Jokes My Grandfather Told Me

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.


About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

14 Comments on "Jokes My Grandfather Told Me"

  • Murray Rubin says

    Dear daniel

    The nature of Jews is to support the underdog. That is why in the US and S.A. the Jews supported the blacks.Not always overtly because that may have taken more courage than they had, but a greater percentage of Jews did work overtly than their percentage in the population warranted.
    Italians and greeks can be liberal and criticize Italy and Greece but NEVER worry that the state will disappear. Not so with Israel. Israeli and Jew are nationality and religion but in fact they are onein my mind. Casnada beat Israel in tennis and as a Canadian tennis fan i was for Canada, but how can I be for Canada if there should be a war with the 2 nations. How can I be a liberal , if being so eliminates my Israel. No other nation faces elimination only Israel

    Murra Rubin I met you at the Commentary cruise

  • Here is a response I wrote in a Haaretz article to Beinart’s article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”.

    Peter Beinart is quickly becoming the intellectual spokesman for the new left establishment trying to have their voice heard over the old Zionist establishment that supporters Israel right or wrong. In his two most recent articles in the last ten days or so, he has turned his attentions to Israel.

    Today, in Haaretz, but also in the general media he holds nothing back in his painting Israel as doing no good for American prestige and power among Muslims. He can find nothing more to blame on Israel than for what P.M. Netanyahu did not say to Pres. Obama at the White House this week. No mention of a Palestinian state or discussion about Gaza at a joint press conference are adequate grounds to accuse Netanyahu of treating the President like a schmuck writes Beinart.

    Israel just can’t win with people like Beinart. There is no pleasing Beinart. Well Beinart is the schmuck. He reminds me of the Palestinian woman interviewed on NPR who complained that the IDF does not rape Palestinian women, because their women aren’t good enough to be raped by an occupying force. Whoever heard of such a thing, she screamed. Our women are not pretty enough or human enough to be raped by Israeli soldiers according to this Palestinian knucklehead.

    I think Beinart is confusing Americans’ lack of concern about the survivability of Israel as a nation with a lack of interest by Americans. Sure there are existential threats to Israel, but Americans are worried sick over their faltering economy, joblessness, and the high cost of health care if they can get it all. Israel has survived for more than six decades, and her future is not dependent upon the formation of another Palestinian or Arab state; that’s just not high on the agenda of young Americans or American Jews.

    Could Israel be doing some things better? Of course Israel is not perfect, and her leaders say some awfully stupid things that a better public relations program at the very least would improve her image. But attacks from our friends demonstrate how free speech thrives in Israel unlike in her enemies’ countries.

    According to Beinart, a false liberal cannot be an enthusiastic supporter of Israel. He doesn’t define me or my politics. An American liberal can be for the war in Iraq and against it in Afghanistan; for pro-choice, unemployment benefits, child welfare support, and an avid supporter of American aid to Israel.

    There is anguish among American Jews, but we always worry about everything, and no people has a greater guilt complex than Jews–thanks Mom. Mr. Netanyahu and Pres. Obama focused their public remarks on the Iranian threat of nuclear destruction in the Middle East and its potential for making dirty bombs that could be easily transported anywhere in the world. then you will see anguish.

    Beinart must have been too busy to hear the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. who publicly told Congress that the benefits of bombing Iran’s nuclear program outweigh the short-term costs such an attack would impose (according to Eli Lake in The Washington Times). Or how about the reports that Egypt will not open it’s locked and sealed borders crossings with Gaza, and pleads with Israel not to loosen her borders with Gaza for fear of Hamas getting too much a political jump start from winning political points while the P.A. festers.

    For the record, Mr. Beinart, a schmuck is an insult usually meaning an obnoxious, contemptible person who is stupid, foolish, or detestable. Did you really mean to call our President that; or, did you mean he was treated like a shmendrick, best defined in The Joys of Yiddish as physically impressive but a weak person who has not yet grown up (politically wet behind the ears). A cute description would be of a woman who beat her shmendrick of a husband who crawled under the bed. “Come out!” she cried. “No!” he said. “I’ll show you who’s the boss in this house!”

    No, Mr. Beinart, neither of these gentlemen is a schmuck or a shmendrick. They are two powerful leaders trying figure out how to survive in a world where the Flintstones have automatic weapons and nuclear bombs.

    Dr. Harold Goldmeier Chicago, Ill. 773-764-4357 Dr. Goldmeier was a Research and Teaching Fellow at Harvard University where I earned a Doctorate in Education, and taught as an Assistant Professor at Tufts Medical School. He taught public elementary school, worked in government and education for nearly two decades, and in business for nearly three. I am married more than forty years, have children living in America and Israel, and a son who recently served with the Israel Defense Forces. I have published more than two dozen articles in professional journals and popular magazines and newspaper.

  • Jacob L. Wright says

    Thanks Danny. I have been following this story and was hoping that you would write such a astute response!

  • michael wechlser says

    Any study that is commissioned with a predetermined result
    in mind is by its very nature inaccurate. I believe its methods
    were flawed at best and biased at worst. Unfortunately this
    could have been a legitimate discussion but like many
    controversies in the jewish community, it gets swept under the
    rug. Shame on JTS for their response.

  • Danny is right, I see it in my students at the college level. Being pro-Zionist, like any particular love, calls for all kinds of action. Loving everybody–and especially loving all humankind equally–calls for no action at all. Philip Roth’s famous comment about Jews, “What is there that binds me to you more than any other man?”, is a call for loyalty to no one.

  • David Burger says

    As usual, Daniel, you are most perceptive and you make your case with perfect logic. It’s unfortunate that those who so quickly reject your opinions can not read or respond to them them with even a modicum of the clarity of thought that you present.

  • Bart Axelrod says

    Dear Daniel,

    Your analysis is excellent. I had the good fortune to know your grandfather who was one of the most astute people I had ever met and who could speak with brilliance and no notes in front of him.

    I find the results of these studies so very troubling. I learned that the Chabad service does not even have a prayer for the State of Israel. I confronted the local Chabad rebbi who said that they do not believe in the phrase that is part of the prayer that says that Israel is the beginning of our redemption. I suggested that something be substituted for that phrase and got no reponse.

    I have also questioned students and graduates of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College whose admiration and support of Israel seem far less than the students of the Jewish Thological Seminary.

    Israel to me, and many of us, is the modern miracle of the Jews. It’s not perfect and never will be. That is the nature of man. But it is ours and we must love it and support it wholeheartedly.

  • AmyG says

    Dear Danny,
    I would love if you could explan this statement further:

    “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.”

    It almost sounds as if you are suggesting that there are two competing (and equally valid??) narratives — that of Israel as “miracle child” and that of Israel as military oppressor — and that the only way to choose between these two narratives is on the basis of an instinctive commitment to one’s own. Yet surely there are times (and I’m not saying this is one of them) when one ought to stand against what is one’s own for the sake of what is right. (Even the most patriotic German, for example, ought to have fought against the Nazi regime.) Surely (to paraphrase one of my favorite little books, C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man) we must be trained so that we know which insticts to follow, and so that our instincts are right. I agree that, in one sense at least, one need not — and ought not — love or be committed to all equally. But even if commitment is not universal, surely there is at least some sort of universal good and bad?

    So my question regarding your two sentences quoted above (admittedly a very small sample size!) would be how morality and legitimacy — how universal truth and goodness — function in all of this, with relation to instinct and particularism.

  • Murray Rubin says

    Israel cannot afford to be wrong once, the only nation to so cursed. The rest is sophistry that so many of your responders are so good at espousing.

  • Mark says

    This past Sunday I attended (as I have many times in the past) an annual celebration of Israel sponsored by a very large fundamentalist church. The evening was an unabashed, unqualified celebration of Israel and its accomplishments. As in past years, I was saddened by the thought that such a celebration never happens in the Jewish community. Ironically, the same evening that this program was on, our conservative synagogue had a program about the mistreatment of Mizrachi women in Israel. I’m sure the program was informative and interesting, but was also quite representative of the attitude of many Jews — happy to learn about Israel’s failings and minimally interested in its achievements. The problem lies not just with young rabbis — although I am sure Gordis’s observations are accurate — but permeate through the entire community. Perhaps better leadership would change that. In any event, I am deeply appreciative that Gordis has raised this issue and continues to defend his position.

  • Chucky Berry says

    Establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza for the sole purpose of moving towards the true dialectic of the situation. When this happens, the peoples on the other side of the fence will show their true colors – either good or bad – and out of conflict will come the TRUTH!
    There will either be peace or there will be war. Get on with it already and let the truth reveal itself. Until the Palestinians have the chance to rule themselves and to decide on thier own future, this TRUTH, this reality, will never happen. They will be exposed to the world as what they truely choose to be – a friendly neighbor or a beligerent neighbor. And Israel will respond as they do to their freindly neighbors or they will respond as they do to their beligerent neighbors. Both have consequences but we will never know what that will be without bringing the Palestinians into nationhood and letting them decide on their future, which is Israel’s future..

  • bobby says

    I have followed the series of articles and discussions; you continually presume that one has to support Israeli policy right or wrong or one is against Israel,and that the generation of young Jews who support Israels existence but call it out when they believe Israeli policy is wrong are either wrong minded leftists or have lost their connection to the Jewish peoples homeland. WRONG. Perhaps you might consider that the right wing policies of the government have something to do with the criticism of these young people towards Israel.I don’t correct my children because I don’t love them or have forgotten that we are family, but so they learn to think and behave properly in the world of people. If i were simply to indulge their improper behavior that would be a lack of love, they would be spoiled and we all know how spoiled people behave. Perhaps you were spoiled by the generation that “supported Israeli policy right or wrong” and are shocked when someone says that the kings clothes aren’t so kingly. If much of the world that was previously supportive of Israel has turned aside you can fall back on “they’re all against us” or “they’re deluded leftist youth” or you can take a look in the mirror and ask what might be true in the criticism.

  • Murray Rubin says

    I know I am a fair-minded Jew who wants nothing more than a Jewish state next to a Palestinian state, in peace. But I resent when I am called a right-wing idealogue if I want to leave the Israeli state with adequate defences and what the state needs to please, at least partly, all sectors of the community, including the religious right and the left-wing left.Israel is always under attack and one cannot forget that fact. If the Arabs had not attcked in 1948, Israel would be a much smaller country and Palestine would be a thriving state. There is a price to pay for aggression. Pay it and live with it. If it happened anywhere else in the world that is what would happen

  • Jerry Fuchs says

    Are you related to Rabbi Gordis, formerly of Rockaway Beach N.Y.?

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