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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Center Field: Taliban Judaism does not work in modern world

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post as:

Radicals Aren’t Necessarily More Authentic

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-28-09

Once again haredim held massive, violent demonstrations over the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat near the Old City. Somehow, some bizarre rabbinic dispensation allows haredi radicals to launch their own unholy war on Shabbat, desecrating it by rioting. Other controversies regarding conversion and appointing Zionist chief rabbis for Jerusalem feed perceptions of a “religious-secular” divide.

Parking lot riots. Taliban Judaism does not work in the

modern world. PHOTO: Ariel Jerozolimski

Actually, the push for a Zionist chief rabbi proves this is not a religious-secular issue but a clash pitting violent haredi radicals against patriotic Zionists. In this struggle, Orthodox Jews from around the world and Religious Zionists in Israel must stand strong. Those two (overlapping) communities must send a clear message to the haredi radicals, saying “back off.” The message must be reinforced by religious Zionists fighting for quality of life in the State of Israel as ardently as many fight for every inch of the Land of Israel and by Orthodox Jews threatening to cut off donations to all haredi institutions if haredi violence persists.

It is difficult to quantify how much money flows from Orthodox Jews abroad to haredi institutions here, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is considerable. Imagine if those legendary Orthodox Jewish visitors who love to visit yeshivot in Mea She’arim and ask how much it costs to feed the kids lunch, then donate a week of lunches, changed their tunes. What if they said, “We would love to donate, but first reassure us that your community had nothing to do with the recent violence.”

What if others specifically targeted those rabbis and yeshivot who have been acting like hooligans and cut off the money spigot from Brooklyn and the Five Towns, from Paris and London, from Melbourne and Cape Town? This money message should accompany a moral message from rabbis and leading authorities throughout the Diaspora and Israel. Rabbinic authorities with impeccable religious pedigrees must denounce haredi extremists.

LEAVING THE FIGHT to so-called “secular” Israelis exacerbates tensions. Alternatively, if religious and non-religious Jews stood together in this struggle, even while agreeing to disagree on other issues, it would reduce Israel’s growing polarization, wherein a Right-Left divide on security increasingly parallels a religious-secular divide regarding lifestyle, philosophy, pluralism and tolerance.

Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis who are so pure of heart they dismiss all this as “politics” and beneath them ignore the conflict’s religious dimensions. Anyone who prays for the State of Israel, says Hallel, the prayer of thanksgiving, on its birthday, or speaks about it as a “redemption” or “salvation” cannot stand idly by while hooligans threaten “to set the whole country… on fire.”

Moreover, for decades now religious Zionists and Orthodox Jews have been in denial about how much harm religious extremists do to those of us laboring to bring the masses of alienated Jews back to Judaism.

Taliban Judaism does not work in the modern world. The all-or-nothing, command-and-control approach of the haredim and (I am sorry to say) of much of the Israeli rabbinate alienates millions. Awash in freedom, most Jews today have to embrace Judaism voluntarily. This is not an argument for watering down Judaism. Rather, it is an argument for focusing on its essential positive messages, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, and avoiding desecrations through violence or political coercion.

UNFORTUNATELY, TOO many Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists are not just bystanders to haredi and rabbinic extremism but enablers. Too many fear the extremists. This cowardice comes from a brand of religious one-upsmanship extremists the world over have mastered. People from the center, no matter how passionate or pure, end up having their credentials questioned by the ayatollahs in religion and the commissars in politics. Too many modern Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists act insecure when amid their more radical brethren.

Radicals are more radical, not necessarily more authentic. Nevertheless, modern Orthodox families in North America send their kids (as well as their cash) to “learn” in yeshivot that are far to their Right. We also see Diaspora communities held hostage on matters of kashrut certification by the most extreme forces. In Israel, the mainstream religious voices refuse to take on the violent haredim.

Fortunately, some heroes have emerged. In Jerusalem, Rachel Azaria of Hitorerut-Yerushalmim (the Wake-up Jerusalemites party) has been an important force for change. A religious Zionist activist, Azaria led an insurgent grassroots campaign and ended up on the city council. She and her party have organized demonstrations demanding a Zionist chief rabbi for Jerusalem. They support Mayor Nir Barkat’s attempts to find a compromise on the Shabbat parking lot issue that will serve non-religious Jews seeking to visit the capital on Israel’s one full weekly day off.

Others, like the Tzohar rabbis, have sought to be, as their slogan celebrates, a bridge between the two worlds, giving non-religious Israelis more user-friendly rabbis when marrying, divorcing and celebrating a circumcision or bar mitzva. In North America, Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future has run programs training Israeli rabbis in the kind of pastoral duties too many neglect because they are deployed by the Chief Rabbinate and not beholden to congregants.

Still, in the face of haredi violence, the religious story has been much more one of the “silence of the (kosher) lambs.” Orthodox and religious Zionist cowardice does tremendous harm. We need mainstream religious rabbinic authorities in Israel and the Diaspora to confront the haredi bullies and repudiate violence, especially on Shabbat, with words and deeds.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Jerusalem and Montreal.