This coming week, the big fish of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational wing of Judaism’s reform movement, will gather somewhere in Tri-State Metropolitan Area for their semi-annual board of trustees meeting. During this time they will almost certainly vote to elect Rabbi Richard Jacobs the new president of the reform movement, a position he’ll officially take over from long-time leader Eric Yoffie in June 2012. It’s a big deal because the reform movement is the numerical, if not the spiritual, heavy of modern American Judaism. With some 900 member congregations, and 1.5 million individual members, it represents more Jews than any other branch of Judaism in the United States, and the man (because you can bet it’s always a man) who gets chosen to lead these members has no small influence. Which is among the many reasons Rabbi Jacobs’s recent speech, “My Heart is in the East: My Zionist Commitments,” is so deeply depressing.
Rabbi Jacobs apparently felt compelled to give this speech after a band of reform movement dissidents began agitating against his selection because they felt he wasn’t sufficiently “pro-Israel.” First came the whispers, then the op-eds and finally the ads, scattered throughout select Jewish newspapers, asking the Union for Reformed Judaism to “reconsider this divisive appointment.” Jacobs’s particular offense? Membership on the board of the New Israel Fund, membership in J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet (a position Jacobs later denied holding), and participation in one of the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations in Jerusalem – o as the Zionist Organization of America’s Morton Klein phrased it, associating with “extremist groups.”
Now all this hysteria and hyperbole would be funny, truly funny, if it weren’t so pervasive these days – the trip-wire response to anyone who offers even the gentlest criticism of Israel – and if declared leaders like Jacobs didn’t drop so readily to their knees in the face of it. But drop he did in the form of a 25-minute loyalty oath in which he seemed less like a man of spirit than a magician contorting the balloon of his conscience into one ridiculous shape after another – poodle, flower, fish – as he tried to make his impressive social justice commitments (to Haiti, Darfur, affordable housing, the Park 51 Islamic center) square with his commitment to Israel. It wasn’t pretty. For every micro-nod he made toward justice – toward acknowledging, for instance, that Israel might not treat its Arab population so wonderfully – he offered an equal – no, more than equal – and opposite nod toward the brutal status quo. So the claim that Israel is an apartheid state? Ridiculous, he said. The Goldstone Report? “Biased” and beset by “fatal flaws.” The IDF? You guessed it, “no other fighting force has more ethical rigor.” And not just that: in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day military campaign during which Israel killed some 1400 Palestinians and leveled much of Gaza, he argued that “these remarkable young soldiers” must be supported more than ever. As for “Jewish life,” it “cannot be imagined without Israel at its core,” he said, displaying an unforgivable lack of imagination while also, no doubt, alienating at least a few members of his flock.
None of this is exactly surprising. Despite its relatively liberal domestic politics, the URJ is not a force for progressive change when it comes to Israel-Palestine. And the number of rabbis of any denomination who are truly righteous – or at least publicly righteous – when it comes to Israel hovers in the small dozens. Nonetheless, Rabbi Jacobs doesn’t seem completely blind to the injustices perpetrated in and by Israel, and his politics might in fact be an improvement over those of previous leaders, meaning he should know better. Moreover, he was chosen to helm the URJ at least in part to offer a new kind of leadership, one that will reel the young folks back into the reform movement and give it a needed jolt.
Doesn’t he know? A dawning critical consciousness about Israel is at least part of the reason – and a good part – for the Youth Drift afflicting non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. So how can he hope to lure the young people in? And what kind of spiritual leader can he really hope to be?
B'hatzlacha, Rabbi Jacobs.