The fact that a number of American rabbinical students from the liberal denominations come back from their year of study in Israel feeling conflicted about the Jewish state is worrisome, but not surprising. (See story, Page 1.)
There are no statistics available on how many students feel this way or their level of discontent, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many are feeling some degree of alienation, consistent with widespread polls and reports about their peers throughout the American Jewish community.
Officials of the seminaries acknowledge that, as Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told us this week, many students return feeling “both attached to and critical of Israel.” He describes the process as “a kind of engaged confusion, born of an honest attempt to grapple with the complexities of their relationship with Israel, the land and the people.”
It is easy, and less than helpful, for an older generation of Jews to berate these future spiritual leaders of American Jewry for taking part, for example, in anti-government demonstrations or boycotting products made in the Jewish communities of the West Bank. Instead, the goal should be to help bridge the generational divide by understanding each other and acknowledging different worldviews that come into play, underscoring the need for Modern Israel education at home and in our schools.
Israel is a far more complex society than it was four decades ago, when it was clear what it meant to be “pro-Israel.” Not so today, when decades of failure in peace efforts with the Palestinians have left Israel increasingly isolated from the international community.
This is a generation whose lifespan includes the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, difficult and inconclusive wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and decisions from an increasingly rigid Chief Rabbinate on religious issues, from conversion to women’s prayer at the Western Wall.
When spending extended time in Israel, young, idealistic American Jews who have been raised on liberal, humanitarian values rub up against the reality of a people struggling for survival while maintaining a democratic society.
As Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and author of an opinion piece last month that raised the issue of American rabbinical students feeling distanced from Israel, put it: the young generation of American Jews want Israel to live up to its ideals, while he and his peers want Israel to survive.
“We were taught that Jews come first,” he noted.
That message — and the concept of Arabs as enemies — is discomforting for young people whose commitment to Jewish peoplehood and Zionist nationalism is not as instinctive as it is for their parents and grandparents, who witnessed Israel’s struggle when it was widely perceived as David rather than Goliath.
Rabbi Ellenson has dealt openly and bravely with some of these difficult issues in an article he wrote recently, in Hebrew, for Eretz Acheret, an Israeli journal. Acknowledging that it pains him to write critically of the Israel he loves, he wrote: “Many of us fear that the soul of the Jewish State is at stake” in a number of actions that trouble American Jews, including conversion legislation, the arrest of women praying at the Western Wall and the settlement policies.
We join him, and other voices, in calling for deeper and more open conversations between diaspora and Israeli Jews and within our own community.
Our communal goal should be to be able to critique Israeli policies without being labeled disloyal, and to plant the seeds of Clal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood) in our young people, long before they visit and confront the reality of Israel.
For now, hearing each other is far more important than chastising each other.
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