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Rabbis’ love for Israel: Is it a generational thing?

by Dan Klein, JTA

October 4, 2011 | 4:12 pm

Temple Mount and Western Wall during Shabbat. Photo by David Shankbone

Temple Mount and Western Wall during Shabbat. Photo by David Shankbone

Do Conservative rabbis become more politically conservative on Israel as they grow older, or are older rabbis simply more right wing than younger rabbis when it comes to Israel?

A new study by the Conservative movement’s flagship institution presents some evidence of a generational gap among rabbis, finding that older ones tend to identify more closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, while younger ones also favorably view J Street, the more liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group.

The author of the Jewish Theological Seminary survey, demographer Steven M. Cohen, suggests that it’s a function not of the rabbis’ ages but the era in which they came of age.

“It is a major shift in a Zionist worldview—a movement towards a more progressive Zionist position,” said Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy research at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a senior adviser to the seminary’s chancellor.

In an interview with JTA, Cohen surmised that younger rabbis identify as more liberal because “they grew up at a time when Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors was more complicated than the binary relationship that the older generation grew up with.” He suggested that because the rabbis are closer and more exposed to “real life” in Israel because their rabbinical programs require that they spend a year there, they are “more willing to adopt views critical of the Israeli government.”

The online survey of 317 JTS-ordained rabbis and 51 JTS rabbinical students, titled “JTS Rabbis and Israel, Then and Now: The 2011 Survey of JTS Ordained Rabbis and Current Students,” found that 58 percent of students and 54 percent of rabbis ordained since 1994 view J Street favorably, while 42 percent of students and 64 percent of rabbis view AIPAC favorably.

In the older cohort—rabbis ordained between 1980 and 1994—80 percent of the rabbis responding viewed AIPAC favorably, but only 32 percent had a favorable view of J Street. The survey also found that the students and younger rabbis were more concerned than their elders about social issues in Israel, such as the treatment of Arab citizens, women and Palestinians.

The survey was prompted by a controversial essay in the June issue of Commentary that argued that a growing proportion of non-Orthodox rabbis in training hold alarmingly hostile views toward Israel, and that rabbinical seminaries were refusing to address the issue. The author of the piece, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, vice president of the Shalem Center, a hawkish Israeli think tank, declined to comment for this story.

“We didn’t think it was true,” Cohen said of the Gordis essay, “but felt we needed to check it out.”

The new survey is the latest salvo in the intense debate over Israel among American Jews, and American Jewish groups concerned with Israel already are debating its findings. J Street officials told JTA that the study is indicative of a generational shift among American Jews toward more progressive Zionism.

“It’s very encouraging that rabbinical students are finding ways to bring their Jewish values with them when they talk about Israel,” said Rachel Lerner, vice president of the J Street Education Fund.

But a former AIPAC official dismissed the idea that the findings reflect a generational shift in the rabbinate.

“A lot of 22-year-olds say things they don’t believe when they’re 30,” said AIPAC’s former spokesman, Josh Block, who is now a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Thirty-year-olds change by the time when they’re 40. By the time they’re at a place where they’re joining positions of leadership, they will have matured.”

Block also said the survey questions were unfair, characterizing AIPAC as “the Israel lobby” and J Street as “the ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ group.”

AIPAC declined to comment for this story.

Cohen said the survey’s results suggest that JTS rabbis across the generations have similarly high levels of attachment to Israel but expressed the attachments differently.

Asked how concerned they are about security threats toward Israel, 83 percent of the rabbis ordained between 1980 and 1994 said they were very concerned, compared to 80 percent of those ordained between 1995 and 2011, and 78 percent of current students.

Choosing among AIPAC, J Street, StandWithUs, Rabbis for Human Rights and the New Israel Fund, the rabbis said they viewed AIPAC most favorably, while the students were most favorable to the New Israel Fund.

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