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November 13, 2012

The Dilemmas of a Liberal Zionist

Reuel S. Amdur

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Mira Sucharov, who teaches political science at Carleton University, was invited to deliver the sermon at First Unitarian Congregation in Ottawa on September 23, during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jacob Caines, the church's music director, blew the shofar for the service.

Sucharov writes for a number of publications including Haaretz, Huffington Post, and the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.  Her talk addressed her personal marginality in the Jewish community, the wider conflict between opposing narratives of “liberal” Zionism, and the limits on tolerated discussion within the Canadian Jewish community.

In her sermon, she spoke of two “liberal” Zionists with rather different perspectives on Israel, Rabbi Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart.  Both have written extensively.  Gordis’ perspective is one of an Israel under siege.  As we in Canada listen to the radio to know if the schools will be closed because of snow, in southern Israel they listen to know if they will be closed because of rockets.  Beinart holds that a siege mentality does not offer hope for Israel.  What is needed are acts to make possible the survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.  Central to this approach is the elimination of the settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state.  Otherwise, a Greater Israel will be overwhelmed by Palestinians.  For that reason, he favors a boycott of products from settlements in the West Bank—not of products from Israel proper.

Sucharov sides with Beinart, who will be coming to Ottawa in October to speak.  She contacted Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, to try to arrange an opportunity for Jewish students to have an exchange with him.  The answer was no.  Sucharov decided to get to the bottom of the refusal, and what she found was that the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (note the order of priority), the “official” organization of Canadian Jewry, had advised Hillels across Canada against having anyone supporting any kind of a boycott speak at Hillel.  “How narrow is our tent?” she asked during her sermon.

While she sides with Beinart’s settlement boycott, she is not prepared to support the wider boycott movement, explaining that its aim is to allow the return of all Palestinians, which would mean the end of the Jewish state.  Whether or not the boycotters would continue in the case of the elimination of the Occupation, once again she finds herself marginalized within the Jewish community.  She can teach the goyim at Carleton but would likely be unwelcome to take part in a group discussion at Carleton’s Hillel.

A further paradox: Sucharov is a member of the Women’s Campaign Team to raise money for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.  This is a campaign to raise money some of which goes to the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.  She is raising money to shut people like her up.

The paradoxical picture that she presents does not complete the bizarre portrait of the situation.  The central contradiction is in the concept of a “Jewish and democratic state.”  The two groups in Israel with the highest birth rate are the Palestinians and the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jews).  The former threaten the country’s Jewish character and the latter its democratic character.  While Beinart is firm on wanting to have a two-state solution, he has also said that he would be prepared to go along with certain undemocratic steps within Israel proper to preserve its Jewish character.  If a country is democratic, it cannot insist on being Jewish, whether in religious or ethnic terms.  But the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is not even willing to entertain a full and frank discussion of such matters, and they have entrapped those like Sucharov who want to widen the parameters of the discussion.  They end up financially strengthening the very organization wanting to shut them up.

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