Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?
No day of the year in Israel is more agonizing than Yom Ha-Zikaron—the Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars. For 24 hours, the country’s unceasing sniping gives way to a pervasive sense of national unity not apparent at any other moment; honor and sanctity can be felt everywhere.
Israel’s many military cemeteries are filled to capacity with anguished families visiting the graves of loved ones. Restaurants are shuttered. One of the country’s television stations does nothing but list the names of the 23,000 men and women who gave their lives to defend the Jewish state, some of them killed even before independence was declared and the last of whom typically died only days or weeks prior to the commemoration.
Twice on Yom Ha-Zikaron, once in the evening and once again in the morning, the country’s air raid sirens sound. On sidewalks, pedestrians come to a halt and stand at attention, and even on highways, cars slow and stop; drivers and passengers alike step out of their vehicles and stand in silence until the wail of the siren abates. For two minutes each time, the state of Israel surrenders itself to the grip of utter silence and immobility. During that quiet, one feels a sense of belonging, a palpable sense of gratitude and unstated loyalty that simply defies description.
I mused on this fact as I read a recent message sent to students at the interdenominational rabbinical school at Boston’s Hebrew College, asking them to prepare themselves for Yom Ha-Zikaron by musing on the following paragraph: “For Yom Ha-Zikaron, our kavanah [intention] is to open up our communal remembrance to include losses on all sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. In this spirit, our framing question for Yom Ha-Zikaron is this: On this day, what do you remember and for whom do you grieve?”
It is the rare e-mail that leaves me speechless. Here, at a reputable institution training future rabbis who will shape a generation of American Jews and their attitudes to Israel, the parties were treated with equal weight and honor in the run-up to Yom Ha-Zikaron. What the students were essentially being asked was whether the losses on Israel’s side touched them any more deeply than the losses on the side of Israel’s enemies.
That is a stunning question. Obviously, there are innocent victims on the other side of any conflict. Such is the horrific nature of war. American troops killed many thousands of innocent Germans, Japanese, and others during World War II. But could one even begin to imagine President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saying to Americans, while the Second World War was raging and young American men were clawing and dying their way across Europe and the Far East, that Memorial Day ought to be devoted in part to remembering those among enemy populations who died at our hands? There is, perhaps, a place for such memories. That time is when the conflict has abated, when weapons are set aside, when healing has begun. That time did not arrive during FDR’s lifetime, and it has not yet come to Israel.
I wrote to the dean who had written this paragraph, a friend from whom I’ve learned a great deal over the years and whose commitment to Israel and Zionism is sincere. The response was immediate: “It could be that we got this one wrong, I’m not sure yet. The only thing I’m sure of is that we are trying to engage with these issues and with each other with greater openness, courage, and respect than I think has been possible in most other corners of the Jewish community here.”
The heartbreaking point was this: in the case of these rabbinical students, there is not an instinct that should be innate—the instinct to protect their own people first, or to mourn our losses first. Their instinct, instead, is to “engage.” But “engagement” is a value-free endeavor. It means setting instinctive dispositions utterly aside. And that is precisely what this emerging generation of American Jewish leaders believes it ought to do.
Why, after all, would a genuine supporter of Israel ask students to think about Yom Ha-Zikaron in such a fashion? Probably because without such an accommodation, the dean might have had to deal with a small but vocal minority of students who would be incensed at the overly particularist, Zionist, nationalist nature of Yom Ha-Zikaron, at the narrowness of a day devoted to mourning our own dead and not the dead of our enemies.
This kavanah to rabbinical students was not my first brush with this worrisome phenomenon among those training to be the religious leadership of American Jews. In April, before I learned about this Yom Ha-Zikaron incident, I wrote a column in the Jerusalem Post pointing to the problem of rabbinical students who are increasingly distanced from Israel. I noted an example of an American rabbinical student who had elected to celebrate his birthday in Ramallah, and another who was looking to buy a new prayer shawl and sent out an e-mail asking for advice about where to buy one—with the proviso that the tallith could not have been made in Israel. I said nothing about how widespread the phenomenon is, because we do not know. But it was time to acknowledge the situation, I argued, so that we might begin to address it.
Reaction was swift, and most of it consisted of variations on the theme that such troubling ideas “didn’t come from my part” of the Jewish world. Many people quickly wrote to say that the phenomenon I was describing must be limited to the Reform movement. But the truth was that not one of those particular examples had come from Hebrew Union College, the institution that ordains most Reform rabbis. Deans of various rabbinical schools from all walks of non-Orthodox Jewish life quickly circled their wagons in response to my column. Two sent an emissary to meet with me in Jerusalem, suggesting that I had exaggerated the problem and accusing me of making their fundraising challenges all the more difficult.
Another dean, who disagreed with my suggestion that the Jewish community provide financial and other support to rabbinical students who are publicly supportive of Israel, wrote, “I want to acknowledge that I am intimately acquainted with—and concerned by—the trend you are describing. But I have to take issue with some of the ways in which you’ve characterized the problem (and therefore the solution).” Still another wrote to students saying: “I am indignant about Gordis’s article, because I know you. I believe, with every fiber of my being, that each of you is capable of expressing your relationship to the state of Israel, however complicated and challenging it may be, in a thoughtful, nuanced and professional way”—as if the problem lay with a lack of articulate expression among the students and not with their positions. This last note essentially reassured students that as long as they expressed themselves articulately, what they actually said made no difference whatsoever.
But there was another reaction, too, and it came not from the deans, but from students at these schools, as well as from communal professionals and even rabbis out in the field. “I deeply appreciate this article,” one student wrote to me. “I know that in various e-mails and conversations [my school] is trying to deny the validity of your words as representative of them, but I wanted to express how wonderful it felt after…years of pain and struggle over this to read someone else capture the Israel environment on [my] campus.” A communal Jewish professional in the South wrote, “Just yesterday I had a conversation with a synagogue that is interviewing recent graduates of [two rabbinical schools from different movements]. Students from both these schools have expressed opinions that are nothing short of hostile to Israel.”
Then, a rabbi in the field wrote me:
Interesting column. Unfortunately, not an entirely new phenomenon. [Some years] ago, one of the rabbis of [a major New York synagogue] refused to shake my hand when I was introduced as a major in the IDF. And a few years back, [an] avowed Zionist [dean of one of the schools in question] told a group of rabbinical students that if he were around at the time, and had a say, he would have voted against the establishment of the State of Israel.
Students in Jerusalem and in the States asked to meet with me, and on almost every occasion, they spoke about how lonely it can be for an unapologetically pro-Israel student at some of today’s rabbinical schools. (This phenomenon is, not surprisingly, almost entirely absent on Orthodox campuses, although, alarmingly, it is becoming an issue on the left end of Orthodoxy, too.)
The number of vocally anti-Israel students is probably small, but their collective impact is far from marginal. These students are shaping the discourse about Israel in America’s rabbinical schools. And worse, because Israel-related conversations are becoming highly charged and many campuses seek to avoid friction at virtually all costs, these vocal students are effectively shutting down serious discourse about Israel. (One campus dean actually instructed students to cease all e-mail discussion of Israel, while every other political topic remained fair game.)
Many readers at this point would want me to “out” the schools, or deans, or students in question. But that, it seems to me, avoids the important work. The players involved will change over time. What needs to be done is not to embarrass individuals, but rather, to do our best to understand what is unfolding on the campuses that are producing America’s future Jewish leaders, why is it happening, and then, perhaps, what might be done to combat it.
What has happened to this generation of young rabbinical students? Why are their instincts so different from those of my generation? Four factors seem to me central.
Memory is the first factor. As I have chatted with these students over the past months, it has become clear that the profound differences in our instincts and loyalties can be traced, in part, to the differences in our formative experiences. I shared with some of them my earliest memory of Israel. It was June 1967, and I was almost eight years old. As on almost every night at dinner, our little black-and-white television was tuned to Walter Cronkite. But on this night, my parents didn’t eat. They didn’t even sit at the table. All they did was feed us, watch TV, and pace across the kitchen as the news of the Six Day War unfolded.
“We’re not hungry,” my parents said the next evening when they did not eat once again, and I asked them why. But how could they not be hungry at dinner time? And two days in a row? My Zionist commitments have some innate root in the simple fact that with Israel seemingly on the very precipice of destruction, my parents couldn’t eat.
But when the students with whom I was speaking shared their formative memories of the Jewish state, the differences were profound. One said that his earliest memory was of the day that all the students in his Orthodox day school were summoned together for an assembly, and they watched as Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. For another, it was the intifada of the mid-1980s, and the images (again, on television) of helmeted IDF soldiers with rifles chasing young boys who’d thrown rocks.
My formative memories were of Israel on the verge of extinction, while theirs were of Israel being recognized by its neighbor or of the seeming imbalance of Israeli-Palestinian power. That alone explains a great deal.
Those differences in memory lead to the second major divide: students today cannot imagine a world without a Jewish state. Despite the ongoing conflict, the fundamental goal of political Zionism—the dream of creating a sovereign, secure Jewish state—has been so utterly successful that these students cannot imagine that Israel is actually at risk. After a meeting with a group of rabbinical students in Jerusalem, one of the participants wrote to me: “my classmates shared with me that they had never imagined that Israel could be so fragile as to be fighting for her very existence. Your angle really seemed to hit them hard.” It had never occurred to me, when I reminded these graduate students of Israel’s ongoing vulnerability, that I was saying anything that wasn’t utterly obvious.
Beyond what I believe to be their naïveté about Israel’s security, however, these rabbinical students also have no sense of how utterly different American Jewish life is from what it would have been without a Jewish state. Whether or not they are supporters of AIPAC, they take it as part of the natural state of things that thousands of American citizens feel comfortable ascending the steps of Capitol Hill on the day its annual policy conference devotes to lobbying. Never do they ask themselves why virtually no one ascended those very same steps between 1938 and 1945 to demand that the United States do at least something to save the Jewish people from extinction. There were millions of Jews in America then. They knew what was happening. Yet American Jews of that era lacked the confidence and the sense of belonging that this generation of students takes for granted. And these students have little sense of how the very existence of a Jewish state contributed to this utter transformation of American Jewish life. Ironically, the very sense of comfort that enables some of these students to work to marginalize Israel is a direct result of the Jewish state itself.
In conversation with these students, there’s one word in particular that makes them squirm with discomfort, and it represents the third way in which their generation differs. That word is “enemy.” There is something hard and non-malleable about the term “enemy,” and today’s students are loath to use it. They are disturbed by the intractability of the conflict in Israel, but they refuse to draw any conclusions from Palestinian recalcitrance. Dan Kaiman, the student who celebrated his birthday in Ramallah, wrote a piece in the Jerusalem Post in response to my column, explaining that
I chose to have one of my birthday celebrations in Ramallah to honor, respect, and value the relationships I have built with a people and place I care deeply about. I also celebrated my birthday here in Jerusalem for the same reasons. I believe in a Zionism that desires peace, safety, and cooperation among Jews and Arabs. This Zionism is rooted in the ideals and vision of great Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann and Judah Magnes. Their vision was one of cooperation; a vision of Jews and Arabs able to live side by side.
It is a staggering misreading of Zionist history to mention Chaim Weizmann—Israel’s first president and a lifelong activist for a Jewish national homeland—and Judah Magnes in the same breath. Magnes was a believer in a binational state. He and Weizmann were ideological antagonists, not allies. But when the subject is “peace,” the details of history are subordinated to the furtherance of that all-encompassing agenda.
As Rabbi Scott Perlo, another respondent to my Jerusalem Post column, wrote: “I readily concede that there is a decided slant to the left of center in most of our seminaries….But people misunderstand the nature of this slant. We are not the generation of rabbis hoping to abandon Israel. We are the generation of rabbis who hope that God will give us the merit to be peacemakers.” How a rabbi holding a pulpit in West Los Angeles is going to become a peacemaker in the Middle East is never explained. But one thing is clear from Perlo’s article: peacemaking, this generation believes, requires imagining that we do not have enemies. Neville Chamberlain would have appreciated the company.
And while one can surely forge meaningful relations with people in Ramallah, it requires a stunning suspension of the particular for Kaiman to call Ramallah a “place I care deeply about” and to say that one cares about Jerusalem “for the same reasons.” Does the fact that Ramallah recently dedicated a public square to Dalal Mughrabi—the terrorist who participated in one of the worst attacks on Israeli civilians that killed 37 people—in the presence of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and thousands of other celebrants make no difference? Does the fact that there were PLO posters in the bar where the birthday party was held not make it difficult for a future rabbi to have a beer there? For this, too, Kaiman had an explanation:
I am aware of the [posters] on the walls and the incredible complexity of this conflict….There are also many places in Israel where I feel uncomfortable as a liberal Jew, a Zionist, and an American. Feeling uncomfortable is not an invitation to disengage, close myself off, or stop listening (or, in my specific case, celebrating). I find that by engaging those with whom I may not agree, I am provided with opportunities to learn about myself and others, and begin to transform discomfort into opportunity.
“Engagement” is a gloriously vague notion, so evanescent in its purposes and intentions that it casts a fog over the clarity provided by genuine commitment: to loyalty, or heritage, or love, or sanctity, or duty. It is the sort of benign interaction that one can have even with enemies. Engagement is particularly easy if you refuse to acknowledge that the people who continue to celebrate those who have killed you are your enemies.
If you asked a Jew at any other time in the history of our people whether or not he had enemies, the notion that he should consider the possibility he did not have enemies would have occasioned a blast of the mordant humor that has helped keep our tribe alive through the millennia. Today, however, the discomfort with the idea of “the enemy” and the intolerability of being in a drawn-out conflict has led these students to the conviction that Israel must solve the conflict. The Palestinian position is not going to shift; that much they intuit. But having enemies, and being in interminable conflict, is unbearably painful for them. So Israel must change. And if it will not, or cannot, then it is Israel that is at fault. In which case, it makes perfectly good sense for these future Jewish leaders to refuse to purchase prayer shawls manufactured in Israel and to insist on demonstratively remaining seated as the prayer for Israeli soldiers is recited in their rabbinical-school communities. They will do virtually anything in order to avoid confronting the fact that the Jewish people has intractable enemies. Their universalist worldview does not have a place for enemies.
The final difference between these young Jewish leaders and those who preceded them is perhaps the most disturbing. This new tone in discussions about Israel is so “fair,” so “balanced,” so “even-handed” that what is entirely gone is an instinct of belonging—the visceral sense on the part of these students that they are part of a people, that the blood and the losses that were required to create the state of Israel is their blood and their loss.
Judaism’s commitment to particularism may be based in instinct rather than ratiocination, but it need not be mindless. No thinking Zionist ought to deny that Israel is deeply flawed or that its leadership makes grievous mistakes. Israel, like all free societies, needs internal criticism in order to improve. The right of these rabbinical students to criticize Israel is not in question. What is lacking in their view and their approach is the sense that no matter how devoted Jews may be to humanity at large, we owe our devotion first and foremost to one particular people—our own people.
All this is simply a reflection of the decreased role of “peoplehood” in Judaism. What we are witnessing is a Protestantization of American Jewish life. By and large, today’s rabbinical students did not grow up in homes that were richly Jewish. More often than not, these students came to their Jewish commitments as a result of individual journeys on which they embarked. They sought meaning, and found it. They sought prayer, and learned it. Their Jewish experience is roughly analogous to a Protestant religious awakening. The Protestant religious experience is a deeply personal one, not a communal one. Worship in the Protestant tradition is about reaching for the divine, while in the Jewish tradition, it is no less about creating a bond with other Jews. In Protestant liturgy, history is almost absent, while in the Jewish prayer book, it is omnipresent. The replacement of communal faith by personal journey among today’s young Jews is a profound reflection of the degree to which Christianity has colored their sense of what Judaism at its very core is all about.
What American Protestant feels any instinctive loyalty to a Protestant in Taiwan? Can one speak of “the Protestant people?” One can’t, really. Judaism is different—or, at least, it was different. What these students did not learn on their Jewish journeys, because they were not raised that way, was the instinctive Jewish sense that Judaism is, at its core, still a matter of “us” and “them.” To this generation’s students, that claim strikes a horribly discordant tone. To be sure, Jewish tradition is extraordinarily nuanced and generous when it comes to the question of how Jews are to treat non-Jews. But it is a simple matter of fact that Jews have always been taught to care, first and foremost, for other Jews.
“Why was Abram called a ‘Hebrew’?” the Midrash asks, and replies: the word “ivri” (Hebrew) refers to the bank of a river. The Jews were from one bank of the Euphrates; the rest of the world was from the other. There is an “us” and a “them” in Judaism’s worldview. It doesn’t make “us” always correct, or “them” automatically wrong. But it actually does mean that Jewish authenticity requires caring about ourselves before we care about others, just as we are to care for our own parents and our own children first. As the Talmud notes in the tractate of Bava Metziah:
If you lend money to any of My people that is poor: [if the choice lies between] my people and a heathen, ‘My people’ has preference; the poor or the rich—the ‘poor’ takes precedence; your poor [relatives] and the [general] poor of your town—your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town—the poor of your own town have prior rights.
Today’s universalism leaves no room for the particularism that has long been at the core of Jewish life. And the evaporating devotion of some portion of today’s rabbinical students to Israel is a direct result.
What too many of these students do not understand is that the Jewish tradition makes a bold claim—the claim that we learn caring, and we learn love, from that which is closest to us. To love all of humanity equally is ultimately to love no one. To care about one’s enemies as much as one cares about oneself is to be no one. There needs to be priority and specificity in devotion and loyalty. Without them, we can stand for nothing. And without instinctive loyalty to the Jewish people, Jewry itself cannot survive.
What appears to be, at first blush, an issue of weakening Zionist loyalties is thus actually something far more worrisome. The real issue is a traditional Jewish lexicon, which includes notions such as “us” and “them,” which bespeaks concentric circles of loyalty and devotion, which does not deny the indisputable fact that the Jews and their state have real enemies, which understands that not everyone can be loved into submission or peace.
What to do with that lexicon is a matter on which reasonable minds can differ. Israelis differ on those questions, and American Jews (and others) can, and should, as well. But when we have reached the point at which future rabbis can insist on boycotting prayer shawls made by Jews in Israel and yet are permitted to remain rabbis-in-training, something has gone horribly awry. When rabbinical students love Israel and care about Ramallah in the same way, the particularism that has been the hallmark of every functioning Jewish community in history has begun to erode. When PLO posters advocating the death of Jews are no reason not to drink a beer and sing “Happy Birthday” in that bar, we have produced a generation of future leaders whose instincts are simply not the instincts that have any chance of preserving Jewish life.
Responding to this challenge in rabbinical-school settings will be no easy task. It is a matter of admissions and student selection, of curriculum and assigned reading, of how to use the experience of a year of study in Israel—still required by most of them—and more than all, of raising the flag of particularity and distinctive loyalties high and unabashedly, because some portion of today’s students need to learn love of peoplehood no less than they need to learn Talmud. Addressing that need is going to require that rabbinical schools cease circling the wagons, and instead acknowledge the depth of the challenge they now face.
I stood silently this year as the siren sounded on Yom Ha-Zikaron. I remembered the too many military funerals that I’ve attended at Mount Herzl. I thought of my debt to those thousands whose deaths have made our lives here possible. I thought about my son and my son-in-law, both in the army, as well as our next son about to go in, and offered a silent prayer for their safety. But, I will confess, I also thought of those across the ocean who saw fit to mark the day by mourning the losses of our enemies and who did so with the sense that that was the noblest sentiment possible. Intellectually, I can understand them, just as I appreciate the universalist context in which they were raised and in which they were taught to think. But I have come to fear the influence they may have over Jews yet unborn—and over the future of the Jewish people as a whole.