The American Jewish community is today roiled by divisions over Israel. These divisions are manifest in countless synagogues around the country, but are largely silent– because Israel-critics are muzzling themselves. Rabbis are in a difficult position. They want the conversation to happen, but big donors threaten to leave the congregations if there is criticism of Israel.
Yet the rabbis say there will be no choice but to have the conversation: because young Jews are abandoning the synagogues, and the community needs the next generation more than it needs money.
That was the news from a vigorous discussion among rabbis that took place last week at the J Street conference in Washington. The discussion felt like a group therapy session for the 80 people in the room, as sometimes-agonized rabbis discussed strategies for getting the old guard to allow conversations about Israel to take place. They talked about colleagues shamed for trying to lead a “dual-narrative” trip by Jews to Israel and Palestine, and about a Miami synagogue backing out of sponsorship for a speech by liberal Zionist Roger Cohen because he is considered too far left.
“Can you send spiritual help?” a Jewish lay leader called out to laughter after describing his synagogue leadership’s efforts to shut out representatives of J Street.
Make no mistake, J Street is a Zionist group that constantly offers love for Israel. The fact that it is considered anti-Israel by many mainstream institutions is a sign of how reactionary the discourse is inside the Jewish community. But that is the discourse inside the Jewish community.
Let me lay out several cases from the session. I am protecting the rabbis’ identities because while the session was on the record, I don’t think any rabbi in the room thought a reporter was there recording them; and I aim to be kind.
Case 1. Donors and the “dynamic of power” in a synagogue.
A Reform temple in a big city on the east coast tried to stop the Israel discussion from happening for years because it would divide the synagogue. A new rabbi came in ten years ago and saw that people needed to talk about it; and had a right to, because tikkun olam (repairing the world) is a mission of Judaism.
The rabbi told of starting an Israel Committee. Its guiding principle is, “responsibility” to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. “Not everyone’s happy with that, but that’s where the consensus firmly lay.” The committee does not allow “people who call for the destruction of Israel or violence or nondemocratic methods within the framework. The framework is a Jewish and democratic state, whatever that means.”
Many congregants want to be able to discuss Israel’s flaws; but one congregant said she was afraid when she heard the Palestinians walking down a main street of the city, demanding rights.
The rabbi has learned about the “dynamic of power” in the synagogue. Most of his major donors, who give very substantial gifts to the synagogue, “are not happy that I come to J Street. They’re firmly in the AIPAC camp. I go out of my way to have civil conversations with them.”
He has learned that he can push back at the donors by telling them about all the congregants who want to talk about the occupation. That is also a form of power. “Don’t despair,” he told his colleagues. The key is for rabbis to be “engaged” with their congregants.
Case 2. A rabbi urges congregants not to shun those who support BDS.
A liberal synagogue in a university town sometimes feels like it is cracking up. Those who support the Jewish National Fund or AIPAC are considered outside the lines by leftwing congregants. But those who support J Street or Breaking the Silence are considered outside by the right.
The rabbi is also worried about financial pressure. He watched two colleagues pilloried by AIPAC, the rightwing Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for trying to talk about Palestine. He saw attacks on a Jewish day school for not toeing the Netanyahu line. He saw big donors attacking the Jewish Federations for their statement critical of Steve Bannon’s role in the Trump administration.
A member of the synagogue board is an activist for Jewish Voice for Peace and BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) in her outside life. The rabbi has sat with the congregants who don’t believe in a Jewish state. “That’s where my buttons get pushed,” he said. He is against BDS. But he gave a sermon to the synagogue saying these ideas are not anti-semitic, even if there are some anti-Semites involved the BDS movement.
He gave that sermon to an audience of one: a leading member of the congregation who spoke of the anti-semites in the synagogue. “With table pounding. It was not fun.”
When the rightwing gets angry, they threaten to “pick up all their marbles and move to a different synagogue.” The rabbi wishes the folks on the left would play that game a bit more; it would be a fairer fight.
The young have a lot of power. “Also on our board, was a young member who was a founder of Open Hillel. This is the demographic that every congregation wants, a 20-something who is excited to be a synagogue leader– but it’s this big thing looming.”
Case 3. Some of my congregants don’t believe in a Jewish state.
In this progressive synagogue, some congregants are against the idea of a Jewish state. The rabbi was stunned when she came into the foyer one day and a prominent member of the synagogue pointed at the Israeli flag and said, “What is that doing there. That should not be there!”
But meantime, the president and the past president of the synagogue were Israel-right-or-wrong types.
A few years ago, the rabbi gave a sermon and said, “We’ve really got to talk about Israel and our relationship to it.” She saw discomfort and a lot of nodding in the faces before her. She quoted the famous passage from Talmud about a dispute between Shamai and Hillel, over strict and liberal interpretations of scripture, which was resolved with openness: “These and those are the words of the living god.”
This belief led her to take a trip to Israel and Palestine of 18 synagogue members. The liberal Zionist group the New Israel Fund guided her on the trip. They began by meeting Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. They met a lot of people undertaking dialogue; and they felt hope.
Her husband had an insight that was helpful to her. They were at a cemetery for founders of Israel, and saw a gravestone with the carving of a mosquito on it. Evidently it was a young person who had died of malaria, helped to drain swamps. Her husband said, “I understand they could not have known what would become of Israel at that point. And we too can’t possibly know how this is going to unfold, and we can do all we can to help build peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but it may not happen in our lifetime.”
The trip was “graced.” But after they got back they held a meeting for Sami Awad and an older member of the congregation confronted her: “How do you feel about being the first congregation to support BDS?”
“I said, what are you talking about! I got angry at him and then I got angry at myself for getting angry.”
4. A conservative power synagogue in a power city.
A lay leader described his struggle to establish room for J Street supporters in a conservative synagogue with power brokers in it.
“Israel had almost disappeared from our congregational life. That was troubling to a lot of folks,” he said. The leadership of the synagogue was largely wed to an “institutional approach– actually, AIPAC is the term.”
But the affiliation was hurting the synagogue:
“They didn’t know why and how, but they were losing the next generation in this area, and they wanted something to be done, no matter how uncomfortable they were about that.”
The synagogue began a process to open up the conversation—to include those who were somewhat critical of Israel. The lay leader says most J Street supporters aren’t out of the closet.
“We now hope to find people who will come out. It’s very uncomfortable especially for lay leaders in many places to say, Hi, I’m with J Street. I think the culture is changing enough so that we will now one way or another be able to get people to come out. And the number of people freed to participate with their real views will increase dramatically,” he said.
After these cases were heard, others spoke from the floor.
A Jewish educator said that the community was angering and alienating young Jews with an unsophisticated Israel curriculum that doesn’t discuss Israeli crimes. Her own children are “still engaged” with the community; but lots of their friends and the friends of friends in the next generation have said that it’s “absolutely intolerable” that they went all the way through Jewish schools and never had a conversation about human rights and Palestinians. “They’re not stupid. They saw that this was grownups covering it up.”
The educator urged “change… so young people do not turn against us.”
A student at the Jewish Theological Seminary recommended a curriculum out of Madison, Wisconsin, called Reframing Israel. It asks fundamental questions about Zionism that it says young Jews are “eager and capable of exploring”:
- What does it mean to support a Jewish state? Is supporting a Jewish state a necessary component of Jewish identity and connection to Jewish community?
Among the questions are ones stressing that Zionism is becoming irrelevant to young Americans:
What did Zionism mean in the past and what does it mean today? How do personal and historical experiences shape each individual’s understanding of Zionism?
What might a Jewish identity look like that gives full consideration to the Palestinian experience?
A few Orthodox people in the room said that the other Jews were lucky to be having a conversation about including J Street. In their synagogues, J Street is far outside the pale. “I’m laughing when I hear that BDS is a conversation,” one said. “That’s so left.”
The conversation among the rabbis at J Street is is a communal Jewish conversation; it has the political constraints of a community that wed itself to Zionism two generations ago. Theirs is obviously not the conversation that is happening on anti-Zionist websites. Many of our readers regard “dialogue” groups and liberal Zionism as illusory alternatives to a just resolution of the conflict.
But many traditional communities exercise constraints over their members that the more-universal of us regard as absurd and oppressive. That is why I see these rabbis as brave. They are trying to drag an extremely-conservative and frightened community toward greater awareness. This process may ultimately be liberating for Americans, given the crucial role of Jews as gatekeepers of Middle East discussion.
We can all take hope from the fact that the Jewish community is today in crisis. By confronting the inhibitions and curses of older, moneyed congregants, these rabbis are leaders.