Leading sociologist says ‘the enemy’ includes ‘disloyal’ individualistic young Jews who push human rights

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A year ago, an Israeli wrote a piece for Commentary asking whether young rabbinical students are turning on Israel, and last week J Street held an educators’ panel about rabbinical students, and by extension young Jews, questioning Israel.

I wanted to pass along the following excerpts of the discussion because you will see how important “loyalty” to Israel is within the American Jewish community. Steven Cohen is the leading sociologist of changes in American Jewish attitudes towards Israel. And here he speaks of human-rights-oriented Jews as “disloyal” individualistic crazy enemies of the Jewish collective– meshugayim (I think; pardon my bad Yiddish).

P.S. Cohen describes himself as a liberal hawk. 

While the panel expressed generally liberal views, you will read here about the congregational pressures on young rabbis to stay in line on Israel. I always say the Israel lobby is representative of a generation of conservative Jews. Well, to hear these educators, observant Jews, the ones who sustain congregations, don’t want to hear any dissent on Israel.

Cohen of Hebrew Union College:

Indeed, we have and will continue to have an ongoing conversation… in which the older and/or the more rightwing people say about the younger and more leftwing people the following: ‘We are oriented toward collectivity… you are oriented toward individuality. We are oriented toward loyalty and you are oriented toward morality, we are oriented toward security and you are oriented toward human rights… we are oriented to protecting the Jewish people from the outside… ‘

[The rightwing] looks at the left and says, you know you guys aren’t exactly loyal. The leftwing says, ‘You know what, you’re really not that committed to human rights.’

So this conversation has a reality to it…. We [the left] have our meshugayim… Our meshugayim really are disloyal, they really don’t care about security, they really are individual, they’re not collectivists, they really act in such a way as if they don’t know that the whole world is listening in to the Jewish conversation. It really is true… These people are an embarrassment to us. In fact in my mind they too are the enemy.

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann:

As president of Hebrew College, it doesn’t always make me comfortable how younger rabbis are ritualizing this relationship [with Israel], it makes me feel uncomfortable… I think our rabbinical students… are facing a Jewish community in which the conversation about Israel is fraught with a tremendous amount of tension, anxiety and animosity. Literally, I think all of us can give you stories about rabbinical students going out into the field, who are terrified of the question coming from the synagogue search committee, asking them about the relationship with Israel, their attitude to Israel, how they’re going to foster a commitment to Israel among the congregation. Not that they don’t have those commitments. But because the way they’re going to choose to express them, understand them, and manifest the complexity is something that is not always accepted and many people feel quite uncomfortable with that… [Because of the emergence of J Street] It’s going to be a more diverse, varied and complex conversation.

Rabbi Renni Altman, associate dean and director of rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College:

[T]he topic of Israel is still challenging for… rabbis in congregations who, you know, will get, you know, what for– threatened, chastised, not chastised, but they have a diversity within their congregation, and how they speak–I think that’ a problem– there’s not enough in terms of an ability to speak in a nuanced way to talk about Israel….

There is a lot of kneejerk reaction out in the pews. It’s hard to come up and say something that to many of us wouldn’t be that challenging but anything that is heard of in any way as critical of Israel is too often assumed to be disloyal, etc. And believe me this is discussed among all the rabbinical conferences, in how to deal with it, but it’s very difficult and challenging to do so.

Cohen again, responding to Eric Alterman on the supposed liberal tradition in the rabbinate:

I think you have an exalted image of the influence and prominence of rabbis prior to 67. Heschel… Arnold Jacob Wolf. there are names scattered through… We’re living through a recession. And people don’t want to get fired and move their families around. and they shouldn’t necessarily split the congregations over things that although morally critical are one of several issues that are their responsibility

Speaking from the audience, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained a rabbi in the Conservative tradition, described changes in the construction of Jewish identity that were going to sweep this conversation. Young Jews “take more pride [than her generation did] in being global citizens.” They live in a “post ethnic world that might be frightening to people my age.” It used to be that Jews wanted to stay inside the Jewish collective. “That is no longer critical to Jewish identity.”

Beautiful intervention, Rabbi!

Finally, a startling comment about Israel from Rabbi Altman. Her students go to Israel for a year of study. And guess what they find: 

You talk to my students, they feel like everywhere they go in Israel to talk about being Reform Jews, the  very essence of their identity is questioned or worse defiled. That in itself is challenging.

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