Liberal Zionism: A Bridge, Not an Island

By Rabbi Stephanie Crawley

It is a lonely time to be a liberal Zionist in America. I know many of you feel abandoned: friends outside the Jewish community deciding they deserve an opinion on the fate of your people, wading into a conflict from the comfort of their living rooms. A broader Jewish community that is also split: Jews in tallit and kippah chanting “From the river to the sea…” Jews, also wearing kippot, taking advantage of this moment to incite violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. Co-existing in this moment feels hard. Conversation feels all but impossible.

I ask myself, after too many hours on social media: “Where are the people who want both justice and peace? Why does the lonely bridge of liberal Zionism feel even more lonely right now, when we need it more than ever?”

I have found myself reflecting on visits to my favorite Jewish site in Eastern Europe: the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. Unlike much of Warsaw, which was destroyed in World War II and has been rebuilt, the cemetery is still intact. Walking its paths has great wisdom for us in this moment; one immediately gains a sense of the vibrancy of pre Shoah Jewish life in Europe from the names on the stones. Traditionally observant Jews are buried near a memorial for secular Polish Jews who fought for Polish independence. Just around the corner from the prominent Yiddishists Anski and Peretz is the grave of Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto. The simple headstones of Bundists, Socialists, and Zionists surround the ornate ohels of prominent Hasidic Rabbis.

Their Jewish community was vibrant—with so many different ways to express Jewishness. Some were skeptical about Zionism, others strongly opposed to it. Some believed that the return to the land of Israel was for Messianic times only, others believed a dream of home could, in fact, be realized in the Diaspora. Some sought universalism, while others deepened their particularism through language and culture. And they lived together, even as they vehemently disagreed what the Jewish world should look like and how it should be achieved.

The Jews of Warsaw lived together partly because they had to—because other people told them where to live. And it certainly wasn’t a utopia. Those real ideological differences prompted significant schisms. But there was something about the Jews of Warsaw being in each other’s presence—first in life, and now in death—that reminds me of what we risk losing today.

Yes, right now, in this moment we feel the unity of the Jewish people. But I already see threads unraveling, particularly amongst younger generations. It’s true, it’s marginal when compared to the whole. But it’s loud and it’s growing.

I worry that soon, there will be no shared table for our community to come to.

I worry that the narrow bridge of liberal Zionism is actually an island. I worry that in our postmodern society, we don’t even have the comfort of all having to be buried together.

I look back to Warsaw because I need to know how a community survives antisemitism on a scale I’ve never experienced. I need to know how a community lives together where all parties admit the complexity of our moment, but are not mired in it.

This requires a re-embrace of liberalism. Liberalism, davka, is the ability to sit with people who are different from you. And then, one day, to be buried with people who are different than you. This requires us to be open to conversation—even as we do not drop our convictions. And for us, here, that conviction is Israel’s unquestionable right to exist, and the dedication for it to be the Jewish state that embodies the best of our values.

This is difference without abandonment. This ensures our bridge never turns into an island.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of the Vine.

Skip to content