The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
In 2012, I met with a dozen Reform and Conservative rabbis. Two of the rabbis, who served different synagogues, mentioned having each recently made the mistake of giving sermons that were somewhat critical of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. Congregants with hawkish views responded with such outrage, contempt, and ferocity, the rabbis vowed that, going forward, they would simply remain silent on the subject in public, rather than subject themselves to arbitrary litmus tests of loyalty to Israel.
The fact that not a single rabbi in the room suggested the two rabbis reconsider their decisions didn’t strike me as strange. Truth is, North American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.
Traveling throughout the continent, I’ve watched differences of opinion about Israel’s policies mushroom into heated exchanges in which reasoned arguments become impossible. Rather than navigate a minefield of divided communal opinion, many rabbis choose silence. A 2013 Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) study of 552 mostly non-Orthodox rabbis found that about one-third said that they repressed their true views about Israel for fear of clashing with leaders in their congregations. About 18% said that they were “closet doves,” while a little over 12% said that they were “closet hawks.” The dovish rabbis expressed higher levels of concern, 43% admitting to being “very fearful” of congregants’ reactions, as compared to just under 25% of their hawkish colleagues.
And the issue isn’t confined to Reform and Conservative congregations. I know of one Orthodox congregation where the unwritten rule is to avoid sermons and lectures on Israeli politics for the sake of communal harmony. On the whole, Orthodox Jews are more hawkish and less divided on Israel than their more liberal counterparts, but diverse views do exist. For example, a 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that 16% of Orthodox Jews oppose Israeli policies on settlement building.
Israel—the very subject that once brought Jews of divergent perspectives together as a community—has now become a catalyst for divisiveness. What can we do to unify us as a people once again?
First, we need to know whether support for Israel among North American Jews has diminished or whether Jews are simply losing interest in Israel.
The answer is neither. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center poll, support for Israel remains robust: 69% of the 3,475 American Jews sampled say they are very or somewhat attached to Israel; 87% say that caring about Israel is important or essential to their being Jewish; and 43% have visited Israel. Worthy of note, 81% of Jews in the 18–29 age range say that caring about Israel is important or essential to their being Jewish—only 6% lower than their elders.
Nor are rabbis with dovish views out of touch with the American Jewish mainstream. According to the Pew study, American Jewry is much more dovish than hawkish: 44% of American Jews say that continued West Bank settlement construction hurts Israeli security, as opposed to only 17% who say it helps. (The remainder say it makes no difference or they don’t know.) Almost half (48%) say that Israel’s current government is not making a sincere effort to bring about peace with the Palestinians, as compared to 38% who say it is. (Note: While a significant portion of Jews object to Israel’s policies, only 12% think the Palestinian leadership is making a sincere effort to promote peace.)
In short, the majority of American Jews remain strongly devoted to Israel without necessarily agreeing with everything Israel’s leaders do. Dovish rabbis could therefore reasonably claim that their opinions mirror the views of the broader Jewish community, and reflect the much wider public debate in Israel itself. Why, then, do they get so much pushback when voicing concerns from the pulpit?
A variety of factors are probably at work. In the hawkish pro-Israel camp, a certain amount of intolerance and extremism is at play. Beyond that, Israel is a vulnerable country in a very bad neighborhood, and ensuring her survival and well-being engages the deepest emotions of Jews everywhere. The intensity of our arguments reflects the depth of our feelings about the Jewish state—which is a good thing for Israel and us all.
To resolve the problem in a constructive way, I suggest that Reform synagogues follow a five-fold approach already practiced by some Reform communities:
In the hard days that lie ahead, as Israel struggles to assure her security and move toward peace with her neighbors, we honor our commitment to Israel by encouraging our religious leaders to teach us and to speak their minds. We honor it by remembering that even though as Jews we are one people, we are also the most variegated people on earth who do not agree on many things. And we honor diversity of thought by opening our doors and our hearts to insightful, respectful points of view that may be very different than our own.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is a lecturer and writer. His writings for Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, and Time can be viewed at ericyoffie.com.
Search URJ.org and the other Reform websites: