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Reform Jews embrace Israeli ‘pluralism’ — sans Palestinians — to energize the young

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Anat Hoffman

Anat Hoffman

There’s an excellent piece of reporting up at the Forward on the crisis inside Reform Judaism. How to counter assimilation and disaffection, which are driving American Reform numbers down? The Reforms’ answer is the superb foto at the top of that Forward piece: A Reform rabbi speaking to the flock with a Jumbotron of Netanyahu grinning right behind him. Uncle Ben.

That’s right. The Reforms think the only way to get the air back in the tire is…. Zionism! And not just Zionism but Zionism cast as an idealist project. How do the Reforms square that circle?

Here are some excerpts of Dafna Laskin’s reporting, including the choicest bit, selling a visit to Israel as a modern day Freedom Ride. And not a word about Palestinians.

What to do about the shrinking number of active young Reform Jews?

For most of those present, the answer to this problem was clear. In workshops and discussion groups, and in plenary speeches by the movement’s star speakers, the idea recurred like a drum beat of Israel at the center of the movement, rallying its young minions against the forces of assimilation and disengagement. And in the conference’s programming, the emphasis on engaging youth in the Israel experience focused specifically, if not exclusively, on the issue of religious pluralism.


“At least once a week read something about Israel which is not about security,” Noa Sattath urged the crowd, speaking on behalf of Anat Hoffman, who leads Women of the Wall, the group that has been fighting for the right for women to conduct formal prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site.

Women of the Wall are of course the women who are trying to break down sexism at the holy site in East Jerusalem. I did a post on this stirring but very selective cause a few weeks ago: “Stories of equality (for the women of our nation).” Women of the wall are also featured in Gary Rudoren’s videos, the husband of the New York Times correspondent, who is a feminist.

So, cheering on Women of the Wall is a way to feel progressive, even when you’re supporting an ethnocracy. At the Forward, Laskin says that the Reforms avoid talking about Palestinian issues by leading a battle for “pluralism” inside Jewish Israel.

During the conference there was virtually no mention of the word “Palestinians.” Terms like “strategic concerns” and “security issues” were used consistently by speakers when referring to them or to the issues they embodied. The only speaker who cited Palestinians by name from the podium at any length was Netanyahu, during his speech from Israel.


For David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, the focus on using Israel to engage young people with a heavy emphasis on the issue of religious pluralism was easy to understand.


“Pluralism is flying right now, and capturing the dreams and hopes of so many people,” he told the Forward.

Notice how the Reforms seek to coopt the most idealistic currents in American political life in the name of Zionism:

Sattath, speaking for Hoffman about Women of the Wall’s struggles, urged a plenary session: “Visit Israel, and make your visits count…. Less Roman ruins and more freedom rides!”

I’m all for Women of the Wall, but the failure to notice that our Palestinian brothers and sisters are living under apartheid or second class citizenship is grotesque and, well, racist.

Imagine the Freedom Riders ridin those buses south and not talking about black people! The white citizens councils would have thrown barbecues for them!

So what to do about the “continuity” crisis inside Jewish life, the fear that Jews are turning away from the community and there won’t be any Jews left? I can’t offer myself as any kind of proselyte for the tribe, but I love Jewish tradition and one thing is clear: You cannot build a Jewish identity on racism. Smart young people won’t sign up. Even if you brainwash a few of them. In the end, the only way to build an idealistic Jewish identity is to lose the picture of the rightwing Prime Minister of the ethnocracy. In other words, challenge young Jews to explore anti-Zionism, the universalist strain in Jewish life; you will feel good about yourself, and help build a new community on values you can brag about.

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14 Responses

  1. Krauss
    December 19, 2013, 3:26 pm

    Reading her coverage of the plenary sessions I’m struck at how monotone the answers seem to be all the time. Everything seems to go back to Israel.

    The problem with basing your identity on Israel is what if that country goes haywire?
    What do these Reform thinkers plan to do next? Sure, you can rally people around religious pluralism and the whole Women of the Wall thing, but the Orthodox are not going to give up their power and frankly they have the demographics on their side inside Israel.

    In 2020, 50% of all Jewish firstgraders will be ultra-Orthodox. If you base your movement on identification on Israel, it seems to me to be a pretty foolish bet based on the already-happening demographics.

    And why would Netanyahu help them achieve their aims? The Orthodox are going to vote for him if he keeps their religious privilege. Who are Reform Jews in Israel going to vote for? Not for any right-wing parties in any large numbers. The only hope, then, is for a left-wing government to allow them through. In other words, the Jewish left needs to gain power. Good luck. That’s like seeing the California Senate turning Republican-majority in the next few decades.

    And even beyond the practicalities, why not have a Jewish religion based on – shock! – Judaism? This is why the -ultraOrthodox don’t have an issue with repopulation. Many of them are anti-Zionist, so if they can be anti-Zionist in large numbers yet still repopulate(and then some!), then why does that lead these people into thinking that Zionism is the answer?

    Of course, the treatment of LGBT, women and others who don’t fit “traditional” mold is abhorrent, which is why you need liberal streams of Judaism. Yet they don’t seem to have any new ideas than the same old, same old; Zionism! It hasn’t worked so far, so why would they double down? Isn’t that Einstein’s famous definition of insanity?

    • Xpat
      December 19, 2013, 8:29 pm

      Reform Judaism is not trying to save Israel for modern Jews, let alone for Palestinians. The leadership and the membership of Reform Judaism really don’t care. If all of Israel turned ultra-Orthodox, Reform Judaism would still need and love Israel just as much as now.
      Why has Women of the Wall become Reform Judaism’s cause celebre 25 years after it was started? Because there is so much unstoppable anger against Israel that they needed a safe intra-Jewish way of channeling that. “Look we are activists too!”

      The content of the American-Israel relationship for the Jewish masses is:
      1) Make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
      2) Support Reform/American institutions and projects in Israel.
      This is a 21st century restatement of a pre-Zionist relationship with Eretz Yisroel: you visit if you can and you support your landsmen in the Holy City.
      Barely a mention of the I/P reality (that American Judaism helped create) that lies outside this narrow sliver of Israeli life.
      It’s all about what Israel can do for you and your “Jewish identity.”

      Another point to keep in mind is that, along with the other national Jewish organizations there is a divide in Reform Judaism between what the senior leadership allows themselves to talk about and the concepts and content that are presented to the rank and file and local leadership.

    • American
      December 20, 2013, 10:16 am

      The problem with basing your identity on Israel is what if that country goes haywire?……..Krauss

      what if?…..its already gone haywire. The identity seekers imo need to start at square one and figure out which of their former identities got them to zionism.

  2. pabelmont
    December 19, 2013, 3:37 pm

    And what’s wrong with barbecues? Phil, you are so — unAmerican!, so unBackyard! And worrying about major racism when you are struggling with an issue as important as feminism is, well, defeatist.

    Like worrying about global warming when you trying to, well, make a living. In the oil business.

  3. jon s
    jon s
    December 19, 2013, 4:12 pm
  4. Balfour
    December 19, 2013, 5:28 pm

    When Jews discuss ethnic pluralism in Israel why are Palestinians never allowed to speak for themselves, and why do Jews exclusively define, and resolve, “The Palestinian Problem”?…the scenario is reminiscent of 19th Century American Protestant men addressing “The Place of the Negro in White Society” by planning “Back to Africa” colonies and describing the plight of “The Negro” in paternalistic terms framed from the perspective of the entitled.

    If you doubt my perspective ask yourselves when the last time The New York Times has allowed a piece regarding the Palestinian perspective to actually be written by a Palestinian living in the Occupied Territorities. (Or, when the Times has ever hired a non-Jewish correspondent to work out of its Israel office)

  5. RoHa
    December 19, 2013, 8:37 pm

    So here “pluralism” means “different types of Jews”?

  6. ToivoS
    December 19, 2013, 8:50 pm

    This Women of the Wall movement inside Israel has always struck me as an attempt by Zionists to show the world the vibrancy of Israeli democracy to an American audience. See folks, there is a viable feminist movement inside Israel demanding equal rights for women (if they are Jewish, of course).

    It is going on in parallel with a Jewish gay propaganda campaign. Gee wiz, look at how progressive Israel is with respects to the rights of gays (if they are Jewish, of course). This resulted in that grotesque movie by an Israeli gay porn producer filming a gay orgy inside an abandoned and partially destroyed Palestinian village in the hills around Jerusalem. This film was released to the world to show how progressive Israel had become. And also to show how sexy and cool Israeli Jews really are. The audience for this stunt was the Western LGBT community, not the world at large, since it did not seem to get that much publicity. Part of their pink washing campaign I suppose.

  7. piotr
    December 19, 2013, 8:53 pm

    “stirring but very selective cause”

    My first thought that this is a bit in the spirit of “singling out” charge, why are you specifically interested in that?

    That said, I do not understand why a Reform Jew should care about Kotel. But actually I fail to understand the idea of Reform Judaism. Initially, it was conceived as creating a religion with a universal message, or at least, universally applicably ethics, on the basis of the Bible. In particular, one should recognize and distinguish commandments or interpretations of commandments that make no sense today.

    In that spirit, a Reform Jew approaching the Western Wall is merely a tourist. Sure, visiting sites important to the history of your people can be appealing, but it is not a spiritual experience that would require some specific paraphernalia. The original Reform Judaism opposed specific paraphernalia as kind of idolatry.

    But a religion that is overly rational has difficulties maintaining membership: after all if you are so rational, you could give up on religion altogether. So Reform re-introduced various religious paraphernalia and unnecessary observation, and, by popular demand, a reverence for the Jewish State that is sufficiently irrational to “fill a spiritual void”.

    Which is too bad, because statism is a very dangerous attitude. Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”).

    • Citizen
      December 20, 2013, 6:57 am

      Very interesting comment. I had a course in undergrad college called “Jewish Culture Studies.” It was a taught by a Reform Jewish Rabbi associated with the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning in Chicago. He was constantly talking about the influence of Maimonides and Hegel, especially his dialectics, within his general theme that Judaism was “a portable culture.” He never once mentioned the state of Israel, if memory serves. But maybe he did–it was a long time ago….

      • Citizen
        December 20, 2013, 7:10 am

        Re “But a religion that is overly rational has difficulties maintaining membership: after all if you are so rational, you could give up on religion altogether. ”

        I wrote a paper for that class; my theme was if you took all that anthropomorphic language out of the Old Testament there’d be no Judaism.

  8. DICKERSON3870
    December 20, 2013, 1:23 am

    RE: “The Reforms think the only way to get the air back in the tire is…. Zionism! And not just Zionism but Zionism cast as an idealist project. How do the Reforms square that circle?” ~ Weiss

    MY COMMENT: “Pastor” John Hagee is living proof of the (Elmer) Gantrification that has already been aided and abetted by Zionism.

    P.S. Sinclair Lewis rocked! Burt Lancaster, too.

  9. Dan Crowther
    Dan Crowther
    December 20, 2013, 8:24 am

    “You can’t build a Jewish identity based on racism”………..since when? Hire a gentile ,Phil and I’ll take you seriously.

    • Citizen
      December 21, 2013, 12:24 pm

      In Cohen Bros A Serious Man, the protagonist searches in vain among his own Jewish community for some help from his life situation; he gets none at all, except one: the Jewish network, in the form of a promise that he, a physics professor, is assured of tenure, regardless of not having earned it. Phil’s early success itself, was a product of said network–he just worked himself out of a job by sharing dirty Jewish linen in public.

      Perhaps Reform Jewish Establishment need to work with the Israeli, “Persian”-American and Russian-speaking Jewish communities in USA to fight their battle against assimilation here? A glimpse of these reservoirs can be seen in the reality tv shows InOverOurHeads (orthodox jews); Russian Dolls (Russian Jews); Shahs of Sunset (“Persian” aka Iranian Jews). At present, there seems to be a disconnect between the Reform Jewish Establishment and all three of these relatively recent immigrant Jewish communities in USA:

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