Left-leaning, But Not Left Behind
by Erica Shaps
I am not a rabbinical student. My talit was made in Israel and I recently celebrated my 20th birthday in Jerusalem, not Ramallah. I am not a card-carrying member of J Street. Although I do not fit the descriptions in Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s anecdotes, I strongly identify as a “young liberal American Jew” similar to those he has written about with increasing alarm and fear.
I have deep respect for Gordis, and have read his work fairly regularly since I was fifteen. However, I find his recent articles about rabbinical students’ relationship with Israel and, by extension, my generations’ shifting attitudes regarding Israel, to be shortsighted and concerning.
In a lengthy piece in Commentary, Gordis expresses trepidation regarding rabbinical students’ Israeli politics and what this may mean for the future. He poses the question, “Are Young Jews Turning On Israel?” I share his concern for the future of Jewish leadership and the wider community. However, my primary concern is not an abundance of future rabbis criticizing Israel from the pulpit. Instead, I am concerned about a day when they are indifferent toward Israel.
From my experience, many active liberal Jews in my generation experience a moment of epiphany in which they realize Israel isn’t perfect. Often, they respond with one of three broad reactions: They become completely apathetic to Israel; they join anti-Zionist organizations or become active in movements like the BDS effort; or, to use Gordis’s terms, they work to reconcile their inclination toward universalism with their desire to maintain particularism toward the Jewish people. They try to create a world and an Israel that is better than the one they inherited. This final category likely includes many of the rabbinical students in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s recent and fascinating survey, which was largely prompted by Gordis’ article. Ninety-four percent of both current and former students polled “feel Zionist.” When asked about specific groups, 58% of students said they favorably viewed J Street, a left-leaning Zionist organization that Gordis has criticized. Meanwhile, AIPAC, the largest and most established Israel lobby, was viewed favorably by only 42%.
In his latest article, Gordis still feels that rabbinical students are sacrificing Zionism for liberalism. I can’t comment on his claims regarding the survey’s validity, but I am frustrated by his analysis of its results. Maybe rabbinical schools should review their Israel education programs. My question is, what should this new curriculum include: Materials from diverse perspectives? Or should students simply re-learn the narrative from Hebrew school that failed to quench their thirst for knowledge years ago?
My greatest concern is Gordis’s claim that “responding to this challenge… will be a matter of admissions.” If I understand this correctly, it pains me to think of how many bright and passionate young Jews may be turned away by such a policy. As a member of the laity, I want a rabbi who thinks critically about everything–including Israel.
All of the reasons Gordis gives for this phenomenon (a commitment to universalism over particularism and naivete among them) point to faults within the rabbinical students. However, is it possible that the problem lies within Israel’s policies as well? Could it be that the current Israeli government’s actions, or lack thereof, and not the students’ naivete and universalism, are the catalyst for this notable shift in attitude?
If I could offer Gordis and his contemporaries some advice, I’d say this: We are not turning on Israel, so don’t turn on us. By all means, disagree with us, but please don’t push us away. Let’s talk openly and equally, without predetermined conclusions. If rabbinical students say they are Zionists, don’t tell them that they identified themselves incorrectly because of where they celebrated their birthday or what organizations they might support.
Gordis is right to say that “memory is the first factor.” My generation didn’t witness the 1967 war. Israel has been occupying another people for the entire duration of our lives. We have repeatedly witnessed Israel enact policies that further work against its long-term interest. For better or worse, these events are cemented in our memories.
Unlike my grandparents, I cannot see Israel as a mythic utopia out of a Leon Uris novel. After spending four months studying and volunteering here, I see Israel as a complicated and dynamic country that is my spiritual home, the epicenter of my culture and the eternal homeland of my people. It is a place that brings out the best in me. I do not love Israel less than my parents and grandparents: I love Israel differently. I’m sure many of the rabbinical students in question would express similar sentiments.