torah is a human document that can offer ethical guidance. Goldberg proposes that Jewish culture and ethical values should sustain the Jewish people going forward- and not allegiance to arcane pre-modernity conceptions of ritual, God, and reality. For example, Goldberg decries the fact that Jews largely ignore the injustice done to the Palestinians. However, Jews cannot ignore the paradox that is a military administration of occupied territories—in which Jews have full rights and Palestinians have none—within the democratic state of Israel.[11] They have a right to justice too. For Goldberg, the “ancient triad” of Jews, Judaism, and their relationship with Israel has thrown all three out of whack as a “partnership that has subordinated the dictates of Jewish conscience to the tawdry maneuverings of Israeli politics.”[12]

It is no triumph, argues Goldberg, for the Israelis to claim a higher moral ground than Hamas. Nor is Arab anti-Semitism or appalling violence against Israeli civilians an adequate moral justification for the continued occupation of the West Bank or military retaliation and provocation. Indeed, Goldberg is adamant about an uncomfortable truth: “Israel is an apartheid state there is no two ways about it: when settlers travel on one road and Palestinians have to use another road, when settlers are governed by Israeli law and Palestinians are governed by military law, you are talking about apartheid. ”[13] Tit-for-tat retaliation is not the way.

Goldberg’s trenchant views of modern religion and the way forward for progressive and secular Jews are helpful. However, his insights are uncomfortable for someone, like myself, who is unwilling to fully abandon the notion that the Divine intersects in some tangible way with human history, not just as a force for ethics and right behavior. His book highlights unavoidable tensions. On the one hand, the Jewish people uphold God’s extraordinary, particular claims on them and defend the sacredness of Scripture and its promises. On the other hand, Jews have an ethical responsibility as a people embracing modernity and must refrain from doing onto others what others have done onto them. It is no wonder that Goldberg must conclude: “Religion has discredited itself as a force for peace in the Middle East and will remain discredited for as long as its practitioners insist on citing from their holy scriptures to prove their priority in God’s favor and exclusive rights to the land.”[14] Goldberg’s solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem is an internal one. Jews must self-liberate themselves: they must stop seeing themselves as the eternal victim, wallowing in self-pity at being misunderstood, and imagining that the world owes them special leeway because of the Holocaust. Above all, Jews must stop subordinating the dictates of conscience to the demands of the Jewish state.[15] While many Jews would certainly be unwilling to abandon the three pillars of Judaism as Goldberg essentially has done, they should be able to agree to Goldberg’s solution for a way forward.



[1]Goldberg, This is Not the Way, 3.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B1g74lB1OE

[3] “Can Jewish and Christian values last without belief in an omnipotent God?” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/mar/02/jewish-christian-values-survival

[4] Goldberg, This is Not the Way, 21-43.

[5] Goldberg, This is Not the Way, 20.

[6] David Goldberg, The Divided Self: Israel and the Jewish Psyche Today, I.B Tauris, London, 2006; paperback edn 2011.

[7] Goldberg, This is not the Way, 44-66.

[8] Ibid.,3.

[9] Ibid., 103-128.

[10] Ibid., 154-5.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Ibid.,216.

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B1g74lB1OE

[14] Goldberg, This is not the Way, 240.

[15] Ibid., 246.


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