Reform Judaism can have Zionism or fringe leftism, not both

Coalitions are a great thing. But alliances only work if they don’t undermine what you claim to stand for.

Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at the organization's biennial convention in Boston in December 2017. Credit: URJ via Facebook.
Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at the organization's biennial convention in Boston in December 2017. Credit: URJ via Facebook.
Jonathan Greenberg

In a public Facebook post last week on her personal page, April Aviva Baskin, the vice president of Audacious Hospitality of the Union for Reform Judaism, linked to an article that was, she wrote, “Required Reading for any white person who has actively thought or stated their opinion of how the women of color leading the Women’s March should respond or relate to Minister [and head of the Nation of Islam Louis] Farrakhan.”

She exhorted readers to “target white nationalism/white supremacy [which encompass both racism and anti-Jewish oppression], patriarchy and capitalism.” Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour, who supports the BDS movement and called the Anti-Defamation League a “purveyor of Islamophobia,” was among the many who “Liked” the post.

The leftward political drift of institutional Reform Judaism has been evident for some time (here, it’s important to distinguish between the bureaucracies of the Reform movement, and its leadership at the communal and synagogue levels, which has far different priorities, if similar personal political tendencies). Meanwhile, the political left’s relationship with Israel and Zionism is of increasing concern in the United States and is downright toxic elsewhere in the West.

So it was a welcome development this summer that the URJ announced it had signed on to the “Jerusalem Program”—a set of principles that serves as the official platform of the World Zionist Organization. Then, late last month came the announcement of a potentially significant overhaul in the apparatus of the URJ’s Israel programming.

On the surface, all pro-Israel Jews, regardless of their religious affiliation, should be encouraged by this announcement. The polling and sociological data are consistent and clear that, in addition to crises of Jewish identity and literacy, the religiously liberal movements of Judaism are experiencing a startling diminution of support for and connection to Israel—a phenomenon that is especially prevalent among the young.

The URJ press release heralding their new initiatives predictably ignores these trends, leaving the reader to wonder why the movement has decided to take action at all. They explain that the change “represents a renewed commitment toward the URJ’s goals of growing each Reform Jew’s relationship with Israel and making Israel a core component of every Reform Jew’s identity.” Surely, that’s a laudable goal and something we can all support.

But why now? One suspects it has to do with a series of missteps by URJ leadership culminating with president Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ disastrous initial statement on the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem last December. The tone-deaf, politically partisan, Jewishly incomprehensible response may have finally led some in the leadership of the movement to conclude that the face of the URJ’s Israel portfolio couldn’t be Jacobs—a man who came into office having served on both the J Street rabbinic cabinet and the board of the New Israel Fund.

While the new initiatives from the Reform movement are encouraging, hiring a vice president and empaneling a committee are easy steps to take and tell us very little about their “renewed commitment.” Far harder will be for the leaders of the movement to live up to that commitment by sublimating their own politics to the broader needs of the movement. Harder still will be extricating the institutions of Reform Judaism from highly questionable alliances with anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic groups.

No message or new committee will succeed so long as the URJ continues to sit in political coalition with groups like the Poor People’s Campaign, a self-professed movement “to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.” While the Poor People’s Campaign does not itself appear to take a position on Zionism or Israel, several of its partner organizations are among the most pernicious opponents of the right of the Jewish people to a state in their ancient homeland, including church groups that have officially joined the BDS movement, the anti-Semitic and misnamed Jewish Voice for Peace, CODEPINK radicals who routinely disrupt pro-Israel events and many others. It’s not a list that any Zionist organization should be on.

In June, at a march in Washington, D.C., for the Poor People’s Campaign, Rabbi Rick Jacobs participated alongside marchers from the virulently anti-Israel American Friends Service Committee, seen (here) with an AFSC activist wearing her “Resist Zionism” T-shirt while helping Rabbi Jacobs lead the protest. This past weekend, a Religious Action Center livestream on the recent midterm elections featured Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of the movement’s Washington arm, and a monolithically partisan panel celebrate the elections of two Muslim women to Congress: Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), despite the fact that both are virulently anti-Israel.

If partnership with the anti-Israel far-left fringe of the progressive movement—defending Farrakhan, targeting capitalism and LARPing the 1960s—are more important to the leaders of the Reform movement than Zionism, then these new initiatives are purely cosmetic and an insult to the stated principles of the URJ.

In 1992, while promoting his film “Malcolm X,” director Spike Lee was asked if the film would appeal to a white audience. He responded, “The minute black artists start thinking about crossover, they start diluting the work, watering it down, and the work suffers.” Coalitions are a great thing. But alliances only work if they don’t undermine what you claim to stand for. Reform Judaism can have Zionism or it can have its coalition with the anti-Israel far-left. It cannot have both and expect to be taken seriously.

Jonathan Greenberg is an ordained Reform rabbi and the senior vice president of the Haym Salomon Center, a news and public-policy group. You can follow him @jgreenbergsez

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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