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Are Rabbis Giving Up on Israel? A Provocative New Study

Are Rabbis Giving Up on Israel? A Provocative New Study

The Conservative movement recently conducted a survey of hundreds of its rabbis and the results are in: on the whole, they’re as committed to Israel as they’ve ever been, although younger rabbis have more liberal views about the state than they’ve used to. The purpose behind this survey is clear: to assure anxious Jewish leaders that, contra the skeptics, Israel remains as vital a part of Jewish life as ever. Ninety-five percent said they’re "pro-Israel" and 88 percent said that, emotionally, the were "very attached" to Israel. Case closed.

But once the questions addressed Israel’s actual policies today, opinions diverged markedly: 46 percent said they were "always proud" of Israel, but 44 percent said they were "sometimes ashamed." Sixty-three percent thought that Israel should freeze settlements in the West Bank, and another 17 percent were unsure. More than twice as many rabbis supported Obama’s call for a peace deal based on ’67 borders with lands swaps than those that opposed it, and the vast majority–78 percent–viewed the settler movement unfavorably.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, and I personally find it encouraging that so many Conservative rabbis, even if deeply attached to Israel, have no problem criticizing it. But I’m also skeptical about how much this can tell us. The press release that publicized the survey today announced proudly: "the survey…demonstrates that current JTS rabbinical students are no less passionate about Israel and their connection to the Jewish state than their older counterparts." Which is significant, said JTS chancellor Arnold Eisen, "in light of widespread concern in our community (which I share) about decreasing attachment on the part of younger North American Jews to Israel."

But that implies a couple of things that I don’t think make this survey all too significant.

First, it assumes that rabbis views on Israel have an important impact of the views of a large number of Jews. Given that the vast majority of Jews in America–as well as the lax participation of Jews who even bother to register with a movement–I don’t think many Jews take their rabbis’ views about Israel too seriously. And second, I don’t think the increasingly liberal political views on Israel held by Conservative rabbis bodes well for those emotional attachments. If Israel’s policies remain or even increase in their conservatism, even generally supportive Jews will find Israel something harder and harder to love.

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