Last year Israeli think-tanker Yossi Alpher described what he thinks ails Israel: “a right-religious-settler-Russian coalition pushing a reactionary agenda.” Its leaders are targeting civil-society NGOs, while fortifying “right-wing designs on the West Bank and strengthen[ing] resistance to a peace agreement.”
Put aside for a moment whether or not you agree with Alpher. Instead, ask yourself how you would feel if Alpher is right.
I know folks who’d fall out on both sides of the question. Right-wingers would — and do — cheer an Israel that has accepted the end of the Oslo process. These are American Jews who, as one influential right-wing Jewish organization boasts, reject “the dangerous notion of establishing a Palestinian state under current conditions [and] understand that such a state would mean a terror state on Israel’s longest border.”
As for left-wingers, Alpher’s assessment would confirm their worst fears. This is a group of Jews who, in the words of a well-known left-wing group, “think settlement expansion is wrong…and that core Jewish values argue for reaching a just and peaceful two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Alpher’s essay, written for the International Herald Tribune, didn’t discuss how this “reshaping” of Israeli society would affect relations between Israel and American Jews. But I think it is already happening.
Take for example, a recent survey of Conservative rabbis sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary. The survey indicated that bonds between the rabbis and Israel remain strong. However, younger rabbis and rabbis-to-be were distinctly to the left of their older colleagues. For example, 58 percent of current JTS rabbinical students view the left-wing J Street favorably, compared to 32 percent of rabbis ordained between 1980 and 1994.
Similarly, 79 percent of the older cohort agreed that the “Palestinians are more to blame than the Israelis for the failure of both sides to reach a peace agreement.” Only 44 percent of current students agreed with the statement.
The study was seen as a corrective to an essay written last summer by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, an American rabbi who now lives in Israel. In his article for Commentary, Gordis wrote about the “profound loneliness” of rabbinical students who consider themselves “unabashedly Zionist and pro-Israel.” He laments a “troubling but undeniable shift in the loyalties of many rabbinical students” away from Israel.
Unlike Gordis, who told of future rabbis celebrating their birthdays in Ramallah and refusing to buy made-in-Israel tallitot, the JTS survey found that 72 percent of current students have considered moving to Israel, and 94 percent “feel Zionist.” Those numbers were almost identical for the 1980-1994 cohort, which would have included Gordis.
What I sense in Gordis’ essay was not the “profound loneliness” of Zionist rabbinical students, but rather the growing alienation between Gordis, a right-leaning “Anglo,” and his younger American colleagues. As Gordis himself wrote in response to the JTS survey, “I had never said that these students are anti-Israel.” (No, just that they are neither “un-abashedly Zionist” nor “pro-Israel.”) “I had said that their attitudes to Israel are shifting.”
Gordis is right: Attitudes are shifting, and in two directions. Israel has clearly shifted to the right in the last decade, with its majority supporting a governing coalition that has moved the national conversation away from territorial issues. Many American Jews, and most of the organizations that represent them, have followed suit.
Younger Jewishly engaged Jews (with the exception of the Orthodox) are undergoing a different shift. Yes, some of that is toward a worrisome universalism at the expense of deep and wide Jewish connections. But many cite their Jewish values when they favor Israel doing more to support a Palestinian state.
They too complain of “loneliness.” Twice this month I have been at community events and heard self-identified left-wingers lament that their points of view are under-represented by local Jewish institutions.
There is another divide. Gordis puts the responsibility on American institutions to train American rabbis to be “unabashedly committed” to Israel. On the other side are those, like Peter Beinart, who say that Israel’s policies are themselves alienating young Jewish liberals.
Again, the issue isn’t whether you support AIPAC or J Street. The question is whether there is room under the label “pro-Israel” to include those on either side. The challenge is to create an American-Jewish conversation that respects differences of opinion without labeling one side or the other “disloyal” or insufficiently Zionist.
I’ve been discussing the Gordis essay with Elli Wohlgelernter, a reporter for IBA News and my closest friend in Israel. Like Gordis, he is an American immigrant who has grown impatient with the American Left (or, in Elli’s words, “a Kumbaya generation that thinks 9/11 was a one-off episode”). I’ll give him the last, ominous, word: “Two intifadas are more than enough of a message for the majority of Israelis. That’s why we have this coalition — it reflects the majority of Israelis who have had to deal with this situation for two decades now post-Oslo. Gordis moving to the right reflects that as well. Bottom line: I fear our two Jewish communities will continue to drift apart, as this matzav will continue for at least another decade.”