Israel’s new Diaspora affairs minister, Nachman Shai, pledged on Wednesday that full equality for all Jewish denominations would be a cornerstone of his policy.
Speaking at a portfolio handover ceremony in Jerusalem, Shai said he planned to partner with Gilad Kariv – the first Reform rabbi to sit in the Knesset and a fellow Labor party member – “in these efforts to bring everyone into this big tent of ours.
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“It can include, and should include, everyone,” he added.
Shai, 74, served in the Knesset for 10 years, both with Labor and with the now-defunct centrist Kadima party. Much of his committee work in the Knesset was focused on improving Israel’s ties with Jewish communities around the world, especially those in North America. Shai resigned from the Knesset two years ago and has spent the interim period teaching courses on Israel at several universities in the United States. He was not on Labor’s election slate in the last election, but was brought in specifically to fill this ministerial role by party Chairwoman Merav Michaeli.
Shai takes over from Omer Yankelevich, from the centrist Kahol Lavan party, who held the position for the past 15 months. She was the first ultra-Orthodox woman to serve as a government minister. Because of her close ties to the settler movement, which became increasingly apparent over the past year, she was not well regarded in center-left circles.
Shai said he saw recognition of all Jewish denominations as part of the broader struggle for greater equality in Israel that the Labor party champions. “That is our message – greater equality between men and women, greater equality between the center and the periphery of the country, greater equality between Jews and Arabs, and in this specific case, greater equality for all Jews in all places, and for all the denominations and communities,” he said.
Israel does not officially recognize any Jewish denominations besides Orthodoxy.
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Shai warned of a growing rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, putting part of the blame on Israel’s religious policies, which have alienated many non-Orthodox Jews. “Jewish communities around the world are distancing themselves from Israel and finding it increasingly difficult to understand our actions and the changes in our values,” he said.
“Issues like [prayer at the] Kotel and conversions have pushed away many, and the crisis is deep,” he added. Shai was referring to the Israeli government’s ongoing refusal to accommodate demands by the Reform and Conservative movements to provide them with an upgraded space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and to recognize conversions performed by their rabbis.
Shai lamented that most Israelis “don’t understand how important the bridge to the Jewish world is.”
“It is a valuable strategic asset that any country would be delighted to have, and it is a key component of our national security,” he said, promising to do “everything possible” to strengthen it.
Before entering politics, Shai served as chief spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. He became well-known during the Gulf War, when he would appear on television urging Israelis to “drink water” to help them calm down after Iraqi scud missile attacks.