On Monday night, Meretz USA proudly played host to Israeli peace activist, Leah Shakdiel, at the Village Temple in New York City. While Meretz USA is known for hosting talks with Israeli leftist politicians, this talk with Leah was a refreshing departure from the typical forecasts and criticisms of the State of Israel’s government. This is not to say that Israel’s government and criticisms of it were not a topic of conversation. Rather, Leah– as a Modern Orthodox woman, feminist, teacher and activist– brought a unique, insightful and inclusive opinion to the table.
Her story is at once unique and familiar. She grew up in the south of Israel to a Modern Orthodox family. Judaism was a huge part of her life and identity. And it was through her commitment to Judaism that she forged her way as a feminist and peace activist. The principles that she stood by were those of social responsibility, equality, and peace. Her adult life has been committed to teaching these values to the youth of Israel through a variety of programs and university courses.
As a secular Jew with left-wing politics, I hold the values of social responsibility, equality, and peace very close to my heart, and they are often the guiding principles for the choices I make, and the people/campaigns I choose to support. Yet, even as a person in her young 20s, I can say that it has been a long time since I divorced these principles from my religion which taught me them. It is so easy to look at the situation facing Israel and blame it all on the religious right. Even as an activist working for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the more I become involved in peace efforts, the more alienated I become from my own religion — feeling at times disgraced by it, because of the things that happen in its name and for the sake of a Jewish homeland.
It’s an argument that works for the Israeli and the Palestinian side of the argument. And because of this, it is easy to want to start disassociating from the religion that identifies you with fanatics, chauvinists and war-mongers. Even Leah expressed that she identified with this feeling, but to her it was only a challenge: to disassociate was to give up on, or let Judaism and the Jewish State be represented by, or taken over by, manipulators of her religion — one that speaks of peace, justice and equality for all.
As an activist, Leah has worked tirelessly to call out the Israeli government and military on their actions that are less than acceptable. During the Gaza war in January, she protested in Be’er Sheva against the violence on both sides of the conflict. She carried a sign that read, “Palestinian and Israeli children deserve to live.” There are strict rules about public protesting and free speech in Israel that are designed to protect protesters. And even though Leah did not break any of the rules, she was arrested and put under house arrest for five days.
While this was an extreme case and an attack on her right to free speech, it also epitomizes what Leah spoke of as being her hardest challenge, and that is: “How do you criticize the choices that Israel’s government and military are making without equating yourself as a sympathizer for the enemy (e.g. anti-Zionist or pro-Hamas)?”
Leah Shakdiel is the first person I have heard speak who has challenged this argument head-on. She was quick to criticize the religious right for being insensitive to the ‘other’, but in a way that resonated for me on a very personal level, she criticized secular Jews for abandoning their religion and only using it and/or identifying with it when it was convenient for them.
She related this to the Jewish education that young Israelis get in Israel — which is mainly focused on the Holocaust. If kids grow up relating to Judaism as a source of victim-hood, then they will want to disassociate themselves from Judaism because they want to be strong and victims are weak; and they will be eager to prove that they are strong – lending to the popularity of militarism in Israel’s culture.
For Leah, religion is a huge part of her life and it reaffirms her belief in a Jewish state, as well as giving her reason to hold Israel to even higher expectations than just what would be minimally acceptable to international political standards. And she asks us, as Jews, to redefine Judaism and Zionism and represent Judaism and Zionism though actions of peace, social responsibility, and equality.
This means “pro-active Zionist humanism” — striving for equality, peace, and justice for all people and challenging the Jewish State to be the model state for all society.