By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
When Rabbi Karyn Kedar assumes her executive board position in the embryonic Zioness organization, she’ll have to help develop strategies never before seen in modern Jewish activism and feminism.
After all, in Trump America, truth is fake news and progressives can be anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.
“Bad behavior has been legitimized at the highest levels,” said Kedar, senior rabbi at B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE).
Also going mainstream are acts of censorship, violations of the First Amendment, from the most unlikely of sources.
Jewish activists were asked to leave the Dyke March rally in Chicago last summer for carrying a rainbow flag with a Star of David. A similar ban was forced on 20 pro-Zionist flag carriers in the August SlutWalk, which supported the anti-Zionist tenets of the Dyke March.
Meanwhile, Linda Sarsour, a Brooklyn-born Palestinian-American and self-proclaimed “civil-rights” activist, said before the 2017 Women’s March that there was “nothing creepier” than the Jewish liberation movement.
Red flags thus had been waved in front of veterans of both Jewish and feminist movements. Using social media and other 21st century means of stitching together a national movement, they formed the skeleton of the Zioness women’s organization.
“Those of us who are Jewish, pro-Israel, Zionist and progressive found ourselves in this era next to progressives who are anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, and not allowed to stand next to them,” said Kedar, taking a break from her hectic schedule in her synagogue study.
“That is illogical. It’s something we also discovered in the early days of the feminist movement. Oftentimes, the non-Jewish progressives or liberal movements don’t like standing next to Jews who are pro-Israel. The BDS movement has become very popular. Anti-Semitism has been linked to anti-Zionism. There’s been a revolution on college campuses. Some of the non-Jewish progressives have been aligned with the rhetoric and propaganda of the BDS movement.
“When we were on the streets marching for women’s rights, for reproductive rights, for gay and lesbian rights, we’re told we can’t have a Jewish star or march with an Israeli flag. So the Zioness movement sprung up saying, ‘We’re feminists, we’re progressives and we’re Zionists.’”
And what about being patriotic Americans, demanding they be allowed to practice their First Amendment rights?
“Exactly,” said Kedar.
The rabbi and fellow activists must adjust to existing not in a brave, new world, but a strange, new world. A Pew poll recently revealed that 79 percent of Republicans, compared with just 27 percent of Democrats, said they sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians.
So supporters of a traditionally conservative party whose adherents once blocked Jews from jobs, residency in some communities and entrance into colleges, now are more pro-Israel. At the same time, some supporters of a party that was home to most Jews from the time they came off the boat more than a century ago, now adopted the opinions of former oppressors.
What the Zioness movement eventually will become has not yet been determined. Kedar offered a “Manifesto for Change and Inclusion” with two main goals:
*Ending discrimination and injustice: “We are working to end racism, misogyny and LBGTQ-plus phobia. We aim to dismantle institutionalized racism in our government and our society; to implement national policies that ensure equal treatment for people of all genders and sexual orientations in public and private institutions; and to amplify the voices of our community members who face this discrimination.”
*Providing a home and platform of support for Jews and Zionists in progressive circles: “We are acting to stop the spread of anti-Semitism and the demonization of Jews, Zionism and Zionists on both the right and the left. We encourage and embolden Jews and Zionists to become active in the social justice movement, to improve understanding of Judaism and Zionism within progressive circles, and to call out anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it appears.
“As the world’s most enduring persecuted community, Jews have the experience – and the obligation – to seize our own history and apply it to advance the rights of others. We cannot, and will not, be deterred by those who try to kick us out or leave us behind in movements to strive for equality or justice.
“Zioness is an inclusive movement. We invite all progressive Zionists to participate. We will not define your progressivism or your Zionism. We will not apply political litmus tests to those who wish to fight for civil rights, social justice and human dignity for all. If you believe in these ideals, and that the Jewish people have a right to a safe and secure Jewish state, we welcome you with open arms.”
Kedar brings long experience to be Zioness’ number one spokesman in the nation’s third-largest market.
One of the pioneering female rabbis, she entered Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1980, receiving her ordination in 1985. Kedar has a master’s degree in Bible study from Baltimore’s Hebrew University. She was on the clergy staff at B’nai Torah in Highland Park before ascending to senior rabbi at BJBE in 2003.
A mother of four and grandmother of four, Kedar also is an author, poet, spiritual counselor, conductor of social workshops and inspirational speaker. Her published books include “God Whispers,” “The Dance of the Dolphin (Our Dance With God),” “The Bridge to Forgiveness” and “Omer: A Counting.” She is published in numerous anthologies and has created liturgy, rituals and ceremonies.
The Dyke March flag censorship is what drove Kedar into high gear.
“It was anti-constitutional, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. Which is why this movement was given birth and came forth full force to make sure we have the right, which we do, to stand in the progressive movement,” she said.
Zioness activists with Star of David flags and congregation signs took to the streets in Women’s Marches all over the country on Jan. 20. Some 40 associated with BJBE – “a lot of mothers and daughters,” said Kedar – walked in Chicago.
“I was so proud to stand with my daughter as we raised our voices for those who feel marginalized or cannot find their voice,” said BJBE Cantor Jennifer Frost of the Chicago march. “We joined together with people of all races and faiths to stand for equality and justice for all peoples.”
Ann Lewis, who served as White House director of communications for President Bill Clinton and as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, headed the Zioness contingent at the march in Washington, D.C.
“I am proud to march with the young people of Zioness,” Lewis said in a statement. “Zioness is inspiring and empowering our country’s next generation of progressive leaders to wear their Zionist identities proudly, as they fight for human rights and women’s rights, health care, education, compassionate immigration reform, equal pay and equal dignity.”
Kedar first heard of the need for a new, aggressive Jewish women’s movement in an airport after the Dyke March. “I got a call, and they asked if I was in,” she said.
“It’s a very troubling time in America. There’s an atmosphere of distrust, of hate, of discrimination, of exclusion. What we’re trying to do is very simple: get back to good, basic, American values based on equality, non-discrimination and access to all people. It can go anywhere from immigration rights, to gay rights, to women’s rights, reproductive rights and (movements against) violence to women. It’s all in a rumble because of the atmosphere in this country. It coincides with the BDS movement, which has a very active propaganda mechanism on college campuses.”
Kedar is of the firm belief that the polarization that has given rise to progressives-as-anti-Semites had its origins in Barack Obama’s presidency, which in itself was a reaction to the economic collapse of 2008. The rise of Donald Trump was a symptom, not a cause, she added.
“Once a black man rose to power and a white woman (Hillary Clinton) was on the rise to power, the backlash against the architects (of these people) helped create a large group of people who found voice in the Trump phenomenon,” she said.
“Certain aspects of this country got frightened at the perception of a black man in power and a white woman in power and it created a backlash. They found voice (in Trump).”
In turn, the progressive movement, which Kedar believed had become complacent, was re-energized, with an asterisk.
“We were surprised to see among the progressives there was still exclusivity and discrimination disguised as anti-Zionism, which we believe to be really anti-Semitism,” she said.
“The rhetoric around the stereotype of the poor Palestinian oppressed by the apartheid state also went back to the boycott of artists going to Israel. This rhetoric intersected with the progressive voice. They said if you’re a progressive, you’re for Palestinian rights and against the apartheid state of Israel, which is anti-Palestinian and oppressive. Without even investigating the facts, it became a part of this whole fervor.
“There was a need for us to say Zionism is not a bad word. We can be pro-Israel and also progressive.”
As with the original civil rights movement, the counter moves are education, information and, part of Kedar’s core being, “acts of loving kindness.”
“The whole purpose of rabbinic leadership is to give voice to vision, to create a world that is healing out of its broken-ness,” she said. “Israel is part of the core of Jewish identity. But so are acts of loving kindness.
“We open the door to everybody and we welcome all people with equality. That’s not a reaction to something. It is who we are and what we stand for.”
Kedar got her combat pay, so to speak, as part of the first generation of female rabbis.
“There is no question that we experienced great discrimination and pay disparity,” she said. “Paradoxically, there’s also no question I am the senior rabbi of one of the country’s senior congregations. I have achieved everything I have ever dreamt for myself – not because I’m so great, but because the world did accommodate the phenomenon of a female rabbi.
“But what has remained the same is our fight for peace, love and equality.”
Kedar is not the first in her family pushing for change.
“My father, Norman Schwartz, was president of the American Reform Zionist Association, ARZA,” she said. “My (former) rabbi, Gene Litman of blessed memory, fought in the Haganah. So Zionism and Israel is in my blood. It’s not a reaction to someone going into a Dyke March and being asked, ‘What are you doing?’ Our fight to create a world based on kindness and justice is an old story.”
Kedar “absolutely” vowed Zioness will not just be a reactive organization going forward.
“We do not show up on the streets of protest because we are against something,” she said. “We stand as ourselves – feminists, Zionists and progressives – and believe in equality. It’s a positive message.”
With all the sub-plots swirling, the White House and Congress in turmoil, and mid-term elections looming, Zioness activists cannot dither, she said.
“It always starts with education,” Kedar said. “We must educate and explode stereotypes. Show people the facts. Debunk the stereotypes and say it’s me and you talking about the same thing. There’s high-level talks with leaders and relationship-building. Urging people to vote and become politically involved, and become social activists.
“My congregation has a long history of urging people to vote – but not in any particular way. We have both Democrats and Republicans in our congregation. We have people who are members of the NRA in this congregation. It’s inclusive, not exclusive. We have a large umbrella. We have freedom of expression.
“But this has risen above politics into the dialogue of hate and discrimination.”
Kedar cannot predict when Zioness will have a brick-and-mortar office, a group of executives and a formal lobbying effort. But she points to shoe leather, fervor and commitment as a very good start to a national group of Jewish women who don’t mind returning to familiar, eternal themes.