Monday, August 20, 2012

My Year in Israel

By: Matt Abelson

No. 8824 Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) August 20, 2012

After a year of study in Israel and considerable introspection, an American rabbinical student has come to the view that, although one must be open to the thoughts and opinions of one's peers, it is necessary to express and defend one's own convictions

Every rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary is required to spend his or her second year of study in Israel, studying at Machon Schechter, a leading institution of the Masorti-Conservative movement in Israel. For me, this was a great zechut, privilege. I was determined to improve my understanding of Hebrew and deepen my understanding of a country that is at the center of my heart. With the help of God, I accomplished both. During the course of the year, I reconnected with and took on new teachers, mentors, and friends. I have returned to the United States for my third year of rabbinical school better prepared to be a rabbi, though I still have three more years of study before I can assume that title.

The year, however, was not without strife. No one will be surprised to discover that Israel is a highly charged and challenging topic for Jews to discuss civilly, even – or especially – rabbinical students. My interactions were not limited to the small cadre that came from JTS but included students from the Hebrew Union College and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. We took trips around the country together, heard lectures, and participated in discussions about the present and future of the Jewish state.

Perhaps the initial defining moment of the year was the publication of an article by Elliot Jager titled "Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?" (October 30, 2011) in The Jerusalem Post. There, Jager analyzes a study conducted by Dr. Steven M. Cohen of JTS rabbinical students' views about Israel published September 16, 2011 and titled "JTS Rabbis and Israel, Then and Now." To the merit of the Seminary, the study found that more than 90% of rabbinical students identify as Zionist - no small matter in an age when the term Zionism is continually defamed. Nonetheless, Jager regarded the outcomes of the study with disappointment. He writes, "At first blush, the report purports to show what one would hope to find among the rabbinate: a solid Jewish identity and strong attachment to Israel. On closer examination, this identity appears increasingly filtered through a universalistic and liberal political perspective....These rabbis and rabbinical students are 'pro-Israel,' but they are redefining what 'pro-Israel' means." My classmates and I agreed to meet to discuss Jager's depiction of Conservative rabbinical students. I should note that the study itself had been commissioned by Chancellor Arnie Eisen in large part in response to pieces written by the Senior Vice President at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem Dr. Daniel Gordis who lamented the views of certain non-Orthodox rabbinical students with respect to Israel. The first appeared on Gordis' blog under the title "Of Sermons and Strategies" on April 1, 2011; the second - "Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?" – which Commentary published in its June 2011 issue.

I remember the Gordis pieces and the splash they made when they came out. Their content, however, had not surprised me. I was in the second semester of my first year of rabbinical school, and while I would not endorse everything that Gordis wrote, I recognized the phenomenon he described. Already, I had grown used to being discreet around my peers and not jumping too quickly into political discussions. My willingness to criticize the Palestinians, in general, and their political leadership, specifically, was not mainstream. Criticism of the settlement of Jews in the disputed territory of the West Bank - Judea and Samaria - or the rabbanut was much more acceptable. That criticism, of course, could be well-deserved as it was when my female classmates were hassled on the way to the Wall for wearing black-and-white tallitot.

Dialoguing with an Encounter Participant

Although I do not endorse the Jager piece without question, I think that he raised a poignant critique of the conclusions of the JTS study. One of his main foci was how students' commitment to universalism appeared to incapacitate them from a trenchant critique of Palestinian society and leadership. Their views on that issue diverged from those of American Jews, at large, and Israelis. Not more than two months later, the perspicacity of this insight became evident to me. One of my Ziegler classmates had participated in the program Encounter the previous week, and we found ourselves locked into an unpleasant discussion about this very topic: Palestinian society and leadership. Encounter is a program that brings American Jews to Palestinian cities where they stay the night with a Palestinian family and listen to selected Palestinians talk about their lives under "Israeli occupation." I told my classmate point blank that I would never participate in such a program and argued that our tradition's teaching to love the stranger would bear more fruit in interactions with Arab Israelis than it would in the context which Encounter created.

In addition, I objected to the terms under which one participates in Encounter. The objective is not to discuss, but to listen. "By design," Encounter's web site states, "we are not a dialogue organ­ization. Encounter encourages participants to listen to and absorb Palestinian narratives and claims without disregarding what they already know and believe to be true." What I feared – and I still think – is that Encounter actually created an opportunity for indoctrination. On principle, I could not participate in a program where the parties involved could not engage in conversation. Practically speaking, I was concerned for my own safety. If I spoke my mind in such an environment, I could put myself in danger. Nevertheless, my classmate was simply shocked that I would not consider participating in the program. His participation was more the norm than the exception, I discovered. As the year progressed, each time the rabbinical students from the three programs met, I learned that more people had gone. In my opposition to participating, I appeared to be in the minority. As a result, while maintaining my position, I tried to teach myself to see the merit of my classmates' decision to participate in Encounter. Without question, engaging the stranger is a powerful religious imperative. Loving the stranger in your own land is one of the key commandments of our Torah.

Encounter with a Young Jewish Participant

As Passover approached, I met a young American Jewish woman, who was not studying to be a rabbi, who had participated in Encounter. I asked her how her experience had been. By this time, I had worked hard to be open enough to ask questions about my peers' experiences before expressing my own reservations. While I could not completely disregard my reservations, I sought to be more curious about what the program was in practice.

"The first day was amazing," she began. "We met some really nice people, and in the evening, we stayed at the home of a Palestinian family. They were very good to us. The second day, however, was horrible," she said.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Well, we went to a panel discussion and one of the guys on stage said, 'Israelis love it when there are suicide bombings because it gives them an excuse to come into our cities and attack us.' When I heard that, I just broke into tears and had to head out of the auditorium."

I sat silently, looking at the young woman.

"Finally, I went back in, but the other panelists were just as angry in their statements about the Israelis. The rest of the day, I was just totally upset."

"Well, are you glad, that, in the end, you went?" I asked.

"Yeah. I mean I think it was good for me to hear that even though it was painful. I mean, I grew up on the pro-Israel line, so hearing the other side is important."

I was a little surprised that, despite what she had experienced on the second day, she didn't seem to regret participating. I didn't know her that well and wasn't going to press to figure out why she concluded as she did. What I heard confirmed my concerns. Despite what I felt was the mounting, albeit unspoken, pressure of my classmates to participate, I knew that I had made the right decision not to go. If I had heard such repulsive vitriol, I might have exploded. Not only would that have potentially endangered me, but it also would have broken one of the key rules of the program, which is not to respond but simply to absorb.

Neither Distant nor Ashamed of our Jewish State

Still, I was troubled. I spoke with my friends, teachers, and mentors about the whole matter, seeking to gain clarity and understanding about it. I am grateful to have the opportunity to share these reflections with a larger public. Criticism of religious extremism is a safe topic to discuss because it is self-criticism, a tried, and sometimes true, Jewish tradition. Criticism of the other, the stranger, is regarded in many corners as unacceptable. Indeed, a consensus exists in the Jewish community, both in the US and in Israel, around the dangers of religious extremism. Where there is a divide, however, is a willingness to criticize the Palestinians. If your attention is on our own errors, then you are more likely to feel distance from Israel and even occasional shame.

I can say that I have yet to feel distant from Israel or ashamed of it. That is in large part because I am willing to look as hard at the errors of the Palestinians and the Arab Muslim world, in general, as I am at the errors of the Israelis. Nearly every fault one can find with the Israeli government can be explained and understood even if it cannot be justified. Overall, I am guided by the principle of Ahavat Yisrael – love for every Jew – and I am certain that neither I nor any single Jew or group of Jews in America would fare any better than the Israelis have in their pursuit of peace and their practical efforts to defend themselves.

A Personal Disclosure

I must admit that I a heterosexual man at that and I have flirted with orthodoxy. This could make my identification with Israel easier than for a [hetro] woman – a gay man or lesbian woman – who are rabbinical students – and or someone who objects to orthodoxy, specifically on egalitarian grounds. I imagine that such people have to work harder than I do to feel connected to Israel and not become alienated from it. After all, most of the shuls in Israel are orthodox and being a heterosexual man will nearly ensure that one can fully participate in every prayer service that he happens upon, – even, or especially at the Wall, a place of deep religious meaning and strife. Nevertheless, I do not subscribe to the thinking that gender and sexuality are the primary determinants for forming a relationship with Israel, and I don't think my unbreakable attachment to Israel, my respect for Israelis, and my admiration for "Anglos" who have made aliyah is an outcome primarily of my maleness or my heterosexuality. Ultimately, it is grounded in my devotion to the study of history and to my awareness of the existence of a political-intellectual war against the Jewish state.

Fact: A Campaign to Delegitimize the State of Israel

Over the last several years, I became familiar with the campaign to delegitimize Israel which is taking place in many different arenas throughout the world – from the United Nations to newspapers, journals, and magazines, to lecture halls on campuses, and to the streets where anti-war protestors march. Many close observers date the World Conference against Racism in Durban 2001 as the start of this campaign. There, Israel was (again) branded an apartheid state that perpetuated racist crimes against humanity. Since then, these charges have been leveled repeatedly by various figures and organizations across the world. The solution in their eyes is that Israel as a Jewish state should be dissolved. My recognition that the war of delegitimization is a fact has affected my stance toward all matters related to Israel. Even the most seemingly benign – and even legitimate - criticism of Israel can be twisted into a deformed item of propaganda intended to prove that the very existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel is an international crime. During this past year, the challenge of defining my rabbinate in relation to my personal engagement on behalf of Israel, in intellectual and political warfare became central.

A plan of action must be developed to add this skill to rabbinic training. The closest I can come to identifying such a plan is the activity of the Tikvah Fund, which some label as "conservative" or "neo-conservative". What I see at the heart of Tikvah is a concern with ideas and a conviction that ideas matter. In short, the intellect is an essential realm of human activity, and its impact on the world is unmistakably large. For academics, this may be obvious, but a certain degree of reflection will remind us that neither of these is regarded as certain in the larger world in which we live. Many regard the intellect as either cold or insignificant. I, too, have suffered from this prejudice, but to the extent that these negative characterizations are true, I think they apply less to the role of intellect in Judaism and in the life of the Jew than to the intellect writ large in Western society. Perhaps this is why I decided to go to rabbinical school: The intellect is, hopefully, never too far removed from the warmth of friendship and family and the taste of delicious food on Shabbat.

What I am saying is that advocacy on behalf of Israel and recognition of the campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state are intimately tied to matters of truth, fact, proportion, and consistency. Certainly, a life of the mind is a crucial dimension of being a rabbi. The other component is engagement in the world. Our notion of the world has expanded as we, as a people, have become integrated into the fabric of the modern West. If you ask a Jew, he or she will certainly claim that engagement with the world is crucial to one's Jewishness. Nevertheless, some of us still seem to resist a certain kind of engagement with the world. We are reluctant to engage the nastiness of the world when it is directed at us. This is something which I hope will change. How to instruct Jews about the reality of the delegitimization war is no simple matter. Such instruction must not be indoctrination, but it also must not be overlooked. Until this problem is addressed, the very act of self-criticism, which is essential to our communal health and to Israel's future, will be limited in its efficacy.

Matt Abelson is a third year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan where he is also completing a masters' degree in Jewish Thought. He is a graduate of Scarsdale High School and Harvard University where he earned his B.A. in American History in 2002. He has interned at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Shalom Hartman Institute. This past year, he was a student at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, an academic institution for the study of Judaism which is associated with the Masorti movement in Israel.

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