September 18, 2019

6 comments on the timely flip-flop of Reform Jews on the recognition of Jerusalem


It was good to read Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ words at the Reform Biennial — I have attended several of these powerfully spiritual gatherings, but not this year — concerning President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem:

On Wednesday of this week, by declaring formally U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, President Trump affirmed an age-old dream of the Jewish people. Now that the decision has been made, our Movement stands in solidarity with this recognition. Jerusalem is, in fact, the capital of Israel. That is how it should and must be. The President was correct in noting that a sovereign state is entitled to name its own capital. And his act of formal recognition was a powerful repudiation of the efforts of those who would promulgate the lie that Jewish attachment to key areas of Jerusalem is only a myth. And we stand, unified with Israel and Jews everywhere, in condemning violence in response to this decision.


These words were timely yet somewhat frustrating. The leader of the Reform movement was clearly trying to correct a mistake, or a misperception, of what had happened a few days earlier, when the Reform movement seemed to reject Trump’s recognition. “Before this decision, we expressed our serious concern — never, never about the concept, but about the timing of these actions,” he said. This is not how the world understood the position of the movement when it was originally stated, and this puzzled many observers, including more than a few Israeli officials:

Israel’s consul in New York called “deeply frustrating and disappointing” the Union for Reform Judaism’s negative reaction to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.


So Jacobs set the record straight and then changed the subject:

The focus of my remarks this Shabbat morning are, however, on those issues that threaten more permanent damage to our relations with Israel. 

Most of what he said about Israel’s failure to engage with Reform Jews was reasonable.

But one thing he did not say: There is a thread connection between the instinctive rejection of the recognition of Jerusalem and the prospect of the movement ever making inroads in Israel. In other words: When the movement goes against a recognition that the vast majority of Israelis support, when it takes an initial position that marks it as suspiciously negative towards Israel getting what it wants, the chances of it getting the ear of Israelis and their sympathy greatly diminish.


Put it differently: The Reform Movement just handed its Israeli detractors a fantastic propaganda tool. It goes like this: Why would Israel consider handing a piece of the Kotel to a movement that does not even believe in Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem?


Of course, Reform Jews support the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But note that in the latest JPPI study on Jerusalem and the Jewish People, we found the following:

It is also noteworthy that Reform Jews, in general, attribute much less significance to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than do other groups. Thirty-seven percent of Reform Jews attribute a “highly significant” meaning to Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital, while secular, Conservative, traditional and Orthodox Jews rank this component as highly significant at a much higher rate – 48, 55, 72, and 63 percent respectively.

Also, compared to other Jews, they were less supportive of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Take a look at this comparison of Reform, Conservative and the average Jew on whether they agree or disagree that “all countries should move their embassies to Jerusalem”: As you can see, Reform Jews are the least likely to agree with this statement and the most likely to disagree with it (Rabbi Jacobs knows his people).


One more nugget from the JPPI study that can be connected to Rabbi Jacobs’ remarks.

The rabbi said:

Make no mistake about it; Jewish life here in North America is strong. Very strong. Think about it: Today there are in North America, more Jewish books being published, more Jewish music, dance, theater, and films being produced; more Jewish courses of study being offered by more universities; more synagogues with richer and more extensive Jewish programming than ever before. In some of these aspects, we surpass Israel. We’re not disappearing. We’re not fading away. With all due respect, we have as much to offer Israel as Israel offers us. And the best way to help her leaders understand that — is to have them spend time in our vibrant communities.

In its study, JPPI found:

Reform Jews are the most positive when characterizing the state of the Jewish world outside Israel, although even among this group a significant 35 percent opted for the “deteriorating and weakening” choice when answering our survey question.

Here is the graph. Note that this is a survey of highly engaged Jews and Jewish leaders. About 23% of the study’s participants identified as Reform. They are, indeed, more optimistic than others about the future of world Jewry (Jacobs pleaded with Jews to forgo using the word “diaspora”).

Read the full JPPI study here.