In the last few weeks, two men have been forced to explain their views on Israel by members of the Jewish community who have assigned themselves the role of the Israeli government’s local public defender. Both debacles are dismaying. The differences between them are telling.
When a few vocal critics raised a ruckus over the choice of Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the next president of the Union of Reform Judaism, they did so in a manner that was unfair and inappropriate — but the question was a legitimate one. However, the debate over Tony Kushner’s off-again, on-again honorary degree from the City University of New York put the question of Israel in a public space where it did not belong and even caused harm to the very pro-Israel forces that raised the issue.
First, Jacobs. The announcement of his appointment as president-designee of the nation’s largest Jewish denomination was heartily welcomed by just about everyone, save for a small number of Reform Jews who felt his associations with J Street and the New Israel Fund made him suspect. Rather than confront him directly, the critics took out advertisements in newspapers — including this one — complaining that Jacobs “doesn’t represent us” and called for his appointment to be reconsidered.
The fact that a swell of support for Jacobs rose up immediately suggests that he does, indeed, represent his movement. But while the critics characterized Jacobs unfairly, it is fair game to probe the Zionist views of an important national religious leader.
And Jacobs is more than well-equipped to defend himself. In an eloquent speech delivered May 2, and posted for all to read and hear on the URJ website, he detailed his perspective on and experiences in Israel over a lifetime of study, support and engagement.
“When Israel gets into our hearts, then I know that we will never stop fighting for an Israel that is secure, religiously free, guided by justice and dwelling in peace,” he said in a clear statement of principles that puts him squarely at the helm of liberal American Jewish sentiment.
Kushner is in an entirely different place in terms of Israel. Some of his past statements, and his current affiliations, land him way outside mainstream thought and could undermine Israel’s legitimacy, even if that’s not his intention. But he wasn’t applying to lead Reform Judaism. He was nominated for an honorary degree in recognition of his extraordinary career as a playwright.
When a single member of CUNY’s board of trustees declared that Kushner’s views on Israel ought to disqualify him for this purely academic honor, the incendiary topic of where-you-stand-on-Israel was thrust into a place it did not belong. And a majority of the CUNY board, apparently flummoxed by this ridiculous charge, went along and tabled the nomination.
The resulting firestorm was stoked by some of Kushner’s many allies, but it wasn’t caused by them. It was Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the trustee, who made this into a public issue, putting the institution he supposedly values into the embarrassing position of reversing course and alienating supporters along the way. And for what? To take a self-created litmus test that is already polarizing the Jewish community and crudely apply it more broadly?
This isn’t a question of academic freedom per se — there’s no constitutional right to honorary degrees, which are bestowed for all kinds of reasons, including financial and political considerations. But drawing a bright red line on Israel and extending it everywhere, deciding that it alone is the threshold for acceptance, stifles constructive debate and makes it seem as if that’s all American Jews care about. It’s not, and it never should be.
We also care about human rights and democratic thought, about freedom of expression and freedom from want. Rick Jacobs cares about those values. So does Tony Kushner. Instead of denigrating their Jewishness, we should be proud of it.