Criticism Of Rabbinical Students On Israel Unfair


Rabbi Daniel Gordis has maligned a generation of rabbinical students as being insufficiently Zionist (“Alienation From Israel Is Hitting Liberal Seminaries,” Editor’s column, May 6). Because I know and respect these students, I find his criticism to be not only inaccurate but also insulting to people who have collectively dedicated their lives to spreading the love of God, Torah, and Israel.

Are their feelings about the State of Israel and its policies complicated? Yes, of course — how could they not be? It is not 1967 but 2011, and as Gary Rosenblatt writes, the Jewish state is an increasingly complicated place. The more time that our students spend in Israel, the more deeply they know its people, places, and policies, and the more invested they become in its future. A fair and full portrait of this generation would find them to be Chovevei Zion — lovers of Zion — even if their love is not as simple as some demand.

Speaking only about the students at The Jewish Theological Seminary, I note that three of our recent students have made aliyah; four current students are veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces; and nearly all of our students have chosen to spend extended periods of their lives living, studying, and working in Israel. This year our students have fanned out around the country, volunteering with congregations and other organizations. Two students have helped to found a new congregation in Maale Adumim. Others have spent time with the parents of Gilad Shalit, showing them support in their extended period of suffering for their captive son.

This past week our students mourned Israel’s fallen soldiers, celebrated her independence, and journeyed north to our movement’s Kibbutz Hannaton to hike the land and listen to the voices of people making their homes in Israel. It is ludicrous to suggest that these students are boycotting Israel. Would that more American Jews chose to spend years studying Torah in Israel, speaking Hebrew, learning about Israeli society and culture, and volunteering for Israeli organizations like these students do. Upon reading the distorted portrait of her peers, one of our students in Jerusalem said she felt like screaming, “I love Israel!” But that isn’t newsworthy, is it?

Of course there is a kernel of truth to some of this coverage. Many rabbinical students, like many Israelis and American Jews, are concerned with the suffering of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. They are not so naïve as to assume that these problems are all Israel’s fault — there has been a state of war since the day of Israel’s birth. Nevertheless, these lovers of Israel desperately want to see the land and all of its people living in peace. Is this so bad?

Non-Orthodox rabbinical students may be more attuned than others to the myriad ways that the State of Israel favors Orthodoxy and discriminates against the other streams of Judaism. They have observed the preferential funding of Orthodox institutions and the monopoly granted Orthodox rabbis over sacred times like marriage and sacred spaces like the Kotel. These students would like to see the Jewish state treat all Jews equally. Is that a sin? Is ignoring such issues a way to strengthen the state, as Gordis implies, or a way to undermine it?

True, some American Jews feel disillusioned after spending extended time in Israel, but most return with a deeper understanding of the issues and a renewed commitment to help Israel address its challenges. This is certainly what I observe with our students.

Gary Rosenblatt’s column ends with the constructive call for deeper engagement with one another about Israel, and asks that we refrain from chastising others. If only Rabbi Gordis would adopt a similar tone. Questioning the Zionism of such students is like questioning the patriotism of Americans who want health care reform, or are dissatisfied with our nation’s immigration policy.

Having spent the past four years in daily conversation with students of this generation, I am convinced that these emerging leaders are deeply committed to the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state that is secure and at peace with its neighbors. They have volunteered their time and energy and they have given their hearts to this noble cause. We in the Jewish community should be proud of them.

Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins is Pearl Resnick dean of The Rabbinical School and dean of the Division for Religious Leadership at The Jewish Theological Seminary.