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Our rabbis are afraid of their Israel shadow

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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.

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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11 Responses

  1. Betsy on October 9, 2013, 10:28 am

    Finally. Finally, this is being said. Over half a century too late, but at last it is being said.

    • Xpat on October 9, 2013, 11:37 am

      Unfortunately – and it is really unfortunate – even this initiative is hollow, if not manipulative. JCPA has been a key enforcer of party discipline regarding Israel. The same players who bully Israel’s detractors in the Jewish community are behind this “wide tent” initiative. JCPA is trying to define a tent that is just wide enough to keep all the Zionists in and all the others out.

      • Betsy on October 9, 2013, 4:15 pm

        @ Elliot — yes, absolutely. And, they’ve been smearing folks outside the Jewish community…such as this false and vicious attack on the Presbyterian church last year (my church — and I know the folks they are smearing…so I have close knowledge of how unfair this was) an attempt to manipulate the free exercise of ethical debate in a faith community that has been close partners, with Jewish faith communities, in many social justice ventures over the decades of my adult life. I used to be hurt — and have now decided to treat it as akin to the craziness of Right wing Christian attacks on my church — a kind of collective herd behavior without spiritual or intellectual reflection or moral restraint.

  2. seafoid on October 9, 2013, 11:35 am

    The picture of Dorian Israel.

    • Chu on October 9, 2013, 12:04 pm

      That would make a great play on Broadway. How the perceived image of a state rots as the actors pursue a life of excess, torture and debauchery. The image of the growing state eventually decays into fragments the more it grows as part of the backdrop.

      Like feeding some beast growth hormones will eventually rot it from within.

  3. Chu on October 9, 2013, 12:00 pm

    ‘… rabbis are afraid to speak to the congregation about Israel because they don’t know much about Israel anyway.’

    I doubt they’re afraid. I think it’s a case of being willfully ignorant and more often greatly supporting Israel and what it wants. There are some seriously conservative Synagogues in New York that are completely in sync with Israel and Zionism. And their wealthy congregants often will work for AIPAC without pay. It’s their dedication, their passion.

    Zionists like to say ‘where is the Palestinian Gandhi today’, but we should be asking ‘Where are the Elmer Bergers in American Synagogues today’?

    • LanceThruster on October 9, 2013, 4:59 pm

      It seems part of the mercurial nature of tribalism as the boundaries can be drawn in whatever way benefits those making a case for a particular flavor of tribalism.

  4. yrn on October 9, 2013, 1:15 pm

    “In other words, rabbinic knowledge about Israel is negligible. ”
    Mondowiess residence, make up your minds as you are boring already.
    A whole section most of you are pushing “It’s time the Jews will become Americans…”
    So they are Americans, why should they know more of Israel then they know of France ?
    It’s your dream come true. so enough with your boring mumble.

    • Citizen on October 9, 2013, 4:45 pm

      @ yrn
      There’s no American France Public Affairs Committee lobby orchestrating US foreign policy as AIPAC does, and no US funding of any French colonial occupation with the biggest chunk of total US aid, nor does the US repeatedly spend its UN SC veto immunizing France from accountability.

  5. Les on October 9, 2013, 3:58 pm

    MJ Rosenberg has posted the specifics.

    59% of older rabbis are afraid to say what they believe about Israeli policies; 70% of young rabbis.

  6. mcohen on October 10, 2013, 8:43 am

    Irrelevant whats happening in america or france or wherever
    Near hebron ,the trees of mamre where abram camped,the earth will open,a spring will flow again
    a house of worship will be built.
    3 pilgrims will gather,prayers carved in stone,a stream of water,to quench there thirst

    Blessed are you our Lord who reigns in the 7 realms in the north,in the west,in the south ,in the east,in the earth below,in the heavens above,in ours souls eternally

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