What does it profit the Reform movement to have embraced Zionism if the conversation around Israel is so toxic that people don’t want to talk about it?
That, in a nutshell, is the problem Rabbi Stanley Davids addressed as co-editor of a recent book, “The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism,” which the Reform movement’s CCAR Press published last year.
And it is the question that he will ask on Friday night, October 12, when he delivers the annual Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg memorial lecture at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth. (See box.)
Rabbi Trachtenberg, who led Temple Emeth from 1954 until his death in 1959, is most famous beyond Bergen County for his scholarship in such works as “Jewish Magic and Superstition.” Rabbi Davids, however, will discuss a different aspect of Rabbi Trachtenberg’s legacy — his role as a leading Zionist within Reform Judaism. In 1951, Rabbi Trachtenberg embarked on a four-month fact-finding mission to the young State of Israel on behalf of the Reform movement. What was happening there? What should Reform Jews do about Israel?
His answers, according to Rabbi Davids, proved prescient. Among other things he called for American Reform Jews to create and strengthen a native Israeli Reform movement.
Reform Judaism came late to Zionism. In the 19th century, Reform Judaism had rejected the idea of Jewish nationhood. Jews were to be citizens of their own country, its leaders believed. When Theodor Herzl began agitating for a Jewish state, he found tepid support among Reform Jews in Germany and America. “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community,” is how the movement’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform phrased it. Half a century later, in 1937, with the rise of Hitler, the movement adopted a new position, which “embraced the idea of a Jewish homeland and a Jewish state,” Rabbi Davids said. “But it was a rescue operation. It was a response to the growing horror in Europe. It did not reflect a fundamental change in orientation toward Jewish nationalism.”
This was two years before Rabbi Davids was born, in 1939. He grew up in Cleveland. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, who was a leader of American Zionism, headed the largest Reform congregation there, but another Reform congregation was formed around its opposition to Zionism. The debate over Zionism in Reform Judaism was still real in Cleveland, even as the State of Israel came into existence.
When Rabbi Davids was ordained as a Reform rabbi, he was clearly on the Zionist side.
“I was mentored by a great Zionist rabbi, Rabbi Leon Kronish of Miami Beach, a powerhouse of the Israel Bonds organization,” Rabbi Davids said.
In 1978, Rabbi Davids was among the Reform rabbis who fought and won a battle to launch the Association of Reform Zionists of America, ARZA. From 2004 to 2008 he headed ARZA and represented the Reform movement on the board of the World Zionist Organization.
So this summer, when the Union for Reform Judaism unanimously adopted the Jerusalem Program, making it officially a Zionist organization, you’d think he could be content.
After all, “we’ve gone from contentious founding of ARZA to the unanimous embrace of the Jerusalem Program,” Rabbi Davids said. “And that resolution to support the existence of a Jewish state and support Zionist activities as intrinsic to Jewish identity was adopted in the midst of growing disenchantment regarding the State of Israel in many segments of the Reform world and Jewish world in America.”
But the acceptance of Zionism as an abstract ideal obscured the fact that the Jewish community is “ripping itself apart at the seams” over Israel, he said.
Rabbi Davids lived is Israel for a decade and then he moved to Los Angeles in 2014. The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles turned to him to help with its problems in the Jewish community.
“The traditional community, which would encompass Orthodox Judaism, was moving ever more strongly toward an uncritical approach to whatever Israel was doing and found criticism of Israel to be synonymous with opposing Israel,” he said. “The communities left of center was finding it increasingly difficult to support a right wing government in Israel that is viewed as increasingly anti-democratic, increasingly racist in its approach to its non-Jewish citizens, and increasingly exclusionary in its treatment of non-Orthodox Jewish organizations and institutions.”
And that is not to mention “the great debate of whether the current makeup of the Israeli government is in fact making good faith efforts to move the peace process forward, even incrementally. The liberal community is split on this, but certainly split from the traditional community which views any criticism as being opposed to the very existence of Israel.”
Which leads to the problem within the Jewish community: “We’re not talking at each other. We’re lobbing missiles at each other. We’re not hearing the nuances and subtleties of what profoundly committed Zionists are trying to say.”
The consulate had asked him to help bring the Los Angeles community together in dialogue. He tried — but the dialogue didn’t last.
Rabbi Davids hasn’t given up. He still believes in dialogue within the Jewish community, within the Reform movement, and as he will say on Friday night, even within Temple Emeth.
“We have to actively establish opportunities for those who are willing to discuss and dialogue to sit together. Dialogue is all about a willingness to hear. To hear is much more than to listen to the words of people with whom you disagree so you can argue with them. To hear is to be open to the possibility that something of which you are the ideological opponent might in fact contain kernels of truth and reason. The Jewish community must actively support the creation of such safe settings within which leadership across a broad swathe of the Jewish community can come to talk with and understand and move forward with ideological opponents.
“We are living at a time in which civility in disagreement has pretty much disappeared. Part of the Zionist dialogue in the U.S. has been swept up in the same yelling that characterizes political differences today,” he said.
The yelling, Rabbi Davids said, is leading Jews to distance themselves from Israel.
“It’s not anti-Zionist or anti-Israel. A whole segment of the American Jewish community is moving not toward anti-Zionism, but to agnosticism about Zionism. They are no longer understanding and no longer willing to devote the time to understanding because the subject is too fraught.”
Why did the effort to establish a respectful dialogue in Los Angeles ultimately fail, despite its support from the Israeli consul general and from local Jewish leaders?
Rabbi Davids blamed “the vast ideological chasms” within that community. The strong Iranian Jewish community and the right-wing Orthodox community were “difficult to bring to the table. I had several important key leaders in that community who were in fact willing but they had trouble getting their troops behind them.
“And in the Reform community some were irreconcilably angry and distant from the Netanyahu government. It made it difficult.”
Rabbi Davids then started a dialogue in a safer, more manageable space: between the covers of a book. “The Fragile Dialogue” brought together different voices from the Reform movement discussing Israel. The range of opinions is sufficiently wide that the movement insisted on a disclaimer, saying that not all of the views in the book represent those of the editors or publisher.
And now Rabbi Davids is calling for dialogue to happen across America.
“Create a salon structure, a gathering together of people from different professional and educational backgrounds who are willing to sit and talk with each other in a guided fashion about how they understand Israel and Zionism in their lives,” he said. “We have to change the conversational climate in our communities. It’s not going to be done in one fell swoop and it’s not going to be done in a national conference. We need to get people talking. It’s not adult education. It’s guided conversation among people who are willing to consider a different way to approach Israel in 2018.”
Such conversations are not taking place in the levels of national and international Zionist leadership that brings together groups with distinct and differing views, such as the World Zionist Organization. “There is no safe location at those levels for these conversations,” Rabbi Davids said. “Everyone seems intent on proving his or her position, and the result is chaos, antagonism, isolation, separation, and a weakening of the Zionist endeavor.”
Beyond learning to talk together, Rabbi Davids wants the community to reconsider the way it teaches about Israel and Zionism.
“One of the most important articles in the book was an article about Jewish education,” he said. “We have to dare to teach our young people subtleties in viewing Israel, so that when they get to the college campus they don’t feel blindsided and they don’t feel ill-educated,” he said.
“We as a community bear a serious burden of responsibility for not having taught our young people that an approach to Israel and an approach to Zionism must be nuanced with historical reality and not just transferred and transmitted as an ideological fairy tale which, when challenged, can make the recipients of fairy tales feel very adequate, very angry, and very confused,” he said. “How are we going to do that kind of education if we don’t have a Jewish community willing to tolerate and embrace a different form of Jewish education?”
Rabbi Davids now is working on a second volume for CCAR Press “that will bring together leading voices for reexamining Zionism both from Israel and North America,” he said. The book will be published in both English and Hebrew.
“Those of us who live in the diaspora have to stop diagnosing and prescribing what is wrong with Israel and what will heal the Jewish state,” he said. “We have to move into a posture of partnership, of real healing and bridge-building. Israelis don’t have much regard for diaspora Jews sitting where diaspora Jews sit and describing what Israel should do. We need partnership, we need dialogue, and it has to take place among a diverse population of active members of the Jewish community.”
Replacing criticism with partnership does not mean accepting Israel as it is, however. “If the diaspora Jewish world is to survive, diaspora Jewry requires a Jewish state that is healthy, democratic, pluralistic, profoundly Jewish, and profoundly just,” he said.
“We used to speak of the Jewish world geographically as a circle with a single point, and the center is Israel,” he said. “That is not an effective description of what it will take to make the Jewish community of the mid-21st century come alive. Ours is a Jewish world with two interdependent centers. Those centers have to be internally healthy and those centers have to be in a healthy partnership relationship. That’s what I’m working for.”