Responsibility of Jewish Leaders

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One image is likely to dominate the Reform movement’s biennial conference that is underway in Boston: that of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, being roughed up at the Western Wall by guards and haredi Orthodox worshipers.

The incident last month came as Jacobs and others tried to pray at the Kotel — the site considered the holiest in Judaism. And the confrontation sounded chilling. Jacobs said a guard put his finger on the trigger of a bottle of pepper spray, and put it up to Jacobs’ face. Jacobs said his suit jacket was ripped when guards shoved him as he tried to lead prayer activity.

Such treatment of Jacobs and his group is unconscionable. And the mistreatment supports the growing narrative that those belonging to liberal streams of Judaism are considered expendable by the Israeli government. Although Reform is the largest Jewish religious movement in the United States, the movement in Israel is small, and the word “reform” is pejorative.

The anger within the Reform movement, and Jacobs’ own anger, are justified — particularly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on the Kotel agreement, reached in 2016 to expand and upgrade the Robinson’s Arch pluralistic prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall. Killing the agreement was a political move by Netanyahu, who did so in order to keep the haredi parties in his fragile governing coalition.

Notwithstanding their right to be angry, it is the duty of Jewish leaders to control that anger and work toward peaceful outcomes. Jacobs didn’t do that here. His group began their prayer in Robinson’s Arch. They then tried to enter the main entrance to the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls. They ended up finishing the service in the main plaza, in a large tourist area that is removed from the wall but adjacent to the Orthodox areas for men and women. They were looking to provoke a confrontation and succeeded.

For some time, Reform leaders like Jacobs have been talking openly of their support for Israel not being guaranteed in the face of unequal treatment and moves that denigrate Reform Jewish practice and observance. Such statements and threats are not helpful. Just as it is wrong for the Israeli government and haredi leaders to take steps that are disrespectful toward the non-Orthodox streams that make up the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community, it is wrong for diaspora Jewish leaders to threaten to withhold support of the Jewish state.

Israel is the Jewish homeland. If we have problems with governmental policies and practices, we should be able to address those problems directly. But we should never compromise our love for and support of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

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