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Rabbis Are “Muzzled by the Minority” When It Comes to Expressing Their Views about Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld
Special Interest Report
December 2014

Rabbis across the U.S. have effectively silenced if their support for Israel  
and its policies are not total.  
A 2013 Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) study found that about one-  
third of rabbis said they repressed their true views about Israel for fear  
of clashing with members of their congregations.  
In his article, “Muzzled by the Minority,” published in the Fall 2014 issue  
of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for  
Reform Judaism, writes: “In 2012, I met with a dozen Reform and Conservative  
rabbis. Two of the rabbis, who served different synagogues, mentioned having  
each recently made the mistake of giving sermons that were somewhat critical  
of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. Congregants with hawkish views  
responded with such outrage, contempt and ferocity that the rabbis vowed  
that, going forward, they would simply remain silent on the subject in  
public, rather than subject themselves to arbitrary litmus tests of loyalty  
to Israel. The fact that not a single rabbi in the room suggested the two  
rabbis reconsider their decision didn’t strike me as strange. Truth is…  
American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.”  
In September, Rabbi Brant Rosen announced that he would step down from  
leadership at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congreg¬ation in Evanston,  
Illinois after 17 years because of his role in Jewish Voice for Peace and  
his advocacy of Palestinian rights “has become a lightning rod and  
divisive.” As he explained to The New York Times (Sept. 23, 2014): “For many  
Jews, Israel is their Judaism, or at least a big part of it. So when someone  
challenges the centrality of Israel in a public way, it’s very painful and  
very difficult, especially when that person is their rabbi.”  
According to the Times, “Forty-seven years after Israel’s victory in the  
1967 Middle East war…Israel’s occupation of Arab lands won in battle and its  
standoff with the Palestinians have become so divisive that many rabbis say  
it is impossible to have a civil conversation about Israel in their  
synagogues. Debate among Jews about Israel is nothing new, but some say the  
friction is now fire. Rabbis said in interviews that it may be too hot to  
touch, and many are anguishing about what to say about Israel in their  
sermons during the High Holy Days…”  
According to the Times, “Particul¬arly in the large cohort of rabbis who  
cons¬ider themselves liberals and believers in a ‘two-state solution,’ some  
said they are now hesitant to speak much about Israel at all. If they defend  
Israel, they risk alienating younger Jews who, rabbis say they have  
observed, are more detached from the Jewish state and organized Judaism. If  
they say anything critical of Israel, they risk anger¬ing the older, more  
conservative members who are often the larger donors and active  
The Times reports that, “One Milwaukee rabbi in the Conservative movement,  
who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because he is raising money from  
Jewish donors, said he was rejected for a position at a temple after he told  
the board that ‘there’s not just one Jewish point of view’ on Israel.  
Another rabbi’s board put a note in her file saying she cannot speak about  
Israel….Last year, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California of the Jewish  
Federation of Greater Los Angeles tried and failed to organize an event  
exploring how to have a dialogue about Israel, in part because of logistics  
and in part because it was just too contentious, said Jonathan Freund, vice  
president of the board. ‘It was kind of ironic,’ Mr. Freund said, ‘because  
we couldn’t in the end figure out how to talk about how to talk about it.” •

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