The Walls of the Reform Movement’s “Big Tent”

Eric Cantor photo

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) gives a keynote address at the Union for Reform Judaism's biennial conference in December 2011. He describes Palesinian culture as "infused with resentment and hatred" and calls this the "root" of the Palesinian-Israeli conflict. Some conference participants boycotted his speech. Credit: Union for Reform Judaism.

“We know that in our midst here today and in our synagogues are many thoughtful, committed Jews who hold differing approaches—who look to you as a key articulator of their values, and hold views that we respect and seek to honor in inviting you to join us,” said Rabbi David Saperstein. “You embody the highest Jewish and American commitments to public service.”

Saperstein, a leader from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), was politely introducing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), a keynote speaker during the URJ’s five-day biennial conference in December 2011. It must have been a tough speech to compose.

Cantor is a staunch fiscal and social conservative who agitates against gay rights, social welfare programs, and abortion rights. Saperstein, conversely, directs the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a lobby organization with a long history of support for economic justice, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. Reform Judaism is the largest U.S. Jewish denomination and is among the most powerful liberal religious groups in the United States.

In Cantor’s speech to about 5,000 Reform Jews, he addressed one subject on which he could find some support: his hawkish perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He made no distinction between Arab terrorists and civilians. Nor did he mention Israeli settlements, the humanitarian impact of Israel’s forty-four-year occupation, the ongoing struggles of Palestinian refugees of 1948, or the basic importance of acknowledging Palestinian humanity and suffering. Instead, Cantor told a story about a Palestinian extremist who sought to blow herself up in the same Israeli hospital that had treated her burns.

“What kind of culture leads one to do that?” Cantor asked. “Sadly, it is a culture infused with resentment and hatred. This is the root of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians…. If Palestinians want to live in peace in a state of their own, they must demonstrate that they are worthy of such a state.”

Why would the URJ give a right-wing Jewish leader a prominent platform from which to make hurtful, dehumanizing, and simplistic comments about Palestinian “culture”? Does inviting such a speaker honor the Reform movement’s history of moral certitude against injustice and discrimination?

URJ’s Decision to Invite Cantor

Leaders of the URJ justify their decision to welcome Cantor by relating it to the Jewish tradition of dialogue and to the Reform movement’s time-tested belief in bipartisan political activism. In his introduction to Cantor, Saperstein alluded to this rationale. He said:

MLK and Heschel

Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath—a leader of Reform Judaism—join forces for the March for Peace on February 6, 1968. The Reform movement helped mobilize support for civil rights and condemned the U.S. government’s prejudiced policies. It has not shown the same boldness in challenging the Israeli government. Credit: Union for Reform Judaism.

It’s enshrined as a core principle of talmudic organization that minority opinions are recorded on every page of the Talmud, right alongside majority opinions. “Why?” asked the rabbis. We are told, “Because there may well be truth in what today is a minority opinion that will one day make it a majority opinion.”

It’s doubtful, however, that URJ leaders really believe that Cantor’s views on gay rights and social welfare hold much validity. Rather, they believe that by engaging and lobbying people like Cantor, they can bring them around and win their support on other issues. They recall that America’s great achievements of the twentieth century all happened because of a bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill, and that the Reform movement was front and center in making this happen.

And they’re right. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were in large measure drafted and strategized in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} The Religious Action Center has played an active role in advancing the agenda of the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement, the Great Society programs, Medicare and Medicaid, the environmental movement, and the reproductive rights movement.

During a workshop on the history and future of social justice activism, Saperstein emphasized his pride at what the Religious Action Center accomplished during the Bush years. The Sudan Peace Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act were both partly drafted at the Religious Action Center; and, with this Right-Left coalition, the center successfully lobbied for the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a dramatic increase in funding for HIV/AIDS and malaria treatment and prevention, and an increase in debt relief for developing countries. The Religious Action Center has also worked hard to influence conservative religious communities. Saperstein recalled:

Some folks said: “You’re going to be legitimizing [the Religious Right]” … but I realized you don’t win battles with 80 million people. If I can co-opt those people into having a more open view, it’s great for America and great for the agenda we fought for. It took us ten years in the legislation we fought for on the environment to move the Evangelical community, led by some very prominent theologians within their community, to say, “You know what? Protecting God’s creation is a fundamental religious obligation we have.” And it moved them into the mainstream of the pro-environmental community.

The decision to invite Cantor is also consistent with the Reform movement’s nonpartisan orientation, despite the fact that most, but not all, of its members are liberals. (According to J Street opinion research, American Jews supported Barack Obama by 78 percent over John McCain; these strong Democratic leanings are likely higher among Reform Jews.) While many Reform movement leaders bemoan the partisan gridlock that has overtaken Capitol Hill in recent decades, they maintain that they have values that they believe in and can find support for in both parties.

Rabbi Daniel Allen, the director of the Reform Israel Fund, said he’d be comfortable inviting any Speaker of the House, any congressional minority leader, or any U.S. president to join the URJ conference and express his or her views. “If they say something that we don’t like,” he explained, “does that not make them in a position of authority and an important figure in the United States with whom we should have a dialogue and engage them?”

Building Consensus Inside the Beltway

On a myriad of issues, the Reform movement has taken decisive and farsighted moral stands. During the most recent biennial conference, attendees passed a sweeping economic justice resolution—no small achievement, since URJ resolutions must be approved by a three-fifths majority of those present at the conference. These resolutions, once passed, come to reflect core values of the Reform movement that new members are actively encouraged to embrace.

Reform LGBT Poster

Members of the Reform movement's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community gather at the 2011 biennial conference. The movement has achieved an overwhelming consensus on gay rights—a sharp contrast to its vague positions on Israel's policies vis-á-vis Palestinian rights. Credit: Union for Reform Judaism.

The Reform movement’s position on gay rights is a case in point. The movement was among the first religious organizations to achieve overwhelming consensus on gay rights issues beginning in 1965, when the Women of Reform Judaism passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. The Reform movement has subsequently passed resolutions calling for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the rabbinate and cantorate, supporting civil marriage, and demanding an end to discrimination within the Armed Forces and the Boy Scouts. In March 2000, the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis became the first major North American clergy organization to give its support to Reform rabbis who choose to perform same-gender ceremonies.

Saperstein was emphatic that an issue like civil unions, on which the Reform movement has established a clear moral position, will not be re-debated. “We would not open it up, and we wouldn’t have a debate on the issue,” he said. “I might go debate someone on television … but within the movement, I wouldn’t open it up. That’s all settled.”

Presumably then, a keynote speech deriding the “culture” of LGBTQ people would not be tolerated?

It therefore makes sense that Cantor spoke only about Israel. This is one issue on which the Reform movement has not achieved clear consensus. Rabbi Jacobs, the incoming URJ president, acknowledged as much: “There absolutely was an effort to reach out to more conservative voices,” he said at a meeting with reporters. “We’ve got speakers on both sides of the spectrum. We’re a big tent synagogue.”

Only Marginal, Diluted Criticism of Israel Allowed?

Yet the walls of this “big tent” favor the hawkish Right when it comes to policy toward Israel. URJ’s outgoing president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, has called himself an “admirer and supporter” of the powerful, right-wing lobby group AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the three Israel-focused keynote speakers at the conference—including President Obama—did not once criticize the Israeli government. The third, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is a central member of it. The words “Occupation” and “settlements” did not appear once in any of their speeches.

These walls were also evident in the selection of individuals who would lead the more than 200 workshops and other activities offered during the biennial. Jewish Voice for Peace was nowhere to be found, presumably due to the Reform movement’s opposition to its support for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. (No one who supports BDS—even of settlement products only—was invited to lead a workshop related to this topic at the conference.) A workshop on “respectful” engagement of Israel further established the breadth of debate: the Left was represented by Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, a center-left “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group, and the Right was represented by Jonathan Tobin of Commentary Magazine, an ultra-right-wing publication with editorial positions on Israel that closely mirror Cantor’s (and AIPAC’s). Thus, in the name of openness, the URJ included speakers like Cantor and Tobin but excluded Jewish speakers from leftist and non-Zionist groups.

The center-left side of the Reform movement’s “big” Israel policy tent was highlighted and explored at only a handful of the workshops offered at the biennial. Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was a panelist at one such workshop. Her presentation focused on the actions of some rogue Israeli civilians and the threat these extremists posed to Israeli democracy. She told of the “freedom rides” she’d led on segregated Israeli buses and of Reform movement–supported legal campaigns against bus drivers who refused to help women who demanded their rights to sit in the front of the bus. She told of mosques burned by Israeli extremists—and the Reform movement’s donation of more than $30,000 to repair the mosques. She told of a report that the Israel Religious Action Center had produced on racist rabbis, including rabbis who instructed their congregants not to sell property to Arabs, who referred to Arabs as “inferior” and “donkey people,” and who even claimed that Judaism permitted the premeditated killing of Arabs.

However, Hoffman generally steered clear of criticizing the Israeli government in her presentation. A similar trend is evident in URJ resolutions, particularly those passed since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. With the exception of a 2004 resolution that refers to Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes based on zoning regulations as a “disturbing human rights issue,” URJ resolutions typically don’t censure Israel or do so in the mildest of language. For example, a 2009 URJ resolution condemned the unequal allotment of welfare and educational resources given to Palestinian citizens of Israel as compared to Jewish Israelis; however, the resolution praised the Israeli government for its continuing efforts to address this problem. Another 2009 resolution titled “Mideast Peace: The Urgent Need for Leadership” offered this diluted criticism of Israeli settlements: “Although Israel may need to retain some areas technically classified as settlements, the failure of the Israeli government to meet its commitments regarding the removal of unauthorized settler outposts and the halting of settlement growth are sources of concern.” This, too, is hardly a pointed criticism—even some members of the right-wing Netanyahu government would agree that some settlements are “sources of concern.”

In a meeting with reporters at the biennial, I asked Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the incoming URJ president, about another “source of concern”: anti-democratic laws recently passed in Israel. I mentioned an Israeli law that fines Israeli citizens who promote boycotts against settlement products and a law that forbids school teachers from using the Arabic word nakba (catastrophe) to refer to the devastating impact on Palestinians of Israel’s 1948 Independence War. Rabbi Jacobs did not address these anti-democratic laws in his reply; he instead emphasized that all criticism must come from a place of love for Israel:

Our values are about Israel as a vital, pluralistic, democratic state, and that has been our commitment and that’s the Israel that we work for. We work with every government…. The basis of our relationship with Israel is about love and responsibility.… It’s our hope that that is the foundation of our relationship, and from that foundation, all things are possible.

Perhaps “all things are possible” means that, once a relationship of trust and mutual respect has been established between these leaders and the Israeli government, Reform movement leaders privately share their criticisms and try to effect change behind the scenes?

The “Uninspired” Young Jews

At every opportunity throughout the biennial conference, Reform movement leaders promoted their multimillion-dollar Campaign for Youth Engagement. They emphasized that “the future of the Jewish people” was at stake in this ongoing initiative, which includes free trips to Israel, Jewish summer camps, and creative efforts to reach Jews who feel little connection to their Jewish identity. “Anyone we don’t reach, we need to do better,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “We need to understand what goes on inside unaffiliated and uninspired groups.”

The theme of inspiring Jewish youth also appeared in the Shabbat sermon of URJ’s outgoing president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in which he shared stories about his own children’s connections to Judaism and Israel. He said that his son, Adam, has visited the extremist settlement of Hebron and is “tired of being told by Jewish leaders that building settlements throughout the West Bank doesn’t really matter when it manifestly does.”
Five years ago, Yoffie publically criticized AIPAC for alienating young people like his son. AIPAC had invited Pastor John Hagee, chairman of the settlement-funding group, Christians United for Israel, to give a keynote address at the 2007 AIPAC national convention. In an op-ed for the Jewish Daily Forward, Yoffie expressed his concern that allying with Hagee would push young Jews away from the Reform movement and other pro-Israel organizations:

The American Jewish community must decide: Does it want to connect young Jews to Israel, or does it intend to drive them away?… There is no single explanation for [young Jews’] disaffection, but surely one important reason is the increasingly right-wing and even reactionary tone that some elements of the organized community have adopted in their pronouncements on Israel.

Many young (and old) Reform Jews felt similarly put off by the tone of Cantor’s speech—some even boycotted his presentation in dismayed anticipation. And some Reform movement leaders are pushing for more proactive initiatives to challenge immoral and self-destructive Israeli government policies. During a workshop following Cantor’s speech, Al Vorspan, URJ vice president for more than forty years and a leader of its social justice work, said, “American Jewry, at least in part, has begun to define pro-Israel as supporting everything Israel does, and somebody who has a contrary view is either anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.” He called for Israel to “confront its own problems,” both internal and external, and worried aloud that “the dream that brought [him] into Jewish life, the Zionist dream … will disappear in the name of settlements, in the name of appeasement of the Haredim, in the name of failure to achieve full religious freedom, and [in the name of] discrimination.”

Vorspan’s concerns ought to be preeminent concerns of the current Reform movement leadership. While other left-leaning Jewish groups (including the Tikkun Community) lack the resources that the Reform movement has amassed, the Reform movement is uniquely positioned to mobilize support for justice- and peace-oriented policies that are in Israel’s long-term moral and strategic interests. For example, Reform Jews could push for the passage of a URJ resolution supporting J Street.

With access to the Reform movement’s funding resources and vast networks, this desperately needed alternative to AIPAC could be more effective in lobbying for moderate policies that recognize the legitimate rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. This could nudge the Israeli-Palestinian peace process out of its current paralysis—a paralysis partly enabled by AIPAC’s unwillingness to challenge Israel. Supporting J Street would estrange some Reform Jews, but it could also attract new ones and re-inspire current ones. And it would honor and uphold the Reform movement’s tradition of doing the right thing—not only in private conversations but also in bold, public pronouncements and activist initiatives.

Asking that the Reform movement take an unequivocal stand against the Occupation and against Cantor-like insularity is not asking it to be something it is not. Rather, it’s asking the movement to be more like itself—to exhibit the same moral courage that it has shown in advancing other social and economic justice causes.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


Ashley Bates is the assistant editor at Tikkun. Her work has appeared in Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post Magazine, Mother Jones, The Nation, and Huffington Post. Her website is

Source Citation

Bates, Ashley. 2012. "The Walls of the Reform Movement's 'Big Tent.'" Tikkun 27(2): 14.

tags: Israel/Palestine, Judaism, US Politics, War & Peace   
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