Tag Archives: liberal

Left-leaning, But Not Left Behind

by Erica Shaps

I am not a rabbinical student. My talit was made in Israel and I recently celebrated my 20th birthday in Jerusalem, not Ramallah. I am not a card-carrying member of J Street. Although I do not fit the descriptions in Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s anecdotes, I strongly identify as a “young liberal American Jew” similar to those he has written about with increasing alarm and fear.

I have deep respect for Gordis, and have read his work fairly regularly since I was fifteen. However, I find his recent articles about rabbinical students’ relationship with Israel and, by extension, my generations’ shifting attitudes regarding Israel, to be shortsighted and concerning.

In a lengthy piece in Commentary, Gordis expresses trepidation regarding rabbinical students’ Israeli politics and what this may mean for the future. He poses the question, “Are Young Jews Turning On Israel?” I share his concern for the future of Jewish leadership and the wider community. However, my primary concern is not an abundance of future rabbis criticizing Israel from the pulpit. Instead, I am concerned about a day when they are indifferent toward Israel.

From my experience, many active liberal Jews in my generation experience a moment of epiphany in which they realize Israel isn’t perfect. Often, they respond with one of three broad reactions: They become completely apathetic to Israel; they join anti-Zionist organizations or become active in movements like the BDS effort; or, to use Gordis’s terms, they work to reconcile their inclination toward universalism with their desire to maintain particularism toward the Jewish people. They try to create a world and an Israel that is better than the one they inherited. This final category likely includes many of the rabbinical students in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s recent and fascinating survey, which was largely prompted by Gordis’ article. Ninety-four percent of both current and former students polled “feel Zionist.” When asked about specific groups, 58% of students said they favorably viewed J Street, a left-leaning Zionist organization that Gordis has criticized. Meanwhile, AIPAC, the largest and most established Israel lobby, was viewed favorably by only 42%.

In his latest article, Gordis still feels that rabbinical students are sacrificing Zionism for liberalism. I can’t comment on his claims regarding the survey’s validity, but I am frustrated by his analysis of its results. Maybe rabbinical schools should review their Israel education programs. My question is, what should this new curriculum include: Materials from diverse perspectives? Or should students simply re-learn the narrative from Hebrew school that failed to quench their thirst for knowledge years ago?

My greatest concern is Gordis’s claim that “responding to this challenge… will be a matter of admissions.” If I understand this correctly, it pains me to think of how many bright and passionate young Jews may be turned away by such a policy. As a member of the laity, I want a rabbi who thinks critically about everything–including Israel.

All of the reasons Gordis gives for this phenomenon (a commitment to universalism over particularism and naivete among them) point to faults within the rabbinical students. However, is it possible that the problem lies within Israel’s policies as well? Could it be that the current Israeli government’s actions, or lack thereof, and not the students’ naivete and universalism, are the catalyst for this notable shift in attitude?

If I could offer Gordis and his contemporaries some advice, I’d say this: We are not turning on Israel, so don’t turn on us. By all means, disagree with us, but please don’t push us away. Let’s talk openly and equally, without predetermined conclusions. If rabbinical students say they are Zionists, don’t tell them that they identified themselves incorrectly because of where they celebrated their birthday or what organizations they might support.

Gordis is right to say that “memory is the first factor.” My generation didn’t witness the 1967 war. Israel has been occupying another people for the entire duration of our lives. We have repeatedly witnessed Israel enact policies that further work against its long-term interest. For better or worse, these events are cemented in our memories.

Unlike my grandparents, I cannot see Israel as a mythic utopia out of a Leon Uris novel. After spending four months studying and volunteering here, I see Israel as a complicated and dynamic country that is my spiritual home, the epicenter of my culture and the eternal homeland of my people. It is a place that brings out the best in me. I do not love Israel less than my parents and grandparents: I love Israel differently. I’m sure many of the rabbinical students in question would express similar sentiments.


Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles

By Steven Philp

It is a common fiction that Jews control Hollywood. Yet there are few more adamant about this misrepresentation—and no one less happy—than Orthodox Jew and conservative columnist Ben Shapiro. According to his new book Primetime Propaganda the producers, writers, and actors based in Los Angeles are, instead, a group of liberals using television to promote a “radical” agenda. Friends counters traditional family values, Happy Days took a stance against American engagement in Viet Nam, and M*A*S*H pushed the merits of pacifism. In an interview with The Independent, Shapiro promises that his book will illustrate how people in the industry have attempted to “shape America in their own leftist image.” The 416-page exposé utilizes interviews with approximately seventy media professionals; this includes what he characterizes as “gotcha” moments, in which those interviewed admit to using television to convey progressive themes. “I was shocked by the openness of the Hollywood crowd when it came to admitting anti-conservative discrimination inside the industry,” Shapiro explained to The Independent. “They weren’t ashamed of it. In fact, some were actually proud of it.”

Among the interviewees is Martha Kauffman—the Jewish co-creator of the critically acclaimed television series Friends—who explained her decision behind casting the sister of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich as the officiate of a same-sex wedding. “When we did the lesbian wedding, we knew there was going to be some flack,” said Kauffman, touching on the prevalence of homophobia in the mid-1990’s. “I have to say, when we cast Candice Gingrich as the minister of that wedding, there was a bit of a ‘fuck you’ in it to the right-wing, directly.” Newt Gingrich has been an outspoken opponent against equal rights for the LGBTQ community; in an interview with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly on November 14, 2008 he illustrated his fear of a “gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us.”

Shapiro is particularly critical of the influence television has had on American children; his vitriol reaches its apex when addressing Sesame Street. He accuses the series—which has received over 100 Emmy Awards—of brainwashing its viewers.  The show premiered in 1969, and featured characters like Oscar the Grouch to teach tolerance when one is faced with “conflicts arising from racial and ethnic diversity.” Shapiro touts his belief that the show has motivated minority groups toward civil disobedience, through its messages of equality and sharing.  “Sesame Street tried to tackle divorce, tackled ‘peaceful conflict resolution’ in the aftermath of 9/11 and had [openly gay actor] Neil Patrick Harris on the show playing the subtly-named fairy shoeperson.” What is intolerable to Shapiro is the series’ message of tolerance, and that it would encourage young Americans to stand up against the injustices of discrimination.

Shapiro admits that the people he interviewed may have been candid with him because they were unfamiliar with his conservative politics. “There was a certain amount of stereotyping on their part in granting the interview,” he explained to The Independent. “Many probably assumed that with a name like Shapiro and a Harvard Law credential, there was no need to Google me: I would have to be a leftist. In Hollywood, talking to a Jew with a Harvard Law baseball cap is like talking to someone wearing an Obama pin.” Shapiro has been critical of the progressive character of the Jewish American community. In an article posted to Townhall, he explained his opinion that Jews who vote for Obama are “Jews in Name Only,” placed in dialectic opposition to the Jewish community. Considering attempts by the Obama administration to push compromise on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and citing its affiliation with “anti-Semitic” government officials, Shapiro expresses his befuddlement that any Jew would vote for or support our current President. He concludes that these Jews must “not care about Israel. Or if they do, they care about it less than abortion, gay marriage and global warming.” For Shapiro only an uncompromising nationalism defines the Jewish people, while placing primacy on human dignity belies “true” Jewish values. Both his unwavering stance on Israel and his McCarthyism are anachronistic; the conclusion that pacifism, tolerance, and diversity are un-American speaks to an era that we have gladly left behind. Shapiro accuses liberal Jews of creating unnecessary divisions within our community, yet by characterizing them as “not authentically Jewish” vis-à-vis their political imperatives, he commits the same crime. Furthermore, by questioning the veracity of their self-identification with Judaism, Shapiro violates the halakhic mores that mandate our respect toward fellow Jews.

It is an imperative laid out in Deuteronomy that we treat strangers with respect, and the impassioned plea of the prophet Isaiah that we grant the widow and orphan kindness. Counter to Shapiro’s ethno-centric conception of Judaism, protecting vulnerable classes is also a Jewish value; that the television industry bears witness to the myriad facets of humankind—and that series like Sesame Street teach our children to accept these differences—even if characterized as a “liberal agenda,” is one that every Jew should be proud to stand behind.