Last week, the Presbyterian Church USA voted to divest from three American companies abetting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. Following the decision, the Union for Reform Judaism, having failed in its effort to defeat the measure, promptly went into damage control. By turning their attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself to focus on shaming the Presbyterian Church, URJ leadership failed in a much more profound sense.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis expressed “sadness and dismay,” former president of the URJ Rabbi Eric Yoffie blasted the church for its “collusion” with anti-Zionist Jews, and current URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs went on CNN to mourn the “deeply hurtful” decision—the decision of an American religious movement to make a largely symbolic gesture of opposition to Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza. In addition to condemning the divestment itself, Jacobs widened his criticism of the Presbyterian Church by calling its controversial teaching guide, Zionism Unsettled, “…one of the most hateful and vicious attacks on Judaism, the Jewish people, and the state of Israel we have ever experienced.” Zionism Unsettled is staunchly anti-Zionist and displays the lack of sophistication found in much writing and rhetoric surrounding the conflict. But a deficit of insight, balance, and nuance is a long way from vicious hate. On national television, Jacobs threw it in with the Hamas Charter, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Mein Kampf.
Jacobs went on to argue that the Presbyterians were wrong to choose “divestment over engagement.” His proposed “concrete alternative” was for the Presbyterian leadership to join their voices with his in a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Together, they would communicate their shared objections to the settlement project. Was he suggesting that, with their powers combined, American Presbyterian and Reform Jewish leaderships could convince the Likud-led Israeli government to leave the West Bank, making any consideration of divestment unnecessary? If Jacobs had the power to steer Israeli policy away from the settlements he speaks against, what exactly has he been waiting for? The suggestion that those looking to take a stand against settlements should swap selective divestment for a photo-op with Bibi is disingenuous at best.
Rather than engaging in a discussion of possible paths to decrease the horror of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reform leaders reframed the debate. By redirecting attention from the pain of all who are victimized by occupation, terror, and war, to the pain of those who will be offended by divestment and anti-Zionism, the Reform leadership behaved as spokesmen, not rabbis.
They effectively told their audience:
“You don’t need to think about the conflict. Instead, think about this Presbyterian assault upon our sense of self. Do not think too carefully about the disaster of continuing to occupy the Territories. Don’t for a second wonder if divestment might be part of the solution. Your rabbis have considered this, and it is not. Don’t look for opportunities to take a critical stand yourself. Your rabbis are going to sit down with Bibi. Don’t worry about a thing, we are going to get on his calendar.”
Productive or not, boycott and divestment movements are gaining steam. If the Reform leadership wants critics of Israel to choose engagement over divestment, to work with Jewish institutions in pursuit of resolution of the conflict, it’s time they act like rabbis and offer a sincere vision.