Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Zionism of Rabbi Richard Jacobs – A Model for Our Times

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In the current issue of The Jewish Journal, there is an advertisement taken out by “Reform Jews who want the Reform Movement to stand with Israel.” This advertisement asserts that Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the President-designate of the Union for Reform Judaism, “does not represent the pro-Israel policies cherished by Reform Jews.” We vehemently disagree with this distorted caricature of Rabbi Jacobs and his attitudes toward Israel. 

During this past week, as we celebrated the Passover holiday, our people noted the Ten Plagues that God inflicted upon the Egyptians as we began our journey from slavery to freedom. However, the attack upon Rabbi Jacobs reminds us that Leviticus 13:31 mentions an oft-forgotten “eleventh plague,” nega’ ha-netek. Literally, this term denotes the plague of separation. In context the phrase relates to a scalp condition, but it seems that in recent years “the plague of separation” has spread not to those who oppress us, but to the Jewish people ourselves.

The most recent attack upon Rabbi Jacobs indicates that we are too often separated from one another — by culture, predilection, politics, ideology and more. Our fears may unite us (hence our constant appeal to the specter of anti-Semitism and Israel’s precarious security situation to bolster our flagging sense of cohesion), but often it appears we are divided by our hopes and our dreams.

It is a source of particular grief that Israel seems to have become a touchstone of alienation rather than a watchword of unity. We are divided about so many things in relationship to Israel, and there is in particular a low threshold of tolerance in too many sectors of the Jewish community for diversity of opinion regarding the State of Israel.
The current advertisement means that a handful of Reform Jews have now joined previously Right-leaning critics who in recent weeks have challenged the Zionist credentials of Rabbi Jacobs. The claim is that Rabbi Jacobs’ involvement with groups promoting human rights and social improvement aligns him with crazed extremists. Here are five reasons why such a canard needs to be refuted with vigor:

1. If American Jews related to Israel the way Rabbi Jacobs and his family do, nega’ ha-netek would be in retreat. He cares deeply about the country, has strong relationships with many Israelis, encourages bilateral encounters and programs in his synagogue and through his work in the larger Jewish community, studies in Israel and even owns property in Jerusalem. He comes to Israel several times every year, and spends every summer studying sources with curiosity and profundity at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is a passionate Zionist, who devotes time and love to the State of Israel. By any dispassionate standard, Rabbi Jacobs is part of the solution to the challenges confronting American Jewish engagement with and support of Israel, not part of the problem.

2. By setting the battle lines in the way they are currently doing, Rabbi Jacobs’ critics are sailing in very dangerous waters. They argue that any demurral from the current party line of Israel’s government is disloyal. If this position prevails, the plague of separation will reach epidemic proportions. The old parliamentary notion of “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” is an important idea.

3. Let us also face facts. A significant number of North American Jews of a liberal disposition under the age of 40 are less and less likely to make Israel a central part of their lives. Yet, a small and highly influential committed core is swimming against the tide, and developing meaningful models for engagement for this cohort with Israel at this dramatic and uncertain time is a necessity for all of us who love and support the Jewish State. In Rabbi Jacobs’ example of encounter with Israel, in his willingness to confront complexity and face up to unpalatable realities, in his infectious enthusiasm and immense charm, he is a model for such younger Jews. To vilify him is to alienate them still further.

4. The fact that those who have assaulted Rabbi Jacobs’ integrity have wrapped themselves in the flag of Zionist purity is particularly galling. Since its inception, the Zionist movement has provided a forum for a range of opinions. If these self- appointed purists try to bar a great congregational rabbi whose views represent the mainstream of the American Jewish community and the Reform Jewish Movement from the fold of the True Believers, who wins? The campaign to discredit the work of the New Israel Fund (which hundreds of Zionist rabbis support) shows all the symptoms of separation plague — self-righteous certainty, disregard for nuance, allergy to reason and a strong appetite for the whiff of a witch-hunt. Support for Israel is not the exclusive property of one party or another.

5. Anyone who knows Rabbi Jacobs will tell you that he is a mature and wise man. He cares. He learns. He is a mensch. He is the farthest from a fanatic one can possibly imagine. In fact, Rabbi Jacobs lives his life striving for balance, humanity and depth. In the struggle against the plague of separation, he is staffing the ER.

Lovers of Israel with a range of political commitments should welcome with enthusiasm that the mantle of leadership of the Reform Movement will go to a man who cares deeply about Jewish learning, Jewish creativity and Jewish unity. They should decry tawdry attempts to sully the integrity of a good man. Rabbi Jacobs is a model of constructive engagement. At a time of rampant confusion and galloping alienation, the tactics of witch-hunting and demagoguery are not what we need. The leadership epitomized by Rabbi Richard Jacobs is.

Rabbi David Ellenson is President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Rabbi Naamah Kelman is dean of the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Rabbi Michael Marmur, who resides in Jerusalem, is vice president for academic affairs at HUC-JIR. 

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