Israeli Lawmakers From Right and Left Vow to Back Reform and Conservative Jews in Struggle for Equal Status

In aftermath of Pittsburgh massacre, movements demand full recognition in Israel

Former Rabbi at Tree of Life Synagogue, Rabbi Chuck Diamond, second from left, prepares to lead a Shabbat morning service outside the synagogue, Pittsburgh, November 3, 2018.
Gene J. Puskar,AP

Setting aside their political differences for a few short hours, Israeli lawmakers came out in unusually large numbers on Wednesday to express their support for the non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

The rare show of unity came a little more than a week after a Pittsburgh synagogue that housed both Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations was targeted in the deadliest attack ever carried out against Jews in the United States.

>> Analysis: American Jews may never forgive Israel for its reaction to the Pittsburgh massacre

The Knesset members stopped short, however, of issuing a formal declaration calling on the government to recognize the non-Orthodox movements. Neither did they move to initiate legislation that would change the religious status quo in the country, as one opposition lawmaker in attendance proposed. 

Lawmakers from parties as far right as Yisrael Beiteinu, which draws most of its support from Israel’s Russian-speaking community, and as far left as the Communist party (Hadash), which is now part of the Joint Arab list, participated in the emergency parliamentary session titled “It’s Time for Equality.” 

Nearly 20 Knesset members, an impressive number for such an event, addressed the forum, among them leaders of two opposition parties: Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Tamar Zandberg (Meretz). Two members of the ruling Likud were also in attendance. No representatives, however, of the Orthodox, settler-aligned Habayit Hayehudi or the ultra-Orthodox parties showed up.

Lapid was one of several speakers to point out the irony that Israel is the one country in the Western world where Jews do not enjoy total freedom of religion. “So long as women can’t pray at the Western Wall as they see fit and so long as there is no change in the conversion law, we are doing an injustice to ourselves – not to the Conservative or Reform movements – but to us as a society,” he said. “In the name of my party, I promise that we will not rest until all the streams of Judaism are recognized for divorce, for marriage, and mainly for life.”

Israel does not recognize marriages performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis, and individuals converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis cannot marry in the country. Institutions run by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel receive only a tiny fraction of the funding allotted to those under Orthodox control.

Amir Ohana, a member of Likud and the first openly gay lawmaker to represent the party, said that based on his experiences while living for a short period in the United States, “American Jews have had their share of disappointments with us.”

“But we need to join forces now,” he added, “so that finally we will be worthy of the title of the state of the Jews – the state of all Jews.”

The session was attended by dozens of Reform and Conservative rabbis, as well as lay leaders and members of youth movements affiliated with non-Orthodox Judaism. 

Nachman Shai, chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People, said that the session was convened not only because a “terrible massacre” had been carried out in Pittburgh, but because of the “fundamental issues” it raised about Israel’s relations with the Diaspora, in particular its treatment of the non-Orthodox movements, which account for the majority of Jews in the United States. 

Shai was one of six Knesset members signed on the invitation to the event. Michael Oren (Kulanu), a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, also signed the invitation but did not end up attending. 

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said that he and his cohorts did not intend to suffice with “venting” about the systematic discrimination their movements suffer in Israel. “In the coming months, we intend to draft legislation, launch campaigns in Israel and abroad and hold parlor meeting around the country,” he said, “and we hope that members of the Knesset join us in our demand for full equality and recognition.”

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said he could not recall a gathering of this kind that had brought together so many members of both the coalition and the opposition in the Knesset. “This should be a wake-up call,” he said. “And we are tired, very tired of being treated like second-class citizens. We’re not a meaningless minority any more, and we will show the members of the Knesset that it makes political sense for them to wave our flag.”

The leaders of the non-Orthodox movements were reassured by lawmakers who attended of their full backing. “The fact that Israel doesn’t recognize half the Jewish people prevents it from being what it is meant to be – the nation-state of the Jewish people and a safe haven for Jews around the world,” said Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union). “It’ll happen though. It’ll simply happen. Earlier than you think, rest assured.”

“The awful thing that happened in Pittsburgh, it broke our hearts, but it didn’t break our spirit,” she added. “And all the fear and anger, we will now channel in our struggle for full equality for all Jews.”

A proposal by Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) that the attending lawmakers sign a draft bill that would grant official recognition to the Reform and Conservative movements was rejected, however. It was clear that members of Likud and their political partners did not have the liberty to sign such a bill because of coalition agreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties. 

Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) said she was confident the non-Orthodox movements would one day be recognized in Israel, but patience was required. “Israel will recognize the streams,” she said. “It has to. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it will take time. But ultimately, revolutions don’t happen here in the Knesset. They happen first among the people.”

Zandberg lamented the fact that the Israeli government was alienating large swaths of American Jewry because of its alliances with regimes that “flirt” with anti-Semitism or have “anti-Semitism deeply embedded in them.”

“This is unacceptable for us here in Israel and for Jews around the world,” she said. “And for what? Is moving another embassy to Jerusalem – which none of us doubts for one second is the capital of Israel – worth the price of legitimizing anti-Semitism?”