Fed Up With Critics, Netanyahu Opens Back Channel to Undermine U.S. Reform, Conservative Leaders

Foreign Ministry flies in 20 rabbis – including well-known critics of current leadership – in move said to be masterminded by ambassador in Washington, a close confidant of the prime minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. Criticism of the move by Reform and Conservative leaders angered the Israeli government.
RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS

In an effort to resolve the crisis with Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States, the Israeli government is bypassing the movements’ leaders and reaching out directly to congregational rabbis viewed as less critical of its policies.

Last week, a delegation of 20 congregational rabbis – most of them non-Orthodox – met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to discuss ways of mending relations, which have come under unprecedented strain in recent years.

The mission was organized with the help of Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, with the Foreign Ministry covering most of the costs. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements were not invited or involved in its planning.

The decision to open new channels of dialogue with Reform and Conservative rabbis was prompted by recent statements from leaders of the movements that annoyed the government, Haaretz has learned. One prominent example was the Reform movement’s unenthusiastic response to President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“This whole thing came about through a conversation I had with Dermer,” explained Stuart Weinblatt, the senior rabbi of B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative congregation in Potomac, Maryland. “I guess there was some level of frustration with some of the existing leadership, where channels of communication had not been positive or constructive. The desire was to try to find means to work directly with a broad cross section of rabbis from different movements to discuss and find ways to narrow the gap and try to bridge the rift between American Jewry and Israel.”

“I made clear,” Weinblatt continued, “that I wanted people who would be interested in both listening and speaking, and working in a constructive fashion to be productive and not just critical.”

Weinblatt, who also serves as president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that Dermer planned to hold a follow-up meeting with delegation members “within a month or so,” and that Netanyahu had also expressed interest in continuing the dialogue.

The most prominent delegation member was Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi of Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Reform movement’s current leadership.

“Our movement is too narrowly focused on politics and religious pluralism, and not focused enough on what’s going to make or break our movement in Israel,” he said. “All the attention is being sucked into narrow political issues – including the Kotel,” he said, referring to the impasse between the government and liberal Jews over an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Rather than issuing statements that question the embassy move or criticize Israel’s military actions in Gaza, Hirsch said, “we should be rolling up our sleeves and raising millions of dollars so that we can build institutions and create an authentic and organic movement in Israel.”

Other delegation members included Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and senior rabbi at Mount Sinai in Brooklyn, an independent egalitarian congregation; Jeremy Barras, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, a Reform congregation in Miami; and Yael Splansky, senior rabbi at Holy Blossom, a Reform congregation in Toronto.

The delegation participants spent four days in Israel. In addition to meeting Netanyahu, they also held discussions with Michael Oren, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, and with opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

Asked why the delegation had been invited to Israel and whether it was an attempt by Netanyahu (who also serves as foreign minister) to divide and rule, the head of the Jewish Diaspora desk at the Foreign Ministry, Akiva Tor, said: “We host delegations of rabbinic leadership often and on an ongoing basis, as part of our engagement with North American Jewry. In this program, as in others, we do not attempt to avoid the difficult issues that divide us. Our approach is to achieve greater mutual understanding and a conversation of respect that will enable Israel and rabbis of all denominations to work together to strengthen the welfare and identity of the Jewish people.”

Responding to a question over how he felt about this apparent attempt to circumvent the non-Orthodox movement leaders, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said: “The Reform Movement in North America and worldwide is united in its expectation of the Israeli government to promote religious equality around marriage and divorce, public funding and recognition of the Israeli religious streams, and the issue of the Western Wall. We’ve always welcomed any dialogue with the Israeli government with our rabbis and leaders that will strengthen the bonds between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

“We hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu will understand his responsibility to renew a sincere, honest and meaningful dialogue with the leadership of the movement. We did not and would not break off respectful discussions with the leadership of the Israeli government. It was the prime minister who broke his promises to provide government funding for our congregations in Israel, to fund mikvehs [ritual baths] for the streams, reneged on the Western Wall compromise agreement, and has done nothing to stop the vicious incitement against our movement. This moment of division must be overcome through courageous leadership. We’ve always done our part, and we expect nothing less from the prime minister.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he was certain congregational rabbis from his movement who participated in the delegation “were 100 percent on message about the issues we care about.

“There is no daylight between my colleagues in the field and those in leadership,” he added.

When asked how he viewed the decision by the Israeli government to open up this alternative channel of communication, Wernick responded: “Nothing surprises me anymore.”