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Apres Rabbi Jacobs, the deluge

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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.  

Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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21 Responses

  1. Xpat on July 27, 2018, 12:30 pm

    This is wildly optimistic. We are living in a Trumpian age where you can make a statement one day and retract it when the pressure builds up while denying you ever contradicted yourself.
    Rabbi Jacobs did exactly this last year. In December he issued a statement (on his organization’s website) denouncing the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem only to embrace the move in the same forum just over a week later.
    Previously, Jacobs was a member of J St but dropped that one to get his current job.
    I give it a week before Rabbi Jacobs walks back this one too.

  2. Mooser on July 27, 2018, 1:04 pm

    “I am still in the process of forming my opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Elijah Gold

    Do take your time, there’s no hurry. You have lots of options.

    • MHughes976 on July 27, 2018, 4:10 pm

      The insult to his mother can’t surely be a huge moral issue compared to the suffering that Palestinians, including many who are mothers, endure. The idea of birthright walkouts as a serious countermeasure is not serious. Elijah Gold, those like him and what they stand for, do not amount to a significant problem for Israel or Zionism. Various forms of fastidious response to Zionist excesses have always been there. They are not the beginning of the end, they are the workings of a very much tried and tested safety valve. Rabbi Jacobs is one of the valve’s operators.

      • echinococcus on July 27, 2018, 4:35 pm


        They are not the beginning of the end, they are the workings of a very much tried and tested safety valve. Rabbi Jacobs is one of the valve’s operators

        Love the way you word things. The valve itself includes both the youngster complaining of the disrespect shown to his JVP mother’s birthright, and said mother, too.

      • MHughes976 on July 28, 2018, 12:36 pm

        Thanks for kind words, echino.

  3. JLewisDickerson on July 27, 2018, 5:28 pm

    RE: “But that’s not really relevant, as Israel anyway screens for security threats.” ~ Ofir

    MY COMMENT: The political trick is to make everything a threat to “security”. Like the Jordan Valley. And the “plague” of intermarriage!

    Shashi Naidoo denied entry into Israel for ‘being harmful’ to them 25.7.2018 —

    Shashi Naidoo banned from entering Israel for a decade 26.7.201—

    Shashi Naidoo: ‘I was interrogated by Israeli officials’ 27.7.2018 —

    Peter Gabriel: Après Moi, Le Déluge
    “Be afraid of the lame
    They’ll inherit your legs
    Be afraid of the old
    They’ll inherit your souls
    Be afraid of the cold
    They’ll inherit your blood
    Après moi, le déluge
    After me comes the flood”

    • JLewisDickerson on July 27, 2018, 7:47 pm

      Regina Spektor- Après Moi (Studio Version)

      • JLewisDickerson on July 28, 2018, 6:28 pm

        Shashi Naidoo vows to return to Israel
        Published on Jul 28, 2018
        TV personality and model Shasi Naidoo has vowed to return to Israel on day, after being banned from the country for a decade. Together with her mother, she was barred from entering that country following her comments about Israel. Naidoo was in the news after initially speaking out in favour of Israel and then retracting her comments. Shashi Naidoo joins us in studio. Courtesy DStv403

    • annie on July 28, 2018, 12:11 pm

      that’s an incredible song w/ choreography dickerson. it reminds me we live in an unprecedented time for documenting colonialism.

  4. JWalters on July 27, 2018, 8:47 pm

    ““the government of Israel is wrong to deny entry to people based on their politics or beliefs”.”

    Israel does not now and never did share America’s stated basic values. Believing that is a mistake. That claim has always been part of the lie and swindle. American Jews, along with the rest of Americans, have been duped. Israeli-born, Jewish therapist Avigail Abarbanel has wisely written
    “It’s time for American Jews to recognize they have been duped”
    “Why I left the cult”

    • oldgeezer on July 28, 2018, 12:14 am


      That’s really just a form of apologetics for those who have historically supported Israel.

      The blame for supporting Israel falls on those who supported it and no one else.

      I include myself in that group.

      They/I should have been more aware before lending support of any kind.

      I changed 25/30 years ago. I don’t blame zionists or the msm or anyone else for that. It is on me. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to correct that error if need be.

      • Mooser on July 28, 2018, 12:45 pm

        “I changed 25/30 years ago.”

        I was lucky, although I didn’t know it at the time. My parents could not afford Zionism, so I never picked up the habit.

      • JWalters on July 28, 2018, 7:05 pm

        I get your point, but I don’t always blame the swindler’s victim.

    • Citizen on July 28, 2018, 1:30 pm

      @ Mooser

      RE: “My parents could not afford Zionism”

      So how much did Zionism cost back when you were younger, under the control of your parents who could not afford it?

  5. Xpat on July 27, 2018, 10:13 pm

    On an optimistic note, here is another key Reform rabbi, Angela Buchdahl. She was invited to Obama’s White House to light the Hanukka lights and is the spiritual leader of a large, Reform synagogue in Manhattan’s midtown.
    Rabbi Angela Buchdahl used the terms “ethnically-cleansed” and gave a vigorous defense of the young Jews who walked out of the Birthright tour. This is couched in the usual, Jewish-speak, expressing concern for the Jewish People, the State of Israel and so on, but this is a religious service in a synagogue, after all. Which is exactly why her use of “ethnically cleansed” is so remarkable. If this is any measure then the language of Palestinian justice is infiltrating the bastions of Jewish respectability.

    (around 1:28:30)
    Friday, July 20 service.

  6. Talkback on July 28, 2018, 7:31 am

    Elijah: “I am still in the process of forming my opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

    Here is a lesson. Replace Jews with Nonjews in your sentence:
    “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?”

    Ofir: “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.”

    Nobody of them challenges Zionism, not even indirectly. It’s all about Jewish self-interest and Jewish exceptionalism. And equality contradicts Zionism.

  7. Misterioso on July 28, 2018, 11:13 am


    Well worth watching.

    “Lost cities of Palestine: Haifa, Nazareth, and Jaffa”

    “Rarely seen archival footage accompanies memories and accounts of forgotten Palestinian cities – highlighting the catastrophic effect the creation of Israel in 1948 had on them.

    “Haifa, Nazareth, and Jaffa have all been overshadowed by Tel Aviv, but in their day each of the Palestinian cities had magnificent commercial and cultural ability.

    “‘Palestinians born after 1948 don’t realise what they have missed,'” says writer Raef Zreik.

    “‘We only realise what we’ve lost when we hear people’s stories about Palestine before 1948. People who spent the night at clubs and movies in Haifa, who spent the night there and the next day took taxis from Al-Hanateer Square to go back home at the American University in Beirut. You could do what you liked. We not only lost our cities in 1948, but also our open relationship with the Arab world.'”

    “Made for Al Jazeera Arabic in 2011, Lost Cities of Palestine provides a rare opportunity to see Palestine as it was in the 30s and 40s and learn about the everyday life and culture of urban Palestine before 1948.”

    • annie on July 28, 2018, 11:59 am

      misterioso, thought i would repost your link because sometimes when you put text below a youtube link the video doesn’t show up

      • Misterioso on July 28, 2018, 4:27 pm

        @Annie Robbins

        Thank you!

  8. Citizen on July 28, 2018, 1:48 pm

    The attack on social justice Jews standing up for Palestinian rights has now been engaged at the highest literary-intellectual level: Author Asks, is Repairing the World Ripping Judaism Apart? This Book Published By Saul Bellow’s Son, Says Tikkun Olam Is Now Golden Calf. Author Conflates Criticism Of Israel With Anti-Judaism, Yet Israel Is The Actual Golden Calf … via @publisherswkly

    CSPAN2 devoted an hour interviewing Bellow’s son, who now heads up St Martin’s Press sub-imprint devoted to political books. The interview took us through the son’s changing intellectual life since he was a kid. It included his early liberalism, then what he qualifies as his slowly absorbed attachment to early neoconism, as espoused by old Mr. P at Commentary re US foreign policy. Israel was not mentioned at all by interviewer or guest. At the end of the interview a photo of about ten book covers from the new imprint publisher was flashed on the screen briefly. One of the books flashed on was the one I googled, which link produced the book review.

  9. Avigail on July 28, 2018, 4:41 pm

    It’s the usual malarky coming from the Reform community…

    It’s not an ‘occupation’ that’s the problem. Zionism is a *settler-colonial* movement created to establish an exclusively Jewish National Home aka state. Occupation is only one of the many tools in this process. Israel is and always has been a settler-colonial state established at the expense of the indigenous people. It is by definition a crime against humanity and has no leg to stand on.

    Israel has always been consistent. It only looks like it’s become ‘worse’ or gone to the ‘right’ because the con job Israel has been running for years using the Hasbara and other methods is failing as Israel becomes more brazen and less concerned with securing international support. But there is nothing new. Israel has always been bad, it’s just more visible now than it was before…

    Yes, of course American Jews have been duped. It’s time they start looking at the facts for what they are, show some courage and accept them for what they mean. BDS is the only non-violent tool to force Israel to abandon settler-colonialism and its inherent apartheid. Israel will not by itself transform itself into a non-exclusively Jewish state but a sate for all the people who are there. It has to be forced into it and that’s what the BDS is form. A one-state for all the people and a right of return for the Palestinians is not even close to justice but it’s the best we’ve got. Anyone who objects to settler-colonialism should automatically support the BDS.

    I have always suspected that non Israeli Jews who opposed the BDS are in their heart of hearts still Israeli/Zionist loyalists, with a bit of a bleeding heart for the Palestinians, or rather more cynically, they’re worried that Israel’s crimes will bring trouble on them where they live because they might be lumped together with all of that as Jewish… Sorry, but I am not very charitable towards anyone who is an apologist for a settler-colonial state. Apologist for me these days is anyone who opposes the BDS…

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