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Protesting Conservative Judaism’s Support of Embassy Move

Goldie Poll and Jacob Plitman
December 12, 2017

by Goldie Poll and Jacob Plitman

OVER 250 STUDENTS, alumni and affiliates of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), including over thirty rabbis, have signed a newly-released petition expressing “dismay” over the school and denomination’s recent statements lauding the relocation of the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem effectively signaled American recognition of the city as Israel’s capital. While Israel has long reigned in both the Jewish West and Palestinian East sides of Jerusalem, American recognition sidesteps peace negotiations and likely compromises the United State’s previous role as a “fair broker” in any peace arrangement. The controversial decision sparked protests; two Palestinians were killed and many more injured during riots in the region itself. While some progressive Jewish organizations opposed Trump’s decision, several mainstream organizations celebrated the move.

Among those lauding the decision was The Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship rabbinical school and an institution attended by many Columbia University students. Their statement reads, “We at The Jewish Theological Seminary are heartened that Jerusalem, the focal point of Jewish hopes and prayers for over two millennia, and the capital of the reborn State of Israel since its founding nearly 70 years ago, has been recognized as such by Israel’s closest ally. We welcome our president’s commitment to helping to forge a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.” The statement also added that, “The rabbis of antiquity envisioned two Jerusalems—the Jerusalem that resided in the heavens and its earthly counterpart [...] God declared, ‘I will not reside in the heavenly Jerusalem until I am able to reside in the earthly Jerusalem.’

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group of the Conservative movement, also “applauded” the decision. However they they added that the USCJ “questions the purpose” of the decision, and reaffirmed their support for the two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In a second statement co-signed by JTS and other Conservative movement outlets again lauded the move and added that, “The status of Jerusalem is a matter to be settled in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” urging the US, Israel and the Palestinians to take steps towards negotiations. Experts believe that the embassy move makes the achievement of a two state solution less likely.

IN OPPOSITION to these two statements from the Conservative movement, over 250 alumni, students and affiliates have signed a petition. Over the phone, Allen Lipson, a co-creator of the petition, told Jewish Currents that “We wanted to convey the clear story that committed members of our community are disappointed in institutions that claim to speak in our name, while failing to live up to our values [...] we posted it at eleven o’clock on Sunday night, and within thirty-six hours over two hundred fifty people have already signed on. And these are members of the American Jewish mainstream. We care deeply for our institutions, and for that reason we want to see them live up to their own expectations.”

Over email, a representative of JTS responded to the petition. She wrote, “As an institution of higher learning, we welcome differing opinions, opportunities for conversations, and passionate feelings about issues, such as this, that are deeply impactful to all of us in the Jewish community.” Separately, Jewish Currents received the following USCJ response: “I just want to highlight that our statement questions the timing of President Trump’s announcement and asks the questions: Why now? What’s the context? What comes next?”

Petition co-creator Lipson wasn’t satisfied with these responses. “As to JTS, we hope they take these passionate feelings into account when issuing future statements on our behalf,” he said, “before as well as after the fact.” And responding to the USCJ, “Given that JTS and the USCJ ‘welcomed’ and ‘applauded’ Trump’s embassy move, their reservations appear not to have been decisive.”

Goldie Poll is the social media and marketing assistant at Jewish Currents.

Jacob Plitman is associate editor of Jewish Currents.

Jacob Plitman was the publisher of Jewish Currents from 2017-2022, during which time he stewarded the relaunch of the magazine.