Leader of Reform Steps Out Against Bush and Sharon

By Ami Eden

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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MINNEAPOLIS — After two years of relative silence, the leader of America’s largest synagogue movement has returned to the policy stage with a full-bore attack on the policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon government.

In a major policy address here last week, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the newly renamed Union for Reform Judaism, criticized President Bush’s tax policies and the Republican push to curb abortion rights. But the Reform leader reserved his harshest remarks for Jewish settlers in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Not all settlers are extremists. But their leaders are trying to impose an endless war on Israel and the Jewish people,” Yoffie told delegates to his organization’s biennial convention. “For these zealots, their right to live anywhere in the historic Land of Israel takes precedence over Israel’s democracy and, indeed, over her very existence. But I do not believe now, and I have never believed, that they speak for the Israeli majority.”

Yoffie called on Israel to dismantle all illegal settlement outposts and to impose a settlement freeze.

Both are conditions that Israel accepted in President Bush’s road map to peace, but have not been fully implemented.

While other Jewish communal figures have spoken out against settlements in recent years, none can say they speak for a constituency the size of Yoffie’s. He heads a congregational union serving more than 900 Reform synagogues across the country with a combined membership of 320,000 households.

Yoffie’s remarks, while not a departure from past policy, represent his first major public criticism of Israel since the September 2000 outbreak of the Palestinian intifada.

Observers noted, too, that the comments were part of Yoffie’s Sabbath morning sermon at the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, traditionally the synagogue movement’s most momentous platform. The group, which until last week was known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, attracted more than 4,000 participants to its convention, many of whom were in attendance during the speech.

While Yoffie’s remarks are sure to upset many centrist and right-wing activists, his relative silence prior to last week’s speech had drawn quiet but persistent criticism from some liberal activists over what they say has been his tendency, since the start of the intifada, to mute or downplay opposition to settlements. Though Yoffie never changed his position, he has repeatedly opted to emphasize his condemnation of Palestinian terrorism and Yasser Arafat. His sermon last week included similar criticisms of the Palestinians, but Yoffie appeared to be highlighting his disagreements with Jerusalem.

The Reform leader told his followers that he felt compelled to speak out against Israeli policy out of fear that the rapidly increasing population of settlers – their numbers have doubled to 230,000 during the past decade – would soon make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible. Yoffie warned that moderate Palestinians had become so disillusioned by settlement growth that they are now proposing the creation of a single Israeli-Palestinian state in which they would demand full citizenship. In that event, demographers say, Israel’s Jewish population would soon lose its majority status, ending the notion of a Jewish state.

Asked to comment on Yoffie’s speech, the senior spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Mark Regev, pointed a finger at the Palestinians.

“Israel adheres to all its commitments under the road map,” Regev said.

Israel has already instituted what it describes as a freeze on new settlements, but permits the construction within existing ones. According to Jerusalem’s understanding of the road map, a cap on “natural growth” within existing settlements would only follow a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.

Israel had also pledged to dismantle dozens of illegal outposts established since 2001. According to a report this week in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, several government ministries have continued to aid the outposts, against the orders of the attorney general.

“Israel has started the difficult task of dismantling the illegal outposts,” Regev said. “This task would have continued had the Palestinians followed through to fulfill their commitments with equal tenacity.”

Yoffie appeared to reject such reasoning when he criticized those who argue that no concessions on settlements should be made until the Palestinians take serious steps to combat terrorism.

“I know that there are those who say that terror must end first and that it is too early to consider such a step,” Yoffie said. “But our response is: Get your heads out of the sand. It is not too early; in fact, it is very nearly too late. With every passing day a two-state solution becomes more difficult and a single-state solution more likely.”

Yoffie drew criticism from Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, a former president of the Orthodox Union and the current executive director of the Religious Zionists of America. Both organizations have voiced strong support for settlements.

“My bottom line is that it is not for American Jews or any foreigners to tell the Israeli government what the ground rules for peace are,” Ganchrow said, stressing that he was expressing his own personal opinions. “If Rabbi Yoffie really believes what he said, then he should take one million or 100,000 of his Reform Jews to Israel. Let them pay taxes and send their children to the army.”

Ganchrow rejected Yoffie’s assertion that a failure to freeze settlements would leave Israel with a choice between apartheid and a democratic state with an Arab majority. Instead, Ganchrow said, the Palestinians could be granted Jordanian citizenship while being allowed to remain in their current cities and villages.

The Orthodox leader also took issue with Yoffie’s characterization of settler leaders as zealots. Nearly all of the people “I meet and talk to and support are not zealots, they are simply Jews who believe” that they are living on land promised to the Jews by God, said Ganchrow. “If [Reform Jews] believed in a God-given written Torah and an Oral Torah, they too would support the settlements.”

Yoffie also criticized the Bush administration on several fronts. “Our government is the first in the history of our country to ask the sons and daughters of working men and women to risk their lives in war while asking the wealthy to pay less in taxes,” he said.

The Reform leader also expressed concern over the government’s secret incarceration of people with suspected links to terrorist organizations.

“If anyone is held by my government on suspicion of terrorism, I want to know who he is, not only because I am concerned about his rights but because I am concerned about my own. Let’s not forget: Absolutely nothing in the Constitution limits our rights in wartime.”

Yoffie did praise Bush for his efforts to produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and urged him to push forward.

But one official with a major pro-Israel organization argued that Yoffie’s speech represented a rejection of the fundamental assumption of the Bush administration, namely that the first and most important step toward achieving peace is the creation of a Palestinian government dedicated to fighting terrorism.

“The profound question,” the official said, “is not whether Yoffie opposes settlements, but whether he is trying to change Bush’s equation.”

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