‘History will judge us’ — Have progressive UK rabbis reached end of the road on Israel?

By Robert A. H. Cohen, published on Mondoweiss, 30 July 2020

Progressive rabbis in the UK have written to the Israeli embassy in London to express their concern over the Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank. The letter has been sent from British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organisation which supports the work of Rabbis for Human Rights working in Israel and the West Bank. It draws its members from both Progressive (Reform and Liberal) as well as Masorti and Orthodox rabbis. However, the forty signatories to this latest statement are dominated by Reform and Liberal rabbis, including the outgoing Reform senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, and former Liberal senior rabbi, Danny Rich, whose communities make up around 20% of UK Jewish synagogue membership.


The anti-annexation letter reads powerfully and asks rhetorically:

“If Judaism teaches us not to oppress, not to disenfranchise, not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbour, then where do we all stand?”

It’s a stronger statement than you would find being made formally by the Reform or Liberal movements themselves, so in practive it’s an outlet for the rabbis to speak out as individuals rather than representatives of the organisations which employ them. That reflects the hypersensitivity, professional risk, and fraught communal politics generated by Israel.

The wording of the letter is significant in what it reveals about the condition of Progressive rabbinical thought on Israel. But before diving into the ‘exegesis’, let me offer some personal history on Reform Judaism.

Spiritual home

I grew up in the Reform synagogue movement in the UK and it remains my spiritual home. I use the Reform Judaism prayer book to welcome in the sabbath with my family each Friday night, and during lockdown I’ve been following the services conducted via Zoom from the shul in which I was raised, Bromley Synagogue in South East London.

In my youth I don’t remember support for Israel being the focus of division in synagogue life that it’s become today. In those days, the main external preoccupation of Bromley synagogue was the plight of Soviet Jews facing cultural, economic and religious persecution by the Soviet Russian authorities.

Led primarily by women in our synagogue, we campaigned, protested and ‘adopted’ Jewish families in Moscow, offering what practical and emotional support we could. I remember international phone calls being set up at the synagogue and relayed via loud speaker to the gathered community. We listened to our ‘refuseniks’ on the crackly telephone line telling their experience of being denied permission to leave Russia for Israel and the consequences for their daily lives.

The motivation for this work fitted well with Progressive Jewish concerns for justice, compassion and for the victims of oppression. Little did we know how this story would play out and how it would influence politics in Israel thirty years later.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, a million former Soviet Jews migrated to the Jewish State – welcomed with open arms by a government looking for an influx of Jews to bolster Jewish demography (against rising Israeli Arab population growth). Politically, the Russian Jews making their new home in Israel turned out to be less concerned with universal rights and compassion for the oppressed than we had been in Bromley. The majority of Russian Jews have voted consistently for right-wing Israeli parties opposed to ‘peace deals’ and enthusiastic for Settlement expansion. Broadly speaking, they are secular and highly nationalistic in behaviour and outlook. It’s an ironic consequence of all that Progressive Jewish action that took place on their behalf in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps, it’s a metaphor for the entire relationship between Israel and Reform Judaism: mismatched visions, conflicting agendas and compromised values.

Statements mired in denial

The co-author of this month’s anti-annexation letter, Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, became the rabbi for Bromley Synagogue in the late 1980s while I was completing my undergraduate degree at Manchester University. By that time, I was already on a journey to Palestinian solidarity driven by my roots in Reform Judaism, influenced by the motivations behind the Soviet Jewry campaigns, and by a determination to understand what had caused the outbreak of the First Palestinian Intifada.


Ever since those student days, I’ve followed the statements made by Reform and Liberal rabbis concerning Israel. I’m sorry to say, they’ve been consistently disappointing. On each occasion they failed to address the enormity of Palestinian dispossession and the on-going injustices committed against them. They pulled their punches on the moral questions for the State of Israel, and as rabbis, they shied away from publicly examining the ethical consequence for the global Jewish diaspora and for Judaism itself.

I long ago understood that however critical of specific Israeli actions these rabbinic statements might be, Progressive rabbis would avoid the most serious implications of their concerns. Their public letters and press releases would begin with a preamble of fidelity to the Jewish State, intending this to give them ‘permission’ to speak out. The statements would invariably conclude with expressions of even-handed compassion and desires for peace. No doubt they appeared bold, radical and controversial to some, but to me they were mired in denial about the true power dynamics and immorality at work in Israel/Palestine.

Gaza 2014

A good example of this rabbinical genre of Israel related handwringing was a letter sent to The Times in August 2014 as the Israeli assault on Gaza was taking place. During those summer weeks, 500 Palestinian children were killed by the IDF, mostly by Israeli aerial bombardments using the most sophisticated and precise weaponry available. Meanwhile, one Israeli child was killed by a Hamas rocket. Here’s how the Progressive rabbis began their letter:

“Sir, We write as passionate and proud supporters of Israel. This past month we have witnessed devastating loss of life on all sides, so many of whom are civilians, as Israel has again been thrown into conflict with her neighbours and tried to deal with the missiles and tunnels used by Hamas. We have watched with great sadness as communities in the region and beyond have become embroiled in anger and hatred towards the other.”

The letter concluded with the affirmation that the rabbis remained “dedicated to Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state” along with “the values of social and political equality for all citizens, alongside freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel, and as enshrined in its Declaration of Independence.”

That appeal to Israel’s Declaration of Independence as being the true ‘soul’ of the Jewish State crops up time again in Liberal Zionist discourse, even though the document was never enshrined in constitutional law and contains plenty of historical airbrushing out of diaspora Jewish history which Progressive rabbis ought to object to.

Historical tensions

I like to think that behind the composition of these weak texts (which always ended in both political and ethical failure) there were some spiritual and intellectual struggles that went on in the hearts and minds of those who composed them.

There’s always been a tension at the centre of Reform Judaism’s relationship with Zionism. That was bound to be so. Reform Judaism, as it developed in 18th and 19th century Germany, was a response to enlightenment thinking, the social emancipation of Jews in Western Europe, and a Jewish theology which looked to emphasise a universalistic mission for Jews and Judaism based on themes of biblical prophetic justice. The Jewish people were understood as being a religious community with a shared historical experience, commissioned by God to build a just society wherever they lived. Religious practices were guided by reason and ethics.While Reform Judaism would speak of ‘a Jewish people’ or a ‘Jewish nation’, this was understood as broad and transnational in character, rather than narrow and territorial.

These ideas continued as the movement spread from Germany to north America (where it became a dominant Jewish denomination) and to the United Kingdom. Before the Second World War, Reform Judaism did not favour Zionism as a response to the issues of Jewish modernity in the early 20th century. All that began to change after the Holocaust, as it did for all Jewish institutions.

Narrowing ambitions

The universalistic mission of Reform Judaism, with its belief in working towards of messianic age of global justice now had to accommodate an inward looking and less ambitious agenda. The safety and security of the Jewish people became the post-Holocaust preoccupation, and the modern State of Israel became the accepted vehicle for achieving that security.

Over time, the narrow purpose of tribal physical security has grown from political theory to religious tenet, merging seamlessly with scripture, liturgy and religious festivals so that Zionism appears entirely consistent with centuries of Jewish self-understanding. In truth, it was an abrupt break with past rabbinic understanding of religious exile and spiritual redemption. For Reform Judaism, Israel created a tension between defending the fledgling Jewish State, seen as existential for Jewish survival and future growth, and Reform’s previous ideals for the humanistic and ethically grounded role which Jews could and should play in all societies.

But have Progressive rabbis now recognised the ethical cul-de-sac they’ve led their communities down over successive decades?

“History will judge us”

This month’s letter to the Israeli embassy in London starts to look like Progressive rabbis are finally confronting the Jewish implications of the entire Zionist project. Although the layers of denial and ethical dissonance are still on display, it’s the strongest and most despairing expression of criticism I’ve seen.

Once again, the rabbis’ letter lacks any historical context or political analysis concerning what’s brought us to this point. The authors see the prospect of annexation as a pivotal moment, threatening “our moral survival as a people of integrity,” when in fact it’s just the latest stage in a long drawn out process of colonisation of Palestinian land. If the problem is this serious today, what made it any less serious yesterday?

But here’s the key paragraph, which implicitly acknowledges a collective Jewish (certainly rabbinical) responsibility, which goes far beyond any specific Israeli government or Prime Minister:

“The moral integrity of the Jewish people is at stake. History will judge us and ask us: have we been faithful to the prophetic teachings of justice, compassion and peace? Or have we created a mockery of our Jewish tradition and of the founders of the State, by standing on the wrong side of Jewish teachings and our history?”

The questions are asked rhetorically but they demand actual answers. The obvious response to the rabbis is: “No”, you have not been faithful to Jewish teaching through your mild-mannered criticism of Israel. And “Yes”, you have created a mockery of our Jewish tradition by failing to centre your teaching on Palestinian suffering. I would also caution them against their on-going moral confidence concerning the “founders of the State” since the greatest single moment of Palestinian dispossession was not the Six Day War of 1967 but the Nakba of 1948.

The myth of a righteous past

The rabbi’s letter once again drags Israel’s Declaration of Independence into service as evidence of a righteous past that has been lost, but could yet be found again:

“And where do we stand in relation to Israel’s Declaration of Independence? The State of Israel that was created was to be ‘based on the principles of liberty, justice and peace’. These plans deny those foundational principles of the Declaration.”

But the Declaration of Independence was never enacted, it’s never been a legal document. There has never been “social and political equality” for Palestinians in Israel. For the first 20 years of Israel’s history, its Arab citizens were ruled under military law as a fifth column; internally displaced, their homes and land were confiscated through government legislation; their friends and relatives who had fled their homes in fear and crossed borders, were never allowed to return even when the fighting ended.

Palestinian Israelis remain socially, politically and economically disadvantaged to this day. They are not a small minority, they are 20% of the country’s population. It’s not an accident. It’s not their fault. It’s institutionalised discrimination that’s existed since the day David Ben-Gurion read the Declaration out loud in the Tel Aviv Museum more than 70 years ago. Israel as a Jewish and democratic state of all its citizens was always a myth. As all Progressive rabbis will tell you, religious myths serve an important function in the development of morality, this though is a political myth, which serves only to prop up a false narrative that denies another people’s lived experience. The rabbis need to let go of the Declaration rather than continue to use it to obscure the truth.

Watershed moment

This letter, even with its failings, is setting up a watershed moment for its Reform and Liberal signatories and the congregations which they lead. Even if annexation is delayed indefinitely, something has changed in Progressive rabbinical thinking on Israel. And if the rabbis are serious about “the moral integrity of the Jewish people” and how “history will judge us”, then some big changes are required.

What’s needed is a return to the bolder ambitions of religious purpose that characterised the first century of Reform theology. A Jewish ‘mission’ of universal justice that’s applied to Israel as well as every other nation on earth.

In practice what must that look like?

A new Progressive Jewish agenda

Any understanding and teaching of Zionism must embrace the experience of Palestinians. Zionism has been a national project of self-determination for Jews and an act of brutal settler colonialism for Palestinians. Both experiences are true and valid. One cannot be told without the other. In this century, the Jewish and the Palestinian stories have become entwined and interdependent. Our future wellbeing is locked together. This is what we must teach ourselves and our children if we are serious about respecting the heritage of Progressive Judaism.

In making that educational commitment, Reform and Liberal rabbis must abandon their support for politicised definitions of antisemitism which end up silencing Palestinian solidarity and denying Palestinian history. Many of the same rabbis who’ve signed this month’s letter on annexation, including Sylvia Rothschild, Danny Rich and Laura Janner-Klausner, also signed a letter to the Guardian in July 2018 supporting the deeply problematic IHRA definition of antisemitism.

The rabbis need to understand the damage such documents are doing to the prospects of a genuine Jewish/Palestinian dialogue.  Anti-Palestinianism is as bad as antisemitism.

Support for Israel from Reform and Liberal movements must become conditional on equal rights and equal security for all who call the Holy Land their home. How can a Jewish religious movement call for equality and justice for all, while making an exception in the very place where we claim our Jewish origins?

Jewish education about the Holocaust needs expanding and reframing too. Today, we are in danger of merely passing on to future Jewish generations an on-going, unprocessed, collective trauma. It’s a trauma that informs our understanding of Israel/Palestine and what constitutes Jewish safety and security. A ‘Sparta State’ dependent on superpower backing and endlessly suppressing an indigenous population will never deliver Jewish security. Progressive Judaism must reclaim its universal principles and apply them to a Jewish understanding of the Holocaust which recognises that our security will always be dependent on promoting a common humanity, based on justice, equality and mutual responsibility.

And here’s my final challenge to the rabbis.

In Judaism there is a tradition of collective responsibility, which the rabbi’s letter on annexation alludes to. On Yom Kippur, the most solemn and holy day of the Jewish religious calendar, we stand together in the synagogue and ask for forgiveness for the sins we have committed, not just as individuals, but as a community, as a people. When our Reform and Liberal rabbis have the courage to lead us in asking for forgiveness from the Palestinian people and offering them restitution, then we will have finally arrived at a place from which we can move forward with a genuinley progressive Jewish agenda.

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