Reform movement leader on Israel: ‘It’s time to lean in; not walk away.’

Like all US Jewish denominations, the Reform movement has given wholehearted support to Israel. In an interview with RNS, Rabbi Rick Jacobs reiterated that support, even as he allowed for some criticism.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs in Israel in February 2023. Photo by Tamir Elterman

(RNS) — It has been a foreboding few weeks in Israel. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest, most powerful force in American Jewish life, was there to witness much of it.

After a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli settlers, mobs of Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank retaliated against four Palestinian villages, burning down homes and cars and beating Palestinians with metal rods and rocks.

Amid this extraordinary spasm of violence, Israel’s far-right government, which includes several settlers, is finalizing plans for a judicial overhaul that would effectively eliminate the independence of Israel’s high court. Israelis have taken to the streets to oppose the changes, mounting the largest protest movement in the country’s history.

Jacobs, who attended three separate meetings in Israel, including a conference of some 250 Reform rabbis in Jerusalem, also spoke at one of the mass demonstrations against the government in Tel Aviv. 

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The Reform movement is tiny in Israel and unrecognized by the Orthodox establishment. But it is the largest North American Jewish denomination, with some 850 congregations in the U.S. and Canada. It leans liberal, as do most American Jews, prioritizing social justice and what Jews call “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world.

Many American Jews are looking to Jacobs for guidance on how to approach the ongoing crisis in Israel.

Like all U.S. Jewish denominations, the Reform movement has wholeheartedly supported Israel over the past several decades, incorporating Zionism into its Jewish teachings, even as it criticized various governments and policies. In an interview with RNS, Jacobs reiterated that support.

He allowed that rabbis in the movement should criticize Israel’s push to overhaul the judiciary and its denial of basic human rights to Palestinians. He said they should also speak out against ultranationalist leaders, such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who said the village of Hawara, where settlers rampaged, should be “wiped out,” and they should pray for Palestinians, too.

But Jacobs did not go so far as to advocate the censure of Israel in U.S. foreign policy or the conditioning of billions of dollars in aid. Nor did he envision the Reform movement drawing back from its commitment to Zionism or Israel.

The following interview, which took place after Jacobs returned to the U.S. March 2, was edited for length and clarity.

Do you come back to the U.S. with any kind of resolve about what Reform rabbis should do or say?

It’s a critical moment in leadership and moral responsibility for those of us who lead in the Jewish community. My advice is that it’s a time to lean in and not walk away. This is a time to express more solidarity out of love and moral clarity and concern. We began by raising our voice around the terrorist attacks on Israelis. We feel that pain and loss. And it’s critical for Reform rabbis to raise an unequivocal moral voice to condemn the settlers who unleashed this unbelievable act of revenge in Hawara.

What’s really unique is that we have many prominent Israelis calling for Diaspora Jews to speak up. We often hear, ‘You’re not here. You don’t know what we know. Your job is to support us from a distance.’ But with the threat to the independent judiciary there are consequential shifts. Legal experts say this is a cause for great concerns. It’s important that a voice be raised lovingly. When I addressed the 160,000 people at the Tel Aviv rally, I wanted to say very plainly that the Israel we love is Jewish and democratic. There are millions of Israelis who share our values. It’s a time to invest in moral support and to invest financially in organizations that reflect our core values. Our voices matter. Our moral commitment and clarity is absolutely required.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs in Israel in February 2023. Photo by Tamir Elterman

Rabbi Rick Jacobs spoke to Israelis protesting the government’s judicial overhaul on Feb. 25 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo by Tamir Elterman

You say it’s important to continue to invest financially in Israel. Will the Reform movement continue to support U.S. funding for Israel or would it be willing to condition aid?

We think this is a moment to talk to our representatives and to lobby for the Israel we love. Nobody I know is calling for us to lobby against the government of Israel but to rally support for Israel that is Jewish and democratic. And let’s be really clear. We do not support conditioning aid to Israel. Israel is always in an existential battle, not only with Iran but with a set of neighbors who threaten it.

I say it all the time: We have shared values. If Israel has a set of initiatives to weaken the independent judiciary, it’s a weakening of those shared bonds. I hear millions of Israelis speaking up about that.

It’s very appropriate for our communities with their local congressperson or senators to be expressing concerns about these very dramatic changes. These are not changes of a policy; these are changes in the structure of Israel democracy. We want to rally support for these institutions. Its democratic foundations have to be preserved and strengthened.

What would you say to younger American Jews who are disgusted by what they see happening in Israel and think Palestinians are more deserving of support than Israel?

We want to engage Israel with eyes and hearts wide open. Bring the values that you live by: values of social justice and solidarity with the Jewish people. Be in relationships. This idea that if you are supportive of Israel you are antagonistic to the legitimate rights of Palestinians, that’s a false dichotomy and completely unhelpful. We’re very committed to bringing more young people into a deeper experience of Israel. This summer, we’ll have record numbers of (Reform) teens in Israel. We want to bring our young people who may feel distant from Israel to hear an authentic Israeli narrative, and it’s not necessarily a narrative available to them. 

The leaders of this Israeli government have utter contempt for the Reform movement. What does the Reform movement get out of supporting Israel?

You’re 100% right. Not only is this the most Orthodox and ultra nationalist we’ve ever seen, this is a government that has vilified and demonized Reform Jews in the most hateful language. These are not peripheral voices. They have major roles in the government. Most Israelis don’t share those. But these are expressions of incitement against us. I was at the Western Wall with 250 of my Reform colleagues there for the convention, and I was there the day before with Women of the Wall. As we were walking out, one of my colleagues was carrying a Torah scroll. They spat on us. And honestly that’s not the first time. But here was something I’ve never seen. They deliberately spat on the Torah scroll. This is a moment where Jewish respect should prevail. You could get very angry and pull away. But we raise our voice. We have 54 (Reform) congregations in Israel, and they’re growing. They’re building vibrant, robust communities that are beacons of hope and tolerance and alternatives to what the established ultra-Orthodox institution are conveying.

Why is it important for all Reform rabbis in training to spend a year of their seminary training in Israel?

The year in Israel is a profound experience. Our students are not only learning in the seminary but in the field. It’s a beautiful way for them to see their rabbinates and their lives intertwined with the remarkable people of Israel. And they also have to know, as rabbis you’re sometimes called to critique. We think this is a moment where the time spent is powerful and meaningful. There’s no discussion whatsoever about not spending that time in Israel. There’s so much to fall in love with in Israel. But it’s not an uncritical experience. It’s giving them the tools to lead in difficult moments.

Do you encourage rabbis in the U.S. to speak out against the government of Israel?

I want them to speak up for the Israel we love. The (Israeli) declaration of independence expresses those values. We encourage rabbis to find their authentic voice, a voice of solidarity and love, even as you bring critique. There are people who only have critique. They don’t have an experience of what’s magical and amazing about Israel. We want our rabbis to be strong and clear. The goal is to bring their congregations closer to the Israel we love.

What do you mean by ‘the Israel we love’?

It’s the vision of the early founders of Zionism, that Israel would be a Jewish homeland for all of us: secular, non-Orthodox, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, that all citizens will enjoy full rights. That includes Palestinian Israeli citizens. That’s the Israel we dreamt of for 2,000 years. That’s the Israel that was created in 1948. We’re in the 75th year of Israel’s life. The Israel we love is not a place that demonizes other Jews. (It’s) the vision of a global Jewish people, a homeland for all of us. We’re teaching love and respect for our core commitments. Everyone is created in the image of God. We believe pursuing justice is fundamental to a personal Jewish commitment. We believe there are many authentic ways to live a life of Jewish authenticity.

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