As head of American Jewry’s largest religious stream, I - and the 1.5 million members of our synagogues throughout North America - eagerly await U.S. President Obama’s impending trip to Eretz Yisrael. This will be a challenging trip with complex political, economic and strategic issues that the President will need to address. But woven through all of them are four themes of particular interest to my membership: The Jewish people’s historic ties to the Land of Israel, religious freedom for all Jews, a renewal of the peace process, and an effective response to Iran’s nuclear military ambitions.
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In his remarkable Cairo speech at the beginning of his first term, President Obama eloquently set before the Muslim world the need to accept the legitimacy of Israel and offered a strong statement against Holocaust denial. Yet the absence in that speech of an explicit affirmation of the deep and abiding 3,200 year old connection of the Jewish people with its historic homeland was an omission that disappointed and puzzled those in the Jewish community who know him well and are familiar with his deep appreciation for this connection. His presence in Israel now offers a unique opportunity - in the sites he visits and the words he utters - to convey vividly to the world that appreciation. In that connection, we note the symbolic importance of the President’s decision to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism.
As essential as the bond of Zionism, so, too is the desire for all the Jewish streams to be treated equally in the homeland of the Jewish people. The Israeli government denies legal sanction to the actions of Reform and Conservative rabbis and refuses to treat those movements’ synagogues and institutions on an equal footing with the Orthodox. The U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights and Religious Freedom Reports raise deep concerns about these practices when measured according to international human rights norms, as they do about the inability of large numbers of Israelis to marry. If the President is to meet with any religious leadership, he should signal his appreciation for the religious expressions of the majority of the American Jews by meeting as well with the leaders of the growing Israeli Reform and Conservative Movements. To do otherwise would be a deep disappointment to many of his Jewish constituents in the United States.
And, of course, renewed movement toward a two-state solution must be on the agenda. The Union for Reform Judaism strongly believes in a two-state solution; it has supported the President’s efforts to restart a viable peace process that can lead towards that goal. No one needs to convince the President of the importance or the urgency of making progress on this front. He has been consistently persuasive in his explanation of why a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is indispensible in ensuring Israel’s long-term security, in allowing the Palestinians to fulfill their political aspirations and in strengthening the ability of the United States to pursue its strategic interests across the region. Resolving the conflict will not, in and of itself, solve any of the region’s manifold problems. But so long as it festers, it undercuts stability in the region, gives ammunition to extremists who use it as political fodder against Western powers and their allies, and undercuts the ability of the United States to be as effective as it might be in achieving the many goals that Israel and the United States share in common. Israelis want peace and the governments of Israel have done much for peace, but more needs to be done. Hopefully, the President’s trip will provide the necessary catalyst.
In meetings with the Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli leaders, the U.S. President should push hard in challenging each of the leaders to clarify what specific steps they can take to ensure the feasibility of a renewed peace process. The President enjoys widespread support in the American Jewish community and in the American public for such efforts and we urge him to undertake them with vigor.
The Reform Jewish community stands as well behind the President’s strenuous efforts to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear military capability. The international regime of unprecedented sanctions that this White House has achieved is being felt throughout Iran. This visit offers an opportunity to more closely map out the most effective strategies in ensuring this vital strategic goal. We join with the Jewish world in seeing the Iran threat as a matter of great urgency.
The values that Israel and America hold dear are the values that should - and can - propel our two nations to take the risk together, to shape an Israel that is a vision of inclusivity and ingenuity that indeed seeks to live peacefully with its neighbors in the region.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the President of the Union for Reform Judaism.