Are rabbinical schools becoming anti-Israel pulpits?

Liberal seminaries that become woker-than-thou workshops risk losing their defining missions tomorrow – and will continue alienating Jews-in-the-pews today.

A synagogue in Prague (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID W CERNY)
A synagogue in Prague
(photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID W CERNY)
In 2011, when Rabbi Daniel Gordis highlighted “how lonely it can be for an unapologetically pro-Israel student at some of today’s rabbinical schools,” his Conservative and Reform colleagues excoriated him for exaggerating. Today, his criticisms seem mild; things are far worse. Every year, I hear from non-Orthodox rabbinical students that, in their programs, the once-marginal anti-Israel voices, while not the majority, have gone aggressively mainstream – often bullying Zionist students and speakers.
I could generate clicks and controversy by spreading hair-raising stories: about rabbis-to-be seeing Israel only through the Palestinian anti-occupation lens and condemning antisemitism only if it’s right-wing; about totalitarian teachers imposing their worldviews intolerantly; about administrators insensitive to the conversational no-fly zones silencing their pro-Israel students. The anecdotes would be weaponized to bash or defend various programs. And everyone would retreat into their usual ideological fortresses.
I’m avoiding specifics to respect each institution’s reputation. I wonder, however, whether the ecosystem is polluted, fouled by our polarized Jewish community and America’s lopsided, narrow-minded, academic culture.
So here’s a constructive challenge. We need a community-wide debate about our liberal rabbinical seminaries, which spend sacred communal dollars training American Jewry’s future leaders – for what? To do what? To take us where? The debate goes far beyond how Israel is taught (or mis-taught). It challenges what each institution stands for, the learning culture it cultivates, the kinds of rabbis it wishes to produce, and, ultimately, where each denomination hopes to take American Jewry. We all have a stake in this conversation, from Right to Left.
As an educator, if I heard that my students felt bullied by me or their fellow students, I would declare an emergency. Every rabbinic school should establish a committee to examine these allegations or, less defensively, to ensure that in an increasingly doctrinaire, intolerant environment – in the Jewish world and beyond – their classrooms foster mutual respect and open, critical inquiry.
Don’t replace one orthodoxy with another: instead, fight educational malpractice.
THERE’S A deeper issue here. Ideally, academics don’t judge students by their beliefs; we sift them by their smarts. Shared beliefs, however, drive theological seminaries. Catholic seminaries expel seminarians who don’t believe in Jesus. Do liberal seminaries have any formal Jewishly-based ideological standards regarding belief in God, ritual practice, Jewish patriotism or, yes, Zionism? And if so, has any seminary flunked any student on ideological grounds recently? A seminary that never expels a rabbinic trainee on principle doesn’t know what it stands for – or doesn’t know how to stand for itself.
Note the words “formal Jewishly-based ideological standards”: no student would survive in most liberal Jewish frameworks by questioning progressive orthodoxies. Apparently, you can say “I hate Zionism”; you can’t say “I like to pray with a mehitza [partition].” Are some of these institutions replicating the PC campus’s suffocating tendency to hail “pluralism,” “diversity,” “inclusivity,” without tolerating genuine diversity of thought?
Liberal seminaries that become woker-than-thou workshops risk losing their defining missions tomorrow – and will continue alienating Jews-in-the-pews today.
Traditionally, the Conservative movement was proudly American – and nonpartisan – but profoundly, patriotically Jewish and Zionist, too. And since the 1950s, America’s Reform movement has matured beyond its kippah-kashrut-peoplehood-Israel-hating classical roots. Each movement must decide: does progressive politics define us? Jewish identity must be more than a tikkun olam masquerade making a religion out of the Democratic Party’s Bernie-Sanders-Elizabeth-Warren-Squad-friendly wing.
Rabbinic students deserve authentically Jewish educational and spiritual journeys, not liberal-American scavenger hunts. Rifling through Jewish sources looking to prop up an essentially non-Jewish ideology – no matter how lovely or politically true it might be – is a spiritual charade bordering on religious desecration. That’s not the synthesis non-Orthodox movements sought.
In short, the debate about how to teach Israel, how to foster Jewish patriotism, how to develop a big tent, left-to-right American Zionism, and how much anti-Zionism to tolerate in rabbinical seminaries is complicated enough. But it sits on deeper identity issues challenging each seminary’s – and each denomination’s – raison d’être.
FINALLY, CONSIDER the questions of Jewish civics and rabbinic comportment. What kind of Jewish citizen, let alone what kind of leader, mourns Palestinian terrorist pain while dismissing the pain of terrorized Israelis or beaten Orthodox Jews? And how long will a rabbi who cannot tolerate ideological deviations among fellow students survive with often peppery, hypercritical congregants who just might vote differently as Americans but wish to pray together as Jews?
Some Jewish thought leaders are starting to wonder how much longer the world’s greatest dupes – American Jewish parents – will continue subsidizing those campuses that are Jewish-identity-eviscerating, super-woke, intolerant, reeducation camps. Why pay thousands of tuition dollars and sometimes millions of philanthropic dollars – or plunge into debt – so universities can indoctrinate their children against Israel, Zionism, traditional religion, constructive nationalism and, ultimately, a proud, healthy Americanism?
Fixing America’s universities is an overwhelming undertaking. And most American Jewish parents are still so busy worshiping college as the gateway to their kids’ success, they cannot confront how toxic many (not all) campuses have become.
Rabbinical seminaries are smaller, cheaper, far more community-sensitive, and obviously Jew-friendly institutions. Let’s start by fixing those that need fixing – not only to test-drive thoughtful reforms that might work broadly, but to customize the kind of leadership training grounds American Jewry needs.
If we do nothing, the American Jewish community may wake up soon and find itself with leaders hostile to Israel, Jewish peoplehood, and the kind of civility and tolerance that has long kept us reasonably united and impressively functional.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award finalist. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.