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Your Jewish Neighbors Are Not OK

I find it incredibly painful to hear people claim Israel is a “settler-colonialist state.” As Temple Israel of Alameda’s rabbi, congregants often tell me they wish they knew Jewish history better. Frankly, you don’t need to know much beyond this: Israel is one of our most ancient names. Our existence, as Judea and Israel, are recorded in the annals of ancient civilizations. We are called “Jews” and “Jewish” as descriptors for the people of Judea. The Maccabees created the last Jewish monarchy—the Hasmoneans.

Alameda Post - Rabbi Cynthia Minster of Alameda's Temple Israel
Rabbi Cynthia Minster. Photo Robert Downs.

Then, in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. When we revolted against their rule, they tried to destroy us. Romans carted many of us off as slaves and took our menorah with them. They used our wealth to build the Colosseum and created the Arch of Titus to commemorate their plunder. Many of the gladiators were our men—the strong Jewish men who were forced to fight to the death for the pleasure of Romans. And to bury us completely, they renamed our homeland Palestine. That’s why there’s a Palestinian Talmud—aka Jerusalem Talmud, though it wasn’t compiled in Jerusalem—not quite as robust or definitive as the Babylonian Talmud.

After the Roman plunder of Israel, our diaspora became our center. The diaspora did not start with the destruction of our homeland; we have always been an ethnic group capable of maintaining our culture beyond our physical land. Similarly, Jews never stopped living in Israel. We did not regain political control of our homeland until 1948, but we also never ceded the territory or its centrality to our identity.

In the shadow of the Shoah, the Holocaust, many Jews became wary of acknowledging that we are an ethnic group. People thought that “gave into Hitler,” rather than honoring our uniqueness. This may be part of the reason that Jewish Studies in the United States is categorized as “philosophy” and “religion,” rather than “ethnic studies.” And therein began our separation from ethnic studies in the state of California. I cannot tell you how painful it is to read that professors in the UC System believe “anti-Zionism is central to ethnic studies.” Apparently, hating Jewish self-determination is central to their analysis of ethnicity. Similarly, student workers and researchers in the UC system authorized a strike to protest taking down encampments and to demand the administration take an anti-Jewish stance on a foreign war.

I want to be clear: It is perfectly reasonable if you advocate for an end to the war between Hamas, Hezbollah, and Israel. If you consider yourself an anti-Zionist Jew, you will not be shunned from the Temple Israel community. At the same time, given my knowledge of Jewish history, I cannot imagine calling for the elimination of the state of Israel. Separate from anything else, half the Jewish population of Israel were ethnically cleansed from other Middle Eastern/North African states. Most Israelis don’t have anywhere to go back to. We have been persecuted for being Jewish throughout our existence. Anti-Judaism has been central to the development of the West. And now, Palestinian activists have weaponized Western values, making Jewish Americans less safe because of the widespread misinformation about the history of the Levant.

Last weekend, my community hosted a screening of “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting.” My earliest career goal was to be a career diplomat. Just as East African embassy bombings affirmed that I was willing to risk my life to be an American diplomat, so too did the slaughter of eleven Jews while praying on Shabbat make me realize that I am willing to risk my life for being Jewish. I take seriously that my community worries for our safety. After all, being one of the most visible Jews in Alameda, I recognize that my safety, and the safety of my children and husband, are not a given.

I pray for peace. I also pray for our neighbors to stop weaponizing the idea of Jewish self-determination. Our collective desire for political power and space in our ancient homeland is not evil. Zionist is not a dirty word. Just as Muslims are the majority in 49 countries and Christians are the majority in 157 countries, Jews have the right to be the majority in 1 country.

Rabbi Cynthia Minster
Temple Israel of Alameda

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