Here are three short remarks about the controversy over the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) nomination of J Street and New Israel Fund (NIF) activist Rabbi Richard Jacobs to be its new President (prior posts on this subject are here):
1. The URJ leadership doesn’t get it.
Reportedly, a member of the search committee said that the discussion was all about Rabbi Jacobs’ organizational and leadership ability. It did not occur to them that his politics regarding Israel might be a problem.
I’ve been told by a Reform rabbi well-informed about the process that most of the finalists and semi-finalists had similar political viewpoints. When Peter Beinart spoke to the CCAR (the Reform rabbinical body), his remarks — highly critical of Israel — were greeted, according to one rabbi present, with “thunderous applause.”
Insofar as this is the norm among Reform rabbis, it’s not surprising that the committee didn’t find anything wrong with it.
But grass roots Reform Jews do put a high priority on real support for Israel.
2. The URJ leadership is a bunch of bullies.
The language used in the URJ response to the initial advertisement placed by a group of Reform Jews was insulting, accused those signing the ad of extremism, divisiveness, witch-hunting, etc. Here is one small example:
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 advertisement did not make any such ridiculous argument. But that’s not the point. This, and the tone of the entire response, is meant as a warning to Reform rabbis. Don’t sign on to this right-wing extremist campaign, they are told, or you will be marked as carriers of the ‘plague of separation’. You will be sailing in dangerous waters.
If that’s not enough, a member of the URJ Board of Trustees, Alan Warshaw, sent an explicit threat to the JADL email address:
Your ad and your names won’t be forgotten by myself and others. Like other Lashaon Hara behavior, your words will reflect on your reputation and will be remembered when you write a paper, present a lecture or look for a position on a committee or employment.
As a blogger, I love it when some self-important prick shows how stupid and vicious he really is. But imagine how this reads to a Reform rabbi who is considering speaking against Rabbi Jacobs’ confirmation! The employment situation for rabbis is difficult today, with many institutions cutting back, others merging, etc., and the URJ plays a critical role in the placement process. Dangerous waters indeed.
3. The confirmation of Rabbi Jacobs would be a bad for Israel and bad for the URJ.
If Rabbi Jacobs is as involved and aware as he appears to be, he can’t be unaware that J Street is not the ‘progressive’ pro-Israel lobby that it pretends to be. Here’s what I wrote last week, in response to the statement that Jacobs’ Israel policy is “nuanced”:
Certainly there can be multiple points of view among Israel supporters. But you can’t define black as white, up as down, an elephant as a giraffe — or J Street as ‘pro-Israel’…
It is not “nuance” when J Street calls for the US to support a Security Council resolution that condemns Israel, nor when it arranges appointments for Judge Goldstone to meet with US Congress members, when it opposes a Congressional letter calling for sanctions on Iran, applauds the union of Fatah with Hamas, sponsors a speaking tour by the anti-Israel John Ging of UNRWA, invites boycott-divestment-sanctions advocates to present at its national convention, etc.
If that isn’t nuanced enough, J Street’s sources of funding include individuals associated with the Saudi embassy and the Arab-American institute, George Soros, and a mysterious woman in Hong Kong who provided more than $800,000 in one year…
Here’s still more nuance: the New Israel Fund (NIF) funds organizations that call for boycott-divestment-sanctions of Israel, Israeli Arab groups that want ‘de-Zionization’ — the conversion of the Jewish state into a ‘state of its citizens’ — as well as the NGOs that provided the majority of the false ‘evidence’ cited by the libelous Goldstone report, and that engage in ‘lawfare’ against Israel.
Words do have meanings. Is any of this part of the meaning of ‘Zionism’ or of love for Israel? I don’t think so.
Israel is probably in as much existential danger today as it has been at any time since 1948. Pro-Israel Americans take their cues about policy toward the state — and politicians their excuses – from the Jewish community. This appointment is critical.
The Reform movement is struggling. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan wrote,
Remember that the search committee decided on Rabbi Jacobs because they saw in him a leader who could bring the Reform movement into the 21st century. Both sides of this growing debate would do well to remember that there are, after all, bigger issues at stake for a denomination whose numbers have been quickly dwindling. We need to reconsider our core religious messages. We need to emphasize observance — however we decide to define Reform ritual and ceremony. And we need to do this urgently, before an entire generation slips away from us. This also means that we can’t afford a costly debate over what is essentially an irrelevant issue from an organizational point of view.
But grass-roots Reform Jews are telling them that Israel is not irrelevant. Polls indicate a high degree of support for Israel among Jews (most of these are Reform Jews or ‘just Jews’ who tend to be less supportive), even if Reform Rabbis don’t share it. If the movement moves in the opposite direction from its membership, then problems will get worse, not better.