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Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?

For all the theological, ritualistic, and institutional differences separating the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements, for all their divergent approaches to revelation, halakhah, and communal decision-making, what distinguishes the groups in the minds of many ordinary American Jews comes down to branding.  Orthodoxy is on the right, Reform on the left.  In the middle stands Conservative Judaism.

Relevant Links
Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?  Daniel Gordis, Commentary. That some rabbinical students (and their elders) are turning against the Jewish state is a deeply distressing fact; the question is why.
Not Lost, Just Left  Josh Nathan-Kazis, Forward. JTS chancellor Arnold Eisen says his seminary’s survey has allayed his concerns that his students are becoming anti-Israel.
Jokes My Grandfather Told Me  Daniel Gordis, Jerusalem Post. Gordis responds that the recent JTS study does not disprove but actually confirms his thesis that non-Orthodox rabbis have taken a universalist turn.

But if the new crop of Conservative rabbis has anything to say about it, Conservatism may not occupy the center for very long.  That, at least, is the message of a recent report by the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, based on a survey of political views among "Generation Y" rabbinical students—born in the mid-1970's to mid-1990's—and the Seminary's somewhat older rabbinical alumni, ordained since 1980. 

At first blush, the report purports to show what one would hope to find among the rabbinate: a solid Jewish identity and strong attachment to Israel.  On closer examination, this identity appears increasingly filtered through a universalistic and liberal political perspective.  Among American Jews as a whole, according to the Pew Forum, 38 percent identify themselves as liberal; 39 percent call themselves moderate.  In contrast, 58 percent of the Conservative rabbis surveyed—and 69 percent of the rabbinical students—called themselves liberal.  It's hard to defend the center when you're not in it.

These rabbis and rabbinical students are "pro-Israel," but they are redefining what "pro-Israel" means.  As liberals, they hold an optimistic view of human nature: Though Palestinian leaders see their conflict with Israel as a zero-sum game, it seems hard for the rabbis to acknowledge this grim fact.  Instead, they get their understanding of events in Israel from ideologically reinforcing left-oriented sources: liberal media outlets, Facebook posts, and Haaretz.  These sources help explain the conspicuous disconnect between the next generation of Conservative rabbis and mainstream American Jews on the subject of the Arab-Israel conflict.  More than three-quarters of American Jews, according to the latest American Jewish Committee survey, believe that the Arabs' goal is not merely the return of the "occupied territories" but the actual "destruction of Israel."  Only 30 percent of the JTS rabbinical students agreed with a similar statement.

Indeed, fully 12 percent of the rabbinical students are "uncomfortable" with Israel's being a "Jewish state."  To individuals with this universalistic bent, moral relativism comes more naturally.  Most of the future rabbis—all of whom have studied in Israel—do not see Palestinian leaders as their enemies.  A majority, 56 percent, say the Palestinian side is no "more to blame" than Israel for the ongoing conflict.  Sure, Hamas dominates Gaza.  Yes, the West Bank Fatah leadership refused to negotiate with the Netanyahu government during a ten-month settlement freeze.  Even so, a majority of the rabbis wants an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, with "land swaps" and a freeze on any "expansion of settlements in the West Bank."

Compare these views with the position of most American Jews in the face of unremitting Palestinian intransigence: 55 percent, according to an AJC poll, oppose a Palestinian state. In equally stark contrast, most Israelis, regardless of their political views, simply do not believe that today's Palestinian leadership is capable of making peace with Israel.

The JTS survey elicited the opinion of 68 percent of the rabbinical students that the "settler movement"—not just extremist settlers, mind you—is a "threat." The survey did not bother to ask whether the Palestinians should be required to accept Israel as a Jewish state (the position of 96 percent of American Jews) or whether Mahmoud Abbas should abandon his demand for a Palestinian "right of return."  The survey tells us that 72 percent of the rabbinical students have engaged in efforts at dialogue with Arabs: Some head to Ramallah for the opportunity to socialize with Palestinians, while others take excursions to West Bank Arab villages with New Israel Fund-supported activists.  The survey says nothing about any commensurate efforts by the rabbis to understand the "settler mindset."  Many report having visited a "settlement"; but the definition of "settlement" and the auspices under which the visits were made are left to our imagination.

We can guess the reasons for the disparate treatment of Palestinians and settlers.  The rabbis believe AIPAC is not liberal enough.  J Street, whose platform practically mirrors that of the Palestinian Authority, is closer to their hearts, with 58 percent approval.  At 80 percent approval, the New Israel Fund is the absolute cat's meow.

The 63-year-old Zionist enterprise is a work-in-progress.  No Israeli would suggest it is beyond criticism.  But 30 percent of Reform rabbinical students return from Israel feeling "hostile" or "indifferent" toward the Jewish state; now we learn that 53 percent of JTS rabbinical students are "sometimes" or "often" ashamed of Israel.  Is it the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on state-controlled religious life that alienates them?  Too bad, then, that so few future Conservative rabbis volunteer extensively at Conservative-affiliated Masorti congregations in Israel.

Seminaries and professors have been unable or unwilling to provide their students with the moral compass needed to navigate between worthy universalistic values and particularistic Jewish standards.  By the time they get to seminary, it may be too late.  Most of today's rabbinical students did not attend Jewish elementary or high schools, though they are likely to have attended Camp Ramah. The attitudes revealed in the JTS survey hammer home the need, now more than ever, for the community to find ways to provide its youth with, yes, a parochial education.

The JTS report concludes that the younger cohort of rabbinical students is "no less connected" to Israel than its elders.  Yet, for many, this connection seems compromised by the felt need to reconcile their attachment with uncritically assimilated universalist ideals and, in extreme cases, left-liberal dogma that is anti-Zionist.  No amount of redefining what it means to be pro-Israel can paper over the predicament facing Conservative Judaism's future leaders: What is the place of the movement in Jewish life if not as an embodiment of political and theological centrism and moderation?

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Jacob Silver on October 24, 2011 at 8:32 am (Reply)
I am a member of a Reform congregation. It is the only synagogue up here for at least 90 miles, and the one 90 miles away is also Reform. So, we have a number of liturgical experiences and points of view, Jewish and otherwise, in our congregation; but we do not allow these to interfere with our unity, which is required to maintain our minyan and our synagogue. We have young rabbinical students from Cincinnati to lead our services. We host and talk with these students. We have not found any to have any reservations about Israel. Their understanding of Palestinian intentions is evolving, but it does not ignore statements by the current Palestinian leader that "Israel had occupied Palestinian territory for over 60 years." That can only mean one thing, and it does not escape these students.
Independent Patriot on October 24, 2011 at 8:41 am (Reply)
This problem is endemic to the Jewish-American experience. It's the parents' fault that their children know nothing of Jewish history. Jewish parents have delegated the raising of the "Jewish" offspring to others. They forget that Judaism begins at home and reflects the way the parents view their heritage, religion, and history. The parents' priority is that their children garner secular-academic and sports aplomb; they give short shrift to their heritage. Even those "involved" in the community have to deal with a Jewish community world that has been taken over by leftist-progressives who see Israel as an obstacle in their world. The Jewish-American community--while, interestingly, its numbers have grown in the US over the last decade--has little or no affiliation with its Jewish heritage or religion. I suggest that those who teach "future" rabbunim in seminary first teach them Jewish and modern history and teach them that Judaism is not an ancient form of modern-liberal politics. If they can't handle the truth, we have no need of their joining the rabbinate.
Larry Snidr on October 24, 2011 at 8:53 am (Reply)
There are places in Mr. Jager's argument where he either turns to the right or neglects the possibility of an alternative. Neither the 21st century, J Street, nor even Palestinians need to be the enemy of Israel or young American Jewish Rabbis. Making peace a goal doesn't mean throwing in the towel, refusing to acknowledge reality, or failing to recognize the responsibility of the Israeli government to protect its citizens. It is possible to see beyond the status quo. Not all Palestinians, Israelis, or American Jews see the conflict as a zero sum game. Pluralism breeds opportunity, and much of it remains available--not only to young American Jewish rabbis but to Israel and all the people who love her.
Stephen Landau on October 24, 2011 at 9:27 am (Reply)
Last time I checked, political opinions were not the definition of being a Conservative Jew. I believe the movement was founded on theology. That's the way it should stay. American Jews who wish to vilify their rabbis and the Torah institutions devoted to training them are now creating the Jewish synagogue culture and milieu those critics deserve.
Benjamin Goldberg on October 24, 2011 at 9:27 am (Reply)
Nice slight of hand: The essence of Conservative Judaism has been religious centrism, not necessarily political centrism. Believe it or not, religion and politics are different things.
James More on October 24, 2011 at 9:38 am (Reply)
I have grown up in the United States not knowing much about Israel, because I am a mixed American mut; but I am learning now by exploring my Jewish heritage. Israel is the promised land for the Jewish religion, but please do not be so hard on the rest of us who are not so Orthodox in our approach. Things have changed in 5772 years. Certainly medical practice has changed; we have all changed. It is wonderful to know our historical heritage. The many Christian religions that have evolved are adaptations of the Jewish religion, and I read that Muslims share a Jewish heretige through Ishmael. So somewhere, somehow, peace and prosperity are possible.
David Starr on October 24, 2011 at 10:43 am (Reply)
It's important to define one's terms and apply them seriously. "Liberal" in American life--in political or cultural terms--is not necessarily the same as "liberal" when it comes to Judaism or Jewish public affairs. People may attend JTS rather than HUC because they have certain traditionalist tendencies not just in observance or theology but also regarding certain liberalizing tendencies in modern life, and those attitudes may or may not show up in certain subtle ways.
Shlomo on October 24, 2011 at 10:46 am (Reply)
Rabbinism is itself not Zionist. It was formulated as Diaspora survival mechanism. It was the Jews' consolation for the loss of statehood. The Tanach, a Rabbinic document, took a hard look at the kings of ancient Israel and Judah, rating them according to their conformity with the Torah, not their success at statehood in a rough neighborhood, at the crossroads of empires. Rabbinism favors righteousness and powerlessness over power and survival, complicated national life over religious sect. Thus, the Rabbinical profession often attracts moralistic young people who are not attracted to Jewish state-building.
Ed Kraus on October 24, 2011 at 11:01 am (Reply)
The author of this article relies exclusively on AJC polling to create an illusion of where the American Jewish "center" is on the Israel/Palestine conflict. No wonder he comes to such predictable conclusions. It's not that young conservative rabbis are to the left of Jewish America, not that at all. Instead, what is happening is that what is "center" itself is moving, and the author doesn't like that fact.
Jon on October 24, 2011 at 3:39 pm (Reply)
It is actually the folks like AIPAC and ZOA that are redefining what it means to be "pro-Israel." The liberal, universalistic ethos, with attention to social issues, characterized the aliyot to Palestine that predated the state. Certainly Israel's founders were among this group. But if Ben Gurion were around today, the ZOA and the right wing would be calling him a dangerous, self-hating Jew.
r.winters on October 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm (Reply)
The leftist stance of American Jews is well known and pretty tragic. It makes "us" tolerate any and every belief, every movement, regardless of merit. So, for many U.S.Jews, questioning Israel's right to exist, speaking of "occupied territories", denunciation of the Jewish right to an undivided Jerusalem are okay--in an accomodating rejection of our history, and experience.
LT COL HOWARD on October 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm (Reply)
Anyone who won't acknowledge that the vast majority of Palestinians believe their struggle with Israel and Jews worldwide is a zero-sum game should live on the West Bank (as I did), speak and read Arabic, and become familiar with reputable--Arab University--polling, which shows that an overwhelming majority wants to see Israel destroyed. The five to 15 percent who actually want to murder Jews are not resisted by the center but treated as heroes. Note the recent return of those who committed unspeakable atrocities; they are now being greeted as heroes.

It is easy to understand the Palestinians. They speak directly, in Arabic and now in English. It is much more difficult to understand American Jewish liberals. I admit I don't. However, from the demeanor of many of those posting, I can see they have not had first-hand experience, which explains why Jews who had to flee Arab lands and tyranny behind the Iron Curtain are very conservative, and Jews from Berkeley, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Santa Monica, etc. are not.

My first experience as a young U.S. enlisted soldier, uninvolved in politics, came when Israel was struggling for survival in 1947-1948. My Catholic and Southern Baptist officers jeopardized their careers to help Israel obtain materials necessary for its survival and to beat a State Department boycott that denied materials to Israel while Britain and most of Europe were arming the Arabs. These officers had witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and swore “never again.”
Jon H on October 24, 2011 at 7:27 pm (Reply)
There is an assumption here that to be Jewish is to be a Zionist. It simply isn't true. One can find fault with Israel's political policies and still be a good Jew.
txjew on October 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm (Reply)
The commentator seem unable to entertain another possibility--that Israel and Israelis are often their own worst enemies. Most American Jews who support Israel have never been to Israel, and a percentage of Americans who get to know Israel will inevitably discover alienating things that temper their enthusiasm for the Jewish state. We expect little from the Palestinians; but Jewish racists, self-righteous posturers, "frier-free" a-moralists, and Israo-centric narcissists are some of the things these students encounter along with all the cool stuff.
Grantman on October 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm (Reply)
This simply reinforces the old adage that Reform (and now, evidently, Conservative) Judaism is nothing more than the Democratic Party with holidays.
Avi Davidson on October 25, 2011 at 3:26 am (Reply)
One point largely unmentioned is that the State of Israel does not recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis as rabbis--so, one should not be surprised that those same rabbis might be, to put it mildly, less attached to the State.
anne on October 25, 2011 at 9:53 am (Reply)
To Ben Goldberg above: Hear, hear! Unfortunately, one only has to access the URJ website to see that the Reform Movement is all about politics and boasts a PAC (which it cutely refers to as RAC). This body pushes only a left-wing Democratic Party agenda. PACs are not exempt and are not 501 (c)(3) organizations. Doing what the Reform PAC is doing with funds from every Reform synagogue is really wrong. Having political diatribes on the High Holidays is really wrong. And the frustrating thing is that they have no idea why people are fleeing organized religion.
(Rabbi) Avraham Feder on October 25, 2011 at 10:23 am (Reply)
I have just concluded Jager's painfully perceptive piece on our young crop of rabbinical students at JTS and their attitudes towards Israel. May I share a personal anecdote with you? It was two months before I was to make aliyah back in early January, 1981. I had invited Rabbi Pinhas Peli z''l of Israel to give a lecture at my synagogue in Toronto. Peli was spending a sabbatical year in Buffalo, New York. Professor Emil Fackenheim z''l of the University of Toronto, who was a good friend of Peli and a friend of mine, was to introduce Peli to the audience. The three of us were meeting in my study before the lecture.

Fackenheim said to Peli: "You know, Rabbi Feder is about to make aliyah. I'm so envious of him. I would love to make aliyah, but at this stage of my life, I'm just too old." (In fact, Emil Fackenheim did make aliyah a few years later.) But I have never forgotten the response Peli made to Fackenheim's explanation of why he couldn't make aliyah. Peli said, "I fully understand your compelling personal reason for not making aliyah. Just don't turn your excuse into an ideology."

Why do I recall this incident when I think of all kinds of ideological discussions, including diaspora Jews' attitudes towards Israel--particularly those of rabbis and other ideologues? Notwithstanding Jager's pointing to the universalist-liberal influences on these young rabbinical students, I wonder if a strong psychological-ego issue isn't at play here. What do I mean? Diaspora Jews more and more are admitting what is obvious--that the existential center of Jewish life, Jewish history, and Jewish destiny today is Israel. A young rabbinical student starting out with the understandably strong ego that would suggest to him that he can "save" the world, or at least "save" the Jewish world, doesn't like the idea that he is going to serve diaspora communities that are only on the periphery of the existential center. He'll never admit that! He would have to have a stronger ego to admit that he can't make aliyah but will still feel that he's contributing to Jewish survival and well being even in diaspora while granting that Israel is the center. So, he is prone to becoming ideologically critical of Israel--even in the face of what is obvious to the common-sense masses of ordinary diaspora Jews.

(Rabbi) Avraham Feder
Fred Scherlinder Dobb on October 26, 2011 at 2:59 am (Reply)
Mr. Jager wants us to be astounded, or worried, that 53% of these students "are 'sometimes' or 'often' ashamed of Israel." I'm rather concerned about the other 47% and about the author, for whom shame is apparently off-limits. Isn't the stance of the whole penitential season that just ended one of pointing the finger inward, regardless of how deserving others may be of blame as well? I'm frightened of a Jewish or Zionist future devoid of any self-criticism, just as I (and surely the author would) hope for self-criticism and even intermittent "shame" on the part of the Palestinian people. There will be no positive Israeli future, certainly not a "Jewish and democratic" one, unless its people and its defenders learn to be ashamed now and again. A healthy nation needs a full range of emotions and reactions, of which shame is one.
mhloutsidebeltway on October 26, 2011 at 7:31 pm (Reply)
Reading many of the above comments, obviously written by supporters of Conservative Judaism, it gives me pleasure to know that if current membership trends continue, the Conservative movement will no longer exist in another 40 years, with its members in large part exiting out to the Reform and Orthodox movements. Conservative Judaism bears a heavy responsibility for the massive alienation of post-war young American Jews, with their watered-down, assimilated Judaism. Reform Judaism was clearly tailor-made for American Protestant cultural expectations--albeit not its politics, which instead became the liberal Democratic Party at prayer. On the other hand, Conservative Judaism pretended to uphold Jewish tradition; but in the end it proved even more subversive than Reform Judaism.
Jacob Silver on October 27, 2011 at 11:58 am (Reply)
Mhloutsidebeltway's remarks about Reform Judaism seem dated. Except by oral description, I do not know how Reform was practiced 40 and 50 years ago. I was a member of a Reconstructionist congregation before I came to the Marquette, Michigan area. Here there is only one synagogue, and it is Reform. As we use student rabbis, our worship differs from time to time; but, generally, it is more than half in Hebrew. Perhaps Protestants do expect that, but the expectations of others certainly do not guide me or my congregation.
James Philadelphia on October 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm (Reply)
Only one question: Have these young future rabbis read the speeches and sermons in the Arab language? They are full of hatred and incitement against Israel and against the Jews. This propaganda of hatred is practiced daily. How is the Palestinian population going to react concerning peace with Israel? There will never be any peace under these circumstances.
James Philadelphia on October 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm (Reply)
It is a fact that Al Jazeera in English is fairly moderate in its reporting and analysis. In the Arabic language, it is full of hatred towards Israel and the Jews. We in the western media, specially Jewish people, try to be rational, compassionate , accommodating , shy of violence: Civil discussion is primary practice, respect for Muslims is primary. The Muslim Arabic media are not: Compromising is a sign of weakness and defeat. This is the real world. Israel has experienced this scenario over and over again. We can not be blind to the Muslim countries indulging in bloodbaths, now and previously, against their own people. Haffez al Assad in Syria, Hussein in Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, Bassar al Assad in Syria, Ahmenijad and Ayatollah Khameini in Iran: Has there been any loud outcry? Have there been prosecutions for crimes against humanity? Have Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and the extreme leftist Norway spoken? The answer is a loud no.
There you have it: hypocrisy. Martin Peretz of The New Republic was criticized for saying that Muslim blood is cheap. He was right, and the New York Times was wrong; but, of course, they are anti-Israel and never bring up the Muslim thirst for blood.
James Philadelphia on October 29, 2011 at 11:48 pm (Reply)
James Silver: The Reform movement 50 years ago was very anti-Israel. Now it has changed. What has never changed is The New York Times, which has been always anti-Israel. Just read their commentators--Thomas Friedman, Roger Cohen, and so on. Just read their biased reports and blogs, always anti-Israel.
Jacob Silver on October 30, 2011 at 7:00 pm (Reply)
I read, and have read, the New York Times every day. I do not believe it has been, or is, anti-Israel. Some of the columnists, who contribute by invitation, may spout anti-Israel sentiments, but they are not of the New York Times, and they are a distinct minority.
James philadelphia on October 31, 2011 at 10:28 am (Reply)
Jacob Silver: Thomas Friedman, Roger Cohen, and Nicholas Kristoff are paid columnists of the New York Times. When covering Israel they are always unfriendly towards Israel--actually, very unfriendly. The Times reporters in the field are always biased against Israel. This is well known to experienced readers; I have read the NYT for over 50 years. But don't take my word for it. Read other sources.

I advise you to read other sources that are unbiased and honest. Try to find sources that cover the antagonism the Ochs Schulbergers owners of The New York Times had always about Israel. As an example read The Los Angeles Times when they cover Israel and
compare same articles in the NYT.
If a columnist is utterly friendly towards Israel he gets fired.

LT COL HOWARD on October 31, 2011 at 3:12 pm (Reply)
For more than two years, I ghost-wrote a column that appeared weekly in the New York Times. On just about everything, the editors will scope out their opinion with the scenario of suggested coverage. The competition among the writers was for column inches. They have a long history of being anti-Israel and anti-Orthodox Jew. They bragged about being the “newspaper of record.” That was because they published the New York Times Index, which is used by every researcher to dig out news articles when writing historical backgrounds from the stories. With the Internet, this is no longer true; a writer can locate numerous sources.

All reporters depend on contacts and leaks. Obviously, the leaker expects either favorable treatment or exposure for his views. The State Department (always anti-Israel) excels in cultivating the press.

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