An Explosive Issue: On Atalia Omer’s “Days of Awe”

By Shaul MagidFebruary 8, 2020

An Explosive Issue: On Atalia Omer’s “Days of Awe”

Days of Awe by Atalia Omer

ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will immediately become aware of the strange brew of religion and politics that dominates the discourse. In most cases, at least among Israelis and their supporters, this has to do with the religious right and its imprint on the political landscape. We are often less attuned to the role of religion on the left. This is in part because we too easily view the left as secular, which in Israel is largely true. But for many progressive Jews in the United States, religion is increasingly becoming a part of their social and political agenda. The Jewish social justice movement today is mostly led by rabbis and Jewish educators whose Judaism is infused with a belief in progressive principles as the driving force underlying their activism and interpretation of Judaism. In some way growing out of Martin Buber’s Hebrew Humanism of another era, these leftists are protesting Israel and its polices as an act of devotional praxis. This is the subject of Atalia Omer’s Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians.

The question of Israel-Palestine, and certainly a serious analysis of the Jewish-Palestinian Solidarity movement, is a subject that immediately evokes controversy. From social media to journals and Shabbat dinner tables, critique of Israel, and of Zionism more generally, continues to be an explosive issue. Atalia Omer enters this explosive terrain in an attempt to broaden our understanding of the American context of the Jewish progressive left and the way it has cultivated new aspects of Jewish identity and religion. The title itself, Days of Awe, speaks loudly (in the Jewish liturgical calendar these are the days surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, focused on repentance and reflection), and among some it suggests a resistance to the grand narrative of pro-Israelism that dominates the American-Jewish landscape.

What Omer does in Days of Awe is innovative on several levels. First, most studies that address the question of Jewish progressivism and religion do so either from the standpoint of historical, cultural, and legal studies, or from a more philosophical perspective on Zionism. In these studies, anti- or post-Zionism, Israel criticism, or Jewish-Palestinian solidarity are examined as politically charged phenomena. They speak to the attachment that many liberal and progressive Jews have to ideologies that make present-day Israel, both structurally as well as in practice, problematic. None, however, explore the attitudes and religious sensibilities of the participants in these movements, why they are there, and what they intend to achieve.

Days of Awe offers us a deeply personal and well-informed ethnographic study founded on interviews with Jewish-Palestinian Solidarity movement participants. The focus is primarily on the Tzedek Chicago synagogue and Jewish Voice for Peace, a group marginalized in American Jewry because of its support for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS). The interviews, framed in terms drawn from contemporary anthropological and philosophical literature, seek not only to interrogate the positions of the participants, but also expose the underlying motivations that drew many from their Zionist upbringings to question what has become the unspoken dogma of Israel advocacy, and to propose a new Jewish voice criticizing Israel. In many cases, what we hear from the participants is a deep sense of religious crisis whereby their liberal Judaism became increasingly dissonant from the Israel that emerged after the Second Intifada in 2000 and the subsequent Gaza wars.

It is important to state that Days of Awe does not intend to defend or critique a political-religious movement, or for that matter a sovereign nation-state. Rather, it seeks to understand progressive devotion as critique from the ground up. This method enables Omer to circumvent the centripetal force that invariably pulls one into the endless insanity of the Israel-Palestine debate: who is right, who is wrong, who is to blame, who is responsible, and so on. While the book does not overtly take a position, Omer’s own progressive inclinations are made clear at the outset.

Much of the book revolves around what Omer calls “Critical Caretaking.” In her own words, “Critical Caretaking entails a hermeneutical process of rescripting that draws on religious cultural, and historical literacy, and aims at moving beyond merely denaturalizing doxa to constructively reimagining Jewish identity and reframing the Jewish ethical compass.” The term refers to Russell McCutcheon’s Critics Not Caretakers (2001). McCutcheon’s book sets up the binary as a broadside against the study of religion in the academy, arguing that the job of the scholar is to critique and not defend religion in the public square.

Omer’s subjects, of course, are not scholars of religion, but activists and congregants, so McCutcheon’s binary does not apply in the same way. By disrupting the binary to suggest a “critical caretaking” position, Omer shows that for many of her subjects, critique — critique of Israel, that is — functions as a caretaking position, what she calls a “rescription,” and not one in opposition to Judaism or Israel per se, but rather a constructive “reimagining [of] Jewish identity and reframing [of] the Jewish ethical compass.” Moreover, she shows that for many of these practitioners, their critique is not simply saying, “This is my Judaism.” Rather, they are driven by a consciousness of repentance and repair. Their critique in embedded in the festival musaf (additional) prayer that reads, “Because of our sins, we were exiled,” which Omer defines as being “awakened through empathic and ethical indignation, responsibility to Palestinians[,] […] and other foci of alliance and solidarity.” This is a Judaism that seeks to repair the broken covenant of Israel, to suture the hemorrhaging of a tear in the heart of the Jewish people and its collective conscience.

There is something tragic, and dissonant, in this suggestion. Historically, at least as far back as the 1940s, Israel served largely as a unifying issue for most American Jews. This was catapulted into the mainstream after the Six-Day War in 1967 and captured in the title of Norman Podhoretz’s essay: “We are all Zionists Now!” Any remnant of anti-Zionism among American Jews, excluding the ultra-Orthodox, melted away with the fear and then jubilation of that war, which many secular Jews openly claimed to be nothing short of miraculous. But the Hebrew Bible tells us that miracles sometimes have unintended, and tragic, consequences. The miracle of the Exodus and at Mount Sinai quickly led to the Golden Calf.

Perhaps the belief in the “miracle” of 1967 explains why in the aftermath of the war, Israel’s occupation of a territory inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians went largely unnoticed in the United States, and even in much of Israel until the early 1970s. Small movements like Breira (founded in 1973, after the Yom Kippur War) began to question the occupation, and first called for a Palestinian state, but the organized Jewish community came down so hard against these “naïve ideologues” that Breira disappeared after three years. Groups like Breira are the germ-cells of what became the subject of Omer’s book half a century later.

From a historical perspective, the Jewish-Palestinian Solidarity movement — the subject of Omer’s book — can be seen as both the product, and undoing, of half a century of American Jewish education. If we compare the movement to its precedents in the early 20th century, we find a curious, and significant, difference: many of the early anti- or non-Zionists, in Europe and America, had already disavowed their commitments to religion, and founded their Jewish identity on the universal ideals of socialism, communism, or Americanism. In the United States, as attractive, albeit impractical, as it was in its early years, Zionism simply posed too great a threat to the resurgence of the accusation of “dual loyalty” American Jews we trying desperately to avoid.

American Jewry today is different. Many of the most outspoken critics of Israel cited in Omer’s work were raised as Zionists, abandoning it when their education could no longer square with the realities of contemporary Israel. It was, then, Zionism itself that has moved many from their Zionist commitments to a renewal of their Judaism as critics of Israel. Perhaps the most tragic assessment of this fissure is expressed by Israeli writer Avi Shavit, himself a life-long liberal Zionist, in his discussion of the liquidation of the Arab town of Lydda in the 1948 war, in his book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit states bluntly, and perhaps all too honestly: “If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.”

Echoing such comments, Omer shows how many American Zionists came to realize that their vision of a Jewish state seemed more and more distant from the realities of that state. Many Israelis, like Shavit, adjusted their views, and in many cases defended the dissonance they experienced. While true in the United States as well, something else was also happening; the Zionization of American Jewry came at a price, and part of that price was the ways in which Jewish identity here had become so tied to ethnicity as opposed to religion, and so focused on the country American Jews choose not to live in, as opposed to constructing a viable Judaism in the country where they chose to live.

Once Israel no longer reflected the values of these individuals, the only Jewish alternative was critique of that which stood at the center of their Judaism: Israel. In this case, critique was a way to religiously express their feeling of responsibility and their fate as Jews. Zionist education taught them that to be a good Jew they must be engaged with Israel. And they followed suit. Except that engagement increasingly moved from support to critique.

One of the great features of Omer’s work is her analysis of the role this critique plays in the Jewish lives of her subjects, as opposed to simply arguing for or against their views. The role of ethnography adeptly serves the purpose of circumventing the storm, as it were, to better understand how critical caretaking works. The old criticism that Israel’s Jewish critics lack the requisite knowledge of Judaism or Zionism no longer applies. Zionist education in the United States has unwittingly prepared many of these participants to be responsible critics. Many know at least as much about Israel and Zionism as Israel’s most ardent American supporters.

And here I come to what is perhaps the most compelling aspect of Omer’s argument. First, critical caretaking is a religious enterprise. I do not mean “religious” in regards to ritual observance or belief but rather a commitment to empathy and repair based on theological premises that occupy the Jewish Days of Awe. Second, one of the consequences of the Zionization of American Jewry is that it was bound to collapse for those who took it seriously enough when their aspirations of the Jewish state conflicted with the reality of that state. Many would turn against the state as a religious act in order to maintain their belief in what they were taught as children. In effect, what Days of Awe shows us is the crisis of liberal Zionism; what many of Omer’s subjects are contesting is not the state per se, but the liberal Zionist narrative of what the state was supposed to be and is not.

Days of Awe has given that dilemma roots and context, not by making a philosophical, theological, or political case for or against Israel, but by examining the lives and aspirations of those working on the ground in the Jewish-Palestinian Solidarity movement. Challenging accusations of Jewish self-hatred, Days of Awe argues that these individuals are a new kind of pioneer, in a sense, a new kind of “religious” American Jew. Many will disagree with the political commitments of Omer’s subjects, and that is fine. But only one with an uncircumcised heart will fail to see that many of these people are deeply committed to a Jewish reparative project. And in Judaism, there is nothing more reparative than the liturgy of the Days of Awe.


Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

LARB Contributor

Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, and editor of Jewish Thought and Culture for Tikkun Magazine. His most recent books are The Bible the Talmud and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospel, and Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism.


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