Israel and American Jewish “Core Values” – On Rabbi Jacobs’s Recent Comment

One of the main headlines to come out of the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly last week was that by the new President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who said that, “North American Jews don’t see an Israel that reflects their core values”. Jacobs referred in particular to the arrest of activist Anat Hoffman, who intentionally broke the Israeli law, which prohibits women from praying while wearing a prayer shawl or from reading the Torah aloud at the Western Wall.

Without going into the question of whether all non-Orthodox American Jews share the same “core values” (a questionable assertion in and of itself), a more troubling implication in Jacobs’ words is the lumping together of different sectors in the very heterogeneous Israeli society. There are undoubtedly many secular Israeli Jews who sympathize with Hoffman’s (and other women’s) struggle and the egalitarian principle behind it, yet they must prioritize and choose well their battles: is it more important to allow women to wear prayer shawls near the Western Wall, or, say, enable public transportation in Israeli cities during Shabbat and Jewish holidays? Allow theaters and shopping mall to operate during the Shabbat? Promote legislation that will force the state to recognize Israeli-based civil marriage? Have the freedom to eat whatever they like whenever they like (e.g. chametz in Pesach and pork in general)? Or perhaps establish a more egalitarian military draft law, one that will not exempt tens of thousands of Haredim?

All those issues demand political dedication and endurance, and anyone who is even sketchily familiar with Israeli politics and the structure of the ruling coalitions knows that they all involve uphill battles. Hence it is not a question of “core values” that ostensibly separate non-Orthodox Israeli Jews from their American counterparts: Israelis have many more pressing issues concerning religion and state than what Rabbi Jacobs or other Reform American Jews may consider as crucial. The relationship between American Jews and Israel are much more significant and multifaceted than to pin them on an issue like Anat Hoffman’s arrest or the status of Reform Rabbis in Israel.

Yet perhaps Jacobs’s comment has to do with a different source of discontent with the Jewish state: even though since the adoption of the Columbus Platform (1937), the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel the Reform movement in the U.S. moved toward acceptance and support of Zionism and Jewish peoplehood, certain ambivalence has lingered. In the last decade or so an international campaign to malign Israel as an apartheid and illegitimate country has gained traction among various circles in the European and American left, whose influence permeates the Reform movement. That development keeps raising the bar for what some American Jews perceive as acceptable/defensible policies by Israel, and strengthens anti-Israel critique. While there is no question that Rabbi Jacobs is a committed Zionist, his remark reflects some of the growing and troubling trends among liberal American Jews.

About the Author
Dr. Gil Ribak is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Israel, Dr. Ribak served as an analyst in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office before earning a Fulbright Fellowship that sent him to pursue his doctoral studies in the U.S. In 2021-2022, he serves as the European Union's Marie Curie Senior Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies in Freiburg, Germany. I am a scholar and public educator of Modern Jewish history, whose scholarship has always been interdisciplinary in nature, bringing together history, sociology, folklore, ethnic studies, and literature. My scholarly interests and expertise span various fields of Jewish history – American Jewish history, Eastern European Jewish history, and histories of Modern Israel.