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  • Lara Crigger

Judaism at the Crossroads. (Again.)

Apologies for going dark last week! Rabbi Gerber and I were part of a small delegation attending the Re-Charging Reform Judaism conference in New York City, as you’ll hear more about in a moment. However, I’m back in seat now, and barring any more illness or travel, there should be no more interruptions to our usual publishing schedule!


 

Judaism at the Crossroads. (Again.)



Last week, I attended the Re-Charging Reform Judaism conference, a two-day event to diagnose, analyze, and maybe even solve the biggest challenges posing our movement. Designed primarily for and by Reform rabbis, the conference hosted speakers from diverse backgrounds and expertise; the bimah welcomed everyone from the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, to Eden Yadegar, a senior at Columbia University and Jewish Theological Seminary who has gone viral on social media for her defense of the campus’s Jewish students.


Like the Jews we are, we did lots of talking. Lots. Of. Talking. We didn’t always agree with one another on root causes or solutions proposed. But that was okay. The conversations were the point.


In the coming weeks, I’ll share some of what we discussed on this blog, layering in with my own thoughts and interpretations. Today, however, I thought I’d take the 30,000-ft. view and share the one theme that threaded most of the conversations on the bimah and off: What do we do about anti-Zionism within the Reform movement?

 

As one of the speakers joked at the conference, Judaism conference planners have at least one evergreen title that always works, no matter what’s going on in the world: “Judaism at the Crossroads.”


However, these days, it truly does feel like the Reform movement stands at a crossroads. (Again.) That’s because anti-Zionists have found cover within our movement, which prizes plurality and diversity of opinions, as well as the concept of social action. As such, since October 7th, a number of anti-Zionist Reform Jews have enthusiastically joined, and in some cases even helped organize, anti-Israel protests, marches, and college campus encampments. Often they make the brazen claim that their Jewish-ness empowers them to speak on behalf of most or all American Jews. (We even saw this here at home in the debate around SCR21 at the Louisiana legislature.)


Anti-Zionism is nothing new to Reform Jewry, however. Back in 1885, a few short decades after the Reform movement originated, thought leaders published the Pittsburg Platform, a statement of principles arguing that Judaism should now be considered a religious movement, not an ethnic identity. As such, the document explicitly disavowed a collective desire for a Jewish state in our ancestral homeland:


“We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

Essentially, the platform argued that the U.S.—where we had it pretty good—was the only home we knew, the only home that mattered. Moreover, anybody accusing U.S. Jews of dual loyalty would know we had no desires of being anything other than American.


Though highly controversial and never officially adopted by the rabbinate, the Pittsburg Platform nevertheless dominated Reform thought for the next fifty years. Even today, some “classicist” Reform Jews still hold to its teachings.


In the 20th century, however, resistance to the Pittsburg Platform intensified. Waves of Jewish immigration to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries (by immigrants often fleeing antisemitic violence), combined with the rise of Nazism in Germany, inspired the Reform movement to rethink their resistance to a state where Jews could express their self-determination. 


In 1937, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted the Columbus Platform, which was explicitly Zionist:


“In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”

However, ideology is a pendulum swinging back and forth through time. As I mentioned earlier, there exist today many anti-Zionist (or “non-Zionist” or “post-Zionist”, etc.) Reform Jews, including synagogue staff, camp counselors, educators, even rabbis, who use their positions of authority as a means by which to attack Israel’s legitimacy.


While the quantity of anti-Zionist Reform Jews in the U.S. may or may not be growing—the data suggests the opposite, which I’ll get to in a second—the perception here affects more than the reality. Anti-Zionism feels like it’s growing stronger within Reform Judaism, because those voices are being amplified by those who hate Israel and want to use those voices as moral cover or to manipulate public opinion. After all, it’s much easier for pro-Hamas activists to convince others to hate the only Jewish state in the world, if they’re able to point to Jews who hate Israel, too.


(That’s not to say that all or even most criticism of Israel is Jew-hate or anti-Zionist. I tend to feel as Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch said in his opening remarks at the conference: “We should love Israel not uncritically, but unconditionally.”)


However, despite the amplification of anti-Zionist speech within the Reform movement, mainline Reform Judaism (the largest group of Jews in the U.S.) remains solidly pro-Israel, in lockstep with the majority of American Jews and Americans at large.


  • Some 58% of American Jews, including 67% of religious Jews remain “emotionally attached” to Israel, while eight in ten Jews say that caring about Israel is an important/essential part of what they consider “being Jewish.” (Source: Pew Research Center)

  • That’s in line with a March 2024 Gallup poll that showed 58% of Americans, Jewish or not, have an overall favorable opinion of Israel.

Given how few points our polarized nation we can agree on, the fact that a majority of Americans hold favorable opinions of Israel is no small thing! That gives me some small measure of hope.


I also find hope in statistics shared by Rabbi Melissa B. Simon, the Director of Israel Education for Hillel International. In her remarks, she shared that roughly 180,000 students had engaged in Hillel programming this academic year, an increase of 16% year-over-year. Tellingly, 40,000 had engaged in the organization’s Israel-based programming, a rise of 20%. Meaning, young people’s engagement in Jewish life and in Israel is higher now than it has been in years.


The reality—not the perception this time, but the reality—is that anti-Zionist Reform Jews are deeply out of touch with American Jewry. The majority of American Jews are Zionist, and growing moreso, if the data from Hillel is to be believed. We are united on Israel in a way that few other issues can unite us—not politics, demographics, hobbies, even practices of belief!


So as we stand here at the crossroads (again), rather than ask ourselves: What should we do about anti-Zionism within the Reform movement?, I suspect a better question might be: What future can anti-Zionists ever hope to have in a movement with which they are so out of touch?


That is, the burden isn’t on Reform Jews to figure out whether or not to accept anti-Zionism. The burden is on anti-Zionists to prove why and how they deserve to be part of Reform Judaism.


I encourage them to figure it out quickly. Meanwhile, the rest of us have a homeland to love and to protect.

 

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