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BDS: Biased, Dishonest, Self-Defeating

Deciding to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the American Studies Association has aligned itself with the BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, disinvestment, and sanctions against Israel. The ASA resolution, approved by voters who received only pro-BDS materials and no opposing viewpoints, illustrates the moral and political bankruptcy of this approach to one of the world’s most complex conflicts.


Most fair-minded people recognize that in any complicated dispute, responsibility for the situation and the capacity to solve it are shared among the parties. Not the BDS posse! The ASA’s action is but the latest example of a pernicious bias that focuses obsessively on Israel’s flaws – real, exaggerated, and imagined – while ignoring or attempting to justify the misdeeds, failures, mistakes and shortcomings of Israel’s adversaries. This willful blindness, which singles out the Jewish State, and it alone, for condemnation and delegitimization, and holds that nation, and it alone, to standards that it fails or refuses to impose on others, is the newest form of the world’s most enduring prejudice: anti-Semitism.

For a taste of the hypocrisy inherent in condemning Israel for alleged human rights violations and repressing academic freedom, consider some of the countries on which the ASA and the BDS movement exercise the right to remain silent: Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea, China and Russia, where dissident teachers and students are targets of violence, the ruling regimes’ ideological opponents are imprisoned or worse, elections are rigged, the media are state-controlled, homosexuality is banned, and the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and religion are denied. The ASA continues the proud tradition of those who ignored the atrocities of Pol Pot and Idi Amin, totalitarianism in Burma, mass murder in the Congo, and genocide in Rwanda to focus their moral lasers exclusively on Israel.


BDS is a weapon in the arsenal of those who deny, explicitly or implicitly, the Jewish People’s aspiration to statehood and the right of a Jewish state to exist, while asserting vehemently, and often violently, the Palestinian People’s national rights. Non-state actors like Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda, as well as Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, are determined to use all means available, ranging from disinformation to nuclear weapons, to destroy the Jewish State and annihilate its citizens.

Even Peter Beinart, with whom I disagree fundamentally on so much that pertains to the Middle East, denounced the ASA’s action. “BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders…This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.”


Bias and dishonesty aside, BDS does nothing to advance Palestinians’ national goals or improve their quality of life, either in the territories or within Israel. There is much to be learned from Mais Ali-Saleh, 27, the observant Moslem woman from a small Arab village near Nazareth, in Northern Israel, this year’s medical school valedictorian at the Technion, often called “Israel’s M.I.T.,” who observed, “An academic boycott of Israel is a passive move, and it doesn’t achieve any of its purported objectives.” Sooner or later, Dr. Ali-Saleh pointed out, the boycott will impinge upon academic researchers she knows, both Jews and Arabs. Her clear message: Efforts like BDS are unproductive and misdirected. Those who truly seek to assist Palestinians and promote Middle East peace should invest their energies in supporting successes like hers and those of her husband, Nidal Mawasi, also a Technion-educated M.D., and on pressing Arab countries and the Palestinian authorities themselves to emulate Israel’s academic freedoms and democracy.

Fortunately, many in the Arab world are far wiser and more sensible than their erstwhile supporters in the BDS crowd. The Allgemeiner reports that thousands of students from Arab countries have signed up for the Technion’s first course taught in both Arabic and English. Even before officially opening, the nanoscience course has drawn more than 32,000 views from all over the world, including 5,595 from Egypt, 1,865 from Kuwait, 1,243 from Saudi Arabia, and 1,243 from Syria. The course will be taught by Professor Hossam Haick, a Nazareth native and a pioneer in innovative cancer detection, one of the many the ASA now boycotts.

Academics are often accused of inhabiting an “ivory tower,” blissfully and cluelessly detached from the messy reality of the world. In aligning itself with BDS, biased, dishonest, and self-defeating, the ASA’s shameful resolution substantiates that notion.

Rabbi Rick Block is Senior Rabbi of The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio, and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post

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Biennial Benediction by the President of the CCAR

The following remarks were offered by Rabbi Rick Block, President of the CCAR, at the Opening Plenary of the URJ Biennial. 

Good evening. I am honored to offer words of reflection and blessing on behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and its more than 2000 rabbis, many of whom are with us in San Diego and who, together with professional colleagues and lay partners, lead, serve, teach, comfort, guide and inspire the congregations and congregants of our Movement and their communities and forge a vibrant future for Jewish life.

When I assumed the Conference presidency, I asked my wife, Susie, “In your wildest dreams, did you ever think I would be CCAR President?” And she said, “You’re not in my wildest dreams.”

Actually, she didn’t. But I begin with Susie because she and I, who will be married 45 years this June, God willing, met at age 17 at UAHC Camp Swig, to which our temples sent us on scholarship, because we were active in NFTY. My parents grew up in Reform congregations, and my father was a temple president. Susie’s parents, who enjoyed a marriage of extraordinary closeness for 71 years, met in their Reform temple’s youth group, and were active members their whole lives. Susie’s mother, 94, still is. Our sons and daughters-in-law and five delicious grandchildren now belong to Reform congregations themselves.

I share all this to make a point: That I owe much of what I value most – my family, my faith, my rabbinate – to Reform Judaism and the Movement that embodies and sustains it. And I bet that for many of you, in your own way, the same is true.

Reform Judaism is not a set of airy abstractions, nor is the Reform Movement a mere amalgam of organizations. They are powerful forces for good that shape, give meaning to, and transform lives, our lives, as they did for those who came before us and will do for those who come after. They enable us to link our personal stories, yearnings and journeys to the transcendent master narrative of the Jewish People. They connect us with something larger, more significant and more enduring than our individual, mortal, sometimes lonely and bewildered lives. They connect us with what is eternal and with the Eternal One.

That is why we gather here, thousands strong, to sing, study, pray and learn, to celebrate achievements, confront challenges and seize opportunities, to reaffirm our innermost values and renew our most passionate commitments, to hope, worry and dream together.

We are here because, even when we have difficulty articulating it, we know that Reform Judaism stands for something sacred both timely and timeless.

We are here because Reform Judaism embraces both tradition and innovation, both individual autonomy and religious obligation.

We are here because reform is not an aberration or an artifact of modernity, but a defining characteristic of Jewish history and a key to our People’s survival.

We are here because we affirm that intellectual freedom and scientific truth do not threaten Judaism, but validate and enrich it.

We are here because Reform Judaism doesn’t just offer appealing  answers, but honors our doubts and questions.

We are here because we are devoted to Israel’s wellbeing, as a Jewish and democratic state, and because we cherish a vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors, within secure and recognized borders, where all citizens and expressions of Judaism are recognized and equal.

We are here because, as Reform Jews and as a Movement, we champion justice, diversity, equality, and inclusion, and are committed to partnering with God, each other, and all people of good will to repair and perfect the world.

We affirm that these things are true, even in an era of rapid and bewildering change, when religious identification, affiliation and practice are optional, the sanctions that once compelled Jewish observance have long since dissolved, the range of choices seems infinite, and the ability of existing institutions to satisfy them is in question. More than ever, our task is to construct what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” the frameworks and settings in which Jewish observance makes powerful sense and infuses people’s lives with meaning and purpose.

Our task is daunting, but invigorating. Change is disruptive, but essential to renewal. Is not that, after all, what two centuries of Reform Judaism, its vibrant organizations and pioneering leaders have taught us? Let us go forward then, together, confident we can rise to the summons of our calling, because we must, and because we have each other.

We conclude with words of gratitude to those who came before us and for our obligations to those who will follow us: Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh haolam, shehehiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higianu laz’man hazeh. Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has kept us in life and sustained us, enabling us to reach this joyous occasion.

Rabbi Rick Block is Senior Rabbi of The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio, and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.   

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Reflections on Meeting Pope Francis

Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting Pope Francis, accompanied by my wife, Susie, and members of a small delegation of Jewish leaders from IJCIC (International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations), of which the CCAR is a member.

We met at the Apostolic Palace, the Pope’s official residence, though he has chosen to live in more modest accommodations at Casa Santa Marta residence, adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica. On the way to the meeting, we passed through a number of ornately decorated rooms, some containing elevated papal thrones. Our session, however, took place in an intimate, relatively unadorned parlor. The Pope entered without fanfare and sat in an armchair at floor level, garbed in a plain white cassock and comfortable-looking black shoes (no red Pradas!)

He told us that this was his first time, as Pope, to talk with an official group of representatives of Jewish organizations and communities, expressing firm condemnation of anti-Semitism, commitment to greater awareness and mutual understanding among Jews and Catholics, and genuine personal friendship.

The Pope told us that “Humanity needs our joint witness in favor of respect for the dignity of man and woman created in the image and likeness of God, and in favor of peace which is above all God’s gift,” concluding his remarks with “Shalom,” and asking for our prayers and assuring us of his own.

It was a moving and memorable experience to meet a man of such genuine humility, piety, sincerity and inner strength, who is already making a powerful impact on the Roman Catholic Church and a world of admirers.

Rabbi Rick Block is Senior Rabbi of The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio, and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  


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Women of the Wall: The Sharansky Proposal

There are times when it seems that something fundamental might, just might, be shifting.  That’s how I felt following a discussion in which Rabbi Steve Fox and I represented the Reform Movement (for the CCAR), together with Rick Jacobs (for the URJ) and Jack Luxemberg ( for ARZA) , in a meeting with Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency, about his proposed solution to issues presented by the Women of the Wall. While an obligation of confidentiality limits what can be shared publically about that discussion, it has been widely reported that Sharansky envisions “one Western Wall for one Jewish People.” This would involve expanding the plaza leading to the Kotel and creating an area for egalitarian/pluralistic prayer to the right of the ramp to the Temple Mount. It would be equal in size and elevation to the existing prayer areas, with one access point to the plaza. Those seeking to approach the Kotel would choose between the gender-segregated and the egalitarian/pluralistic areas, with equal physical access to both. The latter zone would be supervised by the Jewish Agency, which is to say, a pluralistic body, not the present, Orthodox-dominated Kotel Foundation.

600228_10151500068330673_1867844465_nThis not an optimal solution, which would require full and equal access to the entire plaza and the Kotel itself and transferring authority over the entire zone to a pluralistic, broadly representative body. We must not forget that the Kotel area is both a religiously important site and the venue of major national gatherings. Whereas its present character is alienating for many Israelis and other Jews, it could and should become a source of unity for all Israelis, whether they consider themselves religious or secular, and the entire Jewish People.

Clearly, the Sharansky proposal falls short of that ultimate goal. Nonetheless, we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. The essence of this compromise has elicited a very positive reaction by Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall and a courageous leader of Progressive Judaism in Israel, and the NY Times reported that Schmuel Rabinowitz, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall, has declared he will not oppose it. Israeli President Shimon Peres deserves praise for interceding with Rabinowitz to press for moderation and for Peres’ public support for Jewish pluralism.

A host of critically important details remain to be resolved and major questions must be answered. How much will this cost? Who will pay for it? How long will it take? How will the governance of the larger area be addressed? What happens in the interim? And what is Plan B, if this ambitious proposal cannot be implemented? Will a third section be carved out, geographically or temporally, within the existing prayer zone to allow for pluralistic/egalitarian prayer?

One thing is clear. The role of the Israeli police needs to change completely and immediately. Heretofore, the police have been an instrumentality of ultra-Orthodox intolerance and oppression, threatening and arresting women for wearing a tallit or praying aloud near the Kotel. This is intolerable. Just this morning, Israeli police arrested five women for wearing tallitot at the Kotel. Remarkably, the judge before whom they were arraigned ruled that the women did not disturb the peace. Rather, she held, those who sought to interfere with their observance of Rosh Chodesh were the provocateurs. The obligation of law enforcement is to protect everyone who seeks to pray at the Kotel from harassment or assault. This was a point I emphasized strongly in the discussion, one that I consider central to both the interim period and the long term.

I also raised the question of whether this is a “separate but equal” approach to the problem. “Separate but equal,” in the context of American law, was repudiated by the US Supreme Court in 1954, in Brown vs. Board of Education, which proclaimed that separate was inherently unequal. Sharansky responded that his proposal differs fundamentally from the American situation, where the intention of the invalidated laws was to segregate the races. Here, he argued, the intent is not to segregate, but to create the opportunity for all Jews to worship at the Kotel according to their own beliefs and practices.

IMG_4021I believe that argument has merit. When Jewish sovereignty over the Kotel was regained in 1967, the entire Kotel, from the present prayer area down to the Southwest corner, was recognized, including by Orthodox leaders, as one sacred precinct. The proposal is an opportunity for us, too, to affirm that view. But while expressing support for the approach in this situation, subject to an acceptable resolution of the details, I cautioned that it should not be seen as a precedent or paradigm for resolving other issues in Israeli society, such as ultra-Orthodox attempts to impose gender segregation on public buses and occasions.

A host of potential obstacles and possible opponents stand in the way of implementing this proposal: some Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, Israeli archeologists, the Islamic Waqf, which manages the Temple Mount, Jordan, which sees itself as custodian of that precinct, or international bodies. Nonetheless, the proposal is historic. For the first time, the government of Israel seems ready to recognize that it is accountable to all the religious streams of the Jewish People and to make a major financial and political commitment to fulfill that accountability. This represents a dramatic and historic step forward.

This promising development is only the beginning of the process, not its culmination. In the weeks and months to come, as details of the program are clarified and questions are answered, as opposing views are addressed and hopefully, overcome, I believe that we, as individual rabbis and as the CCAR, the rabbinic leadership arm of Reform Judaism, need to do three things: work to ensure a satisfactory resolution of the details of the proposal, rally support for the proposal, and step up our advocacy on the larger issues of justice in Israeli society that the Women of the Wall situation symbolizes.

Rabbi Rick Block is Senior Rabbi of The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio, and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.