By Matthew M. Hausman *
While attending shiva for a family member, a Reform rabbi felt moved to share a few thoughts regarding the Jewish views on life, death and the grieving process. Although his words about the deceased were eloquent, his doctrinal observations were quite disturbing. He lamented, for example, the absence of Jewish belief in an afterlife, apparently unaware that traditional Judaism believes in spiritual immortality and the world to come – essential tenets included in the Thirteen Principles of Faith articulated by Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah. However, the early reformers abandoned traditional belief when they rejected halacha (Jewish law) and the concepts of messianic redemption and Jewish nationhood. In so doing, Reform broke with normative Judaism, attempting to fill the ideological void with a belief in Israel’s universal mission. Unfortunately, this universalism has come to reflect secular, liberal and left-wing priorities that often conflict with traditional Jewish values, historical rights and interests.
Reform rabbis and congregants today champion “social action” to the exclusion of traditional observance, claiming that the humanistic values shaping their understanding of the concept represent the fulfillment of the Jews’ spiritual mission. Ironically, the movement’s activist wing, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, engages in little that can be called “religious,” but instead focuses on secular political and social causes. Given the movement’s history of liberal political activism, it is not surprising that Rabbi Richard Jacobs was chosen to head the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), in spite of his affiliations with J Street and the New Israel Fund.
Despite the artful claims of their supporters, J Street and the New Israel Fund (NIF) are not pro-Israel. Rather, they are left-wing organizations at cross purposes with the Jewish state. Their antipathy for Israel is evident in their validation of a Palestinian national myth that repudiates Jewish history, their failure to emphasize the Jews’ historical connection to the land of Israel, and their blind support for the establishment of a Palestinian state regardless of the persistent Arab-Muslim refusal to acknowledge Jewish historical claims. Moreover, they advocate dialogue with Arab-Muslim groups that will not concede Israel’s right to exist. After his affiliations were publicized, Rabbi Jacobs went on record to proclaim his support for Israel, but his associations with J Street (he serves on its Rabbinic Cabinet) and the NIF (he’s a member of the board) certainly raise concerns about the nature of his commitment.
The support Rabbi Jacobs received from a cross-section of the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) – itself a politically liberal body – suggests that his acceptability as a leader was predicated more on his liberal credentials than his scholarship or affinity for Israel. In the opening paragraphs of a letter published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a group of CCAR officials and past presidents came to Jacobs’ defense, stating the following:
We are past presidents and leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in the world. We are ardent Zionists, deeply committed to a Jewish democratic State of Israel in secure and recognized borders.
Some of us identify ourselves with J Street, others with AIPAC and others with neither. However, one should not doubt the firm commitment of each of us to the welfare of the Jewish state and Jewish people. In that respect, we are typical of the broad spectrum of pro-Israel involvements that characterize the Reform movement.
We enthusiastically support the choice of Rabbi Richard Jacobs to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie as president of the Union for Reform Judaism and are deeply dismayed at the unwarranted attacks that have been leveled against him…
(“Supporting Rabbi Richard Jacobs,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, May 5, 2011.)
At the very least, this letter reflects confusion within the Reform rabbinate as to what constitutes “commitment to the welfare … of the Jewish state.” Or it shows an institutional ambivalence in which superficial exclamations of devotion to Israel are used to parry any criticism regarding the rabbinical embrace of an agenda that promotes the Palestinian cause at Israel’s expense and which fails to condemn brazen expressions of antisemitism from the political left. It is beyond reason how these rabbis could vouch for J Street despite its clear pro-Palestinian bias; its dishonesty in concealing its funding sources, including the big lie that George Soros provided no financial assistance (its IRS Form 990 showed substantial contributions from Soros); its opposition to sanctions against Iran; its duplicity in providing speaking opportunities to Israel bashers and antisemites; and its lobbying efforts undercutting Israeli interests in Congress and the U.N.
The implication by these rabbis that J Street is simply an alternative to AIPAC was disingenuous, but their failure to address Jacobs’ NIF connection was astounding. The NIF is known for funding organizations that seek to delegitimize Israel and which are in the forefront of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (“BDS”) movement. Through its funding it has promoted anti-Israel “lawfare” and supported groups seeking to undermine Israel, including Adala, Mossawa, and the Arab Human Rights Association. It seems incongruous that one could serve on the NIF board and yet claim to support Israel. Clearly, this was too much for Rabbi Jacobs’ boosters to defend in their letter of support, which simply ignored his NIF affiliation.
Considering the CCAR’s own record of advocating the creation of a Palestinian state, condoning the eviction of Jewish “settlers” from Gaza, Judea and Samaria, and seeking dialogue with Muslim-Arab groups that do not recognize Israel’s right to exist, its tolerance for a leader associated with organizations that demean Israeli integrity, sovereignty and security should not be surprising. The only surprise is that anybody was shocked at all.
The selection of Rabbi Jacobs to head the URJ, and the earnest defense of his nomination, indicates a larger philosophical conundrum within Reform. Specifically, its leadership’s tolerance for a left-wing that demonizes Israel reflects the tendency to exalt a secular, liberal agenda despite the inclusion of policies that contradict traditional values and encourage political alliances that threaten Israeli security and continuity. This was amply demonstrated when Jacobs’ predecessor, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, announced an alliance between the URJ and the Islamic Society of North America (“ISNA”) in 2008, after the ISNA had supposedly renounced terrorism. Despite claims to the contrary, the ISNA has never recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state; and it was identified as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Holy Land Foundation trial. According to Jorge Solis, the presiding judge at that trial, the prosecutors “produced ample evidence to establish the associations” between ISNA, among other groups, and NAIT, the Islamic Association for Palestine, and Hamas. Thus, its designation as moderate seems inconsistent.
The URJ’s willingness for dialogue with such groups – and its refusal to acknowledge the doctrinal basis of mainstream Islamic rejectionism – evidences either inexcusable ignorance or willful self-rejection. Furthermore, Reform rabbinical involvement with groups that disparage or delegitimize Israel suggests an intrinsic discomfort with Jewish identity and sovereignty. Not all Reform congregants feel this way, but clearly many of their leaders do. Historically, this unease comports with Reform’s early repudiation of Jewish nationality and the belief in national redemption, as well as the expression of both in modern political Zionism.
Starting with the first Reform rabbinical conference in Wiesbaden in 1837, the early reformers introduced theological changes that deviated profoundly from traditional thought and practice. They rejected the Talmud and traditional observance, as well as the beliefs in a personal messiah and the restoration of Zion – core doctrines that had sustained Jews through two millennia of persecution and exile. In proclaiming that “Berlin is our Jerusalem, and the [synagogue] is our Temple,” the original German reformers embarked on a quest to reconceive Judaism as a “religious persuasion,” instead of a unique identity in which religion, ancestry and heritage play distinct, integral roles.
At its Philadelphia Conference in 1869, the American Reform movement followed suit, articulating its rejection of traditional messianic hope by stating that:
The Messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all the children of God in the confession of the unity of God, so as to realize the unity of all rational creatures, and their call to moral sanctification.
This pronouncement was shocking to Jewish national hopes and aspirations, and audacious in its denial of the centrality of the ancient homeland in belief and worship. The early reformers did not simply posit an authentic, alternative understanding of redemption. Rather, they created a new concept that abrogated the scriptural, historical and ethnographic foundations of Jewish nationhood. Their transparent purpose was to facilitate acceptance into Gentile society by making Jewish culture seem less alien, and to present Judaism as merely a theological preference instead of an all-encompassing ethno-religious identity that sets Jews apart.
Undaunted by the disparity between its assimilationist goals and traditional Judaism, the early American Reform movement went even further at its Pittsburgh conference in 1885, where it formally expunged nationhood from its restatement of Jewish identity. The Pittsburgh Platform, which constituted the manifesto of classical Reform Judaism in America, attempted to redefine Jewish identity thus:
We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community; and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning a Jewish state.
With these and similar declarations, reformers in Germany and America advocated a deracinated identity based not on common history and descent, but instead on a purely ethical creed that deviated significantly from classical Jewish thought. Whereas traditional Judaism always defined the Jews as a people whose unique religious obligations were incumbent upon them precisely because of their ancestry, the early reformers proclaimed themselves to be Germans or Americans of “the Mosaic persuasion” to suggest common roots with their Gentile host societies instead of descent from forebears exiled by the Romans from Judea.
The early reformers rejected Zionism because it conflicted with their aim of redefining Judaism solely as a faith community rather than as the religious and cultural expression of an extant people with ancient roots. Those who sought to construe Jewish identity this way believed they would promote their integration into Gentile society. Indeed, the fathers of American Reform – Rabbi Kaufman Kohler in particular – opposed Zionism specifically because it reinforced the sense of Jewish nationality they sought to consign to the dustbin of history.
There were certainly Orthodox Jews who rejected Zionism, but they were not motivated by a desire to deny nationhood. Traditional Jews always regarded themselves as a nation in exile and never ceased praying for the deliverance of their homeland. To the extent there was religious opposition, it reflected the fear that secular Zionism would weaken the belief in messianic redemption, not the repudiation of Jewish nationality. However, many religious Jews supported Zionism from the start; and in fact some of the earliest proponents of reestablishing the homeland were Orthodox rabbis and mystics. These “proto-Zionists” included Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, who actively preached national regeneration before Herzl was even born, and whose ideological descendants participated in the Zionist movement. Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, a renowned scholar and the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Yishuv, concluded that holiness could be found even in the acts of secular Zionists in redeeming the land of their ancestors.
While not all Reform Jews rejected Jewish nationality, their movement did not officially re-embrace it until the Columbus Platform of 1937. This retrenchment reflected the affinity of much of the laity for the Jewish community in the Yishuv and for the persistence of belief in the shared heritage amongst all Jews. It also recognized that the rejection of Jewish “otherness” had failed to secure acceptance in Germany, the birthplace of Reform Judaism. The failure of acculturated German Jews to achieve social integration was pointedly illustrated by the success of Nazism, and by the recognition that the Nazis did not invent antisemitism, but merely capitalized on what had been part of German culture for generations. That antisemitism continued to thrive regardless of how loudly Jews proclaimed themselves German showed they would never be permitted to assimilate.
Consistent with the Columbus Platform’s reaffirmation of Jewish nationhood, American Reform officially dropped its anti-Zionist stance in 1937. This was partly an acknowledgment that many Reform congregants had already endorsed Zionism (though many others remained opposed). Nevertheless, tension remained whenever Jewish interests were perceived to conflict with “social justice,” which as presented in the Columbus Platform became synonymous with the progressive politics of the era. When given the choice of supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt or lobbying for European Jewry, many Jewish progressives chose FDR, often rationalizing that such devotion would facilitate Jewish survival overseas. Some progressives were simply meek regarding their own Jewish identities; however, others felt compelled to attack more assertive Jews who boldly challenged the administration’s indifference to Jewish suffering.
Nowhere was progressive duplicity clearer than in the treatment of Peter Bergson by Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise and Jewish supporters of Roosevelt. The Bergson Group was aligned with Zev Jabotinsky, Revisionist Zionism and the Irgun, and worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the unfolding Holocaust. Despite apologetic post-war claims to the contrary, the Final Solution was common knowledge in the United States in 1942, and the Bergson Group organized rallies and produced a travelling pageant to stimulate a national call to action. The pageant, entitled “We Shall not Die,” was staged in major cities across America, including New York and Washington. Rabbi Wise, the American Jewish Committee, and other establishment organizations maligned the Bergson Group and attempted to suppress the show. Some of Rabbi Wise’s associates even urged the IRS and FBI to investigate the group, though no improprieties were ever found.
Jewish progressives denigrated Bergson and his colleagues by impugning their integrity and portraying them as provocateurs. Even some who identified as Zionists, including Rabbi Wise, showed greater interest in undermining Bergson and the Revisionists than in uniting against a common enemy. Rabbi Wise’s shameful treatment of Bergson’s people was no doubt influenced by his affinity for Labor Zionism, which opposed the Revisionists in the Yishuv, and by his blind allegiance to Roosevelt – despite the antisemitism that tainted his administration and riddled the State Department.
Today there are certainly Reform organizations that support Israel. However, there is still friction when Jewish interests are regarded as inconsistent with liberal priorities, especially in light of the continuing promotion of liberal politics as consonant with Jewish values. This is illustrated by the number of Reform action committees dedicated to gender politics, green initiatives and other liberal causes. It was also evidenced in 2008 by the abundance of Reform rabbis involved in “Rabbis for Obama,” whose intent was to portray Obama as friendly to Israel despite his long-standing associations with antisemites like Jeremiah Wright, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said, and the Nation of Islam; his silent record in the Senate regarding Israel; and his initial endorsement of Walt and Mearsheimer. Accordingly, it is no coincidence that J Street’s membership rolls are crowded with Reform Rabbis.
The support for Rabbi Jacobs within the Reform rabbinate betrays the reluctance of Jewish liberals to acknowledge that the political left fosters antisemitism and opposes the continuity of Israel as a Jewish state. This problem transcends the URJ, and reflects the tendency of many liberals to ignore left-wing antisemitism altogether, or to blame it on policies of the Israeli government or the dual myths of Israeli occupation and colonialism. Generally, they offer little or no criticism of the Arab-Muslim rejectionism that existed before Judea and Samaria were liberated in 1967, and indeed long before Israel declared independence in 1948. Moreover, they seem embarrassed to discuss how the Jews’ historical connection to the land preceded Muslim colonialism and Arab immigration by thousands of years, or to challenge the dubious Palestinian narrative.
Whether Reform voters truly consider Israel a priority will be determined by how they respond to Rabbi Jacobs’ stewardship of their movement, a barometer for which will be their conduct in the 2012 presidential election. The Jews who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 chose to ignore his known relationships with Israel bashers and antisemites, or were guided by liberal priorities rather than Jewish values and concern for Israel. After Obama’s disgraceful treatment of Israel these last few years – the nadir of which was his recent State Department Speech – the question is whether they are again willing to declare him “good for the Jews.”
In light of the State Department speech, their electoral response next year will offer a litmus test regarding how they value Israel for two reasons. First, the speech was based on the discredited theory of “linkage,” a foreign-policy sacred cow of the anti-Israel left, which links the Arab-Israeli conflict to all other geopolitical problems in the Mideast and holds that its resolution is essential to regional peace and stability. Second, Obama called on Israel to retreat to indefensible pre-1967 armistice lines and negotiate the Arab “right of return” while demanding no preconditions of the Palestinians. Despite the rationalizations of his apologists, there can be no doubt that Obama has abandoned Israel to appease Arab-Muslim sensibilities.
If the URJ and CCAR truly support the Israel as they claim, they should take a critical view of the President’s dismal foreign policy record instead of once again lending their imprimatur to sanitize his image among Jewish voters. They should also rethink their tolerance for organizations like J Street and the NIF, and question their own judgment in selecting a leader with memberships in both.
If those who chose Rabbi Jacobs and defended his pro-Israel bona fides want to show genuine concern for Israel’s safety and integrity, they could start with some public introspection into the motivations behind their choice of leadership. They could also analyze why they are so willing to validate groups that promote the BDS movement, work to delegitimize Israel, and criticize her character as a Jewish state. Finally, they could ask themselves how far they are willing to bend to accommodate a political agenda with which they might agree on many secular and social issues, but which tolerates, rationalizes or defends antisemitic expression masked as political criticism of Israel.
* Matthew M Hausman is a practicing attorney in New York