Our rabbis are afraid of their Israel shadow

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Just when you thought it was safe to get out of the (Jewish Empire) water, yikes, another survey. The survey is of American rabbis, the pulpit type, who rarely go near any issue that might interfere with their mortgage.

The survey is about rabbis and Israel.  The title is suggestive: “Reluctant or Repressed:  Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis.” (PDF)

reportWe already know that dissent on Israel in the rabbinate is lacking.  For the most part, rabbis are outrageously silent on Israel.  Some are incredibly belligerent.  The survey confirms both.   But the highest percentage by far is fear.

Our rabbis are afraid of their Israel shadow.

Reading between the lines, the survey also suggests that rabbis are afraid to speak to the congregation about Israel because they don’t know much about Israel anyway.  The survey doesn’t go there explicitly. Instead, rabbinic Israel credentials are highlighted. The rabbis have a “passionate commitment” to Israel; they spend a year of seminary study in Jerusalem; their command of ancient and modern Hebrew is impressive.

In other words, rabbinic knowledge about Israel is negligible.  Palestine doesn’t figure in their lives or training at all.

Perhaps a better title for the survey:  “Reluctant, Repressed and Ignorant.”

This means that the last place to go to hear the truth about Israel – and Palestine – is your local rabbi.

The unasked questions in this survey are many.  With the seminal issue of Palestine facing the Jewish people what isn’t asked is telling.

Think of this unasked question:  “As a rabbi, what do you say to your congregation about the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 so essential to the creation of the state of Israel?”  Perhaps this should come first:  “As a rabbinic candidate in seminary training in America and Israel, did you study the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the creation of the state of Israel?”

Follow up could follow two tracks:  1) “If you have studied the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, as a rabbi how do you integrate this knowledge into your congregational teaching opportunities?” 2) “If you haven’t studied the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the creation of the state of Israel, do you think studying that history would help you as a rabbi guide your congregation to discuss difficult issues relating to Israel and Palestine?”

Check out the survey’s conclusion.  See if the Jewish establishment, including our rabbis, is going anywhere.  Or do they want to remain in the forever “be civil” holding pattern?

This as Palestine is destroyed and with it the Jewish ethical tradition which, according the survey, the rabbis uphold.  Judge for yourself:

With Israel the subject of such passion among a large number of American Jews, and an even larger numbers of their leaders, including their rabbis, divisions about the moral and political issues related to Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians are inevitable. Given these differences, it is also inevitable that leaders, especially those with views somewhat at variance with those held by official Israeli leaders and their American Jewish supporters, will find it challenging to publicly articulate their views on the conflict. If such is the case for leaders in general, matters are probably even more complex for rabbis. Rabbis are charged with serving as moral leaders and exemplars, yet they are also beholden to and subject to the whims of congregants and others who exercise control over the rabbis’ careers and employment conditions.

Here is the survey’s concluding paragraph.   What is the message in this rabbinic bottle?

For communal leaders and policy makers, the survey’s results point to the need to advocate increasing civility in the conduct of discourse and debate around Israel.  Repression of such debate and the free expression of views by people – such as rabbis – who are deeply committed to Israel, means the loss of an opportunity to engage members of the Jewish public with a full variety of views about Israel and the conflict. A stifled debate means a less healthy discourse and missed educational opportunities, to say nothing of leadership and rabbinic careers that are injured as a consequence. The openness and vigor of Israel’s democracy can well serve as a model and frame for the discussions of Israel’s policies that can and should characterize the parallel discourse among America’s Jews – including their rabbis and other communal leaders.

How long will surveys like this rehearse the tired old clichés of commitment to Israel, educational opportunities, the openness and vigor of Israeli democracy?

No doubt until Palestine disappears completely.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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