Why is Reform widening the divide between Israel and American Jewry?

Friction between American Jews and Israel has never been greater. The divide between these two branches of the Jewish people has been exacerbated by differences about religious pluralism, the peace process, as well as over opinions about President Donald Trump as blue state American Jewry views red state Israelis with incomprehension and not a little resentment.

While many blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies for causing the problems, this is something of a misconception. American Jews and Israelis may share a common history and destiny. But the disconnect is rooted in both the changing demography of American Jewry and the consequent loss of a sense of Jewish peoplehood, as well as more basic differences in how Americans and Israelis view the world. A nation-state devoted to promoting the safety and rights of a single people has always been something of a hard sell for the overwhelming majority of Jews, who are liberal and see the world and Judaism primarily through a universalist prism. 

 These issues have been chipping away at the “we are one” mentality that used to characterize the fundraising appeals of mainstream Jewish philanthropies designed to raise money for Israel and overseas causes. So it is all the more important that those liberal Jewish institutions still committed in principle to support Israel, while at the same time criticizing some of what it does, be careful not to let these conflicts lead to an open breach.

That’s why the news that the Reform movement of Judaism is cutting ties with the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL), the Israeli branch of the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA), is causing concern in the Jewish world.

While both are descended from the original fundraising, land purchase and reclamation group founded by Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl, JNF and KKL are now separate entities, even if they have the same goal of sustaining the basic goals of Zionism by helping ensure the future of the land and people of Israel. While JNF-USA raises money for projects in Israel, including water conservation and the traditional tree-planting, little of its money goes to fund the quasi-governmental KKL that owns and purchases land throughout the country, as it also pursues the same kind of innovative development and preservation projects.

One difference between the two is that KKL administers projects throughout Israel, including Jerusalem and the administered territories, where it also legally purchases land to be used for its various efforts. And that is something that Reform vigorously opposes.

While this is a legitimate point to argue about, the flamboyantly public manner in which Reform has now divorced itself from the KKL is troubling. Though it sounds like an obscure argument between parts of the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations, it’s significant because it is an open breach between the largest Jewish religious denomination in the United States and an institution that is, for all of its cumbersome bureaucracy, guided by the will of Israeli democracy.

While the JNF is a U.S.-based group with its own governing board that guides its vital work in Israel, the KKL is run by the World Zionist Organization, a group governed by representatives of the Diaspora (including Reform), as well as those chosen by parties that have seats in the Knesset.

That’s confusing to those not familiar with the intricacies of how these institutions work. But what it boils down to is that, like the democratically elected government of Israel, the KKL’s work is not subject to the whims of liberal Jewish opinion.

The dispute revolves around the KKL purchasing land beyond the so-called Green Line that divided Israel from Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. According to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, these specific purchases were conducted in a deceptive manner that bypassed a committee chaired by a member of the Reform movement. If he’s right, that’s something that ought to be resolved within the structure of the group.

But Jacobs’s grandstanding is clearly about more than an argument about governance. It is a gesture of anger aimed at a consensus that exists in Israel both about the future of the peace process and the status of the land in question. Jacobs’s main point is that his movement “emphatically and continually oppose all land acquisition by the … KKL … outside the sovereign borders of the State of Israel, known as the Green Line.”

That’s why Reform is not only refusing to be one of the many sponsors of the KKL’s biennial convention.

And it is regrettable for a number of reasons.

The first is that by wrongly treating what are the 1949 armistice lines as an international border, Reform is also reinforcing unrealistic Palestinian expectations that Jerusalem would be re-divided along those lines in a theoretical peace agreement. The same applies to the West Bank.

You don’t have to be a supporter of the settlement movement to understand that there is a broad consensus in Israel, including among on the left, that there is no going back to the situation before the Six-Day War started. Israel is never relinquishing the Old City and the Western Wall, or the 40-plus-year-old Jewish neighborhoods that were built in a reunited Jerusalem after June 1967 and the West Bank settlement blocs. Several hundred thousand Jews live in these areas, and even in the unlikely event of the Palestinians embracing a two-state solution that would force them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish State, these areas will remain under Israeli control.

Even if some of the lands purchased by the KKL are in more “sensitive” areas, they would be subject to negotiations if the Palestinian ever choose peace. Jacobs’s exercise in virtue signaling won’t advance a two-state solution. To the contrary, by telling the Palestinians that the largest American Jewish denomination doesn’t respect Jewish rights to disputed lands, Reform is making peace even more unlikely.

But more than that, Reform is also signaling that differences with Israelis over the future of the territories are more important than maintaining Jewish unity.

At a time when anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voices for Peace and IfNotNow are seeking to detach American Jewry from Israel, Reform’s needless public spat with KKL is just adding fuel to a fire that is burning down what is left of unity between Israel and American Jewry. Jacobs seems to be acting as if it is more important to guard his left flank against charges that he is enabling Israel than to help combat such attitudes. While this argument may seem insignificant, it is an unfortunate decision that may yet lead to greater division that is unnecessarily tearing the Jewish people apart.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.