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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Seattle Board Meeting June 2007

Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees Meeting
Remarks by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
June 10, 2007
Seattle, Washington

For my comments today, I would like to reflect a bit on the article that I wrote a few weeks ago for the Forward. I know that some of you have read that article. (see When We Let John Hagee Speak For Us, May 18, 2007.) I was commenting with disapproval on the trend that has developed in Jewish Federations to support local dinners sponsored by Christians United for Israel; as many of you know, this is an organization headed by John Hagee, an evangelical minister from San Antonio.

In my view, Federation endorsements of these dinners send the wrong message, especially to our young people. For years, communal organizations have been obsessed with the question of how we bring young Jewish adults – those in their 20s and 30s – into organized Jewish life. Research has been done; papers have been written; pilot projects have been tried. There is no clear answer here, although everyone agrees about the problem, and we agree as well that Birthright Israel has been the one program that has had some success in inspiring young adults to think about their Jewish identity.

My question was this: why would communal organizations that are so concerned about young Jews do something that is guaranteed to offend the values of these young people and alienate them from the community? Young Jews are tolerant and inclusive; Hagee hates Muslim and bashes gays. Young Jews believe that no religion has an exclusive claim on the truth; Hagee preaches that only Christians will be saved. Young Jews are moderate in their politics, particularly on the Middle East; Hagee preaches a hard-line, anti-Arab message. Why exactly would it be a good idea to promote this man?

The issue is not the wisdom of face-to-face meetings or serious conversations. Of course we should talk with him, just as we should talk to all other major religious groupings. I support such conversations, and have engaged in them myself. But there is a difference between saying: “Let’s talk and learn about each other,” and saying, “We offer our endorsement for your work.” The first is dialogue, and is welcome; the second is an uncritical embrace, and is not.

Since the article appeared I have received a number of responses, some from Reform Jews, some from Reform rabbis who have struggled with these questions, some from Orthodox Jews, and some from Federations. Not a few of these responses have been nasty, but some have been civil and thoughtful. The argument most frequently made is this: we live in an imperfect world; and in this imperfect world, we enter into coalitions all the time, often with those with whom we profoundly disagree. The Catholics don’t like gays, even if they are less crude than Hagee in their language, and yet we work with them on issues of war and peace; the Protestants are hostile to Israel, and yet we join with them in matters of social justice; and other right-wing Evangelicals work with us on Darfur. Why then should we not join forces with Hagee on support for Israel, even if we disagree – and disagree profoundly – on the remainder of his agenda? Indeed, aren’t we obligated to endorse these events as a means of thanking him for his support? And if this is so, can’t we explain to young Jews the reasons for our actions? After all, these young people are not head-in-the-cloud idealists; they understand that is Israel is threatened and vulnerable, and they know the importance of hard-headed pragmatism.

These are fair questions. Because yes, when there is a common agenda and a compelling reason to do so, we overlook differences and work with those whose other views we may find abhorrent. Why not here?

Because, in this case, there is no common agenda. Because Pastor Hagee, in my opinion, is not really a supporter of Israel. To put it differently, and perhaps more precisely, he supports Israel in his way, but that is a way that we see very differently, and that will ultimately cause Israel far more harm than good.

For John Hagee, support for Israel is a Biblical mandate, and that mandate includes keeping every inch of occupied Arab territory. Therefore, while his dinners are supposedly non-political, in fact that is almost never the case; instead, they advocate his hard-right political line. At a recent event in Northern Virginia, one speaker after another got up and condemned anyone who might ever consider trading “land for peace.” It might be helpful to point out that the current government of Israel supports the principle of “land for peace”; and so too do most Israelis and most American Jews. Can you really say you support Israel when you attack the platform of Israel’s Prime Minister and ruling coalition? And can you really say that you are helping Israel when you advocate an approach to peace that is not only opposed by Israel and American Jews, but by the Bush Administration, the Republican party, the Democratic party, and the majority of the American people?

So to say that Hagee is a supporter of Israel is hardly precise. In fact, he is an extremist on matters of Israeli-Palestinian politics, and American Jews identify with these views at their peril. Such views will succeed not only in disillusioning our own youth but in raising questions among responsible Americans of all political persuasions, who are accustomed to seeing Israel and American Jews as moderate and sensible. Identifying with Hagee will manage only to drive away our allies and reduce our political clout. Especially now, when Evangelical influence is in decline and Americans are suspicious of their government and wary of foreign adventurism, it is the worst possible time to inch closer to the Hagee camp.

So why in heavens name would our Federations do this? One possibility that I rather indelicately suggested is money. The Hagee dinners are fundraising events, and in many cases very successful ones. And Federations that develop relations with CUFI often find that money for Israel and Israel programs is directed to the Federation campaign. I don’t doubt that Federation leaders have convinced themselves that their actions serve the Jewish people, but it would be naïve to deny that dollars have become a factor here.

How important is this issue? Very important. Jewish Federations are organizations of consequence; we have worked hard to cultivate close relations with our Federations, and in most cases we have succeeded. A continuing partnership is important to us and to them. Furthermore, Federations are not just another Jewish group; they are the bodies that represent the broader Jewish community in matters of communal concern and in particular give voice to our love and concern for Israel. We need them to be strong advocates for the will of the community and to be faithful representatives of communal consensus.

But when they endorse Pastor Hagee, they do not speak for us, they do not represent the broader Jewish community, and they are not advancing Israel’s interests and well-being. And, incidentally, they are not doing what surely they want to do: inspire our young people with the spiritual and ethical values that are precious to every Jew.

We will not build our communities and strengthen Israel by siding with bigots and extremists. We will not ensure the continuity of the Jewish people by taking this path. So if this comes up where you live, I urge you to join with others in your synagogue to oppose such alliances. If we remain silent, we will not forgive ourselves, and neither our children nor posterity will forgive us. So let our voices be heard.

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