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. ...

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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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