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April 27, 2016 11:52 am

A Promise That Should Be Kept

avatar by Jonathan Greenberg

Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly on Sunday. Photo: Robert A. Cumins for JFNA.

Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly. Photo: Robert A. Cumins for JFNA.

The leader of the Reform movement of Judaism just opened the door to a machloket l’shem shamayim – an argument for the sake of heaven – that, in spite of an uncertain and potentially dangerous outcome, liberal Judaism desperately needs to have.

Since 1885, whenever the Reform movement has wanted to move in a particular direction, it has hammered out and published a declaration of principles. These statements are available at the website of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic body of the Reform movement. As the most-recent statement begins, “each of the previous formulations of Reform principles was occasioned by a perceived crisis in American Judaism.”

Anyone paying attention today surely understands that we are at a great crossroads in the relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state. Former Bush Administration official Elliott Abrams has just written an extraordinary essay on the issue to which the indispensable Martin Kramer added some valuable color commentary. J Street, a group created in 2008 to pressure Israel from the left, would, one imagines, disagree with Abrams and Kramer as to everything but the diagnosis of an existing, widening schism.

All Reform platforms contain statements on the movement’s attitude toward Zionism and, later, the State of Israel. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform is firmly anti-Zionist: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and 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 the Jewish state.” Fifty years later, in the Columbus Platform, things had changed: “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.” The Reform movement has, therefore, had the courage not only to adapt to changing circumstances, but to flesh out and announce the changes when they occur.

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When Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the current head of the Union for Reform Judaism, was appointed to his post in 2011, much was made of his left-wing associations on the issues surrounding Zionism and Israel. A member of the board of New Israel Fund and J Street’s rabbinic cabinet, Jacobs’ appointment was immediately and loudly criticized by some supporters of Israel in and out of the Reform movement. While a number of Reform luminaries leapt to his defense, perceptions formed during that awkward public debut remain.

This past weekend, Rabbi Jacobs spoke to the annual conference of J Street U, the college arm of J Street. He was asked an interesting question and his answer deserves more attention than it has gotten:

“Rabbi Jacobs, Dr. Ruskay: Will you convene a gathering to discuss a new approach to American Jewish leadership on settlements?”

I’d love to hear the long answer. I suspect it would sound a lot more like “no.” But it shouldn’t.

At the J Street U conference in 2014, Rabbi Jacobs was asked if he would work with the organization on Israel programming for the Reform movement’s youth in the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE). Jacobs answered, “I was going to ask you that.” I reached out to almost a dozen colleagues in the Reform rabbinate – an age – and seniority-diverse collection of pulpit rabbis from across the country in a variety of synagogue-based roles. None of them knew of any such cooperation between NFTY/EIE and J Street U. Most of them volunteered that they would be uncomfortable with such a partnership. I suspect that’s why it never happened – at least not in a form discernable to these rabbis.

Rabbi Jacobs’ latest promise, to convene a discussion on a new American Jewish approach to the settlements, also made some of my colleagues uncomfortable. Nonetheless, it’s a promise I believe he should keep. In fact, he should keep it as part of a much broader discussion on the future of the Reform movement vis-à-vis Israel.

What will the future of Reform Jewish political support (support that was reaffirmed in an above-linked statement from 1997) of Israel look like? What will the movement say about Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, the land-for-peace formulation, and linkage of the conflict to the broader regional mess? How have attempts by Reform leaders and rabbis reasonably (as they perceive it) to be critical of Israeli policies contributed to a distancing from – and even, in some instances, a hostility toward – Israel among some Reform Jews? What does the movement believe in? What will it fight for? With whom will it partner (or refuse to partner) and under what guidelines? These questions and others require answers that those of us in the pro-Israel movement can take to the bank.

Those of us on the political right will, of course, have no illusions about winning most of these arguments in a movement that is overwhelmingly and, often, uncritically leftist; though one hopes the movement would have the courage and honesty to include a diversity of opinions in the discussion. But, as talk radio host and columnist Dennis Prager likes to say, clarity is preferable to agreement.

The Reform movement has a proud history of pointing itself in a particular direction at times of uncertainty and division. It also has a proud history of adapting to new realities. It is past time the movement told us where it is headed on Israel. 

Jonathan Greenberg is an ordained Reform rabbi and the senior vice president of the Haym Salomon Center. A former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, you can follow him @JGreenbergSez. This article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post. 

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