In the 100 days that I have been at Ameinu I have been deeply impressed with the energy and passion of the organization’s leadership — as well as activists around North America and partners in Israel — who see Ameinu as a profound expression of their Judaism. Particularly compelling for me is the forthright way that Ameinu, the embodiment of the Labor Zionist movement’s hundred year history, wrestles with— and seeks to live – its identity as Progressive Zionists in the 21stcentury. While not a simple bumper sticker message, Ameinu understands of the multiplicity of values, goals and connections that we have as Jews, North Americans and human beings and seeks to make vitally important contributions to our community.
Ameinu’s vision for the Jewish community resonates strongly with my own experience growing up in the Young Judea Zionist Youth Movement with rich family roots in Habonim and Pioneer Women. My future activism was in great part formed by what I learned in YJ and the peer leadership tradition of the movement. It guided my college work with the Brandeis Progressive Zionist Caucus, in the Soviet Jewry movement and ultimately as head of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Throughout, I have consistently sought out activist visions for Jewish life that merge an intense particularist concern for Israel and vulnerable Jewish communities with a universalist approach that fully embeds Jewish life within national and humanitarian values. Ameinu is such a place.
Clearly as Zionists we are devoted to the security of Israel and to helping build a peaceful and prosperous future for its citizens. Israel is the fulfillment of thousands of years of Jewish longing for a home and we Progressive Zionists have played a central role in helping to create the vibrant Jewish homeland we have today. It is because of this existential Jewish connection to Israel that Ameinu will never give up on the struggle for a just and secure peace between Israel, the Palestinians and all of her neighbors. We are driven by Herzl’s call to action “If you will it, it is no dream.” And we are inspired by Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator MK Tzipi Livni who said, “History is not made by cynics, but by realists who are not afraid.” Cynicism and hopelessness are luxuries that we as Zionists cannot afford – now or ever.
As Progressive Zionists, our movement cares about the quality of Israeli society, not just the mere fact that a Jewish state exists. Will Israel fulfill the idealistic promise of its Declaration of Establishment – with its commitment to equality for all its inhabitants – Jew and non-Jew alike? Progressive Zionists can’t simply pay lip-service to this idea, declaring that Israel must remain a Jewish and democratic state while taking actions that threaten Israeli democracy. If Israel is to be a just society, then both Israel and its ardent friends in the Diaspora must work together to ensure that the state treats minority populations equally with the Jewish majority, that the economically vulnerable have a strong social safety net and economic mobility to reach their full potential, that economic development proceeds in an environmentally sustainable manner, that Israel strives for leadership in global humanitarian responses to international crises, and so much more. For decades, Ameinu has stood and worked together with our Israeli partners to fulfill this vision of social and economic justice in the Jewish state.
But what does it fully mean to be “Progressive” Zionists living in the Diaspora? Can we ignore the moral and political state of our own societies and our global community arguing that we “must look out for Israel or no one will?” So often Jews remember the first portion of Rav Hillel’s lesson – “If I am not for myself, Who will be for me?” – but stop there and create a defensive and limited form of Judaism and Zionism that can only be sustained by perceived external threats. For me, Progressive Zionism fundamentally rejects this approach as intellectually and spiritually dishonest because it fails to incorporate Hillel’s universalist message, which continues, “But if I am for myself alone, What am I?”
What are we? We are Jewish labor activists who built the American labor movement. We are the mourners who grieved for the young Jewish and Italian immigrant women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. We are the youth movement activists who traveled to Washington DC in 1963 to join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle against racial discrimination and poverty. And we are the Jews today who look at our religious and ethical tradition and see a deep identification with the stranger “because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” a prohibition against “putting stumbling blocks before the blind,” an imperative to “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor,” an understanding that “poverty is a violation of human dignity” and a call “justice, justice you shall pursue.”
So how can Ameinu and Progressive Zionists in North America and throughout the Jewish world fulfill the promise of our history and our values? I believe we must lead, organize and act to foster economic and social justice in our own countries and across the globe. We must fight dire poverty at home and abroad, promote a living wage and labor rights, provide a strong social safety net for the needy, welcome immigrants and protect refugees, promote civil and human rights, combat the epidemic of gun violence be true partisans of global peace, defend democracy and voting rights, compassionately and generously address humanitarian disasters, prevent genocide while caring for its victims and sustain the earth for future generations.
Should Ameinu see these activities as being in conflict with our identity as Zionists? Should we postpone working to improve our own societies and the world until we fully achieve our goal of a secure and democratic Jewish State? I believe the answer to both questions is a clear — no. We have an obligation as Progressive Zionists to develop partnerships within the Jewish community and with other progressives. We must identify resources to grow our advocacy capacity; create programs and opportunities to engage Jews of all ages (at home, in Israel and abroad) and develop advocacy relationships with the Jewish youth movements (Habonim Dror, Hashomer Hatzair, Young Judea and others) to help channel their passion and leadership into life-long identities as Progressive Zionist change-agents. And in the third part of Hillel’s maxim – “If not now, When?”
Ameinu is already moving forward to respond to these daunting challenges. We have briefly outlined an ambitious set of economic and social justice goals that will guide our advocacy in the weeks, months and years to come. [Watch this space for details on the goals and opportunity to join in advocating for justice.] Clearly a huge amount needs to be done and I welcome the chance to participate in a dialog with activists at home and abroad as we study, debate and organize together. I look forward to hearing from you – feel free to contact me at Gideon@Ameinu.net – to share your ideas on priorities and strategies to best reach our goals. Together, we can create our Progressive Zionist vision for the future.
L’shalom, and may we and the movement go from strength to strength.
Chief Executive Officer