Reform Movement Head Yoffie: Anti-democratic Laws Will Distance American Jews From Israel

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie questions the validity of bills being discussed in the Knesset regarding NGOs and Israel’s Supreme Court.

Shlomo Shamir
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Shlomo Shamir

The leader of the Reform movement in the U.S. warned Sunday, in an exclusive interview with Haaretz, of the damage anti-democratic laws will have on Diaspora Jews and Israel alike.

"The anti-democratic laws that have passed, or that are expected to pass, in the Knesset are not bad only for Israel. These laws could have a catastrophic impact on relations between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora - especially American Jews," warned Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric YoffieCredit: Archive

"Commitment to shared moral values and to democracy is what binds Jews to Israel. Without this commitment, ties between the two largest Jewish communities - Israel and America - will be greatly weakened."

The proposed non-government organizations law seeks to limit contributions from abroad - especially from Europe - to non-profit and human rights organizations that operate in Israel. One of the controversial bills, sponsored by Likud MK Ofir Akunis, would bar political NGOs from accepting more than NIS 20,000 from foreign governments or international bodies such as the United Nations. The second bill, authored by Yisrael Beitenu MK Faina Kirshenbaum, would force all organizations not funded by the Israeli government to pay a 45-percent tax on all donations from foreign states.

Yoffie cautioned that these laws, should they be passed, would cause "tremendous" damage to Israel. "When rabbis and Jewish leaders speak in communities and synagogues about the Jewish state, what they emphasize, with great pride, is Israel's democratic character. But what will they say if these anti-democratic laws are approved in the Knesset?"

Yoffie is about to retire from his position after 16 years as head of the Reform movement, which is considered the largest of the four streams of American Judaism.

"Non-governmental organizations are an important and valued component of civil society in America, and I view an attack on Israeli NGOs as exceedingly serious," he said. "How can it be that Irving Moskowitz and Sheldon Adelson pour money into Israel for political purposes, and so do evangelical Christian groups, but money coming from abroad to assist left-wing and human rights organizations in Israel is suddenly forbidden?"

Yoffie stressed that he himself frequently disagrees with the positions that these left-wing organizations have taken. "But official action to limit their activity is terrible for democracy," he said, adding, "I would certainly understand any demand that these groups be open and transparent in their financial reporting, but to restrict their ability to operate at the same time that the Knesset is closing its eyes to the activity of outside funding from the right is absurd.

"On the one hand, Israel appropriately asks for the help of Europe and the Western world against the threat of Iran. But when it comes to the realm of human rights, Israel says to the Europeans: 'Hands off.' In this way, the State of Israel is alienating her European friends and weakening her case on Iran."

Yoffie, who speaks fluent Hebrew and regularly reads Israel's Hebrew press, has long been immersed in Israeli issues. He also has been following with concern the law that is likely to undermine the independence of Israel's Supreme Court. "Israel has no constitution, and lacking a constitutional tradition to preserve the liberties of her citizens, the Israeli Supreme Court has taken on the task of defending human rights. Therefore, I am worried and uneasy about the efforts to damage the institution of Israel's highest court," he said.

At the Biennial Convention of the Reform movement, which will take place next month in Washington, more than 4,000 movement leaders and activists are expected to attend, including more than 500 rabbis who serve the movement's synagogues.

Yoffie is widely admired in the movement as one who devoted much effort to moving Reform Judaism in the direction of ritual and tradition. In innumerable articles, sermons and speeches, both in Reform synagogues and in communal settings, he emphasized the centrality of Torah study and prayer in Reform Judaism. "Torah, tefillah (prayer ) and faith in the God of Israel. Without this, there is nothing," Yoffie has said in sermon after sermon.