NEW YORK – The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, gave an extraordinary address to the 6,000 participants in his movement’s biennial conference on Saturday, which may not have gotten the full attention it deserved. Have our ties to Israel been broken, he asked his audience, answering with a resounding no.
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But the question itself spoke volumes. Jacobs knows full well that there is a deep rupture between liberal Jews, Reform in particular, and the Jewish state and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. His policies and his behavior have broken the hearts of many American Jews.
The result is frustration and confusion on a scale not seen since before the Six-Day War. Jewish liberals have lost the ability to reconcile between the just, enlightened Israel that existed in their minds and the theocratic-settler Israel of reality. They don’t know how to react to the close ties between Netanyahu and Donald Trump, who they can’t stand either. They are no longer capable of paying lip service to a prime minister who famously declared himself leader of the Jewish people but then restricted his patronage only to Jews who support him. They can’t forgive Netanyahu for the knife he stuck in their backs when he reneged on the Kotel deal and for doing nothing to pull it out even after he realized how much hurt and harm he had caused. They’re finding it harder to defend Israel without feeling that they are deceiving themselves.
The inevitable result is that liberal Jews, who comprise the majority of American Jews, would rather talk in public about any topic in the world besides Israel. It makes them feel uncomfortable. Jacobs believes his movement should embrace social activism and dedicate itself to equality and social justice not just as worthy causes but as a means of reengaging with younger Jews, who have abandoned the temples and rituals of their parents as well as their blind devotion to Israel. Jacobs called on his audience on Saturday to rediscover the positive things that they love about Israel, but he and other Jewish leaders know that selling 2017 Israel, ruled as it is by ultra-Orthodox, settlers and a prime minister who is a consummate cynic, is a mission impossible.
This is one of Netanyahu’s greatest sins, made even more grievous because he supposedly knows and appreciates American Jews. He has apparently decided that in the age of Trump he can make do with evangelicals and Sheldon Adelson. He was quoted last week as saying that Reform and Conservative Jews will disappear within a generation or two, implying that it’s not worth the effort to try to keep them engaged. It’s hard to imagine a more anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist position for an Israeli prime minister to take.
Small wonder that American Jews feel alone and abandoned. Netanyahu betrayed them, the Israeli right ignores them and from the Israeli left they’ve always felt estranged. In addition to the occupation, which they oppose, to Israeli democracy, for which they fear, and the ultra-Orthodox hegemony, which they detest, liberal American Jews are now aghast at the intimate ties between Netanyahu and other Israelis and the unpopular Trump, whom they view as a clear and present danger to their beliefs and values. If Trump and Netanyahu share values, American Jews feel, then leave them out.
After decades of support and belief in Israel, liberal Jews have discovered that they have no Israeli partner for their modernized Judaism or for their lofty ideals. If they’re seeking to mend the world via tIkkun olam, liberal American Jews will have to go it alone.