Dear Jewish Theological Seminary and Schechter Rabbinical Seminary students whose open letter condemned America’s long overdue recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “reckless” and “counterproductive,” Your letter stunned me. Why did this issue – of all issues – merit this response? How can you confuse recognizing Jerusalem with seeking peace? And do you really believe “The Torah frames this entry into and possession of the land of Israel as contingent upon actions that are born of a collective memory of oppression”? You should know better. Israel and Zionism are what the feminist Zionist Letty Cottin Pogrebin calls a “positive we.” They affirm identity more than react to oppression.
I’m guessing this is your first group effort. I’m curious, given your “responsibility to all of God’s creations,” why on September 26 you didn’t condemn the murder at Har Adar of Solomon Gavriyah, 20, Or Arish, 25 and Youssef Ottman, 25 – or visit their shivas and mourning tent. You could have honored twenty-somethings like you who represent modern Israel – an Ethiopian, a Mizrahi, an Arab – all Israeli patriots who sacrificed their lives to defend us, including the children who were playing meters from where the terrorist struck.
I’m wondering if you’re praying for Asher Elmaliach – do you even know who he is? He’s the 46-year-old security guard at the Jerusalem Bus Station stabbed in the chest last week. Why don’t all 13 of you – as “future Jewish leaders” – visit his relatives’ hospital vigil, kilometers from where you study so safely thanks to heroes like him, to thank him? As aspiring spiritual leaders, why not tap your joint power to develop new ways to inspire your generation to engage Judaism, celebrate Shabbat, build Jewish homes, marry Jewish partners, cherish Jerusalem – and Israel? Instead, you grandstand. For young American Jews – or any sane creatures – condemning US President Donald Trump takes no courage. Nuance, however, takes work. Remembering that F. Scott Fitzgerald defined intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time,” you could have endorsed a two-state solution and affirmed Israel’s right to choose its capital.
The Conservative movement’s Fitzgeraldesque statement did that.
You could have trumped Trump, saying, “as Zionists we don’t need foreigners recognizing our capital; we do that.” Instead, you echoed the zero-sum lie that accepting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital negates Palestinian “dignity.”
Most disturbingly, I excuse older, Holocaust- and expulsionfrom- Arab-land-scarred Jews for reducing Israel’s existence to remembering “oppression.” Your generation should be more positive, less traumatized.
I suggest you learn more about the movement you hope to lead – and see if you fit ideologically. In writing The Zionist Ideas – updating the Conservative rabbi and passionate Zionist Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, and as the son of a JTS grad and Conservative educator, I always took pride in Conservative Judaism’s instinctive Zionism. In 1906, when most Orthodox Jews considered Zionism “goyish” and Reform Jews misread Judaism as universal, Solomon Schechter called Zionism “the Declaration of Jewish Independence from all kinds of slavery, whether material or spiritual.”
In 1945, Milton Steinberg dismissed universalists who “suppress ... distinctiveness,” writing: “Zionists hold that Jews can give more to the world by developing their peculiar heritage to the full.” And after the 1967 war, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “our secret roots are near the well, in the covenants, with the community of Israel,” while celebrating Jerusalem as “an echo of eternity.”
Today’s JTS chancellor, Arnold Eisen, calls his Zionism an opportunity “to choose life, choose goodness, and choose blessing.”
These thinkers champion social justice too. But their Zionist visions were loving, patriotic, sweeping – are yours? I would never propose ideological tests for graduate schools. But seminaries – be they Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or Jesuit – need “positive wes” and “negative theys” – guidelines! A Conservative seminary should be open-minded enough to learn from everyone but not so open it stands for nothing. A rabbinic seminary from which no one leaves – or is expelled – over ideological divergences is as listless, and doomed, as a sports team that never cuts any players. This is not about your letter – it’s about your movement.
So, Life Lesson Number One: as leaders, your priorities define you. Take one collective action a month this year – and see the ideological self-portrait you paint.
Two: leave the simplistic sloganeering to politicians – spiritual leaders start with life’s richness and complexity, then lead from there.
Three: transcend antisemitism. Our commitments to social justice don’t come from being victims but from having values. Lead us to a new promised land, that brings peace, but through what David Hartman (channeling Soloveichik) called Sinai’s affirmative covenant, not Auschwitz’s fate-imposed one.
After 1967, Heschel mourned his generation’s “spiritual amnesia.”
Negating the miracle of Israel’s re-establishment, we saw the Tel Aviv “Hilton” and forgot “Tel Hai.” Don’t repeat that sin.
Appreciate Israel’s dimensionality – fight to fix what’s wrong but don’t negate what’s right. Broadcast a nuanced message.
You claim you “learn in environments of diverse opinions and we cherish this richness.” I hope that’s true – because that would differentiate you from many Ivy Leaguers today – and belie the rumors that rabbinic students have become increasingly PC and close-minded. You can’t learn with censors on, guard up, trust down.
I’m sure if we learned together, we would agree more than we disagree. Consider this an open invitation to informal chats – coffee’s on me – or a more formal opportunity to study together, debate respectfully, and lead the Jewish community constructively, creatively, Conservatively, Fitzgeraldly.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.