The excited buzz ahead of the address of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden’s address to the Reform Movement’s Biennial gathering Saturday night was genuine.
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But behind the Biden appearance, which was only announced as the URJ Biennial kicked off - is a list of major politicians who did not show up for a range of reasons - from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he wasn’t invited, to presidential candidate Donald Trump, who will be hosting Saturday Night Live instead.
Many of the event’s 5,000 attendees were disappointed by the cancellation of the event originally scheduled for Saturday night, that would have brought Trump (whom URJ officials say was “very interested” in appearing) and his rivals to Orlando. Biden’s address was a last-minute substitute for what was to have been a Presidential Candidate's forum to be moderated by the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” Chuck Todd. When the event was planned, it was done so on the assumption that at least some of the candidates would be interested in the opportunity to present themselves to religiously affiliated and politically active American Jewish leaders from around the United States.
It was a bad assumption. None of the invited leading candidates - both Democrats and Republicans - agreed to appear. The official reasons given were scheduling conflicts, though it is likely that the fact that the topic of Israel is a political minefield - and the fact that Reform Jews are overwhelming Democratic and so less attractive to the more competitive Republican field because they won’t vote for them anyway - played a part.
“At the end of the day, the people we wanted to hear the most from just couldn’t get here,” said Mark Pelavin, the URJ’s Chief Program Officer and director of the Biennial. “We knew a year ago that it was a long shot to get people to show up in Orlando on a particular Saturday night.”
The director of the movement’s Religious Action Center Jonah Pesner confirmed that “they all said no” when he asked about the change at a Biennial event for politically-conservative Reform Jews.
Given the liberal domestic agenda and critical stance on Israel that many Reform Jews hold privately, the URJ’s official commitment to social justice issues, and the position on Israel taken by the movement’s current president Rick Jacobs, conservatives often feel like an embattled minority within their synagogues.
One of the participants in the session said that if so many members of the extensive Republican field turned down the movement’s invitation, it was a troubling sign. “If these people don’t feel comfortable talking to Reform Jews, that’s a real problem. That they wouldn’t feel this was worth their while to come here and just feel that they are going to get pummelled by the URJ attendees and not shown respect. They don’t turn down coming unless they have a pretty good reason,” said Cynthia Springer, a synagogue president from Indianapolis
Pesner responded that while officially, the reasons were scheduling problems, and indeed the candidates were inundated with invitations - he believed the “politics of partisanship and polarization” played a role. “It was so painful. Because I really believe strongly that having the robust discussion amongst candidates like Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz - Ted Cruz did address our board meeting while we were in Texas - would have been a profoundly meaningful and important conversation.”
‘Equal opportunity disappointment’
He also stressed that it was important to remember that the URJ had also been let down by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both of whom would surely have been greeted with great enthusiasm by the largely progressive crowd. “Since none of the Democrats would come either, we have to be equal opportunity disappointed here.”
Unlike the presidential candidates, Netanyahu didn’t even get an invitation. Despite the fact that the timing would have been convenient - with the Biennial occurring immediately before the prime minister’s scheduled visit to Washington, and despite the fact that he was invited - and scheduled - to appear at the movement’s last Biennial in 2013 in San Diego.
That year, Netanyahu canceled his appearance just a few days before he was scheduled to appear and was to have been the first sitting Israeli prime minister to have spoken at the URJ Biennial. In lieu of showing up, he addressed the gathering by video instead.
Whether the underlying reasons were bad blood from 2013, residual bitterness between Netanyahu and liberal American Jews from the fraught battle over the Iran deal - on which the URJ remained neutral, neither endorsing nor rejecting the measure - Netanyahu did not receive an invitation this time around.
The URJ plenary session devoted to Israel instead featured impassioned voices from the Israeli left - rising star Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir and best-selling author Ari Shavit.
The Israeli leader whom URJ officials hoped would be able to address the Biennial, and came extremely close to attending was President Reuven Rivlin, whose commitment to pluralism and tolerance would have resonated with the crowd. A Rivlin appearance also would have put to rest tensions between the Israeli president and the Reform movement during his candidacy for president and when he first took office, due to derogatory remarks he made about Reform Judaism earlier in his career.
However, once Netanyahu’s plans to visit Washington were in place, the URJ was told a Rivlin speech on Saturday night became impossible, since it would violate protocol for the president to appear publicly representing the State of Israel just as Netanyahu was heading to the U.S. for a state visit.