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The Numbers Prove It, Now Let's Use It: Young Rabbis Love Israel

10/03/2011 09:52 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2011
  • Scott Perlo Associate Director of Jewish Programming, Sixth & I

The recent study by HUC/JIR's Dr. Steven Cohen of rabbinical students at Jewish Theological Seminary proves it: young rabbis and current rabbinical students remain deeply committed to Israel.

For those of us who fall into either category, the JTS survey provides the kind of recognition and response that has been notably absent from contemporary Jewish discourse on Israel. The major hurdle the emerging third camp in American-Jewish Israel politics - pro-Israel, pro-peace - has had to overcome is a consistent delegitimization and demonization. That is to say that staking out the political space away from hawkish views of Israeli politics inevitably results in being branded a traitor to the cause. All of the pro-Israel, pro-peace activists and thinkers I know are under constant barrage of attempts to prove that they are faking their authentic and deep connection to Israel, that they are somehow the enemy itself.

The problem with this kind of delegitimization is that it puts stark limits on rational discourse. If the boundaries of the camp are drawn such that making statements like "continued settlement building is hurting Israel," or "neither side is doing enough to negotiate for peace," puts one on the outside of the community, then it is extremely difficult to introduce anything other than polemic into the way American Jews speak and think about Israel.

I am well aware that the results of the study will not satisfy the many and various hate-mailers (then again, no one publishes on the internet without receiving screed). However, I think it's incumbent upon those of us in the pro-Israel, pro-peace camp (young rabbis or not) to establish the factuality of our strong connection to Israel as the new normal, and to push forward strongly supporting the political voices in Israel speaking reason. Our new motto should be: "We support Israel, not Yisrael Beiteinu."

This new normal must have its heart in supporting Israel in its current and deeply distressing diplomatic position. What with the embassy attack in Egypt, the Turkish government's downgrading of its relations with Israel and, of course, the vote on a Palestinian state in the UN, it is the pro-Israel, pro-peace voice that needs to be loudest in demanding fair recognition of Israel's right to exist, recognition of her security concerns, and advocating for her legitimate place among the nations. As Yitz and Blu Greenberg argued in "The Jewish Week," we should use any recognition we've gained to speak out strongly against boycott, divestment, and sanctions movements.

However, that voice should also be aimed at the Israeli far-right, simply to say, "you aren't helping." Continued building of settlements is not helping. Denying Arabs housing permits within Israel isn't helping. Continued intransigence on peace negotiations isn't helping (though Benjamin Netanyahu's offer to negotiate on the floor of the UN is helping). As Israel's diplomatic position weakens, some kind of change to the status quo has to occur before things get even more difficult. Holding the Gush Emunim line is not helping.

Thus, one should say things like, "there is no moral equivalency between Palestinian suicide bombers and Israel defending itself," and also say, "the Israeli government needs to reconsider its approach if it expects any resolution to the conflict." It's possible to say, "there is an absolute need for Fatah to publicly recognize Israel's right to exist before peace can be made," and still say, "Israel must run humane checkpoints." Saying both isn't some form of hypocrisy. Saying both is just speaking reason. And, more importantly, there are rational voices all over Israel saying both.

It is our job to strengthen the legitimacy of these Israeli voices with any legitimacy we garner. In order to so do we must hold open the boundaries of Israel discourse in such a way that they cannot be wedged to demonize those who hold pro-Israel, pro-peace values. Based on the nature of this debate, the Cohen study will likely be a stepping-stone to the next iteration of the internal Jewish debate about Israel discourse. We will repeatedly have to defend the authenticity of our connection to Israel. But, if for a moment, it's good to be in the sun.