Reform rabbi: Netanyahu is 'last brick in the wall' for Israel-diaspora ties

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch tells ‘Post’ of potentially irreparable damage in the Israel-Diaspora relationship with young American Jews

 Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. (photo credit: SWFS)
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City.
(photo credit: SWFS)

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, one of the more Zionist rabbis in the Reform movement, expressed grave concern over the incoming government, during an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

“I’ve been at the very hub of the relationship between world Jewry and Israel, professionally, for 30 years. I have never been as anxious and as worried about that relationship as I am now. Never. Not even close. Nothing has come close,” he said.

Hirsch, who is considered to be on the conservative side of the Reform movement’s ideology with regard to religion, said, “It is not for anyone outside any democratic country to determine who the leaders are going to be. It’s only for the citizens of that specific country. It’s up to everybody else outside the country to accept the results and to try to work with the elected officials.”

And yet, Israel is different than other democratic countries.

“There’s a unique relationship between world Jewry and Israel,” Hirsch said. “It is not simply the relationship that American citizens would have for the French government, for example, regarding a domestic policy. World Jews and Israeli Jews have a unique relationship. From a religious perspective, we are in covenant, and from a historical perspective, inseparably bound to each other in perpetuity.

 HEAD OF THE Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives at the scene of Wednesday’s bombing at the exit to Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) HEAD OF THE Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives at the scene of Wednesday’s bombing at the exit to Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“The idea that people who define themselves as being religious or Orthodox would willingly, openly with eyes wide open, either not care about this relationship or take steps to break it or to damage it, is just beyond my comprehension. Because there is a central religious commandment to love fellow Jews and to keep the Jewish people united. We are in covenant with each other.”

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch

“Israel, by its own self-definition, is home to our people, the people of Israel, and therefore, because of that special relationship that Israel sees itself as part of, and even demands of world Jewry... world Jews have the right to criticize Israel’s policy.”

He added, “In some respects, Israel itself acknowledges that the stakes that we have in Israeli policies are much deeper than what we would have said if we were criticizing some European or American policy. World Jews have an important role to play, and Israel should want to hear what world Jews think.”

Hirsch is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and former executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He is the son of the late Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, who founded the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington and a former executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Regarding the positions of the incoming government, Hirsch said, “I am, as you know, a lifelong Zionist. It is not only an intellectual perspective, it starts with the heart. It’s inconceivable that we would break the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, from a religious perspective.

“The idea that people who define themselves as being religious or Orthodox would willingly, openly with eyes wide open, either not care about this relationship or take steps to break it or to damage it, is just beyond my comprehension. Because there is a central religious commandment to love fellow Jews and to keep the Jewish people united. We are in covenant with each other.”

With respect to American Jews, Hirsch said, “The voices that are emerging as the likely coalition partners will devastate the relationship, and it will damage the relationship, so that even if the government doesn’t serve its full term, it will take years to restore. Because many of the positions espoused by the Religious Zionist Party, by folks from Otzma Yehudit and, needless to say, Noam, are antithetical to American Jews’ understanding of what Judaism is.”

He added that these issues “will accelerate the distancing that we are already experiencing. It will accelerate it for generations. Already now, we’re struggling to keep this relationship whole, and keep younger Jews connected to the Israel-Diaspora relationship. But there is no way that younger American Jews will feel what we want them to feel about Israel if Israel annexes the West Bank; if it overturns the independence of the judicial system; if it deports Israeli-Arabs who they consider disloyal to the state; if Israel is represented by people who are Kahanists that want to change the Law of Return and to disqualify non-Orthodox converts; if Israel will decide to abolish the grandfather clause; and if its leaders are deeply homophobic and deeply opposed to the LGBT community. Then we have a big problem.”

He further emphasized, “There is no way that the American Jewish community or American society will accept deeply homophobic statements, let alone measures and policies... even if they are not successful in changing the policy, all they do is agitate, and these are the messages coming from Israel’s elected representatives.”

Hirsch said that such actions will cause “catastrophic damage, because American Jews will not accept it, as well as most of the Western world.”

What do Ben-Gvir and David Duke have in common?

Recently, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said, “Appointing Itamar Ben-Gvir as public security minister is like appointing David Duke, head of the KKK, to be attorney-general.”

Hirsch himself participated in a delegation organized by then-Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer to set up meetings between Reform and Conservative American rabbis and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, since there was no dialogue with the movements themselves.

How will these movements be able to now have dialogue and a relationship with Netanyahu during his sixth government when all of the parties in the coalition, except the Likud, are against any connection with them?

Hirsch did not directly answer the question, but said, “I believe I represent both in tone, as well as in content, the mainstream Reform Jewish approach,” possibly hinting that the Union of Reform Judaism leadership isn’t in sync with the rest of the movement.

“I know this for sure in my congregation. I know for sure in New York City. And while I haven’t done empirical research, my feeling is that what I am telling you... reflects and represents the majority of our movement at this point in time.”

Hirsch emphasized that what he said is “deeply painful” and comes out of “a place of the deepest love and the deepest concern for the Jewish future and the future strength and viability of the State of Israel.”

In addition, Hirsch said he thinks the situation can eventually “undermine the support that Israel receives from the United States.”

“We will have fewer Jews who advocate for Israel, and those who do advocate for Israel will not only be fewer in number, they will be less enthusiastic.”

American Jews are the strongest supporters of Israel 

In contrast to Dermer during his term as ambassador, Hirsch asserted, “Despite the contention that some have in Israel that Evangelical Christians are more reliable than American Jews – that is incorrect. American Jews are a central component of the positive Israel-American bilateral relationship, and if you weaken them, you shake the foundations of the relationship.”

He added, “To have these very radical people speaking for Israel will give rocket fuel to Israel’s opponents in America who are in any case gaining strength. [Israel’s] critics will be strengthened in substantial ways and there’ll be more in positions of political power and influence. Irrespective of what other people do, they will be strengthened and we have an interest in not strengthening.”

Though the heads of these parties have been “democratically elected” and “they are entitled to govern, they don’t have to legislate policies that are damaging to Israel in front of world Jewry. That’s their choice. Nobody is challenging your right to govern. [I speak with] an extreme caution based on a shared love and a shared destiny of what may be the consequences in implementing these policies that they speak about.”

Netanyahu has quoted Hirsch several times in his speeches in Israel and the US over the years.

“When it comes to Netanyahu personally, I have always found him to be concerned about the relationship with world Jewry. He tries to say the right things, and even when he backtracks, like on the Kotel arrangement, my impression is he felt that they were political necessities and these weren’t to be his choice. I believe that if he were to be able to have free reign, he would have implemented that policy for the sake of Jewish unity. After all, it came from him.”

Hirsch said Netanyahu is well aware of the dangers that lurk for Israel generally, on an everyday basis, to keep the American-Israel bilateral relationship solid, let alone when extremists are in the government.

“He, of course, is a master politician, and so I am actually not proposing anything, because my capacity to propose anything pales in comparison to his capacity to know what to do and to actually do it. I’m simply appealing to Netanyahu, as a believer in the unity of the Jewish people and the centrality of the State of Israel, to prevent the worst of what is likely to happen.

“Whatever past relationship American Jews might have had with prime minister Netanyahu, he’s the last brick in the wall; after him, the deluge – if he doesn’t manage to stop it. It’s like all these years we managed to hold back the water. With the likely rise to power of these extremist elements, something fundamental has changed in American Jewry.”

A tsunami of anti-Israel agitation 

Hirsch shared that he and his colleagues are “no longer sure” they “can hold back this tsunami” of anti-Israel agitation, both in general American society as well as elements of anti-Zionism coming from within the American Jewish community.

“The danger in the Jewish community is not on the anti-Zionist; it’s from those who are distancing from Israel because they feel that there is no longer any kind of common connection and common set of values that bind us together. That’s real. It’s not from the anti-Zionists... but from those who are simply distancing because they find nothing in common. We’ve managed to hold that back all these years. I fear that this dam is breaking if we don’t take the strongest possible measures to stop it.”