Concerned by what he saw as an “imbalanced” debate over divestment, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, at the last minute changed his planned remarks for the opening celebration Wednesday evening of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2016 General Assembly to urge delegates not to support divestment from companies that are involved in Israel’s occupation of Palestine, he told UU World.
As he was traveling to Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday morning as a featured guest of the interfaith-themed GA, Jacobs learned that the only Jewish organization scheduled to present at GA on the issue of divestment was Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-divestment group, he said. At that point, he rewrote his speech to counsel against a proposed business resolution on divestment, upon which delegates will vote on Saturday, he said.
“I was not planning to talk about the issue in depth, but I felt that given the way the conversation was being framed and what I was reading even yesterday morning [in media coverage of GA], I needed to say something,” said Jacobs, whose organization is the largest progressive Jewish organization in the world. “I could not come here and not speak to something so urgent.” Jacobs said he would not have any other opportunity to raise the issue since he had to leave GA on Thursday evening.
Addressing 3,700 delegates at the opening celebration, Jacobs referred to the controversial “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (BDS) movement, stating that “the overwhelming majority of your American Jewish brothers and sisters oppose BDS because it is an effort ultimately to de-legitimize the very existence of the state of Israel.” His comments injected tension into the celebration and provoked some negative response on social media for “ill-planned” timing, as one comment said.
“He took it upon himself to speak out a forum where he was not invited to speak on that issue,” said Larry Cooper, president of UUs for Justice in the Middle East (UUJME), which drafted the business resolution seeking the UUA’s divestment from certain companies that benefit from the Palestinian occupation. Since the UUA no longer owns stock in the companies, the UUJME will amend the resolution in miniassembly to direct the UUA to avoid investing in any such companies in the future.
Cooper said Jacobs “violated protocol” by “giving a different speech than the one that had been approved” and without sharing it with Morales or other UUA leaders. The UUJME has requested that a pro-divestment speaker be allowed to address a general session of GA to respond to Jacobs’ remarks, Cooper said. (Pro-divestment speakers are already scheduled to speak during Friday morning’s general session.)
However, Jacobs did share his revised speech beforehand with UUA President Peter Morales, who read it and—without taking a position on the substance—affirmed Jacobs’s right to say what he wanted, Jacobs said. Morales confirmed that account to UU World.
In an interview Thursday morning, Jacobs told UU World that he is a strong proponent of human rights and a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel. “We are deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian people and their pain,” he said. “At the same time, and I said this very clearly in my talk, we believe very deeply that Israel not only has a right to exist but is a country that it is also fighting every day for its security and well-being against terrorist attacks.”
“BDS will take us backward” and torpedo efforts toward a two-state solution, he said. “That’s the last thing we should be doing.”
Jacobs said that other mainline Protestant religions that have voted on divestment did so without adequate opportunity for anti-BDS proponents to speak. “Frankly, the UUA could make a very strong statement affirming Palestinian rights and at the same time, Israel’s right to exist within its borders and as a democracy,” he said. Rather than focusing only on divestment, Jacobs hopes the UUA will engage in a “deeper, more honest, more comprehensive conversation about what we can do to strengthen the forces for peace in the Middle East,” he said.
Jacobs participated with other religious leaders in GA’s public witness event Thursday afternoon, “State of Emergence: Faith Filled People Rally for Racial Justice,” before leaving to travel to Paris and then Israel in his ongoing work for a two-state solution.
A panel discussion of the UUJME business resolution planned for Friday morning’s general session will feature Farrell Brody, a UU member of Jewish Voice for Peace of Central Ohio; Dana Ashrawi, a UUJME board member; the Rev. Jay Wolin, treasurer of UUs for Jewish Awareness; and former UUA Moderator Denny Davidoff. A workshop about the UUJME resolution will take place Friday afternoon, followed by a miniassembly where amendments will be considered. Delegates will debate and vote on the amendment resolution during Saturday’s general session.