'Religion-hating Gangsters': Israeli Orthodox Vitriol Toward Reform Jews Escalates Amid Kotel Crisis

Comments from U.S. Orthodox leaders are mild compared to the wave of bile heaped upon Reform Jewry in Israel’s right-wing press

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An ultra-Orthodox youth at Jerusalem's Western Wall during a Women of the Wall prayer event.
An ultra-Orthodox youth at Jerusalem's Western Wall during a Women of the Wall prayer event.Credit: Emil Salman
Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman

“Inappropriate and insolent.” That’s how Rabbi Abraham Gordimer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America and the New York Bar, dubbed Reform Jewish protests against the government’s decision to freeze plans for a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall.

Rabbi Gordimer’s comments, published on the right-leaning Arutz Sheva website in English, were mild compared to the wave of bile heaped upon the followers of Reform Judaism in Israel’s right-wing Hebrew press. Readers would have been forgiven for forgetting that the government itself had approved the plan last year after four years of negotiations brokered by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.

Far-right lawmaker Betzalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) accused the Reform movement of “dragging Diaspora Jews into a fight.” He said responsibility for the crisis lay with “a small fringe group of a few dozen activists in the Israeli Reform movement. They don’t care about the right of an individual to pray according to his beliefs.”

A profile of Reform leader Rick Jacobs in Israel's Maariv daily newspaper and the NRG website portrayed him as an “extreme left,” pro-BDS “gangster” as one of the many Israelis who circulated the story on social media described him. A commentary on Channel 20 accused him of being a “selective Zionist” and creating a platform for anti-Semitic propaganda.

In its full coverage of “The Reform storm,” Arutz Sheva offered Hebrew readers a broad range of insights into just how beneath contempt the Reform movement should be held. “Their struggle at the Western Wall is against not just the establishment, but the majority of the Israeli people,” opined one contributor. A video clip was accompanied by the suggestion that “Patriots are wondering whether the Reform movement is religious or political.”

Referring to the Supreme Court’s agreement to an urgent hearing on a petition from the Reform movement about the Western Wall plan, right-wing activist Baruch Marzel tweeted: “A pointless discussion. It’s clear what the religion-haters will decide.”

Non-Orthodox Jews were depicted as outsiders with no legitimate say in what should or shouldn’t happen at the Western Wall or in Israel at large.

Lawmaker Menachem Moses, the United Torah Judaism whip, said Reform Jews should stay in America. “The Reform movement, the Conservative movement, and all the rest, be so kind and stay there in the U.S.,” he said, congratulating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on freezing the Western Wall plan. “As long as you are not here, you are not connected here, you did not go to elections, you have no representation, do not interfere, do not disturb the customs of the place.”

Anti-Reform sentiment runs deep among Israel’s Orthodox leadership. At the Haaretz conference earlier this month, lawmaker Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism explained why he could not align with left-wing parties even though he found them “more intelligent” than their counterparts on the right. “Why don’t I go with the left? Because you sit with the Reform,” he said.

Last month, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, head of Yeshivat Kashei Rachamim, compared Reform Jews to pigs in his weekly sermon. “They are not Jews,” he said.

Rabbi Michael Marmur, provost of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, said there has long been among some streams of the Orthodox movement “a long history of looking at the Reform movement as a boogey man and a tendency to blame Reform for all the heinous things in the world.”

“As we make more inroads into the conversation about what Israel should look like, there is an inflationary spiral in the rhetoric,” he said. “The vitriol you see expressed is in direct proportion to us trying to make a stand. We are wheeled out as the enemy, as traitors. The article about Rick Jacobs is a classic example. If Reform Jews and the Reform movement he represents are understood as a dagger in the back, as a fifth column, then the problem is neutralized.”

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