From Jerusalem to Chicago: My Journey from Settler to Clergy-Activist

by Cantor Michael Davis (cross-posted at his blog, Kol Shalom)

I was raised to be a settler. My family moved to Israel during the peace negotiations with Egypt. As a high school student in Jerusalem, I regularly took off school to attend demonstrations against the peace treaty with Egypt. My yeshiva high school bussed us – students and faculty – to these anti-peace rallies. Similarly, we supported our teachers when they went off to fight the PLO in Lebanon in 1982. At the Shabbat dinner table at the yeshiva, we sang an anthem celebrating the occupation in the West Bank, which we knew by its neo-Biblical name: “Judea and Samaria.” Most of my classmates went on to study in adult yeshivot on the West Bank.

We were the lucky ones. The Messiah may not yet have arrived in person, but we had the unique good fortune of living in the epoch of Atchalta d’G’eula, as foretold in the Talmud. We were partners in the Redemption of Eretz Yisrael, heralding the birth of a Messianic age.

I was a settler. I grew up on a suburb of Jerusalem that was a West Bank settlement. Later, I served as a soldier in the IDF, on the West Bank. As a teenager, there was no daylight between my Israeli identity and my settler ideology. We went on hikes – under armed guard – through the hills and by the villages of the West Bank. We bravely went where no Jews had settled before. The Palestinian territories were our Jewish frontier.

Settlers, so we were taught, embodied all that was good in Israel. We, the settlers, did not care about money. Unlike secular Israelis, we were not materialistic, not hedonistic. We gave our admiration and love not to the idols of Israeli and American pop culture but to the Land.

We loved the Land of Israel, or, more accurately, the part of it known as Greater Israel. Our love for Eretz Yisrael was given, not to Tel Aviv, but to Hebron; not to Haifa but to Sh’chem (Nablus); the Golan Heights, not sinful Eilat. As Jerusalemites, we turned our attention to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. On Sukkot, we gathered there in a yeshiva, a settler outpost, on Bab el-Wad street, just a few minutes walk from the Western Wall. We heard our rabbis teach Talmudic and Kabbalistic discourses on the rebuilding of the Third Temple.

So what if settlements were illegal? Our mission as agents of the Messiah superseded the rule of law. To be a good Jew was to be an Israeli, and to be a good Israeli was to build new settlements.

Our older peers, the ones who built settlements all over the West Bank, were the spiritual heirs of the original Zionist settlers, only better. Those teenagers, who a hundred years before us, had spurned the creature comforts of Bialystok and Berlin and sailed off for Jaffa to reclaim the Land. The West Bank settlers were every bit as self-sacrificing. In addition, they were not religious rebels but yeshiva boys.

And then, I left all that behind. I “took off my kippa (yarmulke)”. I severed my ties to Israeli Orthodoxy and its settler ideology. I rejected the Messianic purity of thought and that cozy camaraderie of my peer group. I no longer marched through the Arab market on the eve of Yom Yerushalayim with thousands of fellow settler supporters, banging on the metal-shuttered stalls. I no longer went to the demonstrations supporting the Occupation. I did not travel to Hebron to dance the hora in a city under curfew. I gave up the dream of a suburban house with a garden in the middle of Palestine, dodging bullets and stones on the daily commute to work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

However, even in my apartment in genteel West Jerusalem, it was impossible to escape the reality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank just a few miles down the road. In my 20s, my friends routinely, if reluctantly, served on guard duty at West Bank settlements. As a reservist in the Israeli army, I strategized how to dodge these annual call-up orders. I wasn’t quite ready to serve time in the stockade. Fortunately, for me, the Israeli army wasn’t interested in jailing large numbers of conscientious objectors either. I regularly managed to set up alternate service at my old military base in Tel Aviv and thus avoid ever being posted to the West Bank.

In other ways too, it became increasingly clear, that the Green Line, the border between the West Bank and the State of Israel could not insulate me from Israel’s settler ideology. As a university student in Jerusalem, I watched with concern the rapid rise of the so-called “Modern Orthodox” in the military. This segment of Israeli society is almost completely pro-settler.  It became common to see a knitted kippa on the heads of young officers carrying assault guns. The Israeli army famously plays an over sized role in Israeli public life. The influx of religious officers was a coming of age for Orthodox Zionism. The emergence of the  Orthodox officer corps was the final nail. The age of kibbutznikim and Labor Zionists is long gone.

Predictably, the rise of the pro-settler camp in the junior ranks eventually reached the senior officer corps too. Today, several generals are now Orthodox pro-settler. Other leadership positions in the State of Israel are now filled by settlers. A settler was recently appointed to serve as a justice on Israel’s Supreme Court.

In 1992, when Yizhak Rabin returned to power, replacing Yizhak Shamir as leader of Israel, my friends and I were jubilant. Yizhak Shamir had stonewalled any attempts at reconciliation with the Palestinians. For us moderate Israelis, Rabin’s rise to power as leader of Israel was our equivalent of the toppling of the Berlin Wall. Over a period of months, new and exciting horizons of hope for peace opened up.

During this time, as a reservist in the IDF, I participated in the first military withdrawal from Gaza in May 1994. I saw Palestinian officers working with IDF officers on Israeli military bases. I saw the first joint patrol jeep of Palestinian and Israeli soldiers. The Messianic promise of the wolf and the lamb laying down together was here. Who knew, perhaps Prime Minister Rabin would indeed be the one to undo Ariel Sharon’s legacy in the West Bank?

As we now know, the idyll lasted for a just few, short years.

At that fateful peace demonstration in central Tel Aviv one Saturday night in November 1995, I was one of the thousands who heard the three gunshots that ended Rabin’s life. We ran for cover into the side streets off the main square. I didn’t stop moving until I left Israel. The rise of Netanyahu sealed the deal. I left Israel and moved to the United States.

At some point, while I was still living in Israel, I came across an American dictionary. I was flipping through the back of the book when I came upon the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. I was then still unfamiliar with the iconic lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Such straightforward clarity!  Of course, I realized that the United States was not without its own problems, but, at least here was a theoretical framework that made sense. It gave me hope.

Over time, I came to understand that what was written in opposition to the rule of King George was also a rejection of an ethnic state. If all men are created equal, how can one justify a state that on principle favors one ethnic group over another? From the State of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence that declares the formation of a Jewish State, through the State’s Basic Laws (the building blocks of an Israeli Constitution) that favor Jews over non-Jews, to State institutions that limit land ownership for non-Jews, the State of Israel officially favors Jews and discriminates against non-Jews. The State of Israel was constituted as a Jewish state with limited democracy. The United States, on the other hand, gave the world the model of a democratic state. I knew which theoretical model I preferred.

For years, I placed myself in the Liberal Zionist camp. I wanted to believe, like Amos Oz and his camp, that a Jewish State was both necessary and could be fair. Today, I no longer believe either of those. I believe today that time has finally run out for the philosophy that upholds that Israel can both institutionally, legally and constitutionally favor Jews on the one hand and still deal justly with its non-Jewish, indigenous population, on the other. I also do not see how a Jewish State offers greater security for Jews, either now or in the event of some future threat.

My Israel/Palestine activism in the States was, initially, my way of staying connected to Israel. This is an area I knew well and could contribute my expertise to the political effort. Yet, over time, as I became integrated into American life, I came to understand Israel, not only as an Israeli ex-pat, but within the context of the U.S. and American Jewish life.

I love American Jews for their proud, social consciousness: their stand for civil rights, their fight to keep church and state separate, their visceral support for immigrants, and their overall, vigorous civic engagement.

I was therefore dismayed to see all these values firmly set aside when it came to Israel: the organized Jewish community’s stand with Israel in bombing Gaza, the unquestioning support of a Jewish state with limited democracy, vilifying those who work for full democracy, including Jews and even Israelis, ostracizing those within the community who cross the approved line. Some days I feel that, since I did not grow up in the American Jewish community, I will never understand the emotional context for, what I see as, a bifurcated values system. My commitment is to work at getting closer to these Jews whom I love. I try to follow the path of listening, and not judging. Being present and not preaching. I have evidence that this approach works. The many different and conflicting ways that Jews love Israel need not be a cause for strife.  Instead, it can be a powerful way of connecting Jews to each other. I have seen Jews with opposing beliefs on Israel sit at the same table and listen to each others’ opinions. Each one felt validated in being heard.

For myself, I feel that I am heard in the context Jewish Voice for Peace. I am proud to be a founding member of its Rabbinical Council. JVP is the place where I can speak my truth without fear. My colleagues on the Rabbinic Cabinet speak the same language I do. At times we disagree, but we share a deep connection to Israel and to our values, and the commitment to bring those two sentiments together.

There is much exciting work to do. The separation barrier between Israelis and Palestinians is emblematic of mental barriers that we each carry within us. Our leadership is needed. We need safe places for Jews to work through their concerns about Israel. There is a need and an opportunity for a new model of interfaith dialog with Christians. They, too, share our deep love for the Holy Land rooted in their own religious tradition. We have the opportunity to make meaningful connections with Christians, not based on formal politeness or supporting Israel right-or-wrong, but through acknowledging our common love for Israel/Palestine and standing in solidarity with Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

As American Jews, we need not follow Israel into its self-imposed bunker of isolation. We, American Jews and Christians, can also play a role in helping Israelis to heal. American Jews can model for Israel a better way of engaging with their neighbors and the world. We can support the brave Jewish and Palestinian activists in Israel and the Occupied territories.

Zionism set up a new paradigm which held the Land of Israel to be the center of Jewish life and the rest of the world at the periphery, known as the Diaspora. Today, the time has come to claim our place as the dynamic heart of the Jewish tradition. We are leaders in engaging with our non-Jewish neighbors and expanding the scope of Jewish life to include those who had previously been excluded. Israeli leaders, including Orthodox Jews, are coming to America to learn from us how to be good Jews.

I support the call of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). This non-violent strategy allows me to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The debate around BDS has the potential to break through the passive support that mainstream America offers the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the disenfranchisement of indigenous non-Jews in the State of Israel. My support of BDS is not intended to bring Israel to its knees – there is no chance that that will happen. BDS, for me, serves as a wake-up call to American Jews, to all Americans, and to the world community. Where the rest of the world goes, Israel will eventually follow.

Last month, I was in Jerusalem for a family celebration. At his invitation, I visited with Archbishop Theodosius, the senior Palestinian cleric, in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem. Archbishop Theodosius was a gracious host. He sees Palestinian Christians as the bridge between Jews and Moslems. His vision is to draw Israeli Jews into the conversation about full democracy for Israel/Palestine. He tasked me with translating the 2009 Christian statement of unity about Palestine (Kairos) into Hebrew. I was happy to accept this project.

My activism continues to bring me to new frontiers; I am making new friends in unlikely places. Archbishop Theodosius told me that I am only the second Jew he has befriended. I was a fellow Jerusalemite for many years and yet we never met before. Until recently, neither of us had met anybody in the others’ religious group.

I continue to be an activist in order stay connected to the issues and to my own sense of what is right. Activism makes me hopeful. For me, activism means moving beyond
dissatisfaction to a place where what is wrong does not affect my spirit. My community of activists is a safe place. Activism allows me to confront the reality of Israel/Palestine without loss of spirit.

I see the old tropes of Holocaust and Israel-right-or-wrong becoming increasingly irrelevant to young Jews. Its is these Jews, in their 20s, who give me hope for the future. By staying true to their beliefs, they will increasingly make their parents and grandparents aware that Zionism is not the only way of being Jewish. I believe the Jewish community will transform and come back to its core values.

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8 thoughts on “From Jerusalem to Chicago: My Journey from Settler to Clergy-Activist

  1. Physical occupation or conquest of land is about the only way any land was aquired in history. Should we consider giving Texas to the Mexicans? Tennessee to the Cherokees, etc. In your case, you need to also go back to the scriptures that give the Jews the only title deed to any piece of real estate. I am not Jewish and don’t agree with all of Israel’s policies, but I think you are giving the Palestinians a complete pass on this.

    • Ed – As clergy and faculty at a Rabbinical seminary I teach the Bible not as a title deed but as a source of moral teachings. In my reading of the Talmud and Jewish tradition, Jews, for the last 2,000 years have downplayed Joshua’s violent conquests. Even Joshua was eventually forced to accept that the Israelites shared the land with the Philistines and other indigenous peoples. It is naive to think that Israel can establish a Jewish state and not recognize that the land – and therefore the State too – is shared with Palestinians.

      Ed – if, as you say, physical occupation of a land constitutes a claim for ownership, then what of the 50% of the current residents of Israel/Palestine who are not Jewish? And shouldn’t at least the same weight be given to the older claim of the indigenous Palestinian population compared to that of the Jewish newcomers?

      • The Jews occupied the land before the Palestinians prior to the Roman dispersal around 70 A.D. More recently, the land was only barely inhabited and mostly by nomads. That was one reason the League of Nations allowed the Jews to settle there after WW II. The only reason the Palestinians are making such a stink now is because the know Allah is upset that they let go of the land the once had. They will never be satisfied by any peace agreement short of Jewish total removal from all Arab lands.
        Is this what you propose?

      • Ed – Would you provide a reference for the motivations you ascribe to Palestinian self-determination and the movement’s ultimate goals? If you were address your comment to a Palestinian, I think it would be taken as an ill-informed insult, particularly to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians.
        I just returned from a visit to Israel/Palestine and saw the old Palestinian urban centers in Jerusalem and Nablus. Palestinians were the overwhelming majority in the land until the middle of the 20th century.
        And I think you meant that Palestine opened up for Jewish immigration at the end of World War One. In the aftermath of World War Two, the United Nations granted recognition (Resolution 181) to a Jewish and Palestinian State.

  2. Thank you so much for your personal story about this very upsetting situation. As an American Christian who has been misled for most of my life by the media to blindly believe Israel is innately free of any wrongdoing, I appreciate reading first hand experiences from someone who actually lived there. I pray more Americans will seek the truth, and join hands with JVP to help bring peace to Israel/Palestine.

    • “I severed my ties to Israeli Orthodoxy and its settler ideology. I rejected the Messianic purity of thought and that cozy camaraderie of my peer group.”

      So, you’re a self-declared apikorus. Need I say more?

  3. As much as I respect your own personal journey, this is much more than personal. It is a slanderous misrepresentation of Israel as it was when you were here and of what it is today.
    Your patronizing love of all Jews, including the six million who live in Israel, is mixed with untruths and inaccuracies that put you on a pedestal teaching millions of Jews what Jewish morals should be.

    Orthodoxy and Settlers are not the same. Israelis and Settlers are not the same.
    Most Israelis are actually secular and from your article it sounds like most Israelis are settlers too.

    I am a proud Israeli Jew and I oppose Hamas, terrorism and BDS.
    I love my children and oppose violence. I do what good deeds I can and I support giving equal rights to Palestinian Arabs.
    I have held a gun to defend my country and support the IDF, the most moral army in the world, and I will send my children to do the same, if the Arabs continue to call for our annihilation.
    (Not that all Arabs do, but the ones with rockets do. Just check that Archbishop Theodosius speaks to them too).
    I also live in the firm knowledge that Israel is a true democracy and offers more freedom to Arabs than any other Arab country does, and offers them more freedom than America did to “Afro-Americans” just 50 years ago. You know, Israeli Arabs can study in universities! and there is much more!

    There are a few million like me here, but your readers might easily deduce from your “personal story” that people like me don’t even exist.

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