Growing up, the Conservative movement embraced nuanced approaches to the Torah, yet that critical approach never extended to discussions of Israel. Questioning Zionism was verboten.
No one within the Conservative movement ever discussed the rabbinic texts that oppose the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel. Questioning Zionism was verboten. And no one knew, and still, to this day no one knows what the occupation looks like.
It was the summer before eighth grade at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, a Jewish summer camp affiliated with the Conservative Movement. I was 12 years old. Each camper was handed a copy of Mitchell Bard’s Myths and Facts, long considered a foundational hasbara textbook, and we were told that the author would be coming to speak to us.
Most campers ignored the book and didn’t pay much attention to Bard’s presentation. One particularly precocious camper, who actually read through the book, took the time to highlight misleading arguments and logical inconsistencies, and challenged the author during his lecture. Bard made light of the critiques and brushed them aside, insisting that every accusation against Israel was rooted in anti-Semitism, and that there was no way human rights violations had anything to do with Palestinian discontent.
No Palestinians — and not even a liberal Zionist — were ever invited to speak. By inviting Bard to talk without challenge or counterpoint, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires effectively taught us that the occupation was an anti-Semitic myth.
I grew up at the intersection of the Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities of New York City. Five days a week, I attended an Orthodox day school, where we learned that the Torah came from God, and that any inconsistency in the text can be explained by ruach hakodesh, prophetic foresight. On Shabbat, at my family’s Conservative-affiliated minyan, or prayer community, Jewish academics shared divrei torah, literally words of Torah, suggesting that the Book of Esther was a Judaization of the fertility myths of Ishtar and Marduk. They sketched out models for understanding inconsistencies in the Torah as proof of a multiplicity of biblical authors, and different eras of the text’s construction. Learning non-traditional interpretations as a child strengthened my relationship to Torah, and ensured that critical approaches to text do not threaten my religious practice.