Eric Cantor - 15.12.2011 - URJ
Eric Cantor speaking at the Reform movement's biennial conference, Dec. 15, 2001. Photo by URJ
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The Palestinians need to prove they deserve an independent state before on is recognized, a leading U.S. lawmaker said on Thursday, criticizing what he said was a Palestinian culture of "resentment."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made the comments during the Reform movement's biennial conference at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland south of Washington DC, which was participated by 6,000 U.S. Jews, including rabbis, Reform movement officials, lay leaders, and students.

Addressing the week-long conference on Thursday, the Republican leader discussed what he called the Palestinian "culture of resentment and hatred," adding: "As we say in Hebrew, Am Israel Chai, and what people of Israel want is to live in peace. If Palestinians want to live in a state of their own they must demonstrate they are worthy of state."

Cantor also addressed the "so-called Arab Spring," saying the popular unrest movement brought disappointment and Islamism and that, "to put it mildly, presents challenges for interests to the U.S. and raises questions whether they'll preserve peace treaty with Israel."

The prominent lawmaker also took an apparent jab at the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, who raised controversy by linking the raise of anti-Semitism to the unsolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “Any justification of any form of anti-Semitism must not be tolerated or condoned," Cantor added.

Another speaker addressing the conference was Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, urged participants to commit themselves to programs related to Israel.

"It is you, American Jews, who discovered the way to strengthen the Jewish identity - by visiting Israel," he said, adding: "It's very important to strengthen institutions of Reformed movement in Israel."

However, the Jewish Agency chief made it clear he expected U.S. Jews to support such programs, saying: "You think I am criticizing Israel government? I am criticizing you!" adding: "It's up to you to support these institutions."

Sharansky also addressed concerns among U.S. Jews regarding a recent series of controversial Knesset bills, assuring conference participants that "there is no chance there will be passed legislation undermining legitimacy of your movement."

"There is legislation you don't like and most of them I don't like," he said, "but to say there is no democracy in Israel? Does it mean lawmakers can't propose bills I don't like? But which of the legislation that made you mad passed? Some was stalled, some blocked by the Prime Minister or stuck at the Supreme Court. That's real democracy," he added.

Concluding his remarks, Sharansky reiterated the Israeli demand for an immediate release of Jonathan Pollard, saying he was "aware that this is a complicated matter for the American Jewish community."

"But today when there is a growing consensus in favor of Pollard’s release amongst former Pentagon and CIA officials, legal authorities, the Israeli government, and American Jewish leaders, the time has come to vigorously and loudly demand his freedom," Sharansky added.

"Twenty six years is more than enough. Your great leader, Rabbi Alexander Schindler visited Pollard regularly and called on the President to release him. He said Pollard had indeed committed a crime, but his punishment was excessive and the time had come for his relapse. If this was true 12 years ago, how much more so is it true today?" he asked.

Reform movement shows political diversity

With 5 days of speeches, training, study, prayer, music and schmoozing, the various areas of the building housing the Reform movement's conference this week mirrored the diversity of discourse among American reform Jews.

There were more traditional panel's, like Thursday's session with the Weekly Standard's conservative editor Bill Kristol and RAC, Director Rabbi David Saperstein ("Kristol agreed after all President Obama's record on Israel is not all bad", Rabbi Saperstein noted ironically after the debate),

Other sessions, however, bore a slight resemblance to the "occupy" movement camps, with young people sitting on the floor in the hallways, vigorously discussing social, political and communal issues.

In yet another hall, participants wandered between the long rows of booths filled with Judaica and prayer shawls (especially colorful for women, with matching yarmoulkes), babies' bibs with "Future lawyer" or "little mensch" on it; representatives promoting "Birthright", Jewish college "Alpha Epsilon Pi" fraternity to trips to visit the Jewish community in Cuba; web sites meant "to help your community grow" and even pianos.

Irvin Ungar, publisher and antiquarian book seller, brought to the conference his 8,800 dollars book - splendid Haggadah by Arthur Szyk. It's not the first Jewish event this year where he tries to find buyers for a costly project, but he says it's his personal mission, "to make Szyk, who was the leading anti-Nazi voice after he came to the U.S. in 1940, and was forgotten after his death, famous again."

Movie director Nathan Lang came from San Antonio for a different reason - to convince community leaders to attend a screening his new documentary, "God in the Box".

Lang and his crew went across the country with a big black booth that people were invited in to talk about what God means to them. Later, theologians, pastors, rabbis, historians were asked to explain why people see today the God as they see him (Why not her? Why should the young black woman see the God as an old white man, as one of the participants complained).

Lang, himself a member of a Reform congregations, says the making of the movie made brought him closer to tradition again - but, as many Reform Jews, he explains it's a very different connection to it than following a strict set of rules.

"I am not a particularly religious person - and it's great I am allowed to feel comfortable with my spirituality without being required it go every week to the synagogue or eat particular food," Land said.

"But I love being Jewish, it's part of my heritage", he said. "This film made me realize that we hear a lot in the news about religious extremes - while the majority are just common people, spiritual people, who don't make news because they don't protest in front of the abortion clinic."

And no, he hasn't been to Israel yet, but would love to go.

Another biennial participant, Jessie Weiser (26) from Boston, may serve as a foil to the claim that Reform movement is just a step from a total assimilation. Her parents are reform Jews, and now, when they still live in Phoenix, Arizona, while she lives in Boston, Massachusetts, but she is as deeply involved as they are - and they love to share news about the new community projects and initiatives.

For her, as one might guess, the first priority isn't Israel, but finding some creative ways to engage youth like herself. And no, she doesn't feel the Reform movement is "Judaism lite".

"You might not be demanded to do certain things, but you are committed on a very deep level, and there is real richness to your Judaism experience - when you combine the social justice and tradition, there is something truly magnetic and vibrant", she said.

Rabbi David Saperstein said this Biennial was marked by a leadership transition - Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who led the Union for Reform Judaism since 1996, is succeeded by Rabbi Rick Jacobs (who got from Rabbi Yoffie one short advice - to "change everything").

"This is a major transition in the life of the movement," Rabbi Saperstein told "Haaretz."

"We are welcoming a new leader, a new visionary. Three previous leaders had a major impact on the development of the movement. Rabbi Eisendrath puts an emphasis on a social justice, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler made Israel a much bigger part of the Reform movement's life and worked on an outreach to bring more people to the meaningful Jewish life," Saperstein said.

"Rabbi Yoffie stressed youth engagement, the camp system, Israel trip program, got us focused on Torah studies. Now every stream has outreach program to mixed families, many to gay families. Rick is deeply committed to engaging young people, bringing them into a community in a more profound way, not only for one trip," he added,

This biennial features some prominent speakers - House Majority leader Eric Cantor, Israeli defense Minister Ehud Barak - and Friday, President Barack Obama will address the gathering.

One of the most thought provoking speakers at the conference was Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, recipient of the Eisendrath Award, who pondered in his remarks on the Jewish identity, relationship between Israel and the Diaspora and the potential role of the Reform movement in the future in both worlds.

"Why does Diaspora Jewry need Israel?" he asked. "If Jewish identity is contracted to a religion only, or limited to a personalized religious expression without a sense of Jewish peoplehood, we run the risk of being reduced to another American religious sect. The Jewish soul cannot flourish without the Jewish body. Without the closest ties to the Jewish land, Jewish culture and the Hebrew language, Jewish identity will disintegrate. Without our presence in force in the State of Israel, Israel would be incomplete, just as without Israel we would be unfulfilled".

"Why does Israel need the Diaspora?" he continued. "If in America a process of “religionization” is contracting Jewish identity, in Israel a process of “nationalization” is contracting Jewish identity," Hirsch added.

"Yes, there is assimilation in Israel. Assimilation in Israel leads to what has been defined as post-Zionism—the desire of many for Israel to be a normal state like all other states. The post-Zionists tend to be indifferent to the weakening ties to world Jewry and the Jewish heritage," rabbi Hirsch said, adding: "Reform Judaism potentially has a key role to play in this process."

"Of all groups in Jewish life, we are capable of having our feet planted firmly in both worlds—Israel and the Diaspora, peoplehood and modernity. Israel desperately needs a strong viable movement of liberal Judaism in order to counter the benighted trend toward extremism among the ultra-Orthodox and the trend toward right-wing radical religious and political positions among the so-called Zionist Orthodox. Even though the majority of Israeli Jews define themselves as secular, in reality most of them observe Jewish life-cycle events and holidays such as the Passover seder. For those in search of meaning and purpose in an enlightened framework, Progressive Judaism represents not a rejection but a reinvigoration of Judaism. That is why our movement is expanding significantly and why we are destined to become an increasingly vital factor in Israeli society," he said.

Rabbi Hirsch compared Israel to Broadway and the Diaspora- to Off-Broadway and called for a deeper involvement of the movement in Israel.

"Can we continue to consider ourselves as an authentic world movement if we thrive only in a non-Jewish environment and not in a Jewish environment? In order for our American movement to have the proper commitment and identity as Jews, it needs to help nurture the Israel and World movements. Is Israel an exemplary society? NO! But neither is American society. Does the Israel reality seem far distant from the dream? To be sure. But would the Jewish people be better off today if there were no Jewish state, if we lived only with the dream of the biblical prophets?"