Treat antizionist Rabbinic students like the Four Sons

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-20-11

Word on the street – at least Jerusalem’s byways – is of anti-Zionism spreading in liberal rabbinic programs, especially in rabbinic year-in-Israel training programs. Most rabbinic students are either pro-Zionist or neutral. Yet a loud anti-Zionist minority seems to be setting the tone regarding Israel, making implicitly anti-Israel, one-sided, encounters with Palestinians a don’t-miss component of every aspiring rabbi’s year, mourning what the Palestinians call “the nakba,” catastrophe – meaning Israel’s creation in 1948 – and intimidating the majority with politically correct self-righteousness.

Recently Rabbi Daniel Gordis condemned this phenomenon in these pages. Among the outrages he publicized was one rabbinic student’s birthday party in a Ramallah bar – resulting in Facebook photos of young-rabbis-to-be merrily posing in front of Jihadist posters emblazoned with slogans urging Palestinian victory and Jewish misery. The birthday boy replied, 1970s-style saying “I’m OK. You’re OK.” “When I visit a place like Ramallah…,” he wrote, “I read, see and hear things that make me feel uncomfortable. There are also many places in Israel where I feel uncomfortable as a liberal Jew, a Zionist and an American. Feeling uncomfortable is not an invitation to disengage, close myself off or stop listening…”

The statement while increasingly commonplace is shocking. The student suggests some sources of alienation while offering a cartoonish moral calculus. Many liberal – i.e. non-Orthodox – rabbinical students justifiably resent the Rabbinic establishment’s fascist hold on Israeli Judaism – I don’t use that f-word lightly. I say to these students what I say to alienated Israeli and American Jews – we must not legitimize fanatic rabbis by surrendering, letting them define Israel or Judaism.

The students’ statement treats America as the new Promised Land, dismissing Israel as too illiberal, too nationalist, too foreign, too messy. These Americanists, if you will, never delegitimize America because of its flaws but are quick to abandon Israel. They are the new Hareidim, albeit liberal, shaved and rainbow-clad, mistakenly letting religion eclipse people-hood, letting spirituality trump community.

Underlying it is this moral numbness, comparing the “discomfort” resulting from an overbearing rabbi – or an Israeli military overreaction – with a Palestinian cult of terror the Ramallah posters celebrate, which has maximized anguish on both sides and repeatedly undermined chances of peace.

Especially during Passover, it is tempting to deem students like this “Rasha,” wicked, and “Hakeh et sheenav” – hit ‘em in the teeth, rhetorically. But that approach is counterproductive. That is why I don’t mention the student’s name. We need educational processes encouraging students to experiment intellectually, recognizing that one student’s question – or answer – usually represents many other students’ too.

We should treat these students – and all students, even those who have internalized the Ivy League sneer singling out Jewish nationalism meaning Zionism as the only illegitimate form of nationalism – as the Haggadah treats the wise son. They are struggling with ideas, even if they are challenging. We should update Israel curricula, and people-hood platforms, explaining Jewish nationalism and Jewish sovereignty in more sophisticated ways while creating more opportunities for questions, criticism, dialogues which clarify and empower.

But as the wise ones mature from students to leaders, they will have to acknowledge three facts. Like it or not, Israel is now the world’s largest Jewish community. Two, Israel, for all its faults, is enduring a particularly vicious assault. And three, communal leaders are paid to uphold communal consensus points. The traditional revulsion against Jews who violate Shabbat in farhesia – publicly – extends to rabbinic students who wear t-shirts proclaiming themselves anti-Zionists in an age of delegimitization when Jewish leaders’ attacking Israel feed a worldwide assault on Israel’s right to exist.

Moreover, this scrutiny the anti-Zionist rabbinic students may now feel is basic training for the nit-picking, second-guessing, and role-modeling of rabbinic life.

Of course, every Jew, like every individual, is entitled to free thought, free expression. But all communities operate with certain norms. “There are things a Jewish community shouldn’t be doing, like serving a bacon cheeseburger on Yom Kippur,” Andrew Apostolou, a Washington DC Jewish Community Relations Council member explains. Apostolou’s postulate should get young rabbinic students – and synagogue hiring committees – thinking about what core ideals rabbis should support — because the ideas are valid and mainstream.

The lessons of the two additional sons can help too. Thinking about “She-eynu yodeh leshol,” the one who does not ask, should encourage us to stir the pot, to pose tough questions. Not enough Jews today ask “why do we need a Jewish state,” “how does Israel sovereignty enhance the Jewish religion,” “how does a Jewish state avoid theocracy” – thereby missing the opportunity to define boundaries between Jewish peoplehood or nationhood and Jewish ritual or spirituality.

Finally, the father’s embrace of the simple son, understanding he must define the educational interaction, should challenge Zionists to change educational approaches. We should embrace all young learners visiting Israel. Why not have a Bakka-Encounter – with the various Anglo-heavy synagogues in Southern Jerusalem doing more to encourage members to host young student visitors to Jerusalem? But rather than just trusting the magic of the perennial kosher-wine-lubricated debate about which challah tastes best, why not prepare some guidelines, some questions?

These Shabbat dinner and lunch encounters could become more meaningful if hosts were encouraged – openly not secretly – to share their stories of why they came to Israel, explaining why they stay. Some coaching could embolden hosts and guests to share more openly, to address questions which might prove inspirational, enlightening, constructively confusing – even to the Americanists.

I admit, I find some stories of anti-Zionist student excess appalling. But I blame much of this on the previous generation of parents and educators who failed to convey a compelling and complex Zionist narrative. Like Danny Gordis, I am eager to engage the educational debate, not to demonize or squelch but to stimulate and stretch the students’ vision – and our own.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his most recent book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

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