Dec. 13, 2017
Let us begin with the patently obvious. US President Donald Trump is an inveterate liar. He is (think Billy Bush bus tape) an alleged self-proclaimed sexual predator. He is waging an unwavering attack on the American free press, and is, say many, doing profound damage to what was once the world’s greatest democracy.
Having said that, when someone we find distasteful in the extreme does the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, intellectual honesty demands that we acknowledge the rightness of the move.
Though it is possible that Trump’s December 6 Jerusalem announcement was part of a larger, yet unannounced Trump plan for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, it is far more likely that it was intended to shore up the president’s support among Christian Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews.
Since, even among his loyal base, there were likely to be some people who would find the president’s wholehearted endorsement of Roy Moore and the continuous discoveries of the Mueller investigation disconcerting, changing the focus made good sense.
Yet even if his move was entirely cynical, the president told the truth about Jerusalem, and said nothing that changed the facts on the ground. Which is why we ought to wonder about the deep-seated feelings about Israel those who chastised him really have.
Orthodox Jews, not surprisingly, celebrated Trump’s announcement. Interestingly, so too did the Conservative Movement, which said it was “pleased by Trump’s declaration” even as it called for progress on the peace front. But Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the US, called the declaration “ill-timed” and said it would “undermine [peace] efforts by making unilateral decisions that are all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.”
There are two major problems with the Reform Movement’s response. First, it completely misreads what all objective observers of the Middle East know to be the case. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is no closer now than it has been for decades. Given that Trump was obviously speaking about west Jerusalem only, the decision by Palestinians and Arabs throughout the world to protest as adamantly as they have (though they have for the most part avoided violence, thus far) really amounts to nothing more than a tantrum.
Since 1949, Israel has insisted that Jerusalem is its capital. For almost 70 years, since long before anyone had even heard of the Palestinians, the Western world has hesitated to call Jerusalem what it is, for fear of annoying the Arab world. But that willingness to deny the truth, to hide what everyone knows to be the case, has done nothing to change Arab leaders or the Arab street. In fact, it may just be that Trump, by not giving in to a tantrum, may have actually indicated to the Palestinians that time is not on their side. If they want a state, his declaration may get some to understand, they had better begin negotiating.
Given how obvious all that is, it is stunning that the Reform Movement’s statement so completely missed the diplomatic mark.
Worse, however, is the fact that there is nothing, in fact or in tone, in the Reform Movement’s statement that German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron could not have said. They, too, care about the (nonexistent) peace process, and they, too, know that Jerusalem has long been the capital of Israel and of the Jewish people. When American Judaism’s largest movement cannot, even when disagreeing with the president, say anything at all that evinces love for the Jewish state or even a hint of a deep, emotional satisfaction at Jerusalem being recognized as our eternal capital, the inevitably widening chasm between Israel and American Jewry is undeniable.
There is nothing new about American Jews not being in love with the idea of a Jewish state. Louis Brandeis, an associate justice of the Supreme Court and at one point a leading Zionist, was a Zionist not because he thought a Jewish state mattered, but because Zionism would (somehow) make American Jews better Americans. “[O]nly through the ennobling effect of [Zionism’s] strivings can we develop the best that is in us, and give to [the United States] the full benefit of our great inheritance.” Albert Einstein (who would be offered the position of president of Israel in 1952) told celebrants at a Passover Seder before World War II, “My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power.” Perhaps most horrifying, after Israel’s devastating losses in the Yom Kippur War, one American Jewish leader, noting that post-1967 Israel’s self-confidence would now be gone, said, “It will be a pleasure to deal with a lesser Israel.”
There is thus nothing at all new about the tone or lovelessness of the Reform Movement’s statement. It is simply a sad reflection of a long-standing American Jewish tradition. Maybe that can be changed; more likely, it cannot.
When Israel ignores the interests of American Jews (which I believe it should not do, of course), those who are horrified ought to recall one basic point.
Like many dimensions of our lives, the relationship between Israel and non-Orthodox American Judaism is a two-way street; both sides will reap what they sow.