(January 8, 2018 / JNS)
The Reform movement has started to retreat from its opposition to the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Following President Donald Trump’s recognition announcement, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs issued a statement on Dec. 6 expressing “serious concern” that the president’s action “may well undercut the Administration’s peace process efforts and risk destabilizing the region.” The URJ’s opposition broke with the broad American Jewish communal support of the Jerusalem recognition.
But on Dec. 22, the URJ publicly denounced the United Nations for condemning Trump’s recognition. The statement about the U.N. repeated some of the general language about Jerusalem from the Reform umbrella group’s previous comments, but conspicuously omitted the earlier language about “serious concern” and “destabilizing the region.”
Asked by JNS whether the change in language indicated a shift by the Reform movement from its Dec. 6 position, spokespeople for the URJ declined to comment.
Criticism of the URJ’s opposition to the U.S. recognition has been bubbling up from within the Reform movement’s ranks. The URJ’s former president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz on Dec. 19, “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel…it is comforting and gratifying when President Trump finally states what I know to be eternal and true.”
In addition, Yoffie pointed out, the Israeli political right was not the only camp to praise Trump’s announcement. “So did the leaders of the Israeli center and center-left,” he noted. “Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid, Zionist Union chair Avi Gabbay, and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni all applauded the President’s words. When I am looking for guidance from Israel’s political leaders, these are the people to whom I turn.”
“I want the Jewish world to know that [the URJ’s] position is not my position, nor does it reflect the views of multitudes of, perhaps most, Reform Jews,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch declared in a sermon at the Manhattan congregation he leads, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
Hirsch, who was the executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America for 12 years and served as a tank commander in the Israeli military, strongly challenged the URJ’s criticism of the timing of the Trump announcement. “Now is the not the right time?” asked Hirsch, whose sermon was posted on YouTube. “Two-thousand years later and it is still not the right time?…There were critics who accused the civil rights movement of moving too quickly. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s response: ‘The time is always ripe to do what is right.’”
In an interview with JNS, Hirsch said there was an “evolution” in the Reform movement’s position between the organization’s official statements on Dec. 6 and Dec. 22. In his view, the URJ “is now supportive of what I believe should have been our position from the beginning.” Hirsch said he believes his sermon and Yoffie’s article “helped clarify, and legitimate, feelings and opinions that people [within the movement] already had.”
Other prominent Reform rabbis agree. Rabbi John Moscowitz, rabbi emeritus of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, told JNS he believes that Hirsch’s public remarks “may have awakened many to the movement’s misjudgment about Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., said that at the URJ’s recent national conference, he perceived a noticeable amount of grassroots support for the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem. “I heard many whispered and not-so-whispered conversations in the corridors of the URJ biennial,” he told JNS. “An impressive number of rabbis and lay people support Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, even if Trump said it…Whatever Trump’s motives were for the proclamation, he spoke the truth.”
Rabbis from other denominations told JNS that they are pleased at these developments.
“In many corners of the Jewish community today, the reflexive response to anything connected to Trump is: ‘I’m against it,’” said Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue near Philadelphia. “One cannot help but wonder if the same reaction to this [Jerusalem] announcement would have been heard if it had come from President Obama rather than from President Trump. If the Reform movement has evolved beyond that point, I think it is a positive change.”
“The December 6 statement was consistent with the attitudes of those URJ leaders who sat down with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, yet refused to join President Trump for a High Holy Day phone call,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president of the Coalition for Jewish Values, which represents several hundred Orthodox rabbis. “It’s heartening that the pushback from other Reform leaders apparently forced a change of course.”