Interview with Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke to Jewish Insider‘s Jacob Kornbluh about his impression of Benny Gantz’s speech at AIPAC, the Israeli election, and Israel-Diaspora relations while attending the AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C.

Q: What is impression of Benny Gantz’s speech at AIPAC?

Jacobs: “I think the points the point that he made about Jewish unity, about the Diaspora-Israel divide that is real, he really spoke right to that. And frankly, spoke about moral leadership. He said that the leader of the State of Israel needs to be someone who expresses and lives a set of commitments. I think when he spoke about kind of his own Jewish narrative, his mother, a picture from Bergen-Belsen, the Ethiopian rescue, he showed himself to be a person who understands the breadth of Jewish history, and the narrative that obviously created Israel.

“His narrative about his time as a soldier was quite extensive. And I think anybody who doubted that he could command Israel during times of war, times of danger, I think he was very reassuring. And it wasn’t that sort of prime time speech that we’re accustomed to from Israeli politicians.

“I think people were very encouraged that the main competitor to the current prime minister is a person of depth, intellect, courage, commitment to Klal Yisrael, to the sense of real Jewish unity and that pluralism. Let me just emphasize that when he spoke about pluralism, he said when he was a commanding officer he did not check to see who had a kippah and who didn’t have a kippah and they didn’t check in Bergen-Belsen. And he’s going make sure that the Western Wall has room for everyone, all the ways in which Jews authentically pray. I think he understood not just that that was something to say here, he’s been saying it in Israel in Hebrew at his campaign speeches.”

Q: Are you taking it at face value when he says that?

Jacobs: “Every candidate for prime minister has to speak about Jewish unity. I think he did so with nuance and depth today, and I think it was quite welcomed and quite compelling. The question of how the Israeli electorate will vote is anyone’s guess.

“In terms of the ability to form a government, let’s be clear. He’s not a left-wing as he’s been characterized. The views he expressed were very centrist views on pretty much all issues. I didn’t hear anything that was pretty far to either extreme.  Will he be able to create the kind of coalition that he wants and that would reflect all those promises? That’s of course the test of anyone in Israel. The coalition politics are a little bit messy, but I think that’s part of this process as we know. But I had the clear sense that people thought he passed that test with flying colors.”

Q: If Bibi wins again reelection, are you concerned that the crisis between Israel and U.S. Jewry could deepen?

Jacobs: “I think it’s absolutely the case that that crisis and the division will deepen because what you have is an illiberal Israeli government and a very liberal North American Jewish community. That is the inherent tension. There are a lot of specific examples where that gets played out, but that is the dilemma. And frankly, let’s talk about Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). You can certainly say in any country there are extremes, but what the prime minister did was that he welcomed into his political camp a party that has been built on racism and excitement. And I’m very proud of my colleague, Rabbi Gilad Kariv who argued in the Israeli Supreme Court last week and helped to win the Ben-Ari case.

“I think a lot of American Jews and AIPAC supporters are quite stunned by that crossing of the line in terms of, not just saying such people exist, but such people could exist very comfortably in a coalition. I think that’s, frankly, a red line that none of us imagined anyone who sat in the prime minister’s office would cross and that was crossed.”

Q: Is there still hope that the bi-partisan support for Israel holds?

Jacobs: “The truth is there has been a very deliberate partisan attack on support for Israel. You hear it in speeches. The Democratic Party is not anti-Israel, is not anti-Jewish, and to say so is to disregard every fact that we know. And to be honest, there are people who voice anti-Semitic in statements in the Republican Party. And for everyone to say, ‘Well, it’s only an issue in the Democratic Party,’ is to misstate the truth, and it’s been misstated now a number of times from the podium here which does not serve the cause of bi-partisanship.”

Q: You think that Mike Pence also crossed the line here with an attack on the 2020 candidates not attending AIPAC?

Jacobs: “There’s not doubt about it. By the way, I think the whole discussion about Mueller in front of this audience was tone deaf. But let’s actually just say something about kind of how do you handle that. And to be honest, which Democratic candidates were given a chance to speak on the main stage of AIPAC? I don’t know. Cory Booker wouldn’t welcome a chance to speak? So, let’s be honest too, there are ways in which those individuals could be invited in. But again, they can answer for themselves. I know that we have many Democrats who are here to make it clear that Israel must not ever be a partisan issue. The current occupant of the White House happens to be a Republican. And damage has been done deeply to the sense of bi-partisanship in this country’s support for Israel, which hurts Israel long term and it maybe the most, I think, disastrous thing that has been done in recent years to the long term security of the state of Israel.”

Q: Are you satisfied with the Democratic leadership response to Rep. Ilhan Omar?

Jacobs: “I am. We supported the resolution just on antisemitism. We thought it was appropriate. The second one that was written and passed was good. It was very clear about antisemitism. It added, as well, the other forms of racism and bigotry. And frankly, some of those divisive messages really do underline some of the things that are core to us. The Democratic Party is a wide and big tent. The Republican Party is. If we can think of Kevin McCarthy, the Minority Leader, who has not hesitated to use antisemitic language when talking about Mike Bloomberg and others. When Jim Jordan, the leader of the Freedom Caucus, has no trouble tweeting Tom Steyer’s name with a dollar sign. That’s okay, you know, because they’re Republicans. If you’re going to call out antisemitism, call it out on the left, the center, and the right. No exceptions. And I think that’s what we need to hear.”

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