Netanyahu Rejects Minister's 'Hurtful' Claim Reform Jews Can't Be Called Jews

Prime Minister summons ultra-Orthodox religious affairs minister following remarks, says they do not reflect position of government and that 'Israel is home to all Jews.'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on June 28, 2015
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on June 28, 2015. Alex Kolomoisky

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently rejected Tuesday a statement made by Israel's religious affairs minister about Reform Jews not being Jewish, calling them "hurtful" and saying they "do not reflect the position of the government."

Netanyahu said he spoke with Religious Services Minister David Azoulay (Shas) "to remind him that Israel is a home for all Jews and that as Minister of Religious Affairs, he serves all of Israel’s citizens.”

Azoulay caused a storm Tuesday after telling Israel's Army Radio that "there's a problem" with Reform Jews: "As soon as a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel […] I can't allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew."

Azoulay claimed that Reform Jews "are Jews that erred along the way" and said he would willing to accept them "with love" should they chose to return to the "Jewish fold."

His comments came after an Israeli cabinet decision to reverse an initiative aimed at easing the conversion process to Judaism. It marked a blow to the previous government's attempts to break the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel and make Judaism more inclusive.

Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay (left) and former Kadima MK Akram Hasson, February 18, 2015
Gil Eliahu

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, also responded to Azoulay's remarks, saying that "It would be one thing if Minister Azoulay’s ignorant and myopic views of Reform Judaism were nothing more than this his own semi-coherent ramblings. The real danger is that he now sits at the Cabinet Table, and is in a position to turn those views into governmental policy."

Jacobs commended Netanyahu's response, but added that the Union is noting that "the time may well come soon when he [Netanyahu] is forced to make clear that Minister Azoulay has forfeited his right to be a member of the government."

Jay Ruderman, an Israeli-based philanthropist active in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, also praised Netanyahu's remarks. 
"Prime Minister Netanyahu took an important step distancing his government from Minister Azoulay's inflammatory comments about Reform Jews," he said. "The prime minister understands the potential disastrous impact this statement can have on Israel's relationship with the United States based on the strength of Reform Jews in America."
 

This isn't the first time that the minister has caused offense in the Reform community. Azoulay, was quoted last month in the Hebrew-language daily Israel Hayom as calling the Reform movement “a disaster for the nation of Israel.”

At that time, the Reform movement urged Netanyahu to disown Azoulay's comments and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said that “If Azoulay cannot function as minister for all the citizens of Israel, then he should resign."