Atalia Omer’s Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians is a powerful and timely engagement with the contemporary Jewish left in the United States. It focuses on relatively young social movements—such as Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, and the Center for Jewish Non-Violence—whose high-profile activism has confronted the US Jewish establishment and provoked controversy across the political spectrum. Omer employs ethnographic methods, including direct interviews and participant observation, to learn what draws activists to this work, how they perceive themselves on the Jewish communal landscape, how they understand their relationship to Palestinians, and how they connect their Palestine solidarity to other leftist commitments.
Days of Awe also—even primarily—contributes to the literature on religion, violence, and peacebuilding (RVP). By shifting geographically to the US, this new book complements Omer’s work on the Israeli Jewish “peace camp,” When Peace Is Not Enough (Chicago, 2013). The introduction and final chapter present her topic not only as a case study for RVP, but one that can transform the assumptions and methodologies of that subfield by pushing back against its tendency to “posit the ‘religious’ as a separate variable that can be studied in isolation from gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, and other sites of contention” (248). Yet it is easy to forget this while immersed in the descriptive account. Most of the book introduces the reader to its subjects and their context, a daunting enough task.
For those who keep tabs on these matters, the book treads familiar ground. Such readers may feel disorientation at witnessing recent debates—about pinkwashing and the Chicago Dyke March, or Tamika Mallory and Louis Farrakhan—make the leap from Haaretz, the Forward, and Shaul Magid’s Facebook page (cited as a source) to an academic text. However, Omer’s anthropological perspective enables her to contextualize even the most current of events thoroughly and persuasively. (Full disclosure: In 2013, one of Omer’s early interviewees suggested me as a possible interview candidate. We corresponded, but the interview did not take place, for scheduling reasons. I personally know several people quoted, discussed, or pictured in the book.)
Omer carefully traces the processes by which her subjects, the majority of whom were raised in mainstream Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist households, came to reject the Zionist presumptions of their upbringings. Typically, they perceive contradictions between the social justice–oriented teachings of their institutions on domestic issues, versus their conservative or even reactionary positions on Zionism. As mostly young people, they may support movements for racial justice, for LGBTQ+ rights, or against US militarism. Eventually, an emotional or moral shock compounds this cognitive dissonance, such as an Israeli operation in Gaza or an encounter with Palestinians in college or on an Israel trip. If this shock leads to activism, the subject feels further distanced from the mainstream Jewish institutions that anathematize such activism as naïve, ignorant, or even antisemitic. Rejection reinforces the shock and spurs the formation of independent communities of activists, who develop a positive self-understanding through a distinct interpretation of Judaism seen as more authentic than what now appears as the bad faith and complicity of the mainstream Jewish community. This development occurs in constant interaction and dialogue with non-Jewish activists in Palestine solidarity and the broader activist left.
Omer’s attitude toward her subjects is sympathetic but not uncritical. Overall, in contrast to her previous book, empathy gets more space than criticism. This is perhaps because Omer is not primarily interested in the standpoint of political strategy, measuring the movement’s ability to achieve its desired outcomes. Even her critiques, when present, only briefly gesture at such a metric. What interests her is the intellectual, affective, and transformative power of the emergent Jewishness her subjects embody. They actively create the community they seek, in which Jewish thought and practice are thoroughly intertwined with intersectional understanding of the relationships between diverse oppressions (economic, racial, sexual) and a commitment to combat them. In theological terms, they point to the possibility of a “non-Constantinian” Judaism, struggling against the oppressive constructs of Western civilization through constant teshuva—the self-examination and self-correction indicated by the title’s reference to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The critiques with which Omer concludes, however, point to limitations that are potentially more severe than she indicates. Drawing on the example of post-Zionist settler rabbis like Menachem Froman and Shimon “Shagar” Gershon Rosenberg, as well as on Mizrachi queer and feminist movements, Omer points out that the emphasis of the US Jewish left on diasporism and doikayt (“hereness,” a Yiddish Bundist term indicating commitment to local struggles for justice wherever one may be) “precludes engagement with intra-Jewish reparative potential” (260). This risks an intra-Jewish supersessionism through the over-metaphorization of Zion in an effort to demote the importance of the land in Jewish thought.
To this limitation I would add another, which emerges from the aspect of the movement that most intrigues and compels Omer. The well-known and frequently satirized dynamics of sectarianism and schism on the left at large bear comparison with similar dynamics within religious movements. One can see this dynamic at work in slogans like “Occupation is Not My Judaism,” if the emphasis is on the word “my.” More broadly, while Omer is correct that this movement is not reducible to raw power analysis, such analysis cannot be excluded either. One must ask about the consequences for Palestinians if in the medium-term, Jewish solidarity work forms a distinct “Jewish left” with its own vocabulary, rituals, and practices. As Jonathan Smucker recently argued in Hegemony How-To (AK Press, 2017), even the word “activist” can be self-marginalizing and sectarian in effect; it constitutes a special type of person, one who is not “normal” but rather is “an activist.” The state of Israel and its right-wing American supporters go on claiming to represent “Judaism,” while their opposition speaks of “our Judaism.” To be sure, establishment organizations like Hillel International initiate this dialectic of excommunication, imposing draconian standards for permissible speech on Israel. The question faced by the Jewish left, and anyone who wishes it well, is whether they should allow themselves to be excommunicated.
Samuel Hayim Brody is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas.
Date Of Review:
November 20, 2020
Atalia Omer is associate professor of religion, conflict, and peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.
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