Three eminent Reform rabbis who slept through logic class

This advertisement appeared today in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal:

LA Jewish Journal advertisement opposing Rabbi Jacobs (click for larger version)

LA Jewish Journal advertisement opposing Rabbi Jacobs (click for larger version)

The nomination of Rabbi Richard Jacobs to head the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) created more than a little controversy. Rabbi Jacobs is an active member and supporter of both J Street and the New Israel Fund, Jewish organizations which claim to be pro-Israel, but whose actions — and in the case of J Street — sources of funding have a distinctly anti-Zionist tinge.

Today a group of Reform Jews called “Jews Against Divisive Leadership” published advertisements in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the Forward (I’m  one of the signatories). The LA ad appears above. Apparently the editors of the Journal couldn’t let it go unrebutted, and so solicited an op-ed from several  prominent Reform rabbis to do so.

Rather than defend the positions taken by Rabbi Jacobs, these rabbis chose to simply attack the motives and politics of his critics. Some years ago I taught a class in elementary logic. The rabbis’ essay would not have gotten a passing grade.

It begins with a basic argumentum ad hominem and continues by setting up a straw man to attack:

The current advertisement means that a handful of Reform Jews have now joined previously Right-leaning critics who in recent weeks have challenged the Zionist credentials of Rabbi Jacobs. The claim is that Rabbi Jacobs’ involvement with groups promoting human rights and social improvement aligns him with crazed extremists.

Of course “right-leaning” is in the eye of the beholder, and the direction of lean has nothing to do with the soundness of the critics’ claims. And I don’t see the phrase “crazed extremists” in the ad, do you? So why do the rabbis say “the claim is…” when that isn’t at all what the ad says?

Here are five reasons why such a canard needs to be refuted with vigor:

1. If American Jews related to Israel the way Rabbi Jacobs and his family do, nega’ ha-netek [the plague of separation] would be in retreat. He cares deeply about the country, has strong relationships with many Israelis, encourages bilateral encounters and programs in his synagogue and through his work in the larger Jewish community, studies in Israel and even owns property in Jerusalem. He comes to Israel several times every year, and spends every summer studying sources with curiosity and profundity at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is a passionate Zionist, who devotes time and love to the State of Israel. By any dispassionate standard, Rabbi Jacobs is part of the solution to the challenges confronting American Jewish engagement with and support of Israel, not part of the problem.

In the paragraph above, we find two common fallacies: the red herring in which irrelevant facts are presented as if they are evidence for an unrelated conclusion, and begging the question, in which the writer assumes that which he wishes to prove. Clearly the fact that someone visits Israel doesn’t imply that he is a Zionist — some of the most ‘passionate’ anti-Zionists live there year round. And simply calling Rabbi Jacobs a Zionist does not establish that he is one.

2. By setting the battle lines in the way they are currently doing, Rabbi Jacobs’ critics are sailing in very dangerous waters. They argue that any demurral from the current party line of Israel’s government is disloyal. If this position prevails, the plague of separation will reach epidemic proportions. The old parliamentary notion of “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” is an important idea.

“They argue that any demurral…”? No they don’t! Nobody ever argued that. Talk about straw men! Where do the rabbis find such a statement in the ad? Or in my “right-leaning” blog, for example?

3. Let us also face facts. A significant number of North American Jews of a liberal disposition under the age of 40 are less and less likely to make Israel a central part of their lives. Yet, a small and highly influential committed core is swimming against the tide, and developing meaningful models for engagement for this cohort with Israel at this dramatic and uncertain time is a necessity for all of us who love and support the Jewish State. In Rabbi Jacobs’ example of encounter with Israel, in his willingness to confront complexity and face up to unpalatable realities, in his infectious enthusiasm and immense charm, he is a model for such younger Jews. To vilify him is to alienate them still further.

Agreed, many Jewish liberals do not support Israel. How is Rabbi Jacobs significantly different from them? What is his “meaningful model for engagement”? Participating in an anti-state demonstration? Is that what “confronting complexity” means?

Further, the ad does not ‘vilify’ anybody. It simply draws attention to Rabbi Jacobs’ actual positions and associations, suggests that these are best characterized as anti-Zionist, and asks if someone who takes these positions is a suitable leader for the largest denomination in American Jewry.

4. The fact that those who have assaulted Rabbi Jacobs’ integrity have wrapped themselves in the flag of Zionist purity is particularly galling. Since its inception, the Zionist movement has provided a forum for a range of opinions. If these self- appointed purists try to bar a great congregational rabbi whose views represent the mainstream of the American Jewish community and the Reform Jewish Movement from the fold of the True Believers, who wins? The campaign to discredit the work of the New Israel Fund (which hundreds of Zionist rabbis support) shows all the symptoms of separation plague — self-righteous certainty, disregard for nuance, allergy to reason and a strong appetite for the whiff of a witch-hunt. Support for Israel is not the exclusive property of one party or another.

I’m tired of repeating myself, but we did not “assault Rabbi Jacobs’ integrity.” I’m sure he is as honest and fair as the day is long. But we strongly disagree with his politics, and we think they are inimical to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state.

I am not sure about what wrapping oneself in the flag of Zionist purity is, but this brings me to the next fallacy that is so prevalent in this piece: I call it the Humpty Dumpty fallacy (apologies to Lewis Carroll): the view that words can mean whatever one wants them to mean. ‘Zionism‘ is a word that already means something, and the rabbis cannot simply redefine it to mean “knowing what’s good for Israel better than Israelis themselves,” as they seem to want to do.

5. Anyone who knows Rabbi Jacobs will tell you that he is a mature and wise man. He cares. He learns. He is a mensch. He is the farthest from a fanatic one can possibly imagine. In fact, Rabbi Jacobs lives his life striving for balance, humanity and depth. In the struggle against the plague of separation, he is staffing the ER.

OK, granted. I am sure he would be a good guy to have a beer or be in a foxhole with. But what does that have to do with his positions about Israel, and in particular what American policies toward Israel ought to be?

Let me add one more thing. The tone of this article is insulting. The writers say that critics of the New Israel Fund display “self-righteous certainty, disregard for nuance, allergy to reason and a strong appetite for the whiff of a witch-hunt.”

May I suggest that this better characterizes the writers themselves?

Update [1824 PDT]: The other ad was in the Forward, not NY Jewish Week. Corrected.

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