The human rights rabbi taking on Trump

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, director of T'ruah - the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights - will be making the last of her Limmud appearances tomorrow in a panel discussion on the exclusion and inclusion of women in Jewish life


While several major American Jewish organisations dutifully welcomed President Trump’s official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last week, there were voices of dissent.

The head of one group decried it as “a symbolic gesture that serves no useful purpose” and a move to “appease those on the far-right who have no interest in finding a path toward peace”. It is not the only time Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah — the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has found herself at odds with the American president.

In October, T’ruah erected a succah outside Trump Tower, headquarters of the Trump Organisation, in Manhattan, to protest against his ban on Muslims from a number of countries entering the USA. In an earlier T’ruah demonstration at the same place, 20 rabbis were arrested.

The author of two books on Judaism and justice, Rabbi Jacobs, who will speak at this month’s Limmud Festival in Birmingham, is one of today’s leading rabbinic social activists. An alumna of the (Conservative) Jewish Theology Seminary, at 42 she is also one of a new generation of women leaders making an impact on American Jewry.

“Every single thing we do is deeply rooted in Jewish values, Jewish law and tradition,” she says. For 2,000 years , rabbinic tradition has tried to work out how to create a criminal justice system which maintains the dignity of both accused and victims, she adds, or a workplace which respects workers and “allows people to succeed in business without stepping on the backs of other people”.

T’ruah was founded in 2002 as the American partner of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel but went solo under its new name four years ago, building up a cross-denominational constituency of 1,800 rabbis in the USA and Canada. It campaigns against trafficking and slavery, particularly in agriculture; opposes solitary confinement in prisons —“internationally recognised as a form of torture” — and supports refugees and immigrants. Its work on the last issue commands “a pretty high consensus” among American Jews, mindful of what happened to some of their relatives in Europe after the USA shut its borders in 1924.

Some 70 synagogues have joined a sanctuary network pledged to help those at risk of deportation. Immigration officials will not step foot inside places of worship, she says; “it is not the law but by custom, they don’t do that.”

If there is “a silver lining” to the election of Donald Trump, she says, “it is the political activism that I have never seen before. There are so many rabbis and synagogue members who have stepped up. The rabbi of one synagogue which didn’t even have a social action committee, which didn’t have volunteers in soup kitchens, told me they are now ready to become a sanctuary congregation, which is a very large commitment.”

While she came here to a summer LimmudFest a few years ago, this is her debut at the winter event. She delivered  two talks, on antisemitism and on religion and state viewed through the teachings of Rabbi Chaim David Halevy, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, as well as taking part in several panel discussions, including one on human rights with representatives of the controversial Israeli NGO, Breaking the Silence, and the new, radical American group If Not Now.

As her comments on Jerusalem suggest, T’ruah remains strongly behind a two-state solution. West Bank settlements violate not only international law, she says, but also Jewish law, “that has a lot to say about the theft of land and violence and putting our own people in danger”. T’ruah wants JNF’s American branch to stop funding projects in settlements, having got it to declare how much money it was spending over the Green Line.

The policies of Israel’s “most narrow, most right-wing” government, she believes, are leading to a growing rift with parts of the largest diaspora Jewish community. It is, she says, “trampling all over the foundations of Zionism and the values that Israel was built on… I don’t think it is a rift that can’t be healed. If there were a government that had a deep commitment to create a state that reflects its founding principles, we could heal it.”

Some commentators argue the Israeli government has written off the non-Orthodox in America because of assimilation and continuing numerical decline.

But against purveyors of pessimism, she believes “we are in the most creative period of American Judaism in decades. We see young people who are returning to Jewish learning in ways their parents never did, we see people — younger, older — finding their own expressions of prayer. There is an explosion of Jewish music, of Jewish art. There are large numbers of people choosing to become Jewish either through their partners or just on their own.

“A lot of times the assumption is somebody who intermarries is lost to the Jewish people, whereas what often happens is their partner comes into the Jewish people, sometimes through official conversion, sometimes through being part and parcel of the community.”

The glass is half-full, then? “It might even be three-quarters full.”

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