We Have a Problem, but Rick Jacobs Isn’t It

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published March 30, 2011, issue of April 08, 2011.

Thirty-four years ago, when Menachem Begin first led the Likud to power in Israel, it was Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the leader of Reform Judaism, who reached out to embrace him. In doing so, Schindler averted a crisis in relations between America’s liberal-leaning Jewish community and an Israel where the right was newly ascendant. This would be a good time for Benjamin Netanyahu to return the favor.

The recent selection of Rabbi Richard Jacobs as Reform Judaism’s next leader is causing a bit of a stir. It’s mostly just a murmur, actually, but it’s worth watching. Some critics worry that in choosing Jacobs as its president-designate, the Union for Reform Judaism is signaling a sharp turn leftward. Some even fret that the liberal denomination is returning to its pre-World War I anti-Zionism.

The worriers are onto something. But it’s not what they think it is.

Jacobs’s accusers, which include the Zionist Organization of America and various far-right bloggers, charge him with consorting with “extremist groups” — as the ZOA’s president, Morton Klein, put it — that are helping to delegitimize Israel. The evidence: Jacobs is a member of the rabbinic cabinet of J Street and is active with the New Israel Fund. The critics also note that Jacobs participated in an anti-settlement protest in the Sheikh Jarrah section of East Jerusalem. The critics insinuate that he will not stand up for Israel, and some suggest his associations reflect hostility to the Jewish state.

Let’s clear up one thing at the outset: Jacobs is no more hostile to Israel than Shimon Peres, or David Ben-Gurion for that matter. Like Ben-Gurion he supports partition of the Land of Israel into two states. And like Ben-Gurion, he fears the consequences for Israel’s future if there is continued settlement in the West Bank. More to the point, his views put him more or less at the center of today’s evolving American Jewish mainstream — strongly supportive of Israel as a democratic Jewish state, committed to a deep, mature Israel-Diaspora relationship and insistent on equal rights for all streams of Judaism.

True, Jacobs takes his style of liberal Zionism further than most. He visits Israel regularly, knows the language and even owns a home there. He is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, an important, Orthodox-led think tank in Jerusalem. And of course he plays a role in liberal causes that most liberals only talk about, via groups such as J Street and the New Israel Fund. But his broad outlook is in line with his movement’s famously liberal membership. He wouldn’t have lasted two decades as spiritual leader of one of America’s biggest synagogues if he were a fringe figure.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, though. It isn’t that Jacobs’s appointment raises the likelihood of some future crisis in Israeli-American Jewish relations. The problem is that the crisis is already here. Jacobs’s appointment only brings it into sharp relief, the way a lightning flash illuminates a dark, moonless battlefield.

The problem is that while Jacobs’s views on Israel are quite mainstream among American Jews, the notion that such views endanger Israel and have no place in Jewish communal discourse is becoming mainstream in Israel. In other words, we have a very serious family feud brewing.

Where is the American Jewish mainstream today? You might start your search with the simple fact that the largest Jewish religious movement chose Jacobs to lead it. But then consider this: J Street was founded just three years ago and is already one of the biggest organizations on the American Jewish scene, even before it’s out of diapers. Consider, too, the rapid growth of Jewish activism to the left of J Street, among the boycott, divestment and sanctions crowd and Palestinian-solidarity types. What used to be the left is now closer to the center.

Also telling is the fact that the objections to Jacobs’s nomination come from a narrow spectrum on the right. Being identified with the New Israel Fund and J Street just isn’t remarkable in American Jewish life anymore. Attacking them is increasingly a sign of eccentricity.

That’s not how it is in Israel. As Jacobs’s appointment was announced in New York, the Knesset in Jerusalem was in the midst of hearings to determine whether J Street is entitled to call itself “pro-Israel.” With everything else going on in the world, Israel’s parliament decided to investigate whether one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations in America is a friend or foe.

The Knesset’s J Street hearings are part of a sharp rightward trend in Israeli politics, reflected in a rash of legislation curtailing criticism of Israel and limiting rights of Israeli Arabs. The J Street hearings came barely a month after the Knesset debated legislation aimed at foreign funding of Israeli nonprofits that criticize the Israeli government. (The bill eventually passed in watered-down form and imposes heightened disclosure requirements for Israeli nonprofits that receive funding from foreign governments.)

That bill grew directly out of a campaign launched a year ago by Israeli right-wing activists to discredit the New Israel Fund as an anti-Israel organization. The campaign sought, through outrageous newspaper ads, billboards and a slick research paper, to link the fund with groups that work to isolate Israel internationally through boycotts and war-crimes lawsuits. The connections drawn between the fund and the boycott campaigns were mostly spurious, but the rightists’ noise left its mark on segments of public opinion, both in Israel and here.

Nations have their political mood-swings, and the two great Jewish communities have had their ups and downs before. There’s no precedent, however, for the sort of concerted assault against American Jewish institutions that’s underway in Jerusalem. It’s irresponsible, and it’s self-destructive. If Rick Jacobs is anything, he’s a peacemaker. Israel will need him.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg



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