I first set eyes on Rabbi Rachel Timoner during the Days of Awe, the ten days in autumn that begin with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). It was October 2016, and this most holy season for the Jewish people coincided with a most unholy electoral season.
As the congregants flowed into Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York, Rabbi Timoner lingered near the bimah (the platform at the front of the synagogue that holds the Torah). A small, inconspicuous figure in a dark pantsuit, she disappeared into a back room. When she reemerged, a hush fell over the sanctuary.
The rabbi’s voice was low, yet urgent, as she recalled the travails and persecution visited on the ancient Israelites and on modern-day Jews. She stressed the moral imperative to stand up against hate and injustice. She referenced recent horrors, such as the Orlando nightclub shooting and the killing of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice by the police. “This is bigger than an election,” she said. “I am here to say that standing idly by is not a Jewish value.”
I wonder how many of us took her somber warning seriously on that October day. The specter she raised — that hatred could intensify in just a few weeks’ time — was overwhelming to me. I told myself it would not come to pass.
On Wednesday, November 9, with the election results indisputably in, Rabbi Timoner opened the synagogue to all comers for shiva, the traditional Jewish ritual of mourning. When the prescribed seven days had passed (shiva is Hebrew for “seven”), she put word out that the time for action had come. Together with New York City Council member Brad Lander, she established Get Organized Brooklyn (#GetOrganizedBK), which is working to combat xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, and to strengthen ties among ethnic and faith communities. Congregation Beth Elohim has become the base of operations for Get Organized Brooklyn.
Rabbi Timoner grew up in Florida, where she attended a Reform synagogue with her family but found the atmosphere alienating and the services empty. One Shabbat (Sabbath), as her father, disabled by a stroke, painfully made his way forward to read to his fellow congregants from the Torah, the rabbi publicly expressed impatience at his slow pace. This was too much for Timoner. Once her bat mitzvah was behind her (at the age of thirteen), the future rabbi did not step inside a synagogue again for years.
As an undergraduate at Yale University in the 1980s, Timoner participated in protests against apartheid in South Africa, and as a young adult she worked as a community organizer in California, providing services for at-risk LGBT teens. She felt far from her faith during this time. Yet she was awakened at night by pressing questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose on earth? Timoner turned to Buddhism in search of answers. As she meditated to a recorded talk by renowned Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, it came to her: Investigate your own tradition. See what it has to offer.
Back to the synagogue she went, where the familiar prayers and melodies ignited a desire to return to the faith of her ancestors. She eventually decided to become a rabbi, so she could share her rediscovery of Judaism with other disenchanted Jews. Married by this time, Timoner enrolled in Hebrew Union College. She and her wife and their newborn son had to move from San Francisco to Jerusalem for the first year, and then to Los Angeles. After five years of study in all, she received ordination. She insists that she is no pioneer as a lesbian rabbi, and she pays tribute to the many who paved the way. She is also the author of the book Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism (racheltimoner.net).
When Rabbi Timoner spoke in October 2016 of standing up against hate and injustice, I was moved. On January 19, 2017, the day before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, I interviewed her in her book-lined office at the synagogue. We became so caught up in the conversation that we ignored the teakettle when it whistled. As she spoke with me about the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and their commitment to social justice, she was no less impassioned than she’d been when standing before her congregation.
Wolfson: As a young adult, you felt distant from Jewish practice. How did you start on the path to becoming a rabbi? Is there a moment you can point to?
Timoner: There were several moments in my life when I had an encounter with something I couldn’t grasp. When I was eleven, my father had a massive stroke that left him paralyzed. One day, in the physical-therapy room of the hospital, my fear and despair suddenly dissolved. I felt safe, like I was being held, and I knew that, in some way, we are all being held. At the time it didn’t occur to me to call that experience God. It was simply a sense of belonging to something much larger.
Wolfson: In your early experiences with Judaism, did you feel comfortable in the synagogue?
Timoner: Yes and no. When I was a child, I felt my synagogue was spiritually dead. It seemed that no one meant the words we were reading during Shabbat services. We stood when the rabbi said, “Please rise,” and we sat when given permission to sit, but no one seemed to be asking the big questions. From my perspective as a child, it appeared that people at synagogue were much more concerned with their clothing and jewelry. These early experiences made it difficult for me to imagine that Judaism had anything to offer me.
Then, in my early twenties, I was beset by questions about the meaning of life and whether I believed in God. This was a foreign question to me, because I had not grown up in an environment where God was important. My job, too, was grounded in daily reality. I was working with LGBT teenagers who were facing violence and harassment. I’d met teens who were suicidal; who had been kicked out of their homes; who had fled small towns and were living homeless on the streets of San Francisco. I’d met one teen who’d been beaten unconscious with a Bible by his classmates in Indiana while his teacher had watched. Spirituality was not a part of my life in any obvious way, but I couldn’t move on without looking at these questions.
At that point I was so alienated from Judaism that I didn’t think to go to a synagogue. Someone gave me a tape by Thich Nhat Hanh, and I started meditating. When I got quiet through meditation, I realized that I had come from somewhere, and that “somewhere” probably had something to teach me. I needed to go back there, to what I’d grown up with, and see what Judaism had to offer. It was hard to do that, though, because I had forgotten so much. I worried I wouldn’t know what to say or do, and I would be embarrassed. Eventually I made my way to a synagogue, and when I did, I lit up. I lit up.
Those questions about meaning and life and God had been confusing and distressing to me, and I’d been working hard to answer them. Once I entered a synagogue, I didn’t have to work at all. I was on fire with it.
Now, to have a daily practice over time, you do have to try. There are many days when the ten things on my to-do list distract me from remembering to be the human being I’m meant to be. Effort is required to keep remembering and returning, remembering and returning. I think all religious traditions are the same in this respect: the practice requires us to remember and return.
After I made my way back to Judaism, I spent about ten years delving into Torah study, prayer, and Shabbat practice. And I continued meditating and working in the realm of social justice. It still hadn’t occurred to me to become a rabbi, but I began to have a recurring dream in which I was standing on a platform, speaking to a room full of people, and I was filled with love for them. I didn’t know what the dream meant; all I knew was that it was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
One day I was talking to a friend who was facing a dilemma. She asked my advice, and after I told her what I thought, she joked, “Thanks, Rabbi.” When I heard that, an electric sensation went through my body. The next time I had the dream, I knew what it meant: I wanted to become a rabbi.
This was no small matter. It meant five years of study and moving with my wife and newborn son to Jerusalem for rabbinical school. From that moment on, though, I’ve been grateful to have found my purpose.
I understand why some Jews are alienated from Judaism or don’t see it as relevant to their lives, but I think it’s important for them to give Judaism another chance. If you’re Jewish, it is in you. Even if you weren’t raised with it, it’s somewhere in your genetic code, in your kishkes [gut].
Wolfson: Do you think there’s a greater tendency among American Jews to drift away from Jewish practice?
Timoner: The U.S. has been a place of unprecedented assimilation for Jews. We’ve never before been so embraced and welcomed by a country. For most of Jewish history, we did not have the option to become full members of the societies in which we lived, but it is possible for a Jew to be fully American. Combine that freedom to reshape one’s identity with a culture that prizes the new, disdains the old, and promises instant gratification, and you’ll see why living a thoughtful Jewish life in the U.S. is not easy. Judaism does not offer instant gratification. It is demanding. It is often inconvenient.
Many American Jews have continued to go to synagogue because it’s what their parents and grandparents did, but that motivation isn’t enough for them, because it’s not their commitment; they are acting as caretakers for the previous generations’ commitment. That sense of obligation will continue to erode unless the younger generations find our own meaning in the old forms, our own way of expressing the essence of our traditions, our own way of adapting Judaism to the burning questions of our time.
Consumer culture can leave a hole at the center of our lives. Assimilation can leave us longing to reconnect with our roots. Some Jewish people search for spiritual renewal in other traditions, as I did at first. Who are the Buddhist teachers in America? Many of them have been Jews looking to fill the space left by the religion they no longer practice.
The test for Judaism now is to reach out to Jews who aren’t sure there’s something for them in our tradition. Judaism contains much wisdom and beauty and life that many Jews simply don’t know about. Thankfully scholars and teachers have unearthed mystical texts and contemplative practices. Many Jews are exploring Jewish meditation and mindfulness practices, studying the Zohar and Hasidic texts, chanting niggunim [traditional wordless melodies], and engaging in Musar practice, which uses mindfulness to change behavior patterns and shape character.
I have learned a great deal from Buddhism. I still meditate, and I practice yoga. I think it’s wonderful to explore these traditions. But when Jews are introduced to Jewish contemplative practices, it’s like they’ve found treasure in their own backyard.
Wolfson: When a potential convert asked Hillel, a Jewish sage in ancient Babylon, to summarize Judaism as briefly as possible — “while standing on one foot,” goes the legend — Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All else is commentary.”
Building on Hillel’s words, can you describe Judaism’s basic tenets?
Timoner: Hillel was reworking a verse from Leviticus: “Love your fellow human being as you love yourself. I am Adonai” [Leviticus 19:18]. “Adonai” is the Jewish people’s name for God, and the word I’m translating as “fellow human being,” re’a, is often translated as “neighbor” — a person near to us, someone we know. This teaching is about how we treat the people we interact with daily. It is often easier to love people in the abstract than to love them in person, with all of their annoying quirks and habits.
Love in Judaism is not just a feeling; it is made real through speech and action. It includes refraining from harming others. It includes treating ourselves with care and dignity, and treating others as we treat ourselves.
The Torah [the first five books of the Hebrew Bible] actually commands us to love in three ways: First, we are to love our fellow human beings as we love ourselves.
Second, we are to love the stranger. The Torah commands us thirty-six times to do this. Why? Because we were once strangers. We know what it is to be oppressed, degraded, devalued, dehumanized, enslaved, annihilated. We are never to allow that to happen to anyone.
The last of the three is to “love Adonai your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your being” [Deuteronomy 6:5]. We are to withhold nothing from this love. We are to dedicate our full hearts, our full souls.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg teaches something quite beautiful about these three mitzvot, or tenets of Judaism: By learning how to love ourselves, we learn how to love our neighbor. By learning how to love our neighbor, we learn how to love the stranger. And by learning how to love the stranger, we learn how to love God. This is the best summary of Judaism I know.
Several other key tenets go along with this: That every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore every human being has an inherent dignity and worth. That justice is built into the fabric of the universe, and human beings exist to advance justice. And that, although people can practice Judaism on their own, it is meant to be practiced in a community.
Living a thoughtful Jewish life in the U.S. is not easy. Judaism does not offer instant gratification. It is demanding. It is often inconvenient.
Wolfson: Could you talk about the various names of God in Judaism and what they mean?
Timoner: In Judaism we have a strong belief that there is one God in the universe — one unifying presence that connects all life — but God has many faces and many names. There is one name of God — spelled in Hebrew with the letters yod-hey-vav-hey and meaning “being/becoming” — that may not be uttered. In its place, practicing Jews say “Adonai.” Some other names are HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Blessed Holy One; HaShem, the Name; HaMakom, the Place; and Adonai Tzevaot, the Lord of Hosts, implying military might.
God also has feminine names. One beautiful name, El Shaddai, which appears in Genesis, is often thought of as masculine: God as guardian. But, in fact, shad means “breast” and refers to nurturing feminine qualities. Another name is HaRahaman, the Compassionate One, which comes from the word rechem, meaning “womb.” In this view, God is what birthed us into being, the source of all life. When we feel most separate, most alienated, most alone, remembering that every one of us began in our mother’s womb helps us know that we are connected and can feel each other’s pain.
The ultimate feminine name of God is the Shekhinah. In Judaism, the Shekhinah is the feminine presence of God, from the Hebrew root shakhen, or “to dwell.” It was the Shekhinah that dwelled within the Tabernacle as the people wandered in the wilderness. After the destruction of the Temple during the Roman conquest, when the Jews were forced into slavery and scattered around the world, the Shekhinah would be present wherever ten Jews gathered. This is an important idea: that God has masculine and feminine faces and dwells among us and within us and accompanies us through the vicissitudes of life. According to Kabbalah, the brokenness of our world is due to God’s masculine and feminine aspects turning away from one another. Healing the world means helping the masculine and the feminine aspects of God reunite.
We were slaves in the land of Egypt, and therefore we do not oppress the other. Our God is the God of the widow and the orphan and the stranger, a God who says, “If you harm them, their cries will reach me.” That’s the core of Judaism.
Wolfson: There are many different branches of Judaism. How did you choose to become a rabbi in the Reform movement?
Timoner: Growing up, I had some bad experiences in Reform synagogues — which made me an unlikely candidate to be a Reform rabbi! My childhood rabbi committed suicide. My parents were very close to him, and after he died, we left that synagogue and joined another, where the rabbi didn’t know my parents and was quite unkind to them. My father was disabled, the rabbi was impatient and insensitive, and, as I mentioned, there was a lot of wealth and superficiality in that synagogue. It often felt like a fashion show. After my bat mitzvah, I left and never went back.
When I became interested in Judaism again as a young adult, my wife and I found a home in an LGBT-friendly synagogue with people who’d grown up in many different branches of Judaism. This congregation was Reform, but it was totally different than what I’d experienced as a child, and it gave me a new impression of what Reform Judaism could be.
Still, when I decided to go to rabbinical school, I assumed at first I would not be going to Hebrew Union College [the Reform seminary], because of my childhood experience. I visited several other rabbinical programs, but none felt quite right. Unsure where I belonged, I went to see a rabbi to ask for advice. After hearing my story, she said the path was clear: I needed to go home to the movement that had alienated me as a child, to repair that relationship, transform it, and make it whole. What she actually said was “You need to lift up the sparks,” which is a kabbalistic reference about finding the holiness hidden within the world as it is. I went to visit Hebrew Union College and was inspired by what I found there. No question: the Reform movement was where I belonged.
Wolfson: What makes it different from other branches of Judaism?
Timoner: The Reform movement began in nineteenth-century Germany as a response to modernity. As Jews in Western Europe were allowed to assimilate into society, many were abandoning the Jewish community. The Reform movement enabled people to live a Jewish life in a way that was in balance with Enlightenment thought and science. Reform Judaism is also known for its social-justice imperative, for bringing the words of the prophets into our own time and amplifying the voices of the oppressed. The Reform movement in the U.S. stood for worker protections and the right to organize in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were drafted in the offices of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The Reform movement has stood for women’s rights at every turn, from abolishing separate synagogue seating for women in the 1850s to ordaining the first woman rabbi in 1972. The first LGBT synagogue was formed under the auspices of the Reform movement, also in 1972. The movement is now focused on defending immigrants, standing with transgender people, and ending mass incarceration.
Wolfson: In your conception, is God a supernatural being, or would you define God in some other way?
Timoner: God is beyond all human concepts. Any words I might use to describe God are inadequate.
I pray to God every morning not because I know who or what God is, but because I feel God’s presence in the world. Unfortunately so much harm has been done in God’s name that the word God has become off-putting and even offensive to many people. What I mean is that I feel a presence that is not . . . [long pause] that is not only in the material world. I know in my being that there is something there, and that this something is beyond everything, but also within everything, and that it is profoundly loving and true.
I think the primary question about God is not really who or what God is, but: How do we remember? Judaism insists that we remember our past at every holiday and every Shabbat. We remember our story through study. We use lessons from the past to interpret the present. We remember our ancestors, the people we have loved and lost. And we strive to remember day to day that we are living in the presence of God.
The human experience is to forget. We forget moment to moment what’s actually important. The Torah tells us 169 times either to remember or not to forget — because forgetting is the single biggest obstacle to living the life we intend to live. Think about how we learn or improve ourselves: We observe our behavior and imagine a better way. We set an intention. We apply our will. But then time passes. We are busy. Our minds are pulled in a hundred different directions. We take the easiest and most familiar path. We forget our commitment. When we remember that we are not doing what we intended, we feel we have failed. If we dwell only on the fact that we forgot, there will be no growth. But if we use that moment of remembering as an opportunity to return to our intention, we are one step closer to changing. We will forget again, of course, but then we will have another opportunity to remember and return. This is the spiritual life.
Wolfson: How do God and evil coexist in the world?
Timoner: I think that human beings exist to partner with God in the healing and redemption of the world. That’s why we’re here. And to work on the healing and redemption of the world, we have to make choices. We can choose to transform unwholesome choices and inclinations toward harm into kindness and love.
In Judaism, yetzer hara is the evil inclination, and yetzer hatov is the good. The idea is that if we didn’t have both, nothing in the world would work. Some impulse toward self-preservation is necessary. But when these impulses get out of balance, when they become extreme, they are harmful. That’s what evil is in Judaism. It’s not an external or supernatural force; it’s just built into human nature. And redemption is the act of choosing good instead of evil over and over and over again. When feelings of anger or hatred rise in us, we must learn how to handle them skillfully, in a way that doesn’t cause harm. This is how redemption comes to the world.
Do I think it’s possible that God could come and stop evil? I certainly pray for it to happen every morning, these days especially. I pray for God to foil the plans of the wicked. I also imagine God shining through the righteous and making them examples for others. Sometimes I think of God as a force that rushes through us and leads us to want to do good. I think it is through us that God stops evil; we’re God’s agents.
I know that God is working through me and through you. And I know that the evil that human beings do is not some kind of corrupting sin at our core but a part of our design: we have lust and greed and hate and selfishness, and we also have love and compassion and kindness and forgiveness, and it’s up to us to work that out.
Wolfson: The God of the Hebrew Bible is often violent, wrathful, and unforgiving. How do you square that with the idea of a loving God?
Timoner: At first glance the Torah is a terrible book. It features a God who commands genocide and punishes people for disobedience. Just as Christians read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, Jews read the Torah through the lens of the entire history of Jewish text. Our generation is not the first to struggle with God’s behavior in the Torah, or with many of the mitzvot. Rabbis wrestled with these questions two thousand years ago. That’s why Jews do not just read the Torah; we study it. The Torah makes sense only when it is studied in the context of the three-thousand-year Jewish conversation about how to live in the world, which includes the Prophets, the Writings, Midrash, Talmud, medieval commentary, Zohar and Hasidic texts, and contemporary interpretations.
The God of the Torah, like every other character in the text, is deeply imperfect. The question is: Do we think that the Torah is presenting an accurate picture of God, or just our ancient ancestors’ projections about God? I think it’s some of both. The Torah is tapping into deep truths about the world, but the Torah came into the world through human beings. Our ancestors told stories about their encounters with the Divine, but they also projected their own violent impulses onto this bully in the sky who punished them like a stern parent when they did wrong. The key to Judaism is that our tradition is continually evolving, and our tradition holds that multiple truths can coexist.
We see God evolve within the Torah itself. For example, after the Flood, God vows never to destroy the world again. God learns from Abraham not to kill the righteous of Sodom along with the wicked. God learns from Moses that the people need a second chance. God becomes more loving, compassionate, forgiving, and patient. What I see in the Torah is that God works through humanity, and all life, growing and learning along with us. I see a God who learns to balance justice with compassion and boundless love.
Wolfson: As part of your sermon on Rosh Hashanah, you said, “Standing idly by is not a Jewish value. Neutrality is not a Jewish value.”
Timoner: Our identity as Jewish people is rooted in the Exodus narrative, the idea that we were once slaves. Historians have questioned whether we really crossed the Red Sea out of Egypt, but a more interesting question to me is: What kind of people choose this as their narrative? The Jewish people could have focused on something else. Why put this at the center of our story? Because it says something about us. We were slaves in the land of Egypt, and therefore we do not oppress the other. Our God is the God of the widow and the orphan and the stranger, a God who says, “If you harm them, their cries will reach me.” That’s the core of Judaism.
Not standing idly by has to do with knowing what it means to be oppressed and how that obligates me to stand with any oppressed persons and do what I can to end their oppression.
Wolfson: In addition to the stories in the Bible, are there historical events that reinforced that attitude?
Timoner: For five hundred years the prophets condemned oppression and demanded righteous behavior. Then our people went through the Babylonian, Assyrian, and Roman conquests. They faced displacement, devastation, and challenges to their survival. In each of those periods, the Jewish people applied mitzvot from the Torah to their current reality. Ritual and ethics are intertwined. The rabbis articulated on a day-to-day basis how to live a just life.
Later on, in Europe and the Middle East, Jews were often despised. They were second-class citizens. In many cases they were seen as not fully human. That led to the Shoah, the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom [may he rest in peace], who was in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps, makes clear in his writings that a Jew is obligated to be vigilant against even subtle forms of dehumanization, in which people are scapegoated or set apart in some way that could lead to genocide. Wiesel and others like him tell us that, as Jews, we are obligated to prevent that from happening to anyone, because it happened to us.
Wolfson: Has Judaism been more progressive in regard to gender roles than the societies in which Jews have lived?
Timoner: There are examples in the Torah and in Jewish tradition of some pretty advanced thinking about women. In the book of Numbers there’s a passage about five sisters who stand to lose their family land upon the death of their father, because under the Jewish law of the time, land passed to male relatives only. As the sisters have no brothers, the land will be lost to the family. The sisters declare this wrong and appeal to the elders and to Moses, who takes their case. Moses goes to God, who says, “They’re right.”
But there is also deep sexism in Jewish texts, from the Torah to the rabbinic writings. Women are made invisible in places where we know that women were active participants. Their voices would have enriched the text, but we don’t hear them. Instead we often find misogyny.
Today the Jewish world is split on this issue. Progressive branches of Judaism are moving toward accepting and honoring the full humanity of all genders. But in certain movements male dominance is still in play.
Jewish women have been unearthing the women’s narrative within our tradition, reclaiming rituals and redefining them as feminist. For example, the tradition of mikveh, the ritual immersion or bath, primarily has to do with the practice of cleansing after menstruation. Progressive Jewish feminists have reclaimed mikveh as a ritual for renewal. Some use it to mark a new beginning after a divorce; a miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion; a treatment for cancer; or a rape or other sexual assault. Others immerse to celebrate a bat mitzvah, a graduation, an ordination, a marriage, or retirement. New liturgy, blessings, and poetry are being written for these creative acts of renewal, which are influencing not just women, but all of Judaism. Feminism and women’s voices are now very much at the center of Jewish communities, and I think that’s good for all Jews.
Wolfson: Did you have difficulty entering the Jewish clergy as a woman?
Timoner: I received smikha, or ordination, in 2009, so I am nowhere near a trailblazer. There are hundreds of women rabbis.
Being a lesbian rabbi has been a greater challenge for me. I’m not a trailblazer in that respect, either; there have been openly lesbian rabbis for twenty-five or thirty years. But back when I was a student, I served a very small congregation in which some people did not want a lesbian rabbi. A few members left, and about half the congregation actively boycotted my services.
Because I was a student, I had the option not to continue there. But I thought, I’m not going to back away from this. I am going to keep leading services and speak from my heart. I’m going to be me.
And after a few months people started trickling back. Some even came to me and asked forgiveness.
I had started in the fall, and in the spring the congregation asked if I would consider coming back for a second year. They said that they had grown because of my presence there.
The second year was celebratory. About six people did quit for good, but the rest were happy to stay.
I believe that the Jewish people need our own state to have self-determination. By that same principle, I also believe that the Palestinians need their own state. Self-determination for each people, safety for each people, and a future for each people.
Wolfson: What are the social-justice issues closest to your heart?
Timoner: My primary concern, what I feel to be my obligation, is to address systemic racism in the United States. I believe strongly that none of us is free until all of us are free. And the legacy of slavery in this country makes racism the most important wound to heal. Because most Jews benefit from white privilege, we need to act in partnership with people of color to heal systemic racism.
When I say “systemic racism,” I mean the racism that is built into so many of the systems in our country, from housing, to education, to criminal justice, to voting rights, to law enforcement.
I’m also working on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Both Muslims and Jews are being targeted in this country, so it’s particularly important for Jewish leaders to stand with Muslim leaders, and for Muslim leaders to stand with Jewish leaders, and for us to keep each other safe.
Wolfson: What are your views on the situation in the Middle East? Can a balance be struck between the rights of the Palestinians and the right of the State of Israel to exist?
Timoner: I believe that the Jewish people need our own state to have self-determination. By that same principle, I also believe that the Palestinians need their own state. Self-determination for each people, safety for each people, and a future for each people.
This is a bleak moment, with many saying that there will not be two states, but I will not give up on the idea. I do not think that one state could serve the needs of either people fully. I cannot tell you what the path to two states will be, but we must hold out hope that one day there can be two states living side by side in peace.
Wolfson: Where does anti-Zionism, or opposition to Israel’s policies, shade into anti-Semitism?
Timoner: The question is a complicated one. There are anticolonialist movements on the Left that are critical of Israel. I remember at my university taking part in protests against apartheid in South Africa. So I understand that impulse.
But Israel is different from South Africa, and from India and other places where there have been colonialist projects. Colonizers are not from the colonized place, but the Jewish people are from Israel.
What is more, the need for a Jewish homeland was evident even before the Holocaust. With the Russian pogroms, it became clear that Jews needed a place to call our own. And certainly after the Shoah, it was obvious. It’s amazing how short our memories are. Just seventy years later, the acute pain of the Holocaust has faded enough that we can forget how indisputable it is that Jews need a place to be safe.
I understand that a lot of anti-Zionism comes from wanting to side with the oppressed. And Israel’s government has behaved in truly oppressive ways. The Israeli occupation has gone on for fifty years now. This utterly unacceptable violation of human rights puts young Israeli soldiers in the position of enforcing immoral conditions and puts Palestinians in a cage. No group should have its mobility controlled and its horizons diminished by another.
But the Jewish people will not be safe in the long term without our own home. We can even see the inklings of that here in the U.S. After Trump’s election, swastikas were painted on a playground in Brooklyn Heights. Swastikas have appeared in a subway station near here. My colleagues have been the target of attacks online that read, “Fire up the ovens,” and, “Go back to the camps.” The language of extermination is close to the surface.
Anti-Zionism blends into anti-Semitism when the humanity of the Jews is ignored or denied, and people close their hearts to the real fear and suffering of Israelis, who have been living with daily attacks and sworn enemies all around them. When people generalize about Israelis and ignore the real dangers to the Jewish people, that is anti-Semitism.
Wolfson: After the election, there were calls for empathy with working-class white voters. Do you feel a need to understand why those voters were able to overlook Trump’s racism and misogyny?
Timoner: The desire to empathize with others is always good. And clearly working-class white people and poor white people in rural America are suffering. I was aware of that suffering long before this election. This election was not eye-opening for me in that regard. I know that the manufacturing job base is gone, and that we have not, as an economy or a political body, come up with a solution. I know that there is a drug epidemic devastating communities. There was a lot of hand-wringing after the election, and people said that we’ve ignored these populations, but I don’t feel I have turned away from those communities.
I also don’t think white-working-class suffering is adequate to explain the electoral outcome. I think the suffering is real, as real as the pain of any other people. It’s no less important, no less valid. But in this country, the people in power have historically taught poor or working-class white people that the way to succeed is to get ahead of poor black people. That message is damaging and has to be undone. Until we look at the root causes of systemic racism in this country, we cannot move forward as the United States.
Trump’s election was in part a reaction to eight years of a black president. As a country, we’ve never taken responsibility for our history, never looked at ourselves in the mirror. We ought to have reparations. More important than the reparations themselves would be the associated process of truth-telling, of unearthing the history and looking at the lynchings and brutality, the violence and dehumanization that we’ve visited on black people since this country’s beginning.
We’ve had more years with slavery than we’ve had without, and it’s folly to think that this history hasn’t shaped us and isn’t deeply rooted in our culture and our society. We have to look at it and be honest about it, the way Germany has taken responsibility for the Holocaust. We have not done that.
Speaking of holocausts, we have not done that for the Native Americans either, and until we do both those things, we will not be well. We will not be well.
Wolfson: Where do you find hope now?
Timoner: I see more and more people paying attention to politics and injustice, and that is a source of hope. I see thousands who are recognizing that this is not OK and are making their voices heard. I see people taking responsibility for their role in a democratic society.
In the last election, most Americans didn’t vote. If we stop caring about what’s going to happen to our country, we’re going to get results like this. But if we wake up and realize that we have no choice but to be citizens, that’s the way forward. I think people are waking up. I hope it will be enough. I hope it will not be too late.