What do Jews lose when rabbis feel compelled to dissemble on Israel?

Earlier this week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) issued the findings of a study it conducted among 552 American rabbis; in its report, JCPA found that “nearly half of the rabbis in this survey hold views on Israel that they won’t share publically, many for fear of endangering their reputation and their careers.” The report goes on:

The challenge is not only to sort out their own positions on complex Israel-related issues, but also to discern how to express views that may challenge, annoy, or even distress friends and people who hold influence over their careers and livelihood. They frequently find themselves fearful of or caught in the maelstrom of tension regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their personal views about it.

The bima at the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. source

The bima at the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. source

About 12 percent of the rabbis defined themselves as “closet hawks,” while some 18 percent could be called closet doves; less than a quarter of the hawks were found to be “very fearful” of expressing their opinions on Israel and the conflict, while 43 percent of the doves were “very fearful.” All told, in the last three years, nearly half of those surveyed reported having refrained from expressing themselves on the topic “for fear of offending” people with whom they were engaged in conversation, or anyone who might be listening.

Yet more interesting numbers emerge from more focused questions: When asked if Israel should freeze West Bank settlement expansion, a whopping 62 percent agreed “to a great extent,” while only 10 percent said “not at all.” The reports finds “some considerable doubts” among American rabbis over the idea that Israel is more invested in the peace process than its negotiating partners, “with even a majority of rabbis from the largest denomination demurring from the idea that Israel truly wants peace more than the Palestinians.” Fully 93 percent of those surveyed said they are “very attached” to Israel, “a figure about double that found in many studies of rank-and-file American Jews.”

Speaking with Dina Kraft at Haaretz, report co-author and newly-ordained rabbi Jason Gitlin said:

I saw many of my classmates and younger colleagues come under attack or question by the broader Jewish community about how important Israel was to them and where they stood. They are among the most informed and knowledgeable people, and to not have them serve in the most honest and engaging way is a loss to the community.

It’s important to note (as the JCPA report does) that the group surveyed doesn’t constitute a fully representative sample of American rabbis, if for no other reason than that Orthodox clergy are underrepresented.  As such, the authors warn that “the nature of the sample obviates strictly generalizing to the universe of American rabbis”—and yet, anyone who’s been involved with two-state advocacy over the past twenty years will not be at all surprised by the figures, which if not strictly representative, are broadly characteristic of anecdotal evidence that’s been building for years.

Moreover, the findings are entirely resonant with the experiences of rank-and-file Jews as well, and I would argue are a major reason why so many of the rank-and-file have chosen to remove themselves from communal life, or give up on caring about Israel at all.

I agree with the report’s authors that the fact that so many rabbis feel they can’t be honest with their parishioners is “a cause of concern for a community that champions open and free discourse on key issues affecting it”—but I also worry about another facet to all of this.

I don’t know a single Jew for whom questioning the conventional wisdom on Israel is easy. The path from consensus to questions is generally fraught, and often both emotionally and spiritually challenging.

I worry that a sizeable minority of our spiritual leaders are “very fearful” of telling their own truth about the Jewish people’s national and spiritual homeland (a homeland to which 93 percent of them are very attached) not just for the sake of the rabbis themselves, but also for our own sake, as a people.

What do we lose when our clergy feels they cannot be honest with us? What do we lose when political argument pushes out spiritual practice? And who have we lost along the way—which intellectual giants, which tziddikim, how many Arnold Jacob Wolfs and Abraham Joshua Heschels—have broken down and walked away because we wouldn’t let them engage honestly with the challenges presented by seemingly endless conflict and occupation?

In short: When we force our rabbis to lie to us—what are we doing to ourselves?

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Between J Street and the Pew survey.

J Street logoI spoke with many (many) people at the recent J Street conference; middle-aged activists, rabbis of various ages and stages, college-aged-or-just-barely-not-college-aged young men and women of exceeding intelligence and remarkable vision. One of the topics to which many conversations turned, again and again, was the question of Jewish identity.

While not a perfect metric (and it’s important to remember that anecdotes are no replacement for research) it’s worth noting that there were far more kipot in the crowd this time than at any other J Street gathering I’ve ever attended. There were more tziziot. A few speakers even went beyond passing reference to tikkun olam (which, nothing against tikkun olam, but settlers think they’re doing tikkun olam, too). And I was told by people from all over the religious spectrum (as I have been in the past) that the very fact of J Street (or, before it, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom) allowed them to revisit and re-engage with their Judaism.

Which brings us, a little circuitously, to the recent Pew Research poll.

According to Pew, 73 percent of American Jews say that “remembering the Holocaust” is “an essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” whereas only 28 percent can say the same about “being part of a Jewish community.”

Though I hold Pew Research Center in high regard, my sense is that the construction of this survey is not without problems (for instance: What’s the difference between having “an emotional attachment” to Israel and “caring” about Israel? Why was the only question about settlements linked to security?)—but even if we posit the poll as an imperfect tool, imperfection can only go so far in explaining the vastly greater import Jews appear to grant Holocaust remembrance over involvement with other Jews. Forty-five percent is not a small number. We can’t even chalk it up to generational differences: Among 18-29 year olds, the stats stand at 69 percent vs. 26 percent.

Let me be perfectly clear: Holocaust remembrance is a critical Jewish act. It’s a critical human act. The calculated, mechanized effort to rid the world of an entire race of people—man, woman, and infant—because of the blood in their veins is not something that we may ever pass over lightly. We must study the events of the Nazis’ rise and rule, as well as the ideas behind the Final Solution, and we must honor the six million by recalling their lives and their culture. This is part of how we ensure the promise we make every time we say “never again.”

And yet surely it matters that we not only remember dead Jews, but also get to know some living ones. Even if our main goal is to “remember the Holocaust,” surely it matters that we find personally meaningful ways to engage with the very culture that the six million were slaughtered for.

They weren’t all religiously observant; some rather famously didn’t believe in God. I don’t know how many actually understood the language of our prayers, but I’ll bet a fair number didn’t. They argued over theology and how to stage a play and what a good education entailed and whether or not that one guy’s jokes were funny. The six million and their various communities were, in short, like any other modern people: Vastly different from one another, yet also bound by something real, however difficult to quantify.

Ever since sometime in the 1950s, however, when it became popular across much of American society to be suspicious of anything that was difficult to quantify, the Jewish community has emphasized “Holocaust remembrance” over and above almost anything else (with the possible exception of “caring about Israel”). The late, great scholar Peter Novick explained and sliced through the Holocaust rhetoric, but few really listened; it was easier, I suspect, to teach solidarity based on horrifying memory than on the ineffable nature of culture or faith. The kids in Hebrew school might not buy your whole “God” schtick, but show them a picture from Dachau and you’re in.

Quite aside from the dishonor this brings to all we lost, there’s the simple fact that horror is not culture. “Remembering” is not heritage. And the Jewish people—those rich in Torah and those rich in good deeds, believers and unbelievers, prophetic comic artists and hip hop poets, not to mention folks just getting by—have so much more to offer.

Which brings us back around to the J Street conference. The rabbis, the J Street U enthusiasts, the parents sharing tales of synagogue preschool, they all remember the Holocaust, they all care about Israel—and they all care about what being a Jew entails. All of that brought them to the conference in the first place. All of that is why they risk identifying with an organization that cares enough to question institutional Judaism’s long-held conventional wisdom on what being a good Jew means.

Every person with whom I spoke about re-engaging with their Judaism had something different in mind. Maybe they meant focusing on spiritual practice rather than on the brinksmanship of a particular set of politicians in a modern-day nation-state. Maybe they’re writing a dissertation on the impact of Jewish culture on American music. Maybe they’re reading this blog because Open Zion strives to advance the kind of open debate that was once a hallmark of Jewish thought. Maybe they decided to spend a weekend with other Jews in the Washington Convention Center and act for peace with the Palestinians.

I’m a woman of faith; I speak and read Hebrew. It’s easy for me to be active in a Conservative synagogue. But for many, many Jews, that’s neither easy nor even appealing. Nor, would I argue, does it have to be.

But being with Jews, building something of meaning based in our past with an eye on our future—that’s essential. Whether it be J Street, or Jewish poetry slams, or something like LABA, New York’s non-religious house of study, we need to find, foster, and encourage all that will help us remember not just horror, but also joy.

Basing our identity in dreadful narratives of death and survival, and/or an amorphous “caring” about a country that’s an ocean away (essential to 53 percent of Jews aged 65 and up, and only 32 percent of 18-29 year olds) is a path to failure. Indeed, if that’s all we care about, I’d say it already has failed.

But basing our identity in each other? That could actually work.

Who gets to talk about Israel?

israel america kipaIn yesterday’s Haaretz, Israeli journalist Vered Kellner took on a topic that comes up regularly among People Who Discuss Israel, whether it’s people who do so professionally (like folks writing in spaces like this one), or in their spare time (like seemingly everyone at a synagogue).

The argument boils down to: You can’t talk about a place where you don’t live. Which in turn boils down to: You don’t understand.

This discussion often becomes just as heated as any other concerning Israel, but Kellner’s approach was gentle and affectionate—more along the lines of a friendly suggestion, which means a conversation can actually be held. This is a real boon, and I’m grateful to her. But I still disagree.

“In this global environment,” Kellner writes,

we all live under the delusion that borders are an archaic relic of an age when you needed a walking stick, a backpack and a small inherited fortune to get to know different worlds. Today, with one friend telling me about his daily routine in Berlin and another sending updates from Florida every ten minutes, it’s easy to feel as though the world were in the palm of our hands. That we have enough information to put together a well-informed opinion in every controversy. Even if it’s on another continent.

Kellner recently moved to New York from Tel Aviv, and anchors her argument in her own experiences with the American scene.

To keep from falling into the trap of rudely translating my opinions from the old country, I tried to do my homework…. But even after all that, I realized that as an outsider, I was better off listening than talking…. I learn pretty quickly that intuition is a matter of geography.

Admittedly, I’m an Israeli citizen who took herself across the ocean but continues to mouth off about the Jewish State, so I’m hardly objective—I clearly do what I do because I think I have a right to do it.

Yet I think that other people have that right, too. People have a right to think about and try to influence the good and bad in this world no matter where they find themselves.

But the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora goes well beyond that. The modern-day State of Israel has always been defined as the Jewish State. Jews all over the world are educated from the crib to think of Israel as their spiritual home, and encouraged to do all they can to strengthen their cultural, emotional, and financial ties to that home. In the U.S. in particular, Jews are called upon—and not just by their rabbis, but by politicians like Prime Minister Netanyahu and representatives like Ambassador Oren—to a) give money, b) pester their elected representatives to support Israeli governmental policies, and c) pester their elected representatives to give money.

And either American Jews are part of the family, or not. Either we have power that Israel wants to borrow in the name of mishpucha and solidarity, or we don’t. Israel really can’t have it both ways—the Jewish State really can’t tell us that it’s our near-religious duty to love it, and then tell us that we don’t get to have any say in how its future plays out.

Moreover, one need look no further than the 2012 elections to see that the American-Israeli relationship is also unique. Israel and its government’s demands on this country’s politicians have an enormous and entirely outsized effect on U.S. politics, and ultimately on American security. Americans have a right to an opinion on all that—even if that opinion is, as Kellner mentions with regard to J Street, at odds with the Israeli zeitgeist. I know that Israelis have by and large given up on peace (I wrote about that just this week, in fact), but America’s failure to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement has a powerful and direct impact on American lives, too.

And having said all that, there is something to what Kellner says—at a certain point, I don’t understand. I’ve lived through war in Tel Aviv, but I didn’t live through the last one in Sderot. I’ve fought for justice for Palestinians, but I haven’t fought while also rebuilding my home in Gaza. This is why so much of my writing depends on the work of people actually living there—because they actually live there. We need to listen to their voices (even the ones with which we don’t agree) if the opinions we form are going to be helpful.

I do understand what Kellner was driving at, and I hope that that my response has been in the same open spirit with which her piece was written. But I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

About that Jew-finding app…

Dear American Jews,

I know we’re worried about assimilation. I know it can be hard to find fellow members of the tribe who like long walks on the beach and headbanging to classic Beastie Boys. I understand the limitations of minority life and the imperative of “l’dor ve’dor”—“from generation unto generation.”

But please. Let’s not be reduced to this:

App finds you a Jew

Yenta, a new iPhone application that connects Jewish singles based on their location, debuted about a month ago, the latest in niche matchmaking.

Somewhat similar to the gay application Grindr [note: an app generally described by users in rather graphic sexual terms], the free mobile dating service uses GPS technology to allow users to peruse the profiles of nearby Jews.

…“You can walk into a coffee shop and you can find out who’s Jewish and single around you,” said creator Luba Tolkachyov.

Am I the only one totally creeped out by this? The only one whose very first reaction to technology that literally uncovers Jews in your immediate vicinity was to think about where I could hide them if need be?

I have two kids, and please God, they should enter the Torah, the chuppa (gay or straight, I don’t care), and good deeds. I genuinely—really and truly—want my kids to marry Jews and even (in the fullness of time, and only if they want to!) bring me Jewish grandbabies. They’re both too young to date yet, but not too young for me to start dreaming.

But the idea of them finding partners (for whatever…) via what amounts to (IMHO) a stalking app…? She’lo neda me’tsarot—we shouldn’t know from such troubles!

Aside from anything else, can you imagine the conversation?

“Hi, my phone tells me you’re Jewish! Is anyone sitting here?”

Let’s just, I don’t know, build some more Gaga pits and maybe host another Kiddush or two, instead. Ask my friends—I’m good for the kugel.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

American and Israeli Jews – it’s weird.

My latest at Open Zion/The Daily Beast. Here’s the top – for the rest, click here! (But please note that Ron Kampeas of The Forward tweeted me the following: “From what I see on GPO email PM/Pres do meet and greets with olim from Ethiopia, etc.” I’m guessing that’s different from meeting them with song and dance at the airport, but honestly, I’m just guessing here).

Over the course of decades spent observing the relationship between Israeli and American Jews, I’ve come to an unavoidable, if hardly scientific, conclusion: It’s weird.

American Jews seem to encourage what amounts to a life-long crush on the State of Israel and its inhabitants, leading to such various reactions as: American rabbis giving their podiums to Israeli officials on the High Holidays, when we’re enjoined to concentrate not on things of this Earth but on malchut shamayim (the Kingdom of Heaven); a slew of folks deciding I must be ok, despite my left-wing opinions, because after all, my husband was born and raised in Jerusalem; and of course, cases of the collywobbles among American youth when Israelis happen to drift through the room.

What a lot of Americans might not realize is that the crush cuts both ways. Witness the reception recently received by 351 new immigrants:

Some 350 new immigrants from North America—including five sets of twins and two sets of triplets—were welcomed personally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport on [August 14]. “I’m proud of you,” the prime minister told the group. “We’re all proud of you. Friends of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are all proud of you.”

The new arrivals on the special Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight were greeted with song, dance and a number of very short, but warm speeches by several dignitaries, including the prime minister and the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky.

Dude. Seriously? For 350 people (even if more than 5% of them were twins/triplets)? Last year, some 7,200 immigrants arrived from the former Soviet Union and more than 2,600 from Ethiopia—the Prime Minister might have greeted some of them at the airport, too, but I can’t find evidence of it.

Oh no! What happens next? More collywobbles? Well you’ll just have to click here to find out!

Jews – are they going to vote for Romney, or what?

I did a thing! On HuffPost Live!

Yesterday I was part of a panel of American Jews (including the moderator, Mike Sacks, a former Supreme Court correspondent for The Huffington Post, now a host with HuffPost Live) talking about the American Jews and the upcoming elections, specifically: “Jews – are they going to vote for Romney, or what?”

Writer MJ Rosenberg and I came down on the “or what” side, while Michael Goldstein (the Michael Goldstein, from the ad!) and David Milstein, a college senior and president of the Young Jewish Conservatives at his school, were on the “for Romney” side.

Unfortunately, I cannae embed it. Curse you, free WordPress platform!

So please, if you would like to see me discuss this these issues with these gentlemen, click here! I think you’ll find three things to be true:

  1. I managed to not yell, which is a good thing.
  2. Every single time I said David’s name, I sounded like I was his mom (…), which was less good — sorry, David!
  3. I look rather like Lokai, resident of the planet Cheron, from the original Star Trek. By which I mean: Half my face is in shadow. WHERE  ARE MY LIGHTING TECHS?

Click here to watch, won’t you?

Me & The Daily Beast – a thing that’s really happening.


Peter Beinart, columnist at The Daily Beast (Newsweek’s online presence) and author of The Icarus Syndrome and the up-coming The Crisis of Zionism (and, not incidentally, of a cri de couer entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” that set the American Jewish world on its ear when the New York Review of Books ran it in June 2010, in that it told the truth that no one wanted to talk about) is launching a new group blog, called Zion Square, to be hosted on The Daily Beast.

I’m one of the columnists.


This is very cool. This is very, very cool, and in many ways, is the very thing I’ve been trying to achieve since I started writing op/eds in 2002, post-graduate school.

And I was hardly even talking about it, though it’s been in the works for a month or so, because as an old school reporter, I know that your story isn’t safe until it’s on someone’s doorstep (or, in this case, computer monitor) and why on earth would I want to jinx this? So, you know: Mum = the word!

But Tablet Magazine ran a piece about the project today, and, well – if it’s online, it must be true, right? Here’s what they said:

“I find very little interesting conversation about what Zionism is,” Peter Beinart, the former New Republic editor who has emerged in recent years as one of the most prominent center-left commentators on foreign policy, and especially Israel, told Tablet Magazine yesterday. “The term has become so politicized and associated with the right that this is a moment where the question of what Zionism is and the variety of different Zionisms that can exist really needs to be discussed.” The place he hopes this “intellectually open and unafraid” discussion will occur is Zion Square, his new group blog at The Daily Beast, which launches Monday.

According to Beinart, most of Zion Square’s contributors broadly share his belief in “the Jewish democratic state, based upon the principles of Israel’s declaration of independence,” alongside a Palestinian state….

Among Zion Square’s ten regular columnists, only one would commonly be thought of as offering a right-of-center perspective—the Israeli Benny Morris. The rest are: Bernard Avishai, Lara Friedman, Gershom Gorenberg, Emily L. Hauser, Hussein Ibish, Yehudah Mirsky, Yousef Munayyer, Trita Parsi, and Einat Wilf.

Friedman, of Americans for Peace Now, might be the farthest left (APN, for example, advocates boycotts of goods made in the occupied territories but not Israel). Mirsky, rabbinically ordained and concerned as much with Jewish identity as politics, could also be considered center to center-right. Gorenberg’s recent The Unmaking of Israel is, in my opinion, a fantastic book. Wilf is the only professional politician, a member of the Knesset from Ehud Barak’s Independence Party. And Parsi might prove the most controversial selection: the president of the National Iranian American Council, he has become a lightning rod in the Iran debate, criticized by the right for an allegedly overly credulous view of Iranian willingness to back away from a nuclear program.

Beinart is particularly excited to have voices from the Arab world, including Ibish, who is Lebanese, and Munayyer, who is Palestinian (and he noted that Parsi is Iranian). “One of the defining characteristics of the organized Jewish community’s discussion is the Palestinian voices rarely have a chance to be heard by a Jewish audience,” he argued. The ways in which the organized Jewish community narrow American discussion of Israel is a theme of Beinart’s book, which will be excerpted in Monday’s Newsweek (The Daily Beast’s print counterpart), as well as of the widely read essay he published nearly two years ago, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”

I’ll note two things:

  1. I am every bit as left-wing at Lara Friedman! C’mon now, Tablet!
  2. Trita Parsi was interviewed on The Daily Show last night. I’m going to be blogging with the guy who Jon Stewart interviewed last night. /faints
  3. (okay, three things) Every name on that list but mine is well known in my circles – I’m currently envisioning a lot of people going “Emily L. – who, now?”

Aside from my excitement about mememememe, though, it should also be noted that the project is terrific and exciting, on it’s own, un-me related merits! These are conversations that anyone with a stake in Israel needs to be having, and I’m very grateful to be able to play a part.


“The State of Israel…will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”*

I’m honestly at a loss to understand just what Israel is trying to achieve these days.

I think the coalition believes itself to be working for a safer Israel, but it’s so painfully obvious that what they’re actually doing is hounding people, literally across the globe, for disagreeing with them, while also turning the clock back on bedrock democratic principles, that I go right back to scratching my head.

Exhibit A: This Wednesday, the Knesset held an inquiry into the allegedly anti-Israel policies of the avowedly pro-Israel American-Jewish organization J Street.

Now, reasonable people may reasonably argue that J Street is wrong-headed. Reasonable people may reasonably say that there are more effective ways to work for peace and security (for Israel and/or the region) than pursuing a two-state solution as facilitated by the American government.

Reasonable people, on the right and left, make this argument all the time, in fact. I happen to disagree with them, but that’s the way the democratic cookie crumbles: People get to say what they think, and disagree with what you think. Yay democracy!

But Israel’s current government appears to have zoomed right past “reasonable” to “bat-guano crazy.”

According to member of Knesset (MK) Nissim Ze’ev, J Street’s positions represent “sheer hatred toward the State of Israel and the government’s policies, more terrible than that of Israel’s worst enemies.” The committee investigating the group has called on J Street itself to “purge from its ranks” an imagined cadre of Israel haters, and on the Israeli government never to meet with its representatives. Yeahhhh…. No.

Let’s be crystal clear: Those demanding that J Street dance to the current coalition’s tune aren’t defaming one or two or twenty people. They’re talking about close to 200,000 American Jews, 2,500 of whom recently gathered at a conference at which phrases like “Israel’s right to self-defense” were regular applause lines. They’re talking about an organization the only goal of which is to further the Netanyahu government’s own stated goal: A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The MK who called for the inquiry, Otniel Schneller (from Kadima — you know, the “centrist” party?) actually said this about J Street (he actually said this):


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