A full analysis of what happened at the Assembly is beyond my knowledge. I do expect to receive shortly a full report from those who are more knowledgeable than I am on the subject, colleagues who were present at the General Assembly, talked as witnesses to the different committees and work on this issues every day of the week. As I get that report, I will indeed share it through our weekly e-mail.
A few issues, however, I do understand, I would like to share with you my thoughts in that regard. The first issue is that the Presbyterian Church USA is in rapid decline in numbers. Over the last five years they have lost close to 40 % of their official membership, and this is the product of some policy changes. As you may recall, when the PCUSA approved the ordination of openly gay clergy, a large number of congregations left the denomination over that issue. On this year's agenda there will be a vote (probably as I write this blog) on whether Presbyterian clergy can officiate on same-sex marriages; a vote with the potential to further affect the unity of the Church. Consequently, the main issue on their agenda is NOT the Middle East but the same-sex unions issue – making the Middle East issue a possible bargaining point.
The whole issue of homosexuality, first in the form of ordination and now in the form of same-sex unions, is an issue which has been forcing out of the denomination the most conservative Presbyterian congregations, and transforming the PCUSA with a sharp shift to the left as they also lost membership. This transformation was accelerated by the prevalence in recent years of anti-Israel activism in American campuses, producing a generation of college educated young people of all denominations who are a lot less supportive of Israel and a lot more supportive of Palestinians than prior generations. Many of these “Young and upcoming” leaders have taken positions as staff in the national apparatus of the church in much the same way than out-of-college Jewish kids go to work at an entry level in some National Jewish organizations. The general climate in the National headquarters of the PCUSA has been decidedly anti-Israel and even at times anti-Semitic for a while.
But not all the issues are internal Presbyterian issues. We have our share of responsibility for the eroding of support for Israel among Presbyterians. For once, we have neglected to stand up for our own interests. For many years the organized Jewish community has partnered with the PCUSA on a wide variety of domestic issues including gay rights, women rights, separation of church and state, etc. This partnership has been developing in two distinct and parallel tracks. One track involved National Jewish organizations, and the other the grassroots (often rabbinical) partnerships. At the level of National organizations there has been a reluctance of bringing up the Israel factor into what was perceived as a frail partnership, effectively creating a schizophrenic relationship with our Presbyterian friends where Israel and social justice did not belong at the same table. This was worsened by the open embrace of Israel by elements of the so-called Christian Right, who sat on the opposite side of many of the social justice issues in which we partnered with Presbyterians. Even the volunteers involved from the Jewish community in this partnership and those involved in Israel advocacy issues tended to be different with very little overlapping.
At the grassroots level, the connection with Presbyterians tended to happen mostly through the congregations and have as a main focus the mutual understanding of religious traditions. Again, the Israel issue was seen by many as getting in the way and that conversation was deferred to a future when the main issues of the relationship were taken care of – much the same as what happened with the National organizations.
The combination of these two approaches at different levels sent a message that the Israel issue was not so important for us, thus enabling our partners to believe that they could take sides against Israel and still comfortably partner with them on other issues.
This message articulated from national forums as well as local pulpits could not help but affect the way in which Jews themselves define their own participation in the larger society. The main emphasis in many liberal congregations has been “Tikkun Olam” and the ethical dimension of Judaism rather than the ethnic/National aspect of Jewish Identity or even a balance between the two. This has made it more difficult for younger generations to understand why Jews have a stake in the future of the State of Israel or why Jews have a need for a sovereign Jewish State at all. When this difficulty is combined with the anti-Israel hostility of recent years in American campuses and the perennial need of teenagers and young adults in campuses to “fit in” and “be accepted” by their peers, we can better understand why the number of young Jews taking sides against Israel has been growing over the years; a trend that reinforces the separation between domestic and Israel issues in the American Jewish Agenda. But this is not the end of the list of our mistakes.
Even at the high point of Jewish support for Israel there were always differences between the conservative and liberal Zionists on Israeli policies. Arguments over the Israeli settlement policies following the Six Day war were common and grew in intensity over the years, reaching a point of high tensions during the Administration of Yitzhak Shamir in the early 1990s. But these issues were argued within the Jewish community in Jewish terms. But as American Jews started to make Israel the main issue, and sometimes neglecting the domestic agenda, Israel became in a way the “litmus test” for political figures competing for Jewish votes – and the “Israel argument” became a domestic American politics issue. When we combine this trend with the above mentioned trend of the changes in American Jewish identity, the articulation of Jewish positions on Israel became increasingly defined not by the meaning of Israel in Jewish life but by personal political preferences beyond Israel. Jews (even for those for whom Israel is central to their Jewish Identity) started to adopt the Israel positions of their candidates or their party, and the Jewish context for the discussion was partially or even in some cases totally lost. Today the main argument among Jews who do care about Israel is whether Obama is good or bad for Israel and whether a Republican would be better or worse, with political affiliation often coloring personal positions on the issue.
To put it shortly, we have allowed the issue of Israel to be defined by politics instead of influencing politicians according to our personal positions on Israeli issues. We have gone defensive rather than proactive, and we have fractured the Jewish community in the process.
It is time to go back to basics. Israel is important because Zionism is the National Liberation Movement of the Jewish people; within that movement there will be people we agree with and people we disagree with. The State of Israel is a political entity which, as a functioning Democracy, owes accountability first of all to its own citizens. Sometimes we will agree with its policies, and sometimes we will disagree. And we need to speak up for or against, according to our convictions because that is our right; but we need to do it not as Democrats or as Republicans or as Libertarians or as Tea Partiers or any other political choice, but as Jews who are concerned for the future of the Jewish State – that is in my opinion the proper context for the discussion.
It also means we need to have a second look at how we are promoting Jewish Identity. While affiliation is certainly an indicator of Jewish commitment, affiliation is not Jewish Identity. While religious beliefs inform our Jewish Identity, they are not one and the same. While Tikkun Olam and Social Justice are indeed central values in Judaism, they are not nor do they define Jewish Identity as a whole. But understanding all these differences means we need to educate the next generation with a broader understanding of Jewish Identity and Jewish Peoplehood, unless we want everybody to believe that Fiddler On the Roof is an accurate description of life in the shtetl and the best description of what it means to be Jewish. If we want our Presbyterian friends to understand why Israel is important to us, we need to first understand it ourselves.