Opinion

Blinded by Their Dislike of Trump, the Reform Movement Miscalculated Badly on Jerusalem

U.S. Reform Jews had an easy chance to score points with the broader Israeli public on equal Western Wall access by welcoming the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem. Instead, they chose to insult us

U.S. President Donald Trump at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, February 22, 2017
Ronen Zvulun/ AP

This past week, President Donald Trump's historic announcement on Jerusalem was met with jubilation throughout most of the Jewish world - but not all.

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In a response that made heads turn in Israel, the American Union for Reform Judaism initially issued a statement that was critical, hesitant, and unsupportive.

It opened by describing President Trump's announcement as "ill-timed" and went on to note that it "cannot support his decision to begin preparing [the embassy move] absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process...the White House should not undermine efforts [for peace] by making unilateral decisions that exacerbate the conflict."

A day later, realizing this mistake, and perhaps after getting negative feedback,  Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ president, then issued a correction at the movement's Biennial, walking back the initial criticism.

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This time, he opened by stating that, "President Trump has affirmed an age-old dream of the Jewish people and of all who care about Israel. Jerusalem is, in fact, the capital of Israel. That is how it should and must be. The Reform Movement has also long held that the U.S. embassy should be moved to Jerusalem."

Rabbi Jacobs went on to explain that the previous day's statement was meant to express "our serious concern about the timing of these actions...We continue to have significant concerns. In separating today’s decisions from a broader strategy, they may well undercut the administration’s peace process efforts and risk destabilizing the region."

Police escort Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman holding a Torah scroll from the Western Wall, on July 12, 2010.
Michal Fattal

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The statement concluded by commending "the President for affirming the importance of moving the peace process forward, and clarifying that these decisions are not intended to restrict final status decisions of the Israelis and Palestinians."

This was better. However, by that point, some damage had already been done.

Much as the Reform Movement was (rightfully) hurt when the Israeli government reneged on the Western Wall Compromise Agreement, likely distancing many American Jews from Israel, it is important to recognize that this reaction was hurtful to many Israelis. The statement could set back the movement's efforts to achieve equal standing at the Kotel and in Israel in general.

For years now, the small Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, backed by their much larger counterparts in the U.S., have been working to turn the dilapidated and unofficial egalitarian prayer section at the Wall into an equal, attractive and official section, which they will have a hand in managing.

Protesters gather in Tel Aviv, opposite the American embassy on Friday, November 11, 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

A landmark agreement was reached in 2016 between the movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the government of Israel. However, in June 2017, the Israeli government cancelled this agreement due to local political pressure, to the shock and insult of the parties involved.

It is difficult not to draw a direct connection between the two cases, as even Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who helped broker the initial compromise, pointed out in an interview this week.

Why should the Israeli government, with a narrow coalition that includes opponents of Reform Judaism, risk its stability for the sake of those who seemingly reject this great symbolic victory, supported by a broad consensus of Israelis?

In truth, there is no doubt that a majority of American Reform Jews care deeply about Israel and attach great historic, religious and emotional importance to it and to Jerusalem. Therefore, one must imagine the initial reaction to Trump's announcement was based on two ingrained and hurtful notions that serve to alienate Israelis from liberal American Jews.

The first is (most of) American Jewry's deep antipathy to anything Trump, to the point where at least initially, they could not bear to congratulate their president on such an important and positive pronouncement. It is no secret that roughly 70% of American Jews are staunch Democrats, and that this current president has been perceived as more antagonistic to their values than past Republicans.

The Israeli flag in Jerusalem, on December 1, 2017
Thomas Coex / AFP

Secondly, there is a fixation among many American Jews on the peace process, to the point where it seems, at times, that Israel itself lacks legitimacy so long as the Palestinians lack a state.

Much like American Reform Jews like to (correctly) remind Israel's Orthodox majority that the Kotel belongs to all Jews, and that most Jews outside of Israel are not Orthodox, so too they would be remiss to remember a few crucial points, if they wish to try and repair some of the damage done on their end.

Despite their legitimate dislike of Trump and opposition to many things his administration does, this was one of those times where this should have been kept in check, much like the Conservative Movement did in their positive response to Trump's announcement, saving the caveats for the end. Do they dislike Trump more than they love Israel?

Finally, Israelis find it insulting that the legitimacy of their country is constantly tied to Palestinian independence. This is not to say the issue is not important, and most Israelis agree that a solution to the conflict is essential. Nevertheless, certainly to the Jewish world, Israel's existence and legitimacy must be treated as a stand-alone issue.

I'll add that there is a touch of irony in that American Jews and Western liberals in general seem so fearful of Israel (or the U.S.) taking any steps that could "exacerbate" the conflict, even if they are in Israel's general interest. That is, since it is Israelis themselves who will deal with the consequences, and are more than willing to do so for the sake of such a victory.

On the other end, many Israelis tend to forget the many positive contributions of the American Reform Movement to Israel, such as their crucial role in defending Israel's legitimacy on campuses, in the media and throughout America daily.  However, it is hard to ignore that the Reform Movement had an easy opportunity to put politics aside and score points with the broader Israeli public, but instead, managed to lose some ground in the process.

In many Israelis' minds, this adds to the previous fouls of unquestionably supporting President Obama as he criticized Israel's policies on the Palestinians to no end, pushed through an Iran deal that most Israelis saw as disastrous, and allowed a one-sided UN resolution against Israel to pass in his final days in office.

Just as American Jews wish those in Israel, at least in the current government, to recognize their rights to the Kotel and in Israeli society, so should they have recognized the historic moment at hand and celebrated with the whole of the Jewish people, leaving any criticism for later. Recognition and mending fences, in this regard, are two-way streets.

Dan Feferman is a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). He is a major (res.) in the IDF, having served as a foreign policy and national security adviser and analyst.

The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect JPPI's position