Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?

By Elliot Jager
Monday, October 24, 2011

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.

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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