American Rabbis Fearful of Expressing Dovish Views on Israel, Study Finds

Every fifth rabbi fears 'significant professional repercussions’ for stating opinions on Israel or government policies, according to a poll by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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BOSTON - A new study finds that Israel’s handling of the conflict with the Palestinians has increasingly become a problem for one of the groups most committed to the Jewish state: American Jewish rabbis. Younger, left-leaning rabbis are particularly fearful of speaking their minds.

About one-third of rabbis, most of them Reform or Conservative, said they had repressed their true views about Israel, according to the study released Tuesday by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community.

About 18 percent said they had more dovish views, while just over 12 percent "said that, in effect, they are 'closet hawks.'" Both sets of rabbis said they were more reluctant to speak out publicly for fear of clashing with leaders in their communities.

But the fear among dovish rabbis was markedly higher. Forty-three percent of doves were deemed “very fearful,” compared with just under 25 percent of their hawkish colleagues.

“We have an emerging picture of younger, more dovish, more politically liberal rabbis, as well as counterparts on the right who are expressing concerns that they could suffer repercussions. And so they have changed the way they speak about Israel,” said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist of the American Jewish community and co-author of the report.

And though polling shows that younger, non-Orthodox Jews appear more distant from Israel and critical of the current government’s policies, the older leaders of Reform and Conservative synagogues tend to have more right-leaning positions, said Cohen. These older leaders are the ones who make community decisions such as hiring.

“I saw many of my classmates and younger colleagues come under attack or question by the broader Jewish community about how important Israel was to them and where they stood,” said Jason Gitlin, a newly ordained rabbi who studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and co-authored the study. “They are among the most informed and knowledgeable people, and to not have them serve in the most honest and engaging way is a loss to the community.”

One in five rabbis reported that to some extent they “fear significant professional repercussions” if they state their opinions about Israel or specific government policies. One in five also said their synagogue or organization had avoided programming about Israel so as not to stoke controversy.

In the study, the first large-scale survey of American rabbis’ connection to Israel and the challenges they face in expressing their views, 552 rabbis were interviewed. The authors note that this is not a fully representative sample, but it does suggest patterns.

Most of those surveyed had visited Israel and nearly 90 percent had visited Israel at least four times. These rabbis describe themselves as deeply attached to Israel; people who visit frequently and follow the news closely.

In the past two decades, as American Conservative and Reform rabbinical students began studying in Israel for a year as part of their ordination process, they seem to have returned more dovish about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Cohen. “People who visit Israel more are more attached to Israel and less likely to idealize and heroicize Israel,” he said, citing past research.

But the experience of Reform and Conservative rabbinical students appears to contrast with their Orthodox counterparts, who tend to have more hawkish views on Israel, studies such as a recent one by Pew have found.

The new report’s authors warn of the dangers of repressing debate in the American Jewish community.

“A stifled debate means a less healthy discourse and missed educational opportunities, to say nothing of leadership and rabbinic careers that are injured as a consequence. The openness and vigor of Israel’s democracy can well serve as a model and frame for the discussions of Israel’s policies that can and should characterize the parallel discourse among America’s Jews – including their rabbis and other communal leaders,” the report concludes.

The JCPA's president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, in Tel Aviv during the group's leadership mission in 2010. Credit: Jewish Council for Public Affairs