We must 'repair our embattled and beloved Jewish state'

Reform leader slams Israel’s West Bank policies, growing intolerance

While declaring his movement has ‘unconditional love’ for Israel, Rick Jacobs protests a long list of its domestic, religious and diplomatic blights

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs addresses the organization's biennial meeting, November 6, 2015. (screenshot)
URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs addresses the organization's biennial meeting, November 6, 2015. (screenshot)

The head of America’s Reform movement on Thursday called on members of the US’s largest Jewish denomination to support Israel and combat boycott and divestment movements, while simultaneously criticizing Jerusalem’s West Bank policy and castigating a long list of the current government positions.

Speaking before a gathering of the Union for Reform Judaism in Orlando, Florida, President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said “Israel’s safety and security must remain a primary concern for our movement.” He noted that the Reform movement fielded the largest North American delegation at last month’s World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, and said that “our unconditional love for the Jewish state was a badge of pride for us.”

Jacobs called out “world leaders and so-called social justice activists” who refused to condemn Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for inciting Palestinian violence and stressed that “the Jewish state needs our movement to be staunch defenders of Israel, and we will never stop defending her right to exist.”

At the same time, Jacobs suggested that Reform Jews should understand the errors — and victims — on both sides of the conflict.

“We mustn’t remain silent when ‘price tag’ (hate crime) attacks kill innocent Palestinians,” he declared. “Neither can we stand by when our Jewish family are victims,” said Jacobs, emphasizing that all Jewish victims, “whether they are ultra-Orthodox, settlers or politically opposite of us,” they are all part of a “circle of family.”

The Reform leader said the American movement “has long opposed Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank,” adding that “the occupation threatens the very Zionism we hold dear, the living expression of a Jewish and Democratic state.

“It causes pain and hardship for the Palestinians and alienates Israel from friends and allies around the world,” he added. “Only two states for two people, both states viable and secure, living side by side in peace, will bring the conflict to an end.”

Jacobs also said that Reform Jews “can and should play a key role in the efforts against BDS,” but noted that many campus would-be activists were stuck in a situation in which they were vocal opponents of BDS, but still were critical of certain Israeli government positions.

“We make a stronger case for Israel when we allow ourselves to see Israel as she is rather than as some idealized version,” he suggested.

Jacobs spoke extensively on the rabbinic concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world. While he discussed a number of American domestic issues, he then said that “if tikkun olam begins at home, then it begins not only with our literal home in Jewish communities in North America, but also our spiritual home in Israel.

“Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to repair our embattled and beloved Jewish state,” he explained.

Jacobs noted that “many Jews, especially younger ones, feel that Israel has become too intolerant not just of Arab citizens of Israel, but also of non-Orthodox Jews, Ethiopian Jews, LGBT,” while expressing concern over “the weakening of democratic institutions like the Supreme Court as a result of constant attacks by the ultra-Orthodox and far right.

“The truth — the current Israeli government is unlikely to permit advances in religious freedom such as civil marriage, equal funding of non-Orthodox institutions and reducing the power of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate,” he warned. “Ministers in the current government denounce Reform Judaism, actively seek to violate the status quo on the Temple Mount, divert resources from the social welfare budget to expand settlements, publicly minimize the importance of the rule of law and then wonder why many Jews and non-Jews feel alienated. It ain’t that hard.”

Jacobs went on to criticize overly dogmatic supporters of either side in the conflict, who, he said, refused to understand that each party — Israeli and Palestinian — shared responsibility for perpetuation of the conflict. “Alas, no single party in the debate has a monopoly on narrowness,” he complained. “Sadly, we are moving farther from the goal of two states for two peoples.”

Jacobs’ political messages were not restricted to just Israeli politics during his address at the biennial gathering. Jacobs said in an apparent jab at Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s immigration stance that “in this political season, we declare what we know to be true about our country: We do not ‘make America great again’ by building walls.”

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