Interview'We love this place... We're going to lean in even more'

Reform Judaism head: Critics say US Jews can’t have an opinion, then seek our help

After addressing Saturday night protest in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Rick Jacobs says he was representing majority of US Jews when he spoke out against government’s planned judicial overhaul

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at a protest against the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on February 25, 2023. (Screenshot)
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at a protest against the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on February 25, 2023. (Screenshot)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the US Union for Reform Judaism, delivered an onstage address at Saturday night’s mass demonstration against the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, the first time that a non-Israeli citizen has been invited to speak at the events, which have taken place for eight straight weeks.

In his speech, Jacobs warned that the coalition’s plans would make Israel less democratic and threaten the rights of minorities.

“Friends, your Diaspora siblings stand in solidarity with all of you tonight,” Jacobs said, speaking in Hebrew.

“We can’t imagine a Jewish state that isn’t democratic, but unfortunately there are those who can. We’re deeply concerned about proposed changes to Israel’s democracy. With only 61 votes, the Knesset could override the rights of millions such as the LGBTQ community, women, Palestinian citizens of Israel and non-Orthodox Jews,” he told the tens of thousands of protesters who turned out for the rally in Tel Aviv.

In his speech, Jacobs expressed widespread concerns in the American Jewish community, saying, “We know how precarious it can be to live as a minority. But we also know that our concepts of equal rights for all, our rule of law, our independent courts — our democracy — is what protects us.”

Jacobs is visiting Israel this month on a number of overlapping delegations. He participated in last week’s mission by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and is part of a group of roughly 250 Reform rabbis who are in Israel with the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. This week he is also taking part in a meeting organized by the Foreign Ministry.

Israelis take part in protests against controversial legal overhaul being touted by the country’s government, in Tel Aviv on February 25, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Sunday morning, Jacobs said he acknowledged that it was perhaps unexpected for him to appear onstage at the rally, which until now has only featured Israeli speakers.

“There were a series of conversations. They reached out to me. And I was very honored to be invited,” he said. “Obviously, it was unusual to have a leader from the Diaspora speak. But I wanted to come and bring a message of solidarity. The majority of the US Jewish community is concerned [about the judicial overhaul].”

Jacobs rebuffed criticism from those who see it as illegitimate for a foreign Jew to weigh in on an internal Israeli issue.

“That criticism is only ever used one-sidedly. They say we can’t have an opinion but then they say that ‘we need your help on this important issue in Congress,'” he said.

“We’re not asked to stay away in those moments. And we do it with complete commitment. It’s not right to say, ‘We’ll let you know when you can weigh in,'” Jacobs said.

In recent weeks, a growing number of American Jewish institutions have spoken out against the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, which would radically weaken the court system and bring the judiciary almost entirely under the control of the ruling coalition. Opponents of the overhaul, including large numbers of legal experts, economists, and former top security officials, have warned that the move would severely weaken Israel’s democracy, while supporters see it as a necessary corrective for what they see as an overly activist court that doesn’t represent the will of the people.

This is about changing the fundamental structure of the Jewish democratic state

Jacobs said US Jewish groups, including his Reform movement, have long felt comfortable weighing in on issues that deal directly with world Jewry — regarding the Western Wall, religious pluralism in Israel, conversions to Judaism, on so on.

Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman (left) and Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs hold Torah scrolls at the Western Wall complex on March 4, 2022. (Rick Jacobs/Twitter)

To them, the current fight over the government’s plans to radically reform Israel’s system of checks and balances brings it into the purview of global Jewry, which sees itself as a partner in the formation and continued existence of the State of Israel.

“This is about changing the fundamental structure of the Jewish democratic state,” Jacobs said.

He noted that warnings and criticisms to this effect have come not only from outspoken, progressive groups but also from mainstream Jewish organizations and individuals, who have historically been loath to criticize Israeli governments, particularly not on domestic issues.

Despite his and his movement’s opposition to many of the current government’s policies, Jacobs stressed that the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents roughly two million American Jews, is determined not to pull away from the country of Israel or its people.

“I wanted to bring a message that was about love. We love this place. We’re not turning our back. We’re not going to. We’re going to lean in even more,” he said.

“There are voices saying we should move away. My answer and our movement’s answer is, We’re not moving away, we’re leaning in.”

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