Wendy Elisheva Somerson

Wendy Elisheva Somerson

Anti-Zionist Embodiment, Breath, and Belonging


I feel so blessed that my first experience of Jewish community (outside of my family or the Midwestern synagogue I stopped attending at age five because my father couldn’t afford the fees for our family of eight) was a bunch of queer Jews who cared about a free Palestine.

As an adult, I came into my Judaism at the same time that I came into my politics around Palestine. Longing for Jewish community and feeling adrift in the freeze of the Pacific Northwest, I jumped at the invitation from other queer Jews to attend Shabbat dinners where we lit candles, broke bread, and discussed how we learned about Israel and Palestine. Thrilled to be included, I struggled in equal amounts with the shame of not knowing how to say the Hebrew blessing over challah and the shame of not knowing what Zionism really meant.

Our informal group of queers celebrating Shabbat morphed into a study group on the history of Zionism, and that group eventually became the Seattle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. At that time in 2005, I also joined a synagogue that some of my new Jewish friends attended. The rabbi was queer, as were many of the congregants, and in my longing for Jewish knowledge and acceptance, I thought this could be my spiritual home.

Soon thereafter in 2006, Israel attacked Lebanon and Gaza with airstrikes. My friends and I showed up to protest Israeli military aggression at a “Stand with Israel” rally that summer, where other Jewish attendees tried to keep us out of the rally, calling us “Hezbollah,” “Kapos,” and “Nazis.” This was my first experience of the vitriol from the mainstream Jewish community toward dissenters and the power of showing up as Jews with a different message. We stood on a hill with our signs singing the familiar Jewish peace song in Hebrew, Lo Yisa Goy, as attendees left the rally. Many of them began unconsciously singing or humming along with us, only to stop themselves when they realized that we were the ones leading it.

Things just got more intense that summer. Five days later an armed man who said he was “angry at Israel” entered the Jewish Federation in Seattle and shot six women, injuring five and killing one.

Devastated by the shootings, my friends and I were scared to mourn publicly because we didn’t want our grief co-opted to rally around Israeli nationalism. Indeed many of the organizations who sponsored the Stand with Israel rally were now the ones holding memorial spaces.

Recognizing the need to create our own space for both mourning the shootings and speaking out against Israeli apartheid, our chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace led our first Tashlich L’Tzedek, a social justice casting-off ceremony that fall. We cast off the sins of the Israeli government along with the sins of antisemitism.

A comrade and I decided to write about our ceremony for our synagogue’s newsletter to introduce other members to Jewish Voice for Peace. Not surprisingly, we were immediately attacked by a congregant who wrote a lengthy email to us, the board, and the rabbi in which she used a barrage of Islamophobic questions to imply that, at best, we were ignorant and, at worst, we fueled antisemitic violence, like the shootings at the Federation, against our fellow Jews. When we tried to talk to the rabbi about feeling attacked, he asked us what we expected and told us she made some “powerful points.”

I was hurt by this failure of leadership and began reckoning with the unthinking nationalism and racism pervasive in the place where I had hoped to build a Jewish home. My tentative sense of belonging in that community began to erode.

In retrospect, it all seems pretty tame compared to the endless name-calling, attacks and threats I have since received as an anti-Zionist from other Jews, including a death threat mailed to my home address, numerous sexual assault threats, and being told that my head would be cut off in Muslim countries because of my queerness. I have since found belonging and a political home amongst other anti-Zionist activists and organizers, but I’ve slowly come to understand that as anti-Zionist Jews, we actually need our own healing spaces to address these harms.

In the beautiful sermon she gave upon leaving JVP as a staff member, Alissa Wise describes how the thick skin she developed in response to the endless harassment by other Jews didn’t prevent her from being affected by these attacks. Cumulatively, the name-calling, threats, and exclusions started to wear her down without her even noticing it until she burned out on the work itself. She warns us, “We don’t want to let our skin be so tough that we don’t recognize the pain that is there. Let’s feel our pain AND feel our power.”

Wise offers us a gift in linking feeling pain with feeling power because, as the world of body-based healing tells us, when we start to numb ourselves to any difficult feelings, whether pain, grief, or anger, we also start cutting ourselves off from all feeling, including feelings of joy, satisfaction, or happiness. When we feel less and less, we find it hard to celebrate the joy of our wins, find satisfaction in our work, or feel the power of our solidarity. No wonder we burn out.

In her interview with Jewish Currents, Wise says she wouldn’t have been able to speak so freely about this dynamic if she wasn’t leaving JVP because we don’t want to center Jewish pain in our role as allies to our Palestinian siblings. At the same time, we can’t show up as our most powerful selves in the movement if we don’t start creating spaces to have this conversation with each other.

Why should anti-Zionists feel more?

In order to feel, we must come back into our bodies. Why would we want to do that as anti-Zionist Jews? Given how hard it can be to feel ourselves, including our sensations and our emotions, in this disembodied culture and very unsafe world, why is it worth it for us to feel?

One reason we may want to become embodied is that white supremacist capitalist culture relies on disembodiment (numbness and dissociation) and an over emphasis on our minds. When we can’t feel ourselves, our connection to each other, or our connection to the natural world, it’s easy to exploit other people and extract resources from the land. In other words, disembodiment is part of what enables oppression. Coming back to our bodies is one way to challenge this model of separation and disconnection.

When we come back into our bodies and our breath, we often return to what we have been avoiding, which might mean the emotional and physical pain that made us want to leave our bodies in the first place. For anti-Zionist Jews, this includes the pain of witnessing our communities’ collusion with racism and nationalism and the rejection and harassment that often accompany our politics.

When we do the work to live more fully in our sensations and face the pain or hurt, we actually figure out how to stay present with our emotions and feelings, no matter how intense. We gain more agency when we don’t react by shutting down feelings or acting immediately from any impulse that arises. By learning to tolerate feeling more, we get to make choices that honor the embodied truth of our stories.

I know that for many years, when I first met another Jewish person, whether at services or at a party, I expected political misalignment and armored myself for an argument. This makes sense given many of my experiences as an anti-Zionist Jew; however, when I approach all Jews from this hardened place, it is disempowering for me and objectifies other Jewish people. It makes me feel small and defensive, and it forecloses on the possibility of connection.

So while I truly believe that anti-Zionist Jews should become embodied for the sake of our healing, I also believe that our embodiment can only strengthen our movements to end Israeli apartheid. As organizers, if we truly believe that people can change their minds, including our own people, we also have to reach for others through our shared humanity.

There are many ways to come back into feeling as anti-Zionists, including body-based healing or somatics, which integrates the body as an essential place of change, learning, and transformation. Unlike traditional therapy, which works primarily through our thoughts, body-based healing helps us feel our way into change through our whole selves–mind, body, and spirit. After working as a body-based healer for the last eight years, during the pandemic I started running Ruach, Jewish body-based healing groups for anti-Zionist Jews, so that anti-Zionists could be held in a Jewish space for personal and collective healing.

By putting anti-Zionist Jews at the center of this group, I am purposefully building a container to create and reinforce a sense of belonging–to each other, to Jewishness, to our ancestors. We get to explore what becomes possible when anti-Zionist Jews are more than “included” in a Jewish healing space, but are actually held as the beating heart of the collective.

Body-Based Healing: Centering and Kavanot

One way I invite participants to come back into their bodies is through a centering practice that I learned through training with generative somatics. We learn to find and feel our center, literally our center of gravity, a few inches below the belly button. Centering helps us become present in the three-dimensionality of our bodies (length, width and depth), and then use this fullness to become aligned with our purpose.

To help find our purpose in centering, each of us creates a kavanah (intention) statement to declare what we are trying to heal and to help guide us in this work. We share these statements with each other, and speak them when we center. By centering in our kavanot (plural), we create a home base inside ourselves where we can return when we want to remember our intention and values.

I also frame our centering practice as a type of prayer or holy offering. While not everyone has to understand the practice this way, I use this perspective because prayers can offer us an embodied experience of connecting to our deepest longings and purpose as spiritual and material beings. So many of us have been cut off from the traditions of Jewish prayers, the language of many of our ancestors, whether because of assimilation or oppressive dynamics in Jewish communities, including politics around Zionism.

Prayer also begins with a kavanah, whose root is the verb kaf-vav-nun meaning “to straighten or direct.” Both centering and prayers help us find alignment with our purpose. In Davening: A Meaningful Guide to Jewish Prayer, “Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi tells us that we practice prayer with a deep intention behind it, so that “when you are in trouble, you shall find the words.”

In other words, an iterative way of praying (saying the same set of blessings on Friday nights or holidays) allows the prayers to become part of us (they become embodied). When we are activated or upset about something, we can still connect to the prayers because we are practiced in saying them. If we only pray when we’re in crisis, the prayers may not help us come back to ourselves.

This is also why we practice centering. When we have built a felt sense of center, then when we are triggered or under pressure, we can find our way back to our breath, our centers, and our kavanot. If we only practice centering when we’re already activated. It won’t help much.

Rabbi Zalman argues that our goal is “to get to the place where we, like the needle on a compass, will naturally swing around to align ourselves with our inner core of kavanah.” In somatic language, when we are embodied in centering, we can more easily align our actions with our values, even under pressure. This is how we define transformation.

Now when I meet another Jewish person, I try to remind myself of our shared history that extends back centuries before Zionism and envision the ways we might connect after the end of Zionism. I don’t always succeed in coming back to my kavanah of staying open to connection with other Jews, but when I do, it leads to interactions that feel more empowering and relational. It makes possible a genuine exchange in which learning and reflection are possible.

Understanding Automatic Trauma Reactions

The impact of trauma pulls us away from our centers and our kavanot. When teaching about trauma reactions, I do not center the Nazi Holocaust or make broad claims about Jewish patterns. It’s important to acknowledge that as a people over time, many Jews have experienced various forms of trauma including exile, displacement, and large-scale violence. While there may be overlap and similarities in how that history of trauma lives inside us, there are also many differences based on each of our specific identities and lived realities.

Indeed, as anti-Zionist Jews, we are also figuring out how to process the more recent harms of rejection and exile that we experience in our families and communities because of our politics, and the shame and defensiveness this often evokes in us. Zionism, which was itself partially a response to Jewish trauma, has obviously become a traumatizing force for Palestinians, but also for many Jews, including Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews whose ancient communities were disrupted by the founding of the Israeli state.

Unconditional support for Zionism as a prerequisite to belonging in many Jewish communities also harms those of us who challenge Zionism. It is both deeply disheartening to see our communities’ unwavering support for a racist nationalist state, and devastating to experience the consequences for living our values that range from exclusion to vicious attacks. These experiences can cause deep internal fissures that challenge our sense of belonging to our own people.

In Ruach we learn how traumatic experiences — both individual and collective — can cause us to be stuck in the past. The threat or shock involved in traumatic and oppressive experiences means that our survival reactions (fight, flight, freeze, appease) kick in and stay with us long after those experiences are over.

On a very deep and mostly unconscious level, we assume that the harm we experienced could happen again at any time, and we must always be on alert. The survival reactions that are meant to be temporary often get stuck or frozen in us. From this hypervigilant place, it is extremely difficult to take in new or current information, and therefore impossible to respond to the present moment from a centered place.

For example, the thick skin we develop as anti-Zionists can be seen as a symptom of getting stuck in a fight response because of the ongoing attacks we weather from Zionists. When I wrote about our Tashlich ceremony from 2006, what I didn’t mention was that our ritual was also criticized by other anti-Zionist Jews for not being radical enough.

We were part of a loose coalition of Jews across the country doing Palestine solidarity actions called “Ten Days of Solidarity with Palestine and Lebanon‘’ during the high holidays. On a debrief call about our ritual action, two organizers from the coalition yelled at us, claiming that because we talked about antisemitism at our event, we were justifying the dispossession of Palestinian land.

While the congregant from my synagogue accused us of adding fuel to antisemitic violence with our ritual, these anti-Zionists claimed that we were fueling the rhetoric of Zionism by talking about antisemitism at all.

This is something we don’t often talk about as anti-Zionist Jews–that being pushed outside of mainstream Jewish community has also increased our distrust of other each other. We get so used to defending our politics against pro-Zionist forces that we can become rigid, reactive, and unable to hold complexity, even with other anti-Zionist Jews. Instead we start policing each other’s behavior. While it is true that accusations of antisemitism are frequently weaponized to shut down any criticism of the Israeli state, that doesn’t mean we should ignore antisemitism. Ending antisemitism is a crucial part of our work toward collective liberation.

While we can and should engage in principled political disagreements, it is damaging to our movements to automatically start from a place of distrust with each other for not being radical enough. If we can begin identifying our automatic trauma responses that cut us off from connection, then we can start learning how to engage with each other based on our values and intentions while holding each person’s dignity intact.

Returning to Center

So how do we find our way back to center when we’re in a trauma reaction? In somatics, one of the main practices that helps us return to center is called “grab, center, and face.” With this practice, first we identify our automatic responses that happen when we are “grabbed” or activated. We notice how they live in our bodies, our narratives, and our mood. Then we purposefully take a breath, and recenter ourselves in our bodies and kavanot. Finally, we turn and face the grab from a more centered and connected place.

This practice is based on the same principle as the brilliant James Baldwin quote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” When we can return to center and face our issues rather than getting stuck in avoidance and automatic reactions, we increase our sense of possibility and get to be intentional about our actions.

For example, most anti-Zionists have chosen to face the Nakba, the catastrophe that began in 1948 when the state of Israel was founded and Palestinians were displaced, and continues to this day with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

Like many Jews, some of us grew up with Israeli propaganda, which manipulates Jewish historical trauma, so that we may get stuck in a frozen fear reaction of refusing to look at the current reality. We are repeatedly told that Israel is a victim “defending” herself, and any criticism of the state is akin to an attack on Jews, like the many attacks throughout our history as a people.

For some of us, an alternate reality starts to intrude, often during one of Israel’s horrendous military operations, which kills and injures hundreds or even thousands of Palestinians. The incontestable and wildly disproportionate violence shakes us out of the complacency instilled by Israeli propaganda.

When we re-center ourselves in the current reality of Israel’s murderous attacks, we finally turn and face the roots of this violence– Israel’s founding as a settler colonial state, which expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Only then can we start to grapple with how truly harmful the state of Israel has been not only for Palestinians, but also for Jews.

For those of us in the long haul struggle to end the ongoing Nakba, we have to keep choosing to turn and face the violence with each and every attack on Palestine. It’s easy to get grabbed by the relentless and repetitive nature of Israeli state violence, and then go into a numb or frozen state.

I notice sometimes that I’m engaging in movement work from an angry, numb place, unavailable for connection. In 2014 when our chapter of JVP temporarily shut down a local Boeing factory that manufactures Apache helicopters for the Israeli military, one of the workers came by and asked what we were doing. I angrily told him how many Palestinians had died in the attacks on Gaza, and he replied, “that many?” in a stricken voice. While this was an opportunity to connect and possibly organize someone who seemed to care about Palestinians, I felt myself freeze because I couldn’t get out of an antagonistic way of communicating.

Later in our protest, I burst into tears after using a bullhorn to recite the names of Palestinians killed by “Operation Protective Edge,” and I recognized how numb I had felt up until that point. As hard as the work is, we have to keep returning to face the consequences of the Nakba over and over, allowing our hearts to break from the pain, the anger, and the grief. When we are able to do this with one another, we can take actions from a place of powerful connection, rather than numbness.

Centered Accountability with T’shuvah and Tochecha

In Ruach, we also use this practice of “grab, center, face” to discover what centered accountability feels like in our bodies. We frame centered accountability with the concept of t’shuvah, which often gets translated as repentance, but actually means to return or transform. T’shuvah is what helps us get back in alignment with our kavanot after being pulled off center and missing the mark.

T’shuvah describes an approach for getting in right relationship with each other and with G-d or spirit. Some say that t’shuvah was created before the world was created, which means that the very foundation of our world includes an acknowledgement of both the inevitability of harm and the potential for repair and transformation.

In his writing on The Laws of T’shuvah, Maimonides tells us that the first step in making t’shuvah is to admit that you had a negative impact and speak out loud the specifics of the harm (publicly if it was a harm caused to another person, not G-d). Then you must do the inner work to understand what happened and resolve in your heart that you won’t take that action again. If you harm a person, you must make amends to them in accordance with their wishes. True transformation occurs when you are in the same situation in which the original harm occurred, and you take different actions.

When we understand our automatic reactions to grabs, we are doing our inner work, so that we can resolve in our hearts to act in alignment with our kavanot. Maimonides tells us that “a person who confesses with words, but does not resolve in his heart to abandon the sin — behold, he is like one who immerses in a mikvah while holding a lizard in his hand. The immersion will have no effect.” So we can’t perform an apology or confession without doing the internal healing work of understanding how we got there to begin with, committing to change, and taking different actions.

When we practice “grab, center, face” around centered accountability, we are practicing how to find a centered place from which to hear and acknowledge the impact of our behavior. We sometimes default into over-accountability, accepting responsibility for way more than we actually should OR under-accountability, refusing to admit we caused any harm at all.

With the grab practice, we get to feel how under-, over-, and centered accountability show up in our bodies after we are “grabbed” by a situation in our lives. When we come back to our center, we find a centered response to take responsibility, so that we can discern our culpability, and resolve not to enact that behavior again.

In anti-Zionist Jewish circles, we sometimes see a move toward over-accountability whereby we feel so devastated about the ongoing Nakba that we accept the collapse of Judaism with Zionism, categorize anything Jewish as regressive, and then distance ourselves from other Jews and Jewishness. When we are over-accountable, we might frame Jewishness itself as inherently oppressive, and invisibilize the roles of Christian Zionism and US imperialism in upholding and maintaining Israeli apartheid.

This over-accountability is an understandable reaction to the many legacy Jewish organizations and communities who are and have been completely unaccountable for the harm caused by their unwavering support for the state of Israel. However, this collapse into over-accountability and distancing doesn’t serve our movement because we end up ceding Jewishness to the relatively recent force of Zionism and abdicating our responsibility to move our fellow Jews toward true justice.

As Jews (and US citizens, for that matter) we all have to grapple with finding a centered response for how to combat the violence that is being done in our names. Maimonides also offers us an impetus for holding our communities accountable; he tells us that the two major obstacles to t’shuvah are refusing to take feedback after we cause harm and refusing to speak out or intervene when we see someone else causing harm. We have inherited a directive to both accept and give feedback.

In fact, we are obligated to engage in tochecha, a loving rebuke, to call each other into accountability. If we see someone engaging in harmful action but don’t engage with them, we, too, become responsible for those harmful actions. We are asked to rebuke people in our community with humility and respect for their experiences. For me, this means we leverage all the power at our disposal to fight the Jewish institutions that uphold Zionism, while we call in individual people with respect and care.

Finding our Breath and Resilience

After working with trauma reactions, learning how to return to center, and grappling with centered accountability, we also connect with the collective resilience rituals that Jews have carried forward for centuries throughout the global diaspora. Resilience is what brings us joy, aliveness, connection, and ease in our bodies.

Resilience helps us move from these survival states of hypervigilance–searching for what is wrong, being fearful and shut down–to a self that is present and connected. The more resilience we have, the easier it is to recenter under pressure.

As Jews we have inherited many resilience practices; the calendar of the Jewish year includes time to grieve, to commemorate, to celebrate, and feel joy through the structure of the months and the holidays. In Ruach, we discuss the weekly practice of observing Shabbat, which connects us to breath and creation. The Torah tells us that after six days of labor creating the world, on the 7th day the creatrix paused and took a breath. We, too, get to take a breath on the seventh day of the week, to honor Shabbat.

Much more than a list of restrictions, Shabbat invites us into a holy sense of time where we are invited to nap, eat, sing, pray, play, read, cuddle, love, walk, and gather. We are encouraged to linger in anything we do, lose track of time, and prioritize connection to ourselves and others.

Indeed Shabbat can offer us a glimpse of the world to come, a world of freedom, liberation, and connection. We slow from what Rabbi Zalman calls “commodity time” to dwell instead in “organic time.” We get to experience time as nature holds it, not as capitalism does. Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, among others, has linked Shabbat with the principle of disability justice that declares that our dignity and worth aren’t dependent on our ability to produce. Shabbat offers us this rejuvenating holy time — to rest, to love ourselves and our world exactly as we are without striving.

As anti-Zionist activists and organizers, we often wonder how we can rest or take a breath when we are facing the brutal racist state violence in Palestine and at home. Yet we know that when we move into action while ignoring our breath and our bodies, we are more likely to act from numbness, disconnection, and dehumanization. We are more likely to act automatically from a survival reaction from our past than to make a present connection. Oppression thrives on us not slowing down to take a breath.

Shabbat is a reminder from our Jewish traditions that paying attention to our breath isn’t stillness or opting out; breath is movement and possibility. We inhale; our lungs fill with the oxygen we need. We exhale and expel the carbon dioxide we no longer need, and then another inhale occurs. We fill up on the breath of life, and we release what no longer serves us.

My hope is that group body-based healing for anti-Zionists can help us breathe in all the resilience that our Jewish traditions have to offer while we let go of our automatic defensive reactions. To envision and create a world where Palestine is free and Judaism thrives beyond Zionism, we have to model what it means to find centered accountability and release the nationalism and racism that obstructs the path toward liberation for all.

Thanks to Jennie Goode and Stefanie Fox for their invaluable feedback.

I learned these practices through generative somatics, and have adapted them for anti-Zionist Jewish healing.