Reform Judaism’s Israeli Critique

Israel’s nearly seven decades of repressing Palestinians has soured many ethical Jews on the idea that the Jewish state should get unqualified support for its behavior, including now Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of U.S. Reform Judaism, as Lawrence Davidson describes.

By Lawrence Davidson

Something significant recently happened in the ongoing political-ethical drama that grips Israel and, by extension, Jewish communities worldwide. As reported by the Jewish Daily Forward on Nov. 6, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (a position that makes him the leader of the largest Jewish denomination in the United States), publicly broke with Israel’s political and religious leadership.

In a major speech at the Union’s biennial conference he said, “Asking Jews around the world only to wave the flag of Israel and to support even the most misguided policies of its leaders drives a wedge between the Jewish soul and the Jewish state.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with his generals to discuss the offensive in Gaza in 2014. (Israeli government photo)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with his generals to discuss the offensive in Gaza in 2014. (Israeli government photo)

Going public in this fashion is significant and welcome. However, as we shall see, this aspect of his critique has a long history.

Jacobs then got more specific: “the treatment of Israel’s minorities” and the “way ultra-Orthodox views of Judaism are being enshrined in secular law” are indications that Israeli society is “broken” and that Reform Jews will not be quiet about this.

Jacobs offers the concept of Tikkun olam or “good works that benefit the wider community” and the “power and wisdom of pluralism” as antidotes that can help “repair” Israel. This is potentially powerful stuff for the situation here in the U.S., if not in Israel itself.

If Jacobs moves to mobilize America’s Reform Jews behind a campaign opposing present Israeli behavior, it will constitute a major challenge to Zionist tribalism. It might also help liberate the U.S. Congress from its present role of accomplice to Israeli crimes.

Past as Prologue 

While the Zionists will never admit it and it is unlikely that the great majority of Reform Jews are aware of it, Rabbi Jacobs’s criticism is not new. Indeed, warnings and skepticism of what Zionism meant for the Jews and Judaism go back to the late Nineteenth Century and intensified with the announcement of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

I wrote a long essay on this subject in 2004. It is entitled “Zionism and the Attack on Jewish Values” and appeared in the online journal of ideas Logos (Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 2004). Here are some excerpts:

,Ahad Ha-am (the pen name of the famous Jewish moralist Asher Ginzberg) noted as early as 1891 that Zionist settlers in Palestine had “an inclination to despotism. They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them without cause, and even boast of these deeds; and no one among us opposes this despicable and dangerous inclination.”

,In England, on May 24, 1917, the Joint Foreign Committee of two Jewish organizations, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association, issued a statement which asserted, “the feature of the Zionist program objected to proposes to invest Jewish settlers in Palestine with special rights over others. This would prove a calamity to the whole Jewish people who hold that the principle of equal rights for all denominations is essential. The [Zionist program] is all the more inadmissible because it might involve them in most bitter feuds with their neighbors of other races and religion.”

,Hannah Arendt, one of the most insightful Jewish political philosophers of the Twentieth Century, characterized the Zionist movement in a 1945 essay as a “German-inspired nationalism.” The result of this was a modern form of tribal ethnocentrism that led to virulent, politicized racism. In 1948, she and 27 other prominent Jews living in the United States wrote a letter to the New York Times condemning the growth of right-wing political influences in the newly founded Israeli state.

,Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein warned that “the attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.” An investigation of the conclusions drawn by every human rights organization that has examined Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians over the last 50 years, leaves no doubt that the Zionists have failed Einstein’s test.

Yet that is just the conclusion that today’s Zionists cannot face. Any revival of these early and prescient objections as part of a contemporary critique of Zionism represents, to the ardent Zionist, the promotion of supposedly traitorous anachronisms that are not only an embarrassment, but also politically dangerous.

Jews who express such concerns are systematically denigrated and non-Jews who are critical of Zionism are slandered with charges of anti-Semitism.

 

Judaism Divided

Thus, Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the latest in a long line of important critics. Now that he has joined their ranks, the question is: Will Jacobs be able to popularize his critique while withstanding the enormous pressure that is certainly about to befall him?

He will be libeled and threatened in an effort to force him to back down. The movement of Reform Judaism might itself come under fire as subversive. After all, officially Israel doesn’t even see Reform Jewry as real Jews.

Though an effort to discredit Jacobs and the Reform movement will be made, it will only make matters worse for the Zionists and Israel. Thanks to its racist policies and brutal aggressiveness, the Zionist state has become the most divisive issue for Jews throughout the Western world. Jacobs’s pronouncement is a sure sign of this. A Zionist counterattack on Reform Jewry will make it more so.

The truth is that Zionism has always divided Jews. On one side have been those sensitive to humanitarian issues and the religion’s traditional championship of egalitarianism and justice. And on the other side have been those who have committed themselves to a Jewish future defined in Zionist ideological terms.

Before World War II those on the humanitarian side were mainly outspoken intellectuals. At that time the Zionists were better organized than those who opposed them and they were politically savvy and assertive. However, apart from areas of Eastern Europe, the vast majority of ordinary Jews remained neutral. With the advent of Nazi persecution the entire balance shifted in favor of the Zionists, who saw vindication for their statist philosophy in the Holocaust. By 1948, few Jews said a word against Zionism and the state of Israel.

But that pro-Zionist balance could not last. Eventually Israel’s combining of religion and state power produced the worst of both worlds. In the name of defending Judaism, Israel has conquered, persecuted and massacred, and it has self-righteously refused to acknowledge its own culpability for the ongoing tragedy of both itself and its victims. Now, more and more Jews are disgusted and alienated, or just mightily confused, by the ongoing malfeasance of a movement that was supposed to create their ultimate safe haven.

As the journalist Laurie Goodstein noted in a Sept. 22, 2014 article in the international edition of the New York Times, ever greater numbers of younger American Jews are turning against Zionism and Israel. However, older and more conservative Jews still remain ardent Zionists. These are the big donors not only at their local congregational level, but also when it comes to politics.

They will continue to try to intimidate Jewish skeptics into silence and to sway members of Congress. Hopefully, the efforts of men like Rabbi Jacobs will make it easier for those Jews who support more progressive and humane policies to stand up and compete for influence.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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25 comments for “Reform Judaism’s Israeli Critique

  1. Zachary Smith
    November 18, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Thus, Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the latest in a long line of important critics.

    I’m sorry, Mr. Davidson, but I believe you erred with that statement.

    Since I’d never heard of the guy, a quick search turned up this:

    Yet, when Rabbi Rick Jacobs came to the General Assembly on Wednesday evening, he warned you that a vote for divestment from three American companies could cost the Presbyterians their friendship with the Jewish people.

    The Presbyterian Church USA over the last ten years has sought to engage Israel on the issue of the West Bank. Sadly, to no avail. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, too, has consistently spoken out against West Bank settlements. We have yet to see what results these well-intended statements can achieve.

    The good rabbi is perfectly happy to run his mouth, but when it comes to actual pressure on Holy Israel, he balks.

    The Times of Israel site says essentially the same thing:

    Reform head urges Presbyterians not to support BDS
    Rabbi Rick Jacobs warns church before vote: ‘BDS undermines two-state solution’; invites leaders to meet Netanyahu

    Talk is cheap.

    BTW, if my information about the man is out of date, and he now believes that doing more than worthless talk-talk is indicated, I’d like to be updated.

  2. Abe
    November 18, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    When Jacobs reiterates the Reform movement’s commitment to “democracy, peace and to pluralism,” he does so without mentioning specific commitments that confront Israel’s shocking lack of commitment to all of these goals. Is the Reform movement committed to one person, one vote within Israel? Is pluralism limited to cultural celebrations of exotic food and dress or a politics of equality and respect? If so, let’s hear it.

    Jacobs and others within his movement seem unable to understand that democracy, peace and pluralism are abstractions without a commitment that refuses to hide behind a time-worn rhetoric. The trouble is that a political foundation for these commitments is as yet nonexistent in Israel’s history. Is there still a foundation for these goals in American Jewish life?

    Netanyahu’s honesty caught Jacobs by surprise. It seems that Netanyahu compromised a special Jewish Occupation Code honed over many years. In essence, Netanyahu cast an unwelcome light on a thoroughly compromised American Jewish leadership that has enabled Israeli policies toward Palestinians for decades.

    Like the leadership of any community, Jewish leadership doesn’t want to be exposed in public, especially when Jews claim to be a beacon of hope in a difficult world. Instead of being a light unto the nations, however, the Jewish community has inhabited the darkest realms of injustice for the longest of times.

    Netanyahu’s honesty towards Palestinians casts unwelcome light on American Jewish leadership
    By Marc H. Ellis
    http://mondoweiss.net/2015/03/netanyahus-palestinians-leadership

  3. Abe
    November 18, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    Davidson strives in vain to see some flicker of “light unto the nations” in what is no more than the typical nebbish Reform kvetch about the political sway of Orthodox Judaism in Israel. The Likud junta rightly sneers at the empty genstures of American Jewish “leadership”.

    • Peter Loeb
      November 19, 2015 at 7:23 am

      ON “HUMANITARIANISM”, OPENNESS TO OTHERS…

      Like so many of us, Lawrence Davidson accepts a verbal
      but (as Zachary Smith points out) empty commitment.
      How different is this commitment from other colonial
      ventures such as those of American foreign policy
      claiming their actions are “humanitarian”.

      Vladimir Jabotinsky’s words from his essay THE IRON WALL
      come back to haunt in their incisiveness.:

      Jabotinsky maintainsed that Zionists do not want a “home” or
      a Jewish “state”. Zionists want, indeed demand, a colony which
      only Jews (Zionists) control.

      In response to Davidson’s belief in humanitarian and ethical
      correctness this is not an an integral part of the Torah.
      As Michael Prior CM has documented (unfortunately he was
      not Jewish but a Catholic theologian) what is lacking is a concern
      not only for “the Israelites” but also for “the Caananites”. and
      others. Instead, again and again and again, the Pentateuch
      admonishes death, destruction and the like for all other groups than
      Israelites.. (For documentation see Prior, THE BIBLE AND
      COLONIALISM…”)

      As for boycott and sanctions which Zionists (Israelis) currently
      say are abhorrent, such actions were used by the Jewish elite
      with a vengeance against Swizterland and Germany the shakedown
      funds from which which were either funneled into their own pockets
      (for professional services rendered??) or to pet projects in
      or about Israel. (See Norman Finkelstein’s THE HOLOCAUST
      INDUSTRY.)

      One correction: In the early history of Zionism the holocaust
      did not exist. As Finkelstein notes (op cit) there was indeed little
      interest at all in the holocaust until after the 1967 war.

      Of particular interest is that the holocaust and “Jewish
      suffering” has become virtually the only claim to victimhood
      for Zionists. Otherwise today they are NOT “victims”. They
      flourish in universities, in medicine, in government, in high income
      levels etc. As Finklestein puts it, in America Jews are “hardly
      starving”. And as most of their non-starving brethren they
      have moved to the right politically.

      Davidson’s mistaking the holocaust with any other Jewish
      suffering of past millenia is part and parcel of Zionist
      PR.

      The nazi holocaust was unique as every historical event is
      in many ways unique. There have been other
      holocausts, other vicious wars. And most near to
      Israel itself is their treatment of Palestinians.
      Evidently their suffering doesn’t matter. What is
      important and “uniquely” cruel is a painting belong
      to a European Jew. The massacre, rape, oppression, home
      demolitions, state sterrorism by Israel is not important.
      Especially as Palestinians are not treated as equal
      human beings just as slave and Native Americans
      were not treated as human beings.

      Because, as some often say, “Jews are better.” Or
      as you recently wrote in another essay,”What’s good
      for Jews?” It is never a question of what’s
      good for the oppressed? It is not from Caananites eyes.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. F. G. Sanford
    November 19, 2015 at 9:22 am

    There is something really iconic about the picture which accompanies this article. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe the uniforms just lack that snappy Hugo Boss flair…or something.

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 19, 2015 at 10:51 am

      Maybe it’s the bomb under the conference table…..to the right of the table leg, or is it Netanyahu’s hand is shaking?

      • F. G. Sanford
        November 19, 2015 at 11:46 am

        Best laugh I had this week!

        • Abe
          November 19, 2015 at 12:24 pm

          Sadly, some schlub moved the bomb to the other side of the table leg.

          Bibi regards this as “a confirmation of the task imposed upon me by Providence…
          nothing is going to happen to me… the great cause which I serve will be brought through its present perils and… everything can be brought to a good end.”

  5. Herman Schmidt
    November 19, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Quoting Rabbi Jacobs:

    In a major speech at the Union’s biennial conference he said, “Asking Jews around the world only to wave the flag of Israel and to support even the most misguided policies of its leaders drives a wedge between the Jewish soul and the Jewish state.”

    Very true but substitute Americans and America and our treatment of “others” and we are too often in the same boat, the denial of our leaders as blatant as that of the Zionists leaders.

    Both have demonstrated the power to mute dissent.

    And yet…

    I am older than the generation that listened to the words:” the answer my friend, is blowing in the wind…” but hard to forget the power of that revolution.

  6. Dov
    November 19, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Rick Jacobs came to my synagogue in Western Canada earlier this year. The congregation loved him. He is a personable guy and a pretty good speaker.

    I recall nary a hint of criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. The closest he got to a critique of anything was rather indirect. He spoke of the desire of the Reform movement to have the same privileges Israel gives to the Orthodox. In Israel, Reform and Conservative rabbis are not officially recognized. (See http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/1.667197). That means a lot of things including that the State does not recognize marriages by these rabbis.

    As for any other expressions in his talk that might hint at a desire for change: bupkus. (Yiddish for ‘nothing.’)

    What dominated his speech, however, were his repeated declarations that the Reform movement strongly supports Israel.

    • Abe
      November 19, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Great, yes, exactly! Give non-Orthodox Jews the same privilege Israel gives to the Orthodox: the privilege of not fighting and dying for Israel.

      The Likud junta have done it.

      Witness the Final Solution:

      al Qaeda brand du jour (al Nusra, ISIS, ISIL), getting by with a little (well, a lot) of help from Israel’s Saudi and Qatari friends.

      And don’t worry about America, of course. America is a thing that can easily be moved. Remember 9/11! (America is about due for another lil’ memory jog.)

      Let Amalek destroy Amalek. The plan has been working brilliantly.

      Just look at the results:

      Rivers of blood and utter carnage among Israel’s “enemies” in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria.

      Nary a drop of blood shed by the Chosen.

      And an avalanche of goodies for poor “threatened” Israel.

      Now it’s Iran’s turn.

  7. Abe
    November 19, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    Journalist and author Mark Bruzonsky on the extent of Israeli influence over the US government
    https://vimeo.com/57234039

  8. jacobo
    November 19, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    A Jewish Humanist’s Perspective –

    one is either on the side of the slave or the slave-owner

    Palestinians are slaves by dint of their homeland, Palestine, being occupied by European Jews

    occupying another people’s land is to enslave them

    and since none of us will be free until the last chain is broken

    in the Middle East struggle

    considering the religion I was born into

    I side with the slave

    • Abe
      November 19, 2015 at 8:21 pm

      Appealing to a mythical “Jewish” humanism avails nothing.

      The religion you were born into celebrates genocidal war on the natives of Canaan.

      “I side with the slave” remains an empty rhetorical gesture.

      • jacobo
        November 20, 2015 at 1:14 am

        Unless one actually does so

      • Abe
        November 20, 2015 at 1:43 am

        As you “side with the slave”, Jacobo, what practical actions have you personally taken with regard to the “slave-owner” State of Israel?

        • jacobo
          November 20, 2015 at 3:15 am

          Sorry, listing such in detail would amount to self-identification, but for one thing there was speaking out publicly in support of justice for Palestine at meetings as well as on radio and TV.

        • Abe
          November 20, 2015 at 12:45 pm

          Rabbi Rick Jacobs has been speaking out publicly in support of justice for Palestine at meetings as well as on radio and TV, whilst warning groups that actions of boycott, divestment and sanctions would result in their loss of friendship with the Jewish people.

          Jacobs also knows how to play the “I side with the slave (to a point)” card.

          Without listing such in detail that it would amount to self-identification,
          and leaving aside the empty rhetorical gestures,
          and not worrying about loss of friendship with the Jewish people…

          got action?

          or more air?

  9. JWalters
    November 19, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Hopefully Jacobs is trying to lead the Jewish community toward justice for all, and small steps are part of a strategy.

    • Dov
      November 19, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      One respects this thought. However, while Jacobs take small steps, the Israeli state takes giant steps in its program of stomping out the Palestinians’ presence in the land.
      Dov

    • Abe
      November 19, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      Small steps are definitely part of “a strategy”.

      How many non-Jews will remain in “Jewish and democratic” Israel by the time “the Jewish community” is strategically led by small steps to proclaim “justice for all”?

      • jacobo
        November 20, 2015 at 1:18 am

        On the other hand, how many Jews will remain in Palestine, once there is justice for the Palestinian people?

      • Abe
        November 20, 2015 at 2:14 am

        I notice that you did not ask how many Jews will remain in Israel once there is justice for its non-Jewish citizens, let alone an end to the illegal Jewish occupation of Palestine.

        Today’s South Africa is still struggling to correct the socio-economic inequalities created by decades of apartheid. A post-Zionist Israel will face its own challenges, including answering for its role in the spread of terrorism in the region.

        • Peter Loeb
          November 21, 2015 at 2:55 pm

          HOW MANY JEWS ??

          Zionists were/are engaged in a colonial action.
          Israel is not “theirs”.

          Only Jews care about how many Jews. Perhaps—
          even probably—because they feel that only Jews
          are entitled to Palestine.

          There is no basis for this.

          If the answer is “the Bible tells me so” one can only
          respond that someone else’s belief tells him otherwise.

          For a more careful tracing of both Scriptural and
          archeological reasons, see Michael Prior: THE BIBLE
          AND COLONIALISM: A MORAL CRITIQUE.

          —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  10. Ethan Allen
    November 19, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    This brief excerpt from professor Davidson’s essay seems to speak remarkably succinct to the current state of Zionist apartheid in the region.

    “Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein warned that “the attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.” An investigation of the conclusions drawn by every human rights organization that has examined Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians over the last 50 years, leaves no doubt that the Zionists have failed Einstein’s test.

    Yet that is just the conclusion that today’s Zionists cannot face. Any revival of these early and prescient objections as part of a contemporary critique of Zionism represents, to the ardent Zionist, the promotion of supposedly traitorous anachronisms that are not only an embarrassment, but also politically dangerous.

    Jews who express such concerns are systematically denigrated and non-Jews who are critical of Zionism are slandered with charges of anti-Semitism.”

    As Usual,
    EA

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