Netanyahu Pledges for First Time to Invest in Reform, Conservative Communities in Israel

Speaking at the Jewish Federations of North American General Assembly, prime minister says he will ensure all Jews feel at home in Israel; Israel's ultra-Orthodox blast PM for statements.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America 2015 General Assembly, November 10, 2015, in Washington D.C.
AP Photo/Molly Riley

The government and the Jewish Agency will for the first time invest in the development of Reform and Conservative Jewish congregations in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Jewish Federations General Assembly Tuesday. “As prime minister of Israel I will ensure that all Jews – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – feel at home in Israel,” he said.

In discussing prayer at the Western Wall, which has become a source of tension between American Reform and Conservative Jews and Israel, especially the demands of Women of the Wall, Netanyahu said he would ensure that the Western Wall “is a source of unity for our people and not a source of division.”

Many in the American Reform and Conservative Jewish communities are disturbed by Israel’s attitude toward Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel. Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay (Shas) angered American Jewish organizations a few months ago when he said Reform Jews “are not Jews.” Netanyahu rebuked Azoulay and wrote an official letter to American Jewish organizations stating that Azoulay’s statements did not reflect government policy.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel welcomed Netanyahu’s statement saying it “has to be the first step on the way to ending ongoing discrimination against Reform and Conservative communities in Israel.” Kariv added: “Discrimination against these communities, which constitute the majority of the Jewish people, damages the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and overshadows Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora. Kariv said: “The dozens of new Reform and Conservative congregations throughout Israel prove that the Israeli public believes there is more than one way to be Jewish, and we are pleased that this recognition has slowly permeated the government in Israel.”

Netanyahu also told the Jewish Federation General Assembly delegates that Israeli democracy is strong and as proof he presented passionate debates in the Knesset and critical articles in the newspaper. He also said Israeli democracy manifested itself in the attitude toward the Christian community in Israel, tolerance in Tel Aviv toward the LGBT community, and the fact that an Arab child could grow up to become a Supreme Court justice.

In his speech Netanyahu once again praised President Barack Obama for his support and security assistance to Israel. “No matter the disagreements: Israel has no better friend than America,” Netanyahu said, adding that the important thing was that Obama was committed to preserving Israel’s military qualitative edge so it can defend itself.

Netanyahu said the reason there was no peace with the Palestinians “is not because of the settlements or the territories captured by Israel," but rather because “the Palestinians refuse to recognize the Jewish state in any boundary.”

Netanyahu said he remained committed to "a vision of two states for two peoples in the hope that what isn't achievable today will be achievable in the future."

Uproar in ultra-Orthodox parties

Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties responded to Netanyahu's statements with an uproar.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) said Netanyahu’s statements go against promises he had made to Litzman’s party. “The prime minister’s remarks in favor of the Reform [Jews] insult us and clearly go against the coalition agreement signed with us.” Litzman said Reform and Conservative Judaism “tears apart the Jewish people and they must not be helped to hurt the Torah of Israel. It is a pity that the prime minister gave them expression and we will to everything we can so that this commitment is not met.”

MK Moshe Gafni, also of United Torah Judaism, added that Reform Jews “stick a knife in the Torah of Israel. What Netanyahu said is very serious and requires clarifications when he returns to Israel.”

Shas chairman MK Yoav Ben-Tzur said: “loyal Judaism” was “utterly opposed” to the Reform movement and would not change.