A View from the Bleachers: Understanding our relationship with Israel

A View from the Bleachers: Understanding our relationship with Israel

By Rabbi Steven Garten

The Reform Movement of North America has had a long and challenging relationship with the concept of a Jewish state. In 1885, a group of rabbis meeting in Pittsburgh, declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

For decades, this was the standard position of the Reform Movement. While there were very prominent rabbis who were nationalistically-inclined and publicly supported the Zionist enterprise, they were not in the majority.

However, in 1937, another gathering of rabbis recognized the changing environment of European Jews and reformatted their position to embrace a Jewish state as a haven for persecuted and displaced Jews. This document began the Teshuvah, turning from one extreme of anti-Zionist pronouncements to a second pronouncement in Pittsburgh.

In 1999, more than a century after the initial Pittsburgh Platform, the Reform Rabbinate declared: “We are committed to Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, and rejoice in its accomplishments. We affirm the unique qualities of living in Eretz Yisrael and encourage Aliyah.”

Those who are unaware of this history often have no context form which to understand the relationship of the largest North American Jewish organization to Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), represents a movement which is affiliated with two kibbutzim in the Negev, nearly 30 congregations in Israel, a scout movement, nursery schools, more than 20 per cent of the seats at the World Zionist Congress, and has ordained nearly 75 Israelis as Reform rabbis committed to leading a movement of progressive religious life in Israel. When the Reform movement speaks about issues related to the State of Israel it does so as an ohavei Yisrael (lover of Israel). It is therefore newsworthy when URJ makes statements on behalf of nearly 1.2 million North American Jews.

Last month, Rabbi Jacobs raised some Israeli and North American Jewish hackles when he raised concerns about the use of Keren Kayemet LeYisreal funds in the West Bank. More recently, his predecessor, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, began a very public debate with Rabbi Daniel Gordis about the state of the relationship between North American Jews and Israel. Rabbi Yoffie had been director of the Reform Zionist organization known as ARTZA prior to accepting the position of president of the URJ. Rabbi Gordis is an American-born Israeli author and scholar. He is senior vice-president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and author of more than a dozen books on Israel and Judaism. Twice he has been awarded the National Jewish Book Award. While ordained a Conservative rabbi, he no longer claims to speak for the movement in Israel or North America.

The debate originated with the publication of Rabbi Gordis’ newest book, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel. The volume’s central thesis is that liberal American Jews, that is the majority of identified Jews, blame the rift between Israel and their community on “what Israel does.” They all too often refer to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its failure to recognize alternative forms of Judaism in Israel. Rabbi Gordis disagrees, claiming that no matter what Israel might do on these issues, American Jews would still be unhappy because the real issue is not what Israel does, but what it is. The problem, as he identifies it is, is that Israel is a particularistic democracy, created to preserve the religion, culture, and language of a dominant ethnic majority. North American countries are what Gordis calls “liberal democracies.”

Lacking a majority ethnic population that defines its national identity, the unifying principles in North America descend not from Sinai, but from the values enunciated in the founding documents of each country. These are universal values. Though they differ between the two North American countries, they are universal liberal values.

A short essay cannot do justice to the significant argument both offer to bolster their arguments. However, this is an important book to read, not because of its conclusions – but because it opens a relatively new avenue of dialogue about our relationship with the State of Israel.

Rabbi Yoffie, the epitome of the Reform Jew, believes we love Israel because of its Jewish character, not in spite of it. He argues that we can understand the distinction between liberal and particularistic democracies. He argues that even “liberal critical Jews” love the very essence of a Jewish state, its commitment to Jewish festivals, and the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. Rabbi Yoffie argues that our concern for the Jewish state and its values underpin our criticism.

The book challenges all of those who love Israel to look deeply within themselves to wrestle with understanding from whence comes unencumbered love of Israel, and from whence comes criticism of the Jewish State.