My grandfather, for many years a leading figure in American Jewish life, would occasionally share the following quip with me. “There are two views of sociology,” he would say. “The complimentary view holds that sociology proves the obvious. The more realistic view holds that it proves the false.” And then he would burst out laughing.
It wasn’t, I admit, a terribly charitable view of a serious discipline. But I loved to see him laugh, so I enjoyed the pleasure the joke gave him. I hadn’t thought of that line of his for a long time, until JTS, the very institution at which he was Professor of Bible, recently released its study of the attitudes of Conservative rabbis to Israel.
The study was prepared by Steven Cohen, an internationally respected sociologist and expert on contemporary American Jewry. It was precipitated, apparently, by a column I first wrote for the Jerusalem Post (“Of Sermons and Strategies,” April 1, 2011), in which I worried that some number of young rabbinical students has become emotionally distanced from Israel. I shared a number of anecdotes that seemed to me worrisome: one student who needed a new tallit and who asked for advice as to where to purchase one, but who insisted that it must not have been made in Israel, or another student chose to celebrate his birthday with friends in a bar in Ramallah, with PLO posters still adorning the wall. We are witness, I wrote then and still believe, to a significant shift in the attitudes of the future leaders of American Jewish life; without some major change, American support for Israel – which proved instrumental at the United Nations during the week before Rosh Hashanah – could well begin to wither.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was a longer piece I wrote in Commentary (June 2011), in which I argued that what is truly at play is not only this generation’s attitude to Israel, but rather, the fact that it is much more committed to universalism than it is to particularism. They are much more comfortable seeing themselves as part of a global human family than they are extolling the virtues of belonging to a specific people. Their attitudes to Israel follow from that. For what animates them is not, first and foremost, the extraordinary rebirth of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland, but rather, a conflict between an underdog (the Palestinians) and a massive military power (Israel). Without a commitment to peoplehood and particularism, I suggested, such a generation simply will not feel an instinctive sense that its first obligation is the defense of the Jewish State.
And I had but one concrete suggestion: “Addressing that need is going to require that rabbinical schools cease circling the wagons, and instead acknowledge the depth of the challenge they now face.”
Oh, well. For what is this newly released study if not a classic case of “circling the wagons”? How surprised ought we to be that the study shows that rabbis’ attachments to Israel are still strong? They’re just … well, different. More support the positions of J-Street, while fewer support the view that they associate with AIPAC. Which is, of course, precisely what I had suggested. But you wouldn’t know that from the wagon-circling-association. The Forward, not surprisingly, relished the apparent “disproof” of my thesis. (Haaretz ran a similar article; this, too, was no surprise.) “Study Debunks Daniel Gordis’ Claim That They Are Anti-Israel,” ran the Forward’s sub-headline. But, of course, I had never said that these students are anti-Israel. I had said that their attitudes to Israel are shifting. And the study proves exactly that.
But that is not all that is worrisome about the study.
First (and I admit that this is more amusing than serious), the report’s author got the year of my graduation from JTS wrong. I found myself actually hoping that the rest of his numbers were a bit more carefully compiled. But who knows?
Second, and infinitely more important, is the astonishing fact that no one – not the Forward, not Haaretz, no other paper – pointed to the irony that it was JTS (one of the rabbinical schools about which I’d written) that commissioned the study. Would we ask tobacco manufacturers to investigate the relationship between smoking and cancer? Was even a pretense of objectivity no longer necessary?
Third, what we are witness to is a shift in emphasis from the particular to the universal, from an instinct that worries first about Israel’s need to survive to one in which Israel’s social flaws are paramount. Understanding this shift requires lengthy qualitative interviews, not the sort of questionnaire that we (yes, I was also polled, though I didn’t participate) were sent via email so that results could be compiled quickly. The stakes for the Jewish people are too high for us to pretend to have learned what we have not yet even studied.
And finally, we are to be comforted by the claim that this generation is simply more J-Street oriented? We’re to find solace in their feeling best represented by an organization that called for a cease fire in Operation Cast Lead just hours after the war erupted, before Israel had accomplished anything? That had said virtually nothing during all the years that Sderot was being shelled? That lobbied Congress against a resolution condemning incitement in Palestinian Schools? Or that was “unable to support” HR 867, which rejected the Goldstone Report as biased and unfair (a charge which Judge Richard Goldstone himself eventually acknowledged)? How much more clearly could the JTS study have proved exactly what I’d said?
Sometimes, despite my grandfather’s quip, it’s just the case that sociology proves the true. And what Cohen’s survey showed was that I was right – all of us who foresee an era of Israel battling for survival in the court of international opinion have cause for great concern. Peter Beinart said it best in his much discussed New York Review of Books article: “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
Sadly, many rabbinical students are no exception to this observation. But here’s the good news. Beinart and I agree? Perhaps this will be a year of miracles, after all.