U.S. Jews and Israelis: across the great divide

U.S. Jews and Israelis: across the great divide

My dear friend and editor of this newspaper, Andrew Silow-Carroll, has been debating me across the aisle — and the ocean — for over 20 years on the whys and wherefores of the Middle East, Jews, and politics. The latest issue that has us exercised, and the subject of his column last week, began with an op-ed on April 1 by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, in which he fired a shot across the bow of American (non-Orthodox) rabbinical schools for the type of student they seem to be fostering: alienated and disconnected from Israel.

That column was followed by a 4,400-word expanded version, where Gordis took to task the rabbis-in-training for being more committed to universalism than to particularism, citing four factors to explain why the instincts of this generation of young rabbinical students are so different from those of his generation. (Gordis was born in 1959.)

The reaction to both pieces has been nonstop, from rabbis and writers of all stripes (Gordis links many of them here), who broadside Gordis from every angle possible on why his thesis is morally, socially, religiously, and politically bankrupt.

And then, the denouement: a survey of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary (PDF) as well as of previous generations of rabbis, proving that today’s budding rabbis are no more distanced from Israel than were their predecessors. The survey found that 72 percent of current students have considered moving to Israel, and 94 percent “feel Zionist.” How can one argue with that?

That’s how Andy’s debate with me got started, and I appreciate the opportunity he affords me to expand our discussion.

First, the study itself, commissioned by JTS. (As Gordis points out in his most recent column, “Would we ask tobacco manufacturers to investigate the relationship between smoking and cancer?”)

Putting aside who paid for it, there are — as in all surveys — different statistics one can focus on and different ways to crunch numbers. Elliot Jager of Jewish Ideas Daily did some crunching in a recent column, comparing the survey’s numbers with other polls taken of the wider Jewish population. His conclusions paint a bleaker picture than do the spin doctors.

To touch on a few of the stats presented in the JTS survey: nine percent of all the rabbis said they feel ashamed about Israel, 44 percent said they do so “sometimes.” But what does that mean? The survey question doesn’t differentiate between being ashamed for social or political reasons. If it’s political, what are they saying? Because no matter which party is in power, I never feel politically ashamed. Angry? You bet, against all of them. But ashamed, politically? No, because I recognize that we are dealing with an impossible situation, and thus no party has the right answer because there are no right answers.

The rabbis were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” I’m uncomfortable with the question — it negates the very purpose of living in Israel. Here, 16 percent of rabbis and 12 percent of the students agreed or strongly agreed. My conclusion? When 16 percent of Conservative rabbis are aligned with Neturei Karta, we’ve got a problem.

The rabbinical students surveyed seem committed to their Judaism and their Zionism — unfortunately, Israel keeps getting in the way. The situation here is too messy and too complicated. They feel it would be so much easier if the whole thing just went away; so please, they ask us, make it go away. And here’s where to start: 74 percent of the students agree or strongly agree that “Israel should freeze the expansion of settlements on the West Bank.”

But to an Israeli public that has seen up close the Nazi-like hatred that permeates the toxic, death-loving world that surrounds us, it is ever clearer that the settlements are no more the cause of the next war than they were the cause of the Six-Day War — when they didn’t exist.

But still, they say, it’s Israel’s fault: Only 44 percent of current students agree or strongly agree that the Palestinians are more to blame than the Israelis for the failure of both sides to reach a peace agreement. If 56 percent think Israel is to blame, we are, indeed, living in two different worlds.

But I think the overall focus here is way off. This is about two countries, two growingly disparate Jewish communities, two different world views. This isn’t about the people who are reading this; if you subscribe to a Jewish newspaper or are reading this on-line, you’re already involved. This is really about the largest denomination of Jews in the United States: the unaffiliated. They love the cultural, intellectual, and ethnic tradition of being Jewish, but they are first and foremost Jewish Americans, not American Jews. And liberalism has replaced Judaism as their religion.

It’s not that our values as Israeli Jews are different from those of American Jews — but our priorities sure are. In America, social justice and tikun olam are of paramount importance. Here, the number one priority is self-preservation, as evidenced even this week: A social protest planned for Be’er Sheva — a continuation of the mass protests of the summer — was cancelled. Falling rockets from Gaza got in the way.

One last thing: Many of Gordis’s critics lambasted him for his seemingly flimsy use of “anecdotal evidence” as the basis for his sweeping thesis. I don’t have any anecdotal evidence to back up my claim. But I trust my gut. So when Gordis tells the story of a rabbinical student inquiring where to buy a religious item, a tallit, with the proviso that it not be made in Israel, I don’t need a survey to tell me there’s something very, very rotten in the state of American Jewry.

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