The new head of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale NY, is a member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and a former member of the board of directors of the New Israel Fund (NIF), presently chair of its ‘Pluralism Grants Committee’ and (former and possibly also present) co-chair of its Rabbincal Council.
The URJ announcement says that he is “deeply committed to the State of Israel.” From what we know about the phony ‘pro-Israel’ J Street and the NIF (which funds numerous groups that are explicitly anti-Zionist or engage in delegitimization of the Jewish state, it is hard to understand how his associations can reflect this commitment.
Especially at this very dangerous time in Israel’s history, is it a good thing that the man chosen to head the largest Jewish denomination in the country with the greatest population of Jews in the world is active in groups which by an objective evaluation are anti-Israel?
This past Yom Kippur, Rabbi Jacobs gave a sermon called “Standing together for Israel” in which he explains his position clearly. He calls J Street “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and suggests that Ambassador Michael Oren was unwise when he declined to speak to their convention (which he did because they opposed sanctions on Iran).
He quotes approvingly a tendentious article by Peter Beinart, and says that he “agrees with Beinart’s thesis.” Beinart thinks that the reason young people don’t support Israel is that it is becoming theocratic and antidemocratic, and does not see Arabs as human beings. Apparently Rabbi Jacobs thinks so too.
Among his reasons to criticize Israel are the Rotem conversion bill and the “disastrous marriage of religion and political power in the Jewish State,” the treatment of the Women of the Wall, etc. — issues which are of far more concern to liberal American Jews than to Israelis, who have existential threats to worry about.
Earlier this summer, as Jerusalem was preparing for the peace of Shabbat, I joined 150 protesters in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem. In August 2009, 53 Palestinians, including 20 children, were forced out of their homes by Israeli authorities, who handed over the seized property to Jewish settlers. Every Friday since, there is an organized protest. The day I was there, 8 Israelis were arrested. Professors, writers and activists braved the oppressive heat to stand up for the deepest ideals of the Jewish State. [my emphasis]
Rabbi Jacobs leaves out some facts:
The neighborhood in question is also called shimon ha-tzadik. Many Jews lived there, on land purchased in the 19th Century, until 1948 when Jews were forcibly expelled by the Jordanian army. Their homes were given to Arabs. After 1967, the land was returned to its original owners.
The Israeli Supreme Court, a body which is often strongly criticized for pro-Arab bias, decided that the Arabs were ‘protected residents’, but they had to pay rent to the Jewish owners. Some did, but the ones who were ultimately evicted have squatted there for years, claiming that Ottoman documents showed that the land was theirs. The Court ultimately decided that the documents were forged. The Arabs were evicted after they continued to refuse to pay rent.
This issue has become a cause célèbre for Israeli leftists, visiting radicals and nationalist Palestinian Arabs who have been demonstrating there, sometimes violently, for several years. Rabbi Jacobs’ participation in this demonstration (and his use of the obnoxious phrase ‘Jewish settlers’ for Jews trying to live in their capital) is profoundly disquieting — especially since he seems to count this toward his ‘pro-Israel’ credentials.
Rabbi Jacobs commented on the ‘peace process’ as well:
For me and many other pro-Israel American Jews, the West Bank settlements are a tremendous obstacle to peace. What happens next Sunday with the moratorium on building in the settlements [the proposed extension for an additional 3 months] will be a critical moment in the latest round of peace talks. I know there are many Israelis and many American Jews who feel that President Obama has been stinting in his love and support for Israel. I think we’d all be wise to wait at least till a year from now to see where Obama’s chess match called the Middle East peace process leads.
Did Rabbi Jacobs not notice that the Palestinian Authority had refused to negotiate while the moratorium had already been in force for the preceding ten months? Did he miss its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, or give up ‘right of return’? And yet he cites the settlements, not Arab intransigence, as a ‘tremendous’ obstacle to peace!
A year hasn’t passed, but it’s looking more and more as though Obama’s approach is going to lead to a UN-supported unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in which Israel’s security and political considerations will be ignored or given only lip service. It is not helpful for a spokesman for American Jews to blame Israel for the failure of negotiations.
The heart of the solution to the conflict for Rabbi Jacobs seems to be found in this, which is the ‘moral’ of a story about young Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab:
Avi and Sami had planned to live together this past summer, travel in Israel and the West Bank in their mission to understand each other’s stories, and educate each other that “an enemy is someone whose story you have not yet heard” – a lesson Avi learned from his father. [my emphasis]
I can’t think of a worse ‘lesson’ to help us deal with the realities of today’s Middle East.
First, there are not just ‘stories’, there is objective historical fact. And history tells us that the Jewish state is legitimate and is not stolen property which must be returned, as the Arab story says.
Second, the conflict is not just been Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs — it is between Israel and the whole Arab and Muslim world, where Israel and Jews are viciously hated, to a degree that’s hard for most of us to imagine. Will we tell them all our story and suddenly they will stop hating us?
Consider the terrorists that murdered the Fogel family last week. Let’s compare them to a right-wing Israeli Jew that I know, the kind that Rabbi Jacobs disapproves of. He’s a young man who believes that it is important for both spiritual and practical reasons that Israel should hold on to all of Judea and Samaria. He strongly opposed the withdrawal from Gaza. He thinks that Jerusalem and especially the holy places should remain undivided under Israeli rule.
I doubt that he thinks much, if at all, about the problems faced by the Women of the Wall or the non-Orthodox religious movements in Israel (although he himself doesn’t wear a kippa and only rarely goes to synagogue).
This man, like Rabbi Jacobs’ friend Avi, was also a lone soldier and served in an elite combat unit in the IDF. After the army he joined a police counter-terrorism unit. One day he was driving along a peaceful road when his beeper went off. There had been a bus bombing a short distance up the road. It turned out that he was one of the very first to arrive at the scene.
I can’t describe it — I’ve never seen such a horror myself, but he told me what it was like, the bus still burning, the screams, the body parts. And he told me how he felt:
I wanted to kill the ******* that did this. I would do it with my bare hands.
But I didn’t want to kill their wives and children.
This isn’t a question of different stories. It’s not something that can be solved by listening, by encounter groups or classroom study. It has to do with cultural differences, with generations of indoctrination to hate on one side. It has to do with one side making sacrifices over and over, in the name of coexistence, while the other side responds with violent rejection. The solution is not to try to learn more about the enemy’s twisted ‘story’, but to defend what’s rightfully yours, whatever that takes.
I do not know Rabbi Jacobs and I don’t doubt his sincerity in working for what the announcement calls “global social justice.” But I’m appalled by his ideology and sorry that the URJ chose him.