U.S. Reform Jews Give Cold Shoulder to Israeli Minister Over Disparaging Comments

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Minister Yariv Levin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

After Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called U.S. Reform Jews a "waning world" that was rife with assimilation, the movement fired back, with a planned meeting between the minister and representatives of the community reportedly being canceled.

Head of the Israel's Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism Rabbi Gilad Kariv called on his fellow Reform Jews not to cooperate with the minister, and according to a report in Israel's Army Radio, his U.S. counterpart Rabbi Rick Jacobs has accepted the call.

Reform movement President Rabbi Rick Jacobs addresses the group’s Biennial in Orlando, Florida, November 4, 2015.Credit: Courtesy URJ

"As long as he (Levin) doesn’t think that Diaspora Jews have no 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," Jacobs, who is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Army Radio on Thursday.

Levin made the polarizing comments during a government meeting last week on the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

"Minister Levin will not teach us what support for Israel is," Jacobs, whose organization represents up to 1.5 million congregants, told Army Radio.

The report called Jacobs reluctance to meet Levin a "precedent" in Israel's relations with world Jewry, and said that in wake of Kariv's call, a meeting planned for next week by the Foreign Ministry between Levin and a group of Reform Jews in the U.S. was canceled.

In his letter, Rabbi Kariv said that Levin has every right to voice his disagreement with Reform Jews and Judaism, regardless of how "embarrassing or ignorant" they may appear to be. However, Kariv said, Levin did not criticize the movement's actions, but rather the very right of U.S. Jewry to voice their opinion about Israel.

"This requires a clear and firm response [Levin] cannot expect Jewish communities and organizations in the Diaspora to give him and his opinions a platform... Therefore I call on you to announce that, until Minister Levin backtracks from his statements regarding the role of world Jewry in the debate regarding the Western Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency avoid giving him a platform in their activities and operations."

In response, Levin said that it was "upsetting that at a time that 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," added Levin. "I will continue to say things clearly and work decisive to block this serious phenomena."

A source close to Levin who was quoted in the report seemed to insinuate that Kariv's criticism was partisan in nature, noting that Kariv was also a member of the Labor party, currently in opposition, and even vied for a spot in the Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced Levin's comments shortly after they were made, saying "Reform and Conservative Jews are part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect."

In a statement, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the umbrella organization for Reform rabbis in the U.S., also rebuffed Levin's criticism last week, citing the organization's commitment to Israel and its upcoming annual convention as a demonstration that his remarks "could not be further from the truth."