Liberal, but Still pro-Israel

The policy view of the rabbis and students tends to resemble those of Israel's Zionist opposition parties: Almost two-thirds of them favor a settlement freeze.

Ask yourself the following:

1 ) What group of American Jews lobbied for a UN resolution calling for a Palestinian state?

NYC protest Tracy Levy 15911
Tracy Levy

2 ) Shortly after the Six-Day War, which Israeli leader advised his country to relinquish control of the territories?

3 ) Which American president called for establishing a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 boundaries?

The answers: 1 ) U.S. Zionist leadership in 1947; 2 ) David Ben-Gurion; 3 ) every president since Lyndon Johnson.

Support for partitioning Eretz Israel has a long pro-Israel pedigree. But not according to some critics of a study I conducted this past summer among the students and alumni of the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of higher education for Conservative leaders.

Unhappy with the rabbis' views, the critics apparently believe that vigorous support for a two-state solution is incompatible with being truly pro-Israel, let alone a Zionist. In their view, some claims of support for Israel do not deserve to be taken at face value, and Jews who veer from the current government's policies are charged with being insufficiently attached to Israel and Jewish peoplehood. More than one commentator blames the rabbis for an excess of "universal" values and liberal political views, arguing outright that liberal universalism is inherently incompatible with passionate attachment to Israel.

The actual data from the study tell quite a different story. We learn that the vast number of current and former JTS rabbinical students see themselves as very attached to Israel, as Zionists, as Israel-engaged and, yes, as pro-Israel. Of the current crop of rabbinical students, 92 percent agree that, "Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew." For those ordained since 1995, the figure reaches 94 percent; for those ordained earlier, it's nearly universal (99 percent). One-hundred percent of the 317 rabbis and students surveyed claim to "have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish People," and 98 percent feel they "have a responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world." Fully 89 percent believe that "Israel's very existence has significantly contributed to the vitality of American Jewry," with only 4 percent disagreeing.

As we learn from earlier studies, these figures vary sharply from much lower levels of pro-Israel sentiment among American Jews in general. And they hold these strongly pro-Israel views notwithstanding their liberal political identities, as self-described liberals heavily outnumber conservatives, 58 percent to 8 percent.

The rabbis and students exhibit high levels of pro-Israel sentiments partially as a result of their considerably widespread experience living and studying in Israel. Almost all (91 percent ) have conducted some of their rabbinical training in Israel, and most (63 percent ) have attended an Israeli university. Around two-thirds have given serious thought to making aliyah, or already have done so.

With so many of the respondents having lived and studied in Israel, it's no surprise that their attitudes cover the full spectrum of views within the country, largely resembling those held by Israel's highly educated, non-Orthodox Zionist public. On whether "the current Israeli government truly wants peace," 36 percent agree, with 34 percent not sure and 30 percent disagreeing. They are divided as well (37 percent / 35 percent / 28 percent ) over whether Israel's government "really wants to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state."

The policy view of the rabbis and students tends to resemble those of Israel's Zionist opposition parties: Almost two-thirds of them favor a settlement freeze, and 71 percent favor "Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders with land swaps." Now, among Israelis, such a broad range of contesting views is not at all exceptional. Nor are they widely branded as "anti-Israel."

But things are a bit different among American Jewish leaders, many of whom will be attending the 2011 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America beginning on Sunday. Even if they agree in principle with the positions of the more "dovish" JTS rabbis and students (and many leaders do ), many feel they lack the moral standing to voice them. Nor are they comfortable with others expressing dismay with the Israeli government, even when that dismay echoes that expressed by Israel's highest security officials, opposition parties, leading writers - and, in truth, their own private views. Apparently, the legitimacy of criticizing Israel's government extends to the Israeli public, but is a matter of contention and contestation in the American Jewish public.

In the last few years, some of Israel's most ardent supporters have been working to narrow the definition of "pro-Israel," calling into question the loyalty of those holding pro-conciliation and anti-settlement positions. Some hope to conflate "pro-Israel-government" with "pro-Israel," posing a false and dangerous dichotomy between a commitment to universal values and loving Israel. Insofar as such ideas take root, they will only serve to silence and drive away many of Israel's most passionate and well-informed supporters - including not only many Jewish young people, but, it seems, a good portion of their own spiritual leaders as well.

Prof. Steven M. Cohen made aliyah in 1992, and divides his time between New York and Jerusalem. He is director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.