That Arab and European leaders are protesting President Trump’s intent to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is no surprise. Nor is it any surprise that groups like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace joined them. I was, however, genuinely shocked that the leader of America’s largest Jewish denomination also joined the denunciations. Until recently, any mainstream American Jewish leader would have been embarrassed to oppose U.S. recognition of Jerusalem publicly.
And yet, it’s of a piece with recent decisions by non-Orthodox Hillel directors to bar mainstream Israelis from speaking on campus, and with the fact that Birthright Israel recently dropped the Union for Reform Judaism as a trip organizer because it was recruiting too few students. Taken together, all these facts paint a worrying picture.
I’ve always objected when I hear people on the right term the Reform Movement anti-Israel because of its stance on the peace process. After all, its views aren’t far from those of Israel’s mainstream center-left, and any mainstream view ought to be legitimate within the pro-Israel camp.
But in its opposition to recognizing Jerusalem, the URJ has zero support from Israel’s Zionist center-left. The chairman of the Labor Party, currently Israel’s largest opposition party, praised Trump’s expected decision. Yair Lapid, head of the other main opposition party (which is currently outpolling Labor), demanded that the rest of the world follow suit.
Indeed, only two Israeli parties shared the Reform Movement’s reservations: the Arab community’s Joint List and the far-left Meretz, which used to be a Zionist party but no longer is. Its platform doesn’t define it as Zionist, its official spokeswoman defines it as “a non-Zionist Israeli party,” and key backers of its current chairwoman are busy floating the idea of an official merger with the anti-Zionist Joint List. Thus, in opposing U.S. recognition of Jerusalem, the Reform Movement has aligned itself with the country’s anti-Zionists against the entire spectrum of Israeli Zionist opinion.
In his statement, URJ President Rick Jacobs insisted that the Reform Movement does consider Jerusalem to be Israel’s “eternal capital,” to which the U.S. Embassy should move someday. But the URJ “cannot support” Trump’s “decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process,” Jacobs said, as it objects to any “unilateral steps.” Other Reform Jewish organizations, including the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Women’s Rabbinic Network, endorsed this statement.
Maybe to American Jewish ears, Jacobs’s statement sounds innocuous and reasonable; indeed, as a poll published in September showed, a whopping 80 percent of American Jews oppose moving the embassy right now. But effectively, what it means is that the Reform Movement–and 80 percent of American Jewry–has ceded sovereignty over Jerusalem to the Palestinians. They, and only they, have the right to decide if and when anyone else recognizes the city as Israel’s capital. Absent Palestinian consent, Israel isn’t entitled to have a recognized capital.
If the Reform Movement really believed Jerusalem was Israel’s “eternal capital,” then American recognition of it would be a bilateral issue to be decided between America and Israel. The Palestinians would have nothing whatsoever to say about it.
The URJ’s claim that recognition would impede the peace process holds no water. Moving the U.S. Embassy to western Jerusalem in no way precludes a Palestinian state with its capital in eastern Jerusalem, which is what Palestinians claim to want. The Reform Movement has given the Palestinians veto power over territory that even the Palestinians themselves don’t claim.
This same disregard for Israel is evident in the URJ’s failure to fill its participant quotas for Birthright trips to Israel, which resulted in Birthright dropping it as a trip operator a few weeks ago. Though the vast majority of people who go on Birthright trips are non-Orthodox, most of them sign up with Orthodox trip operators rather than non-Orthodox ones. Why? Because, unlike the non-Orthodox operators, the Orthodox put time and money into actively recruiting students.
“They actually have student recruiters working for them who go around literally knocking on doors,” one Hillel advisor complained to Haaretz. “That’s not how the rest of us operate.” The Orthodox groups even use time-honored capitalist methods like paying successful recruiters. One operator, for instance, offered a free return trip to Israel or a $600 gift certificate to any participant who signed up ten friends.
In other words, Orthodox groups think getting college students to Israel is important enough to warrant an investment of time and money. The URJ and other non-Orthodox groups don’t consider it important enough to warrant investing time and money—even though the non-Orthodox community, theoretically, has far greater resources at its disposal, being both larger and far wealthier than the Orthodox community.
For any pro-Israel group, having the younger generation get some firsthand acquaintance with Israel would seem an obvious desideratum. But evidently, the Reform Movement thinks otherwise. And it’s not just trips to Israel that non-Orthodox groups consider unnecessary. Increasingly, they aren’t even interested in hearing from Israelis, as recent cancelations of mainstream Israeli speakers by several campus Hillels show.
There’s been a lot of talk in both America and Israel recently about the fraying relationship between Israel and liberal American Jews. But I’m starting to think all this talk is missing the point. If the URJ sides with the Palestinians against Israel over Jerusalem and evinces no interest in exposing young people to mainstream Israel through either visits or speakers, is there really any relationship left to maintain?
Originally published in Commentary on December 6, 2017