Rabbi Rick Jacobs is President of the US Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), and yesterday, he was commenting in the Forward that the recent deportation of American Jewish BDS activist Ariel Gold was “both disgraceful as a matter of principle and a mistake as a matter of strategy”.
That’s a pretty unequivocal thing to say. But what is equally interesting is how Jacobs was pressed into saying it. The open letter that Jacobs issued was a response to another open letter by Ariel’s son Elijah, published in the Forward two days earlier.
That letter, by a 17-year-old, is really worth reading, both for its mature reasoning, for its respectfulness to Judaism and the Reform movement, and for its strong petition to take a position about Israeli policy especially in light of his mother’s deportation.
In Elijah’s article titled “Israel Banned My Mother. Does The Reform Movement Care?” he asks:
“I know the Union for Reform Judaism cares very much about democracy. So, I would like to ask you personally: what you think about Israel rejecting Jews like my mother? Do you think such rejections affect the democracy of Israel? Do you think it is right for Israel to deny entry to Jews and other people people who have historical connections to the land, simply on the grounds of their politics and the beliefs they espouse?”
Elijah qualified that he agrees with his mother about some things, not all:
“I am still in the process of forming my opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some things I agree with my mother about, and others I don’t. Both of us are appalled by the newly passed nation state law and the shootings and bombings in Gaza.”
He says that he doesn’t want to be a BDS activist like his mother as such, but that’s apparently mostly because of the flack they get. He does, nonetheless, regard positively the Brithright walkouts:
“Unlike my mother, I don’t want to be a BDS activist. I think campaigns that focus directly on the occupation, like boycotting settlements, are a good thing. But, BDS activists take too much flack: they are accused of anti-Semitism, have laws passed against them and get banned from Israel. I don’t want that for myself and I think there are other ways, like the Birthright walkouts that IfNotNow is organizing, that can be just as effective in bringing about change and peace.”
It’s worth mentioning, that IfNotNow are also running a campaign called “You Never Told Me”, where they level critique against the Jewish summer camps, day schools etc. for ignoring Israel’s occupation, calling upon these institutions “to provide Jewish education that advances freedom and dignity for all people”.
While the issues Elijah raises above all deserve further discussion, what is important here, I believe, is that he is pressing Rabbi Jacobs to take a position beyond the cautious critique to Netanyahu (which Elijah credits as asking Netanyahu for ‘clarity’ about the matter some months before Ariel’s deportation), and asks him to respond particularly to the case. He’s saying, this is my mother, she’s been deported for her political beliefs – what do you think about it?
So Rabbi Jacobs said it was disgraceful. Jacobs also remarks further about the whole policy: “the government of Israel is wrong to deny entry to people based on their politics or beliefs”.
That’s a pretty clear statement. Jacobs seems to hedge this in parentheses:
“(though I would make an exception here for anyone who is credibly thought to present a legitimate threat to the safety of any Israelis, Palestinians, or other peoples; I hope you would agree with me on that).”
But that’s not really relevant, as Israel anyway screens for security threats. The point is, Israel basically frames the political belief of supporting BDS AS a political threat.
Jacobs defends himself by saying that he has voiced critique of the law, including adjectives such as “counter-productive” and that he was “frustrated” about it. But still, Jacobs never seemed to call it “disgraceful” before. And that 17-year-old called it out of him.
Elijah was actually writing from a US URJ camp in the Berkshires, where he is a counselor-in-training. He is speaking from the inside. That’s probably why Jacobs had to take that letter, published in a major outlet like the Forward, seriously. Elijah wrote that he wanted to ask the question directly, but wasn’t called upon in the last meeting with Jacobs:
“The question I wanted to ask is very important to me, and I think to the future of the state of World Jewry, so I am asking it here”.
Elijah is right. This is important for world Jewry. And it therefore deserves to be asked in such a public forum.
Rabbi Jacobs writes that he is open to such conversations generally:
“I speak and work with individuals and organizations from across the political spectrum, and I take the many conversations I’ve had with [the Reform group] NFTY teens in Israel and at camp this summer to be among the most important. In these conversations, no issues are out of bounds for discussion. Our Movement’s approach is informed by a wide array of views, but it is not dictated by any outside organization.”
But then, Jacobs seems to qualify that Zionism is not one of the issues that are up for discussion – because the URJ is a “Zionist movement”:
“We have a strong set of commitments. We are a Zionist movement. And because we are Zionists, we are deeply committed to peace, security and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians.”
Now that is surely a subject for further discussion. Not least in light of the fact that Israel has just declared by its “Nation-state of the Jewish People” law, that dignity for Palestinians must bow to the exclusively-Jewish right to self-determination, and it’s a very Zionist matter. But that aside, something is happening here. Rabbi Jacobs calls Israel’s political-censoring policies “disgraceful”, Daniel Barenboim is saying he’s now “ashamed to be Israeli”, and the young people are asking very critical questions about Israel, and challenging the Zionist allegiance and orthodoxy that their Jewish organizations have been espousing, even if they challenge Zionism only indirectly.
The heads of the movements can’t ignore this, it’s coming out publicly, they can’t shut this down and confine it to soft critique in closed halls. They know that if they come back too hard, they might suffer public backlash and may even become irrelevant. So they are adjusting.
Rabbi Jacobs ends his response letter to Elijah by saying:
“I hear you as I have heard other young Jews — and I hope we can continue this conversation. I wish you continued passion and compassion, and a great remainder of the summer.”
That’s all respectful and cordial. Under that surface, there is an earthquake taking place. It is shifting the standing of the Jewish establishment vis-à-vis Israel, and it portends a serious schism in that relationship, which may one day lead to a far more pronounced separation. For now, the major lifeline still holding that connection is Zionism, which still appears to be as religious as Judaism. But many of the young generation are beginning to seriously question this, and posing a much more pronounced critique, even condemnation. That is forcing the older establishment so take a clearer stance.
So now Israeli policy is “disgraceful”. And what if it is no longer possible to separate the policy from the state? Israel keeps confirming that it will not budge, and is only becoming more overtly racist. The religious leaders are trying to delay the day when they will have to say that it is simply Israel that is generally disgraceful, and they would certainly not want to say that about Zionism. But for the young, the distinctions are becoming increasingly superfluous. Israel and its Zionism are becoming indistinguishable from fascism and Apartheid. And that’s something that many young people find to be intolerable, and beyond disgrace.