Leader of Largest Jewish Movement: Support Trump if He Shows Courage on Peace Process

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Reform movement President Rabbi Rick Jacobs addresses the group’s Biennial in Orlando, Florida, November 4, 2015.Credit: Courtesy URJ

Ever since Donald Trump entered the White House on January 20, the Jewish Reform Movement – the largest Jewish movement in North America – has spoken out time after time against his policies. The movement strongly denounced his immigration policies, took part in massive demonstrations after his inauguration, and in an unprecedented move, publicly opposed the nomination of David Friedman, his ambassador to Israel.

Now, however, the leader of the movement is offering Trump an olive branch on one specific issue: Middle East peace. In an interview with Haaretz this week on the sidelines of the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, sent the president a strong message.

“If the president will exercise courageous leadership on the peace process, there will be strong support for his efforts,” Jacobs said. “This is in Israel’s interest. The country’s future security will benefit from a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, and if Trump tries to achieve that goal, many people will be able to differentiate between that and his domestic agenda.”

Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, February 7, 2017.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

Jacobs, like the rest of the Reform movement’s leadership, has been very harsh in his criticism of Trump’s actions on immigration, religious liberty, healthcare and others areas. However, he emphasized that he believes it is wholly possible to oppose Trump – or any other politician – on one issue, and cooperate with him on another. In this instance, it means standing shoulder to shoulder with immigrants and American Muslims against his immigration policies, but also being open to supporting his efforts for Israeli-Palestinian peace, if they turn out to be genuine.

“There are people who feel so angry by the domestic agenda, that they decide they can’t work at all with the administration, on anything, no matter what. That approach to politics in general is not what we need today. If I can provide an example from Israel to explain myself: Naftali Bennett [Israel’s Education Minister and leader of the Jewish Home party] is someone we strongly disagree with on the two-state solution and the settlements, but he is a partner of ours when it comes to fighting for religious freedom and pluralism.”

According to Jacobs, who recently concluded a trip to Israel together with a delegation of leading figures from the Reform movement, “we still don’t know what the Trump administration’s policy will be with regards to Israel. His ambassadors to the UN Nikki Haley has one set of talking points, and his ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks in a completely different language. We still don’t know what exactly they want to achieve.”

One person in the administration, however, receives strong praise from Jacobs: Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to international negotiations, who is now in the Middle East for his second visit in two weeks. “Jason Greenblatt’s work is very encouraging,” Jacobs said. “On his first visit he went to hear from diverse people with different points of view: Palestinian refugees, settlers in the West Bank, Israeli politicians from the government and the opposition, people from Gaza – really across the spectrum. He is opening himself to a lot of complexity, and it seems like he didn’t arrive to the region with an intact set of ideas.”

Jacobs strongly criticized the bill passed three weeks ago by the Israeli Knesset that forbids foreign nationals who support boycotts of Israel and the settlements from entering he country. He said it was important to differentiate between those who call to boycott Israel, and those who “strongly support the state of Israel, but have strong criticism towards the settlement enterprise.” The Jewish Reform movement itself, it should be noted, doesn’t support boycotting the settlements, and its visiting delegations often stop at settlements as part of their tours.

With regard to people who do support such boycotts, Jacobs said that instead of barring them from entering, “I would bring those people to Israel and show them the vibrant, incredible, modern state of Israel.” He said that even “some of the young people who protested outside of the AIPAC conference” fall into that category, and that it would be a mistake for Israel and the American Jewish community to give up on them. 

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