Religious Liberals: On the Way Down?…asks Bill Rubinstein

December 10, 2017 by Professor Bill Rubinstein
Read on for article

A recent report in the Australian Jewish News (“Rabbis Urge Compassion,” 24 November) concerned  a meeting of the Council of Progressive Rabbis and the Council of Masorti Rabbis in Australia.

Professor Bill Rubinstein

The meeting’s aim was to set out an ultra-liberal political agenda which its participants advocated and endorsed. Specifically mentioned  were Manus Island, where “Australia’s current approach to asylum seekers lacks … compassion, decency, and humanity.”  On fossil fuels, the meeting opposed the Carmichael Mine in Queensland, “because of the devastating effect that the resulting carbon emissions will have,” and “endorsed the Yes outcome of the same-sex marriage survey,”  urging Parliament to adopt new marriage legislation “without undermining current anti-discrimination law.”

My aim in this post is to set out some of the consequences which may result from the sharp move to the political left by the Progressive movement and Masorti.  It is striking that the agenda they endorse closely parallels that of the Green Party of Australia, and is sharply to the left of both the Coalition and the ALP. At the 2016 federal election, the Greens received 10.2 per cent of the total primary vote, and probably no more than one-half of that among Australian Jewish voters. All of the (admittedly limited) survey research about Australian Jewish voting trends suggests that a majority vote for the Coalition, in a way similar to British Jews, who strongly support the Tories, and Israelis, who have generally elected right-wing governments since 1977, but clearly unlike Jews in the United States, where 75-80 per cent normally vote for the Democrats.

These Progressive and Masorti Jews are thus, it seems, clearly out of step with the majority of Australian Jews and, quite possibly, with a majority of their members. (The late Chaim Bermant cleverly noted that most Orthodox Jews are to the political left of their rabbis, while most Reform Jews are to the political right of their rabbis.)  For the Progressives  ̶  Masorti did not exist here before the 1990s  ̶  this also represents a considerable difference from the situation thirty years ago, when their rabbis generally took no stance on any controversial political issue, and certainly not an activist left-wing stance.  This move to the left also echoes the recent situation at the JCCV.

As to the specific issues the meeting has endorsed, it is not my aim to comment on them at length, but I might point out, concerning carbon emissions, that Australia contributes precisely 1.24 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions, compared with 30 per cent by China, 14 per cent by the United States, 10 per cent by the EU states, and 7 per cent by India.  Even if Australia cut its CO2 emissions in half, this would have only a microscopic effect on the world’s pollution.  Concerning Manus, it was reopened in 2012  by the ALP government, which realised the utter folly of its previous open door boats policy. Among the 1837 asylum seekers on Manus, 35 per cent were found not to be refugees at all, with 624 being returned to their country of origin between 2013 and 2017. Nearly all of those remaining have yet to have their cases adjudicated.

My central aim in this post is to highlight the apparent similarities between the evolving situation among Progressive/Masorti Jews here and that of liberal Protestant denominations in the United States and elsewhere.  Self-evidently, there are vast differences between the two groups, but there may well be many similarities. In America and elsewhere, many mainstream Protestant denominations have become little more than left-wing activist groups, advocating every and any current nostrum of the secular left as a matter of course.  (Nearly all of these churches, it should be noted, are also haters of Israel, to the extent that many Jewish groups regard them as anti-semitic.) Among these denominations are the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Church of Canada.  For instance, the United Church of Christ “has been active in numerous traditionally social liberal causes, including support for abortion rights, the United Farm Workers, and the Wilmington Ten” (Wikipedia).  Its ministers “can solemnize same-sex unions,” and the church issued an Apology to Native Hawaiians for the takeover of Hawaii by the United States in 1898.

Every one of these liberal denominations has experienced a catastrophic and continuing decline in its membership during the past few decades, such that many observers believe that those denominations will disappear within a generation. To their credit, these groups keep and publish meticulous membership statistics, which show just how staggering their loss of membership has been.  To take one example, membership in the Presbyterian Church USA stood at 3,101,000 in 1980, but then 2,525,000 in 2000; 2,016,000 in 2010; and only 1,483,000 in 2016, a decline of 46 per cent in a generation. It lost 17 per cent of its total membership in only three years, 2014-16 (Wikipedia). The decline among the other liberal denominations has been similar. The more these churches jump on any loony left bandwagon that rolls along, the emptier its pews become. In contrast, fundamentalist Protestant sects have continued to grow.

Are there likely parallels here with the Jewish community in Australia and abroad? It is clear that the one component of world Jewry which is growing most rapidly are the Charedi Jews, whose numbers have increased almost astronomically since the 1960s. It is less clear that liberal Jewish denominations have declined. There are no accurate membership statistics readily available for any component of Australian Jewry, who are notably cagey (i.e. secretive) about their membership numbers. The situation of the non-Orthodox groups here and that of liberal Protestants in America are also very different from each other.

The Progressives are the default stream for most converts and intermarried Jews, while many members continue to belong in order to attend High Holy Day services. It will, however, be very interesting to see the effects which the many and very visible same sex marriages that will certainly be held by these synagogues in the near future will have on the membership of traditional families, or on the number of bar mitzvot and normal weddings.   I do not have a crystal ball, but my guess is that this will lead to an exodus of many members; indeed, my information is that this is happening already.  It is also notable that there is an unfilled niche market for Jews who are religiously liberal but socially conservative. There are interesting times ahead.

Professor Bill Rubinstein held chairs in history at Deakin University and at the University of Wales.


16 Responses to “Religious Liberals: On the Way Down?…asks Bill Rubinstein”
  1. Doodie Ringelblum says:

    Curious comments from a professor of history.
    What would the good professor have said 100 years ago when Orthodoxy was waning, both in Europe and the USA, and Reform on the rise at least in the latter. Would he have predicted the demise of Orthodoxy then? If not – why does he predict it for the reform movements now.
    (Also note that the fastest growing shul in Melbourne is Kehilat Koleinu which isn’t reform – it’s entirely secular).

  2. Rabbi Nicole Roberts says:

    My response can be found at:

  3. Dr Ilan Buchman says:

    I assume J-Wire is no different to other publications willing to generate controversy, however by giving Bill Rubinstein a central column to expound his prejudiced and outdated views,it achieves no purpose other that peddling unfounded and ill founded platitudes. Rubinstein’s view that nearly all of the mainstream Protestant denominations are also haters of Israel is frankly ludicrous and baseless as some of his other views. As a professor of history he should have known better than to support his views on the basis of non-existing evidence of “many Jewish groups”.

    • Bill Rubinstein says:

      To put the matter bluntly, Dr. Buchman doesn’t know what he is talking about.
      I referred to liberal Protestant denominations, not to “all” mainstream Protestant denominations, and what I claimed can be confirmed by half an hour on the internet. I mentioned three liberal Protestant denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Church of Canada.
      Concerning the Presbyterians,he should have a look at its Wikipedia entry under “Israel-Palestine Conflict”: “In June 2004 the [Church’s] General Assembly met… and adopted by a vote of 431-62 a resolution that called upon [it] ‘to initiate a process of phased, selective disinvestment in the multinational corporations operating in Israel … A second resolution, calling for the end to the construction of a wall by the state of Israel passed … In August 2011 [its] American National Middle Eastern caucus endorsed the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel. In January 2014 [the Church] published “Zionism Unsettled”… the Simon Wiesenthal Center described the study guide “a hit-piece outside all norms of interfaith dialogue. It is a compendium of distortions, ignorance, and outright lies … that tragically emanated all too often from elites within the church.”
      Concerning the United Church of Christ, have a look at its Wikipedia entry headed “Statement on the Relationship Between Israel and Palestinians”: It “passed two resolutions concerning the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. One called for the use of economic leverage to promote peace in the Middle East, which can include such measures as … selective disinvestment from companies which profit from the continuing Israel-Palestinian conflict. The other resolution, named ‘Tear Down the Wall,’ calls upon Israel to remove the separation barrier … Opponents of the resolution noted that the wall’s purpose is to prevent terrorist attacks, and that the resolution does not call for a stop to these attacks. The Simon Wiesenthal Center stated that the resolutions were ‘functionally anti-semitic’.” Concerning the United Church of Canada, a story in the Times of Israel, “United Church of Canada Passes Israel Divestment Resolution” (12 August 2015) stated that “The United Church of Canada passed a resolution on Tuesday … encouraging divestment from Israel in order ‘to address the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories by the State of Israel.’ The new resolution called for ‘initiating and developing a program of education and advocacy in cooperation with our partners, related to divestment from and economic sanctions against all corporations and institutions complicit in and benefiting from the illegal occupation’.” It was described by the Toronto based Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as ‘nothing less than an assault on the Jewish people.” (National Post, 5 December 2013).
      What I have set out here is only the tip of an enormous iceberg.
      For instance, despite the excellent record of the Quakers (the Society of Friends) in assisting Jewish refugees from the Nazis, its American Friends Service Committee was described by Jacob Neusner in 1993 as “the most militant and aggressive of Christian anti-Israel groups.” All of these denominations, by the way, are declining in membership at an almost unbelievable rate. The General Secretary of the notorious roof body of Protestant denominations, the World Council of Churches, stated that “We support the Palestinians. The WCC supports the Palestinians, because they are in the right.” (Wikipedia
      Despite being totally ignorant about this subject, Dr. Buchman has attacked me in ad hominem terms. Bill Rubinstein

      • Ilan BUCHMAN says:

        These are your words Professor Rubinstin, not mine. You clearly used the word “mainstream”. See below:

        ” In America and elsewhere, many mainstream Protestant denominations have become little more than left-wing activist groups, advocating every and any current nostrum of the secular left as a matter of course. (Nearly all of these churches, it should be noted, are also haters of Israel, to the extent that many Jewish groups regard them as anti-semitic.)”

  4. Bill Rubinstein says:

    If David Zyngier has access to the membership statistics of the Progressive and Masorti synagogues, I hope that he will post them on this site, especially if they include comparative statistics from 20 or 30 years ago. Within the next few months, these synagogues, and particularly Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne, will be holding (because there is a backlog) probably dozens of very visible homosexual weddings. It will be interesting to see their effect on the existing membership. My guess – and it is only a guess -is that many members, including especially older members and normal families with children, will head for the hills pronto, and that the number of normal weddings and bar mitzvot held there will decline. Also, I was never a “cold war warrior,” but I am very proud to say that I attended many rallies and demos on behalf of persecuted Soviet Jewry when the USSR existed.
    Robert Weil: I know of Dennis Praeger, but have actually never read anything by him, and did not see the video you noted. If you look at the entries on these liberal Protestant churches on google, you will find many many articles by Protestants making the same point, that their gung ho leftism has been the kiss of death in terms of membership. Traditional and fundamentalist churches in the US, in contrast, have done well – for instance, the number of Mormons in the US had increased from 3 million in 1970 to 6.5 million today – not drastically declined, like these liberal churches.
    Henry Herzog: if you are observant, I would advise you to read Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

  5. Michael Burd says:

    So true Bill if only all our lefty progressive Jews would go and live on Manus !

  6. Dr David Zyngier says:

    Rubinstein is a Cold War Warrior who misses the communist bogeyman and now looks for reds under Bimah instead!

    He has NO idea how Jewish AUSTRALIANS VOTE – there is no published research to rely on.

    Rubenstein’s total lack of understanding of the issues relating to Global Warming and Carbon Emissions is in line with that great scientist Malcolm Roberts.

    His lies about Manus and refugees is remarkable – how can anyone believe the “investigations” of Border Force regarding refugee status. The fact is that of all those who sought asylum in Australia over 75% have been classified as refugees.

    Where is the his Jewish compassion for the stranger as required in the Torah?

    And the membership of the Liberal and Masorti shuls are on the public record – much healthier than he would wish for – and definitely not in decline.

  7. Hilary Rubinstein says:

    When I read that article in the AJN I was reminded of something the great Melanie Phillips recently wrote regarding the Church of England:
    ‘…. It is certainly important for religious bodies, like everyone else, to be sensitive to the needs of those who don’t fit in. Being inclusive, however, does not mean giving powerful interest groups the right to remake society in their own image. Which is precisely what’s happening.
    The church hierarchy fails to grasp that secularism is a direct attack on the bedrock principles of Christianity. Secularism would ditch Biblical precepts in favour of radical autonomy, replacing normative morality and even physiological reality by subjective emotion and remaking the world in the image of “me”…’

  8. Robert Weil says:

    So true Bill Rubinstein, and Dennis Prager gets it too.

  9. Lulu Bell says:

    I am a Chassidic jew who voted yes, and who votes Labor. I feel there is a niche market for religiously orthodox and socially progressive people.

    • Henry Herzog says:

      I too, Lulu, vote Labour and voted YES, I’m also observant. This thing has dragged out for far too long with delaying tactics,and with the opponents of marriage equality having their heads well and truly buried in the sand. This has jumped every hurdle; the people voted, the Senate voted and the house of reps. voted, and they voted Yes, Yes, Yes. So no one can possibly claim it undemocratic. They voted for inclusion, acceptance and equality, and yet, these advocates of discrimination are still complaining and denying the reality.

      • Otto Waldmann says:

        The sizeable NO vote had nothing to do with the notion/practice of democracy, none of the NO proponents claimed that the process and the result were undemocratic.
        Most of the cry phrases on the “Yes” banners were based on fallacies. “Equality” turned into a false emotional cum hysterical claim. Logically, there is no equality between a variety of DISTINCTIVE types of human interactions.
        Wont go on about a done deal, but, to the issues at hand, the pretence that a number of wonton departures from fundamental Judaic principles and practices, render the novel trait BETTER entrenched in the millenarian faith is beyond the witz.
        Far more Australian Jews belong formally to the NON Liberal shade, just count the number of such shuls and their iNplicit membership compared to the…opposite. Otherwise Bill Rubinstein gives a credible description of the realities on the ground and above, in the spiritual stratosphere…

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      If a Chasidic Jew looks like that, then I am a polar bear up on a tree in the Amazons.

      • Lulu Bell says:

        I see no picture of any chassidishe jew. Yes, I wear a full sheital, have a large family (KNH) and I vote Labor and voted yes.Mr Waldman, I do not understand your comment.

Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

Got something to say about this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.