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A Conflict of Faith: Judaism vs Israel today

A Conflict of Faith: Devoted to Jewish Observance, but at Odds With Israel

From left, Daniel Boyarin of Berkeley, Corey Robin of Brooklyn College, Rabbi Alissa Wise and Charles H. Manekin of the University of Maryland, all observant Jews who have found that their views on Israel differ from those of family members and friends.

There is no question that Charles H. Manekin is a rarity. Not because he is an Orthodox Jew who keeps the Sabbath, refraining from driving, turning on lights, even riding in elevators on Saturdays. Rather, this philosophy professor at the University of Maryland is rare because he believes that his Orthodox faith calls him to take stands against Israel.

Professor Manekin, 61, became Orthodox in college and became an Israeli citizen in the 1980s. Yet in an interview this week, he denounced Israel’s “excessive reliance” on military force, its treatment of Arab citizens and its occupation of the West Bank. Although not a member of the American Studies Association, he was pleased when the group voted in December not to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions — the “academic boycott.” He is “sympathetic” to B.D.S., as the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel is known.

“As a religious Jew,” he said, “I am especially disturbed by the daily injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians.”

The vast majority of Jews consider themselves supportive of Israel. They may quarrel with various Israeli policies, but since the state’s founding in 1948, and especially since the 1967 war, Zionism has been a common denominator of world Jewry.

And while there have always been anti- or non-Zionist Jews, today they cluster on the less observant end of Judaism, among secular or religiously liberal Jews. In such a world, Professor Manekin — a modern Orthodox Jew in a skullcap whose religion moves him to oppose Israel — is exceedingly rare.

Zionism was not always the norm among American Jews. Nevertheless, those committed to Jewish practice but openly at odds with Israel are now likely to find themselves at odds with their friends and family. In the past couple of months, events like the American Studies vote and the endorsement by the actress Scarlett Johansson of a seltzer-maker in the occupied West Bank have multiplied the opportunities for tense family dinners.

Professor Manekin spends about half the year in Israel, where his children and grandchildren live, so he is hardly boycotting the country with his own dollars (or shekels). But since 2007 he has regularly offered criticisms of Israel on his blog, The Magnes Zionist. It is named for Judah L. Magnes, an American rabbi who, until his death in 1948, argued that a Jewish return to the Middle East did not require a nation-state.

“People look at ‘non-statist Zionism’ as the type that lost,” Professor Manekin said this week, referring to Rabbi Magnes’s philosophy. “But I found a lot of what they were saying resonated today, and a lot of their predictions about endless war had come to pass.”

Stefan Krieger, 67, teaches law at Hofstra University, on Long Island. He refrains from work on the Sabbath, keeps kosher, and studies a page of the Talmud every day. But his views on Israel have always been unusual.

“My parents were very sensitive to the issues of Palestinians,” Professor Krieger said. “My mom had a book called ‘They Are Human Too,’ and my memory is she would take it off the bookshelf, as if this was some sort of scandalous tract she was showing me, and show me pictures of Palestinians in refugee camps.”

Professor Krieger, who supports the B.D.S. movement, will not rise in synagogue for the traditional prayer for the state of Israel. “I think nationalism and religion together are toxic,” he said.

So far, he said, the fallout has been minimal. “I was worried it would destroy some relationships. I don’t think it has yet.” At a synagogue Professor Krieger used to attend, one woman would not enter the sanctuary when he was seated on the bimah, or stage. When he placed some literature from Rabbis for Human Rights, a liberal Israeli group, on a table, “she threw it out.”

Alissa Wise, 34, grew up in Cincinnati, in what she calls a “modern Orthodox or Conservative kind of background, a very right-wing Zionist background.” In 1999, she arrived at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On her first day of classes, there was a pro-Palestinian rally on campus.

Rabbi Wise — she was later ordained in the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism — was shocked to learn of the West Bank occupation. “I had gone to Jewish summer camp and Jewish day school my whole life and had no idea,” she said.

Today, Rabbi Wise works for Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that endorses some boycotts against Israel. Her views make her a minority in her family.

“I still believe the way I believe,” said her father, Ron, who works for Osem, an Israeli food company. “I am open to how she believes, and I listen to her.”

But, he continued, “At the same time, Israel needs to be protected.”

Daniel Boyarin, who teaches Talmud at the University of California, Berkeley, attended Orthodox synagogues for 30 years. He believes that Zionism was always flawed.

“The very concept of a state defined as being for one people was deeply problematic and inevitably going to lead to a moral and political disaster,” said Professor Boyarin. “Which I think it has.”

Professor Boyarin, 67, is still observant, but he has dropped out of synagogue life. “I have been so disturbed by the political discourse,” he said, “that I felt that I couldn’t participate.”

Skepticism toward Zionism used to be common. Before World War II, Reform Jews tended to believe that they had found a home in the United States, and that Zionism could be seen as a form of dual loyalty. Orthodox Jews generally believed, theologically, that a state of Israel would have to wait for the Messiah’s arrival (a view some ultra-Orthodox Jews still hold). In the 1930s and ’40s, the persecution of European Jews turned many American Jews into Zionists. Major organizations, like the American Jewish Committee and Hillel, the Jewish campus group, turned toward political Zionism after the war.

“When Hillel was founded, it took a clear non-Zionist position,” said Noam Pianko, who teaches Jewish history at the University of Washington. “What you see is a shift in the American spectrum: from non-Zionism with a few Zionists, to a situation, by the 1960s, where the assumption is that any American Jewish organization is also going to be clearly Zionist.”

Corey Robin, 46, a regular at a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn, writes a blog about his opposition to Israeli policy and his support for the B.D.S. movement. “There are lots of ways to be Jewish, but worshiping a heavily militarized state seems like a bit of a comedown from our past,” Professor Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College, said in an email.

He said that he tries not to get into arguments with friends, but he has become very “vocal and visible” in his writings. In response to such views, Professor Robin is often accused of despising Judaism.

“As my mother, who is very pro-Israel, will tell you, I love being Jewish,” Professor Robin said. “I love when I’m walking down the street, and my 5-year-old daughter’s skipping next to me, singing to herself some tune in Hebrew that we sang in shul.

“I can’t listen to that tune and the words we sing when we close the ark without a shudder. I love being Jewish. I just don’t love the state of Israel.”


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A version of this article appears in print on February 15, 2014, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: A Conflict of Faith: Devoted to Jewish Observance, but at Odds With Israel. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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