Netanyahu Named Minister Who 'Slandered' American Jews, Reform and Conservative Leaders Charge

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Minister Yariv Levin attending the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, October 21, 2018.
Minister Yariv Levin attending the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, October 21, 2018.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have ordered Tourism Minister Yariv Levin to apologize for slandering non-Orthodox Jews before handing him the immigrant absorption portfolio, the leader of Israel’s Reform movement said Monday. 

The Immigrant Absorption Ministry “is one of the key government offices when it comes to the Israel-Diaspora relationship. It is regrettable that it is being put in the hands of a minister who never seems to miss an opportunity to lash out at the non-Orthodox movements and increase tensions with Diaspora Jewry,” said Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism CEO Rabbi Gilad Kariv in a statement.

Kariv said Netanyahu should have forced Levin to “apologize for his slander” in the past and “declare that he respects all streams of Judaism and intends to work with them in full cooperation,” before being allowed to head the ministry. The appointment was announced late Sunday night

Netanyahu’s choice of minister also evoked a sarcasm-laced condemnation from Rabbi Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel.

“Of all the ministers in the government (who aren’t ultra-Orthodox), the only one who is really considered persona non grata in North America – really – is Yariv Levin. His comments on the non-Orthodox movements in the past even merited condemnation from the prime minister himself. So clearly, it was the natural move to make: Appointing him immigrant absorption minister.”

Over the past two years Levin has had an icy relationship with the Reform movement – which represents more than 1 million members of the Jewish Diaspora – while serving as tourism minister (a role he will continue to perform going forward). 

The bad blood between Levin and the Reform movement was triggered in January 2016 when the Likud lawmaker slammed American Reform Jews for being too accepting of intermarriage. The comments came during a government hearing in the heat of negotiations over the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.  

Levin focused on the wedding of Chelsea Clinton (the daughter of President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton) to a Jewish man, in a ceremony officiated both by a Reform rabbi and a Christian minister. He pointed to it as an example of the movement’s acceptance of assimilation. 

Resolving the dispute over non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall was not important, he argued,  since he believed Reform Jews will disappear within a few generations. 

"The Reform Jews in the United States are a waning world," Levin said at the time. "The assimilation there is of an enormous extent. They don't even properly track [the assimilation] inside their communities. The evidence is that a man who calls himself a Reform rabbi is standing there with a priest and weds Hillary Clinton's daughter, and no one condemns it – thereby legitimizing it."  

Kariv had called on his colleagues not to cooperate with Levin, calling his words "embarrassing” and “ignorant."

Kariv said in a letter at the time that he wanted “the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency [to] avoid giving [Levin] a platform in their activities and operations," until the minister “backtracks from his statements regarding the role of World Jewry in the debate regarding the Western Wall.”

Shortly afterward, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs canceled a scheduled meeting between Levin and a group of Reform Jews in America. He explained in an interview that "as long as Levin doesn’t think Diaspora Jews have [the] right to voice opinions on matters such as the Kotel, there's no reason to give him a platform in Jewish communities and organizations in the United States."

In February 2016, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis called on Israeli and American Jews to “stand against” Levin, noting that while Levin was entitled to his private beliefs, “as a minister in the government of all Israel he has an obligation to support the religious practice of all Israelis. His remarks on the supposed waning presence of U.S. Reform Jews reveal a bias against a religious movement that includes over a million and a half people.”

Levin then fired back at his critics, accusing them of launching a “boycott” against him. He said it was "upsetting that at a time when [Israel is] fighting to explain to the world why a boycott is an illegitimate [political] tool, a representative of Reform Judaism would take the unacceptable route of boycott.

Neither Kariv nor Jacobs used the word "boycott" in their statements.

"We cannot ignore the harsh reality of increasing assimilation," Levin added. "I will continue to say things clearly and work decisively to block this serious phenomena."

Two years on, Levin has never backtracked or apologized for his remarks. 

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