Jewish Orthodoxy Can’t Be Truly Open if It Is Closed to the Palestinians

The cancelation of Rashid Khalidi’s talk at New York’s Ramaz School suggests that Orthodox Jews lack self-confidence in their own Zionism.

Alex Livak

Last spring, some students at New York’s most prestigious Orthodox Jewish high school, Ramaz, eager for a greater diversity of perspectives on Israel, invited me to speak to their club. I did - and enjoyed it immensely - but told them I hadn’t solved their problem. If they wanted a truly open discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I ventured, they needed to do more than hear from both hawkish and dovish Zionists. They needed to hear from Palestinians.

To my surprise, they asked me to help make it happen. I recommended Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi, partly because he’s a world-renowned expert on Palestinian history and partly because I know Orthodox Jewish graduate students who consider him a mentor and friend. Khalidi agreed; the students were thrilled. He was set to speak on February 19.

Next thing I knew, the head of the Ramaz Upper School had canceled the talk and students had gathered a petition demanding “open dialogue” about Israel.

At one level, the Ramaz incident is typical. Again and again in recent years, young American Jews have pushed Jewish institutions to help them ask difficult questions about Zionism only to meet resistance from administrators and donors who fear (wrongly, in my view) that doing so will undermine the fight for Zionism. What makes the Khalidi case different is that the struggle for “open dialogue” about Israel is taking place in an Orthodox institution at the very moment Orthodox Jews are waging a broader struggle about exactly that: “open dialogue.”

The aspect of that intra-Orthodox struggle that gets the most ink concerns women. Four years ago, the maverick Orthodox rabbi Avi Weiss ordained the first “rabba” - essentially a female Orthodox rabbi - thus provoking the fury of the Orthodox right. Kehilath Jeshurun, the synagogue with which Ramaz is linked, now employs a self-described female “clergywoman." Kehilath Jeshurun’s rabbi, and Ramaz’s principal, Haskel Lookstein, recently said he would allow girls at the school to wear tefillin during morning prayers, another striking break with contemporary Orthodox practice.

But the struggle over gender equality bespeaks a deeper struggle over Orthodoxy’s willingness to learn from the moral and intellectual evolution of the outside world. The term Weiss uses to describe his brand of Orthodoxy is “Open.” Open Orthodoxy, he wrote in a 1997 essay, “acknowledges, considers and takes into account in varying ways a wide spectrum of voices” and insists that “our relationship to non-Jews is predicated on the principle that every human being is created in the image of God, and, thus, our responsibility is to reach out to non-Jews.”

Unlike the Orthodox right, which largely sees the outside world as a source of moral and theological infection, Weiss and Ramaz stand in the tradition of the legendary American rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who possessed a Ph.D in German philosophy and ran the rabbinical seminary at Yeshiva University at a time when it more fully embraced its motto of Torah Umadda: “Torah and Secular Knowledge.”

Today, as the Ramaz incident shows, the “openness” in Open Orthodoxy doesn’t extend to Palestinians. When it comes to Israel, rabbis like Weiss and Lookstein lean to the right. And even if they wanted greater dialogue with Palestinians, they might fear that courting additional controversy would undermine their already embattled position in the Orthodox world.

But how can a movement premised on “reach[ing] out to non-Jews” not reach out to the non-Jews who represent close to fifty percent of the people under Israeli control? How can a movement eager to take “into account in varying ways a wide spectrum of voices,” not take into account the voices of Palestinians? That doesn’t mean making Open Orthodoxy - a movement Weiss says invests the state of Israel with “enormous religious meaning”- any less Zionistic. It means recognizing that just as learning from secular scholars can enhance, rather than undermine, an Orthodox Jew’s religious commitment, learning from Palestinians can enhance, rather than undermine, a Jew’s Zionism.

What distinguishes Open Orthodoxy’s attitude to the outside world from the attitude prevalent on the Orthodox right is self-confidence: the self-confidence to believe you can hear challenging views without sacrificing your core beliefs. What does it say about the administrators at Ramaz that after immersing their high school students in a passionately Zionist environment for years and years, they lack the self-confidence to expose them to one lecture from a Palestinian?

In 2011, Rabbi Yosef Blau, senior mashgiach ruchani, or spiritual adviser, at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, spoke about travelling with the group Encounter to meet Palestinians in the West Bank. A while later, after a Palestinian terrorist brutally murdered a Jewish family in the settlement of Itamar, Blau emailed Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American he had met on the trip, to express his fears about Palestinian hatred of Jews. Bahour replied, according to Blau, “that when in 2004–5 the Israeli Defense Forces was bombing Ramallah with F-16s during the second intifada, he [Bahour] told his young daughters that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was piloting each bomber plane flying over their heads. It was the only way he could think of to convince them that this was not being done by “Jews” or “Israelis,” but rather one individual political/military figure who was responsible. He wanted to teach them to direct their anger at one man and one man only; he refused to allow his daughters to perceive all Israelis as war-mongering and violent.”

Bahour’s response, Blau declared, “forced me to confront the humanity of those who had been 'other' - to internalize their humanity emotionally. This is perhaps one of the greatest expressions of this core message of our Torah.”

It should be among Open Orthodoxy’s core messages too. I love the idea that Jews can live in accordance with Torah while also absorbing the truth and beauty in the outside world. It’s part of the reason I attend a minyan closely associated with Open Orthodoxy myself. But no movement that walls itself off from Palestinians can truly fulfill that mission. That’s what the dissident Ramaz students are trying to tell the leaders of their school. If Open Orthodoxy one day fulfills its promise, it will be because of people like them.