Room for Progressive Zionists in Social Justice Tent?

Categories: Letters from the Leadership

The following post is adapted from comments I recently offered to a group of Jewish social justice activists who were discussing responses to the recent confrontation at the Creating Change LGBTQ conference in Chicago.  In it I don’t specifically address the confrontation or the proposed action, which are complex and deserve careful consideration on their own terms.

Instead, I reflect on an issue that is a growing challenge for the Jewish Left — “Intersectionality.”  As part of this approach, progressives essentially conclude that identification with Israel and Zionism is sufficient to disqualify an activist from being allies with others in the broader social justice movement.  This is due to the false perception that this identity entails support for the persecution of Palestinians. The question for the progressive Left is whether Intersectionality in the complex context of Israel and Palestine actually helps to create the largest possible tent for justice.


I think a fundamental question for the Jewish social justice movement has been raised in this discussion, that is separate from the specific contents of the action proposed or even the event in Chicago itself.

An earlier comment in the exchange revived the old charge that Zionism is a form of racism.  As such, Zionists (racists) cannot possibly be allies of others in progressive causes and must be ousted from efforts to create broad coalitions for justice.

I think this is a terrible approach from both a moral and a practical standpoint.  Clearly anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews will be allies of others for justice.  But to expel progressive Zionists from the justice coalition is, in my view, both wrong and foolish.

Who are we speaking about?  Ameinu (labor Zionists), Partners for Progressive Israel, T’ruah, Green Zionists, Uri L’Tzedek (orthodox), Americans for Peace Now, J Street, New Israel Fund, ARZA (reform and reconstructionist Zionists) and many other organized and non-aligned Jews in the US that may or may not have “Zionist” in their identity. These progressive Zionists are also active in Australia, Canada, South Africa, the UK, Brazil and all parts of the world.  This movement additionally includes Israeli Jews fighting for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian people, economic justice, religious and other forms of pluralism (including LGBTQ rights), equality and shared society with Palestinian Israelis, environmental protection, educational equality, humanitarian aid for refugees and other victims of global war and disaster.

All of these progressive Zionists are committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that fulfills core Jewish values of social justice and the principles of equality laid out in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.  We don’t believe that this – a just cause – should be dismissed and demeaned with the cheap “Zionism=Racism” slogan.

Two final points:

It isn’t “pinkwashing” to factually report on and respect the work and successes of social justice activists in Israel — in the area of LGBTQ rights, humanitarian assistance or elsewhere.  While some may hope that positive news will create the impression that all is well in Israel, progressive Zionists do not believe it in any way negates the moral disaster that is the Occupation and the settlements — which so many Israeli and Diaspora progressive Zionists fight, and in the Israeli case risk their lives to oppose.

We progressive Zionists — who face vile and brutal attacks from the Jewish Right — will remain committed to a full social justice agenda notwithstanding what Jewish and non-Jewish Leftists demand.  We stand with BLM and People of Color (including Jews of Color).  With the LGBTQ community.  With immigrants and refugees.   With victims of economic inequality.  With the labor movement.  And we stand with Palestinian Israelis seeking equality and the Palestinian people for their right to a homeland of their own where they can live in dignity, peace and security.

This discussion raises the question of how to conceptualize a Jewish social justice movement. Progressives seek to respect and honor the narratives of a wide array of peoples.  This is a core value of progressive solidarity.  But for many Jews, our narrative of social justice includes a Zionist vision of a just, secure, democratic Israel living at peace with a state of Palestine.  Shouldn’t this justice narrative also receive similar respect?

Ultimately, progressives must decide if they want to create a left version of the campaign by the Jewish Right (Zionist Organization of America, Im Tirtzu and others) to shun progressive Zionists.   They can.  But should they?

About Gideon Aronoff

Gideon Aronoff is the first Chief Executive Officer of Ameinu. Previously, Aronoff was President and CEO of HIAS, the American Jewish community’s international migration agency, where he oversaw service and advocacy partnerships with over 50 local Jewish communities and global programs in Israel, Africa, Latin America and Europe. Aronoff brings over 25 years of Jewish communal experience — including more than a dozen years in Washington DC — having focused on immigration, refugees, human rights, humanitarian assistance, community relations and government affairs. He also served on the Board of Directors of the National Immigration Forum, the country’s premier immigrant advocacy coalition, and was the chair from 2009 to 2012. He is a member of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey and the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Aronoff is a graduate of Brandeis University and Cornell Law School. He lives in South Orange, NJ, with his wife, Dr. Jaqueline Rogerio, and his young children Dalia and Solomon.
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