Spitting in the Face of Reform Jews Comes at a Price

The reason American Jews are still willing to listen to Netanyahu is their deep Jewish identity. So how can he tolerate a minister who verbally excommunicates them from the Jewish faith?

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Marchers at the Celebrate Israel Parade, in New York City, May 31, 2015.
Marchers at the Celebrate Israel Parade, in New York City, May 31, 2015. Credit: Reuters

I’m not quite sure how to break the news to my parents that our family isn’t Jewish after all.

I’ve now lived for decades in Israel, having been drawn there by the connection and education I received in the United States at the Reform synagogue in our little town in Rhode Island where my dad served as president. It was the Reform movement behind the youth groups, the camps, the Hebrew school and the Bat Mitzvah, all of which created the sense of Jewish identity that led me to spend my junior year in Israel, and eventually, to marry an Israeli and emigrate to Israel permanently. My brother did the same – two out my parent’s three kids.

My parents made being Jewish a central component of our identity, as well as caring about the Jewish state because it is part of theirs. They are still deeply involved in their Reform synagogue, as well as the wider Jewish community – including involvement in Israel advocacy (the AIPAC “action alerts” arrive in the mail). They openly agonize, along with the rest of liberal Jews, over the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship under the Obama administration. While they have supported Obama on so many liberal domestic issues, they are concerned about what has happened in the Middle East during his tenure and wonder whether a different U.S. president might have been better for Israel. They are upset about BDS and the alienation of young American Jews from Israel. Most of all, they worry greatly about the Iran deal. In short, they are exactly the kind of American Jews that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC would want to call and write their congressmen and senators and lobby against the deal should it come to a congressional vote (and whom he quietly hopes will vote for a Republican in the 2016 presidential election.)

So as an Israeli, it was embarrassing – and a little horrifying – to be in the U.S. on a visit and be the one to inform them that for the religious affairs minister of the State of Israel, David Azoulay, none of the above counts. I had to tell my deeply Jewish parents that Azoulay was able to state that “I can't allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew," when asked about Reform Jews and that "these are Jews that erred along the way, and we must ensure that every Jew comes back into the fold of Judaism, and accept everyone happily and with love" without any real fear of serious repercussions. These remarks came on the heels of a report last month that the same Shas party government minister called the Reform movement “a disaster for the nation of Israel.”

He paints a picture in which my parents’ lives and my upbringing were an utter sham – all of this learning, Torah and peoplehood business, the thousands of hours and thousands of dollars my parents invested in inculcating their family with Jewish knowledge, culture, values, spirituality and attachment to Israel. For the minister charged with religion in the government of the state they’ve supported all their lives, they are out of the fold. The Shas minister would presumably have preferred it that they had not been a part of this “disaster” – that they had not joined the only synagogue in their town and participated in and helped build Jewish life there. Presumably, if it were up to him, that synagogue wouldn’t have existed, we would have peacefully stopped being Jewish and assimilated with the Christian majority, and they wouldn’t have ended up with three kids who are committed Jews, two of whom are living in Israel.

To his credit, Prime Minister Netanyahu paid some measure of attention to the angry protests of Reform Jewish leaders, condemning Azoulay’s words as "hurtful" and saying they "do not reflect the position of the government.” This was after he remained silent on the issue following the “disaster” remarks.

There was a parallel occurrence of offense-and-apology this week at the Western Wall involving ultra-Orthodox religious officials and non-Orthodox Jews. An American woman was physically prevented from praying at the Wall because she was visibly a non-Orthodox Jew, and thus viewed as suspicious. A Conservative movement yeshiva student, the woman was wearing a kippa when she tried to enter the Western Wall plaza and was reportedly turned away. She was prevented by security guards from entering the area, and after refusing to accompany a guard to the nearby police station, was escorted under guard outside the plaza. The chief rabbi of the Wall offered a lame “blame the victim” apology afterwards, saying that he regretted an “atmosphere of suspicion and distrust” at the Kotel as a result “of the struggles of Women of the Wall; an atmosphere that is harming many worshippers.”

Netanyahu’s rap on the knuckles now appears to be triggering some grudging admissions on the part of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners that my parents and I, do in fact, count as Jews, albeit sinful ones who are destroying the religion. Not very comforting and not likely to heal the wounds of the initial insult.

If Netanyahu views these religious wars as some kind of a pesky sideshow, irrelevant to the matters he considers deeply important, like fighting a nuclear Iran and BDS, he is gravely mistaken.

He would do well to remember that Israel’s core supporters in the United States – American Jews – are still willing to listen to what Netanyahu has to say, despite his terrible relationship with their president and the Democratic party, because they feel their Jewishness so deeply. They are still standing as Jews, unlike many of their assimilated neighbors who don’t even belong to a Reform synagogue and are at best indifferent to Israel’s case, if not hostile.

If Israel’s prime minister continues to tolerate ministers representing a key member of his coalition spitting in their face on a regular basis, verbally excommunicating them from the Jewish faith that they hold so dear and so central to their identity, American Jews like my parents won’t be there when he needs them, either.

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