Israel's Chief Rabbi Slams Bennett for Visiting Conservative Jewish School in U.S.

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Chief Rabbi David Lau in his Modi'in home. June 27, 2013. The smiling rabbi stands in front of his library of Judaica.
Chief Rabbi David Lau. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau has criticized a visit that Education Minister Naftali Bennett made this week to a Jewish school in the United States that is affiliated with Conservative Judaism. In a radio interview, Lau called the visit by Bennett, who is also Diaspora affairs minister, “unacceptable to ‘klal yisrael,’” using the Hebrew term meaning the Jewish people as a whole.

On a visit to New York this week, Bennett, who is the leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, whose core constituency is members of the national religious Orthodox community, posted a video clip on Twitter showing the reception that he received at the school. The post was captioned as follows: “A meeting with students at the wonderful Solomon Schechter Conservative school in New York. How they love [Israel]. How they love Judaism.” The tweet prompted several angry tweets and negative comments on ultra-Orthodox news websites, and on Wednesday, Chief Rabbi Lau joined the fray.

“Of course they are Jews,” Lau said of the Conservative Jews with whom Bennett met, but he added that they are Jews “of the kind that should be told: ‘Gentlemen, you are down the wrong path because you will lose your children. Your children will assimilate.’”

It was permissible, Rabbi Lau said, to meet people in a more “general” location in which one would not question whether the members of the audience observed Jewish tradition more or less, “but when you give certain recognition to a certain audience? Reallly if that is an audience that is distancing itself from ‘klal yisrael,’ I don’t at all understand how one can assume that this is possible,” said Lau, speaking on the ultra-Orthodox station, Radio Kol Hai.

One should not, Lau said, “go to a place that explicitly belongs to groups that you know don’t respect klal yisrael. I say this clearly.” Lau suggested asking Bennett if he consulted with a rabbi before making the visit, adding that he feared “that he had not consulted with a rabbi, since this conduct is certainly not conduct that is accepted by klal yisrael.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also Minister for Diaspora Affairs.Credit: AP

In response, Bennett’s office released a statement saying: “Minister Bennett believes that public leaders in Israel need to bring Jews closer and not alienate them, and he views comments that alienate rather than bringing people closer with major concern. We are in an emergency situation for Jews of the Diaspora, with assimilation affecting millions of Jews. As the minister in the Israeli government responsible for the Diaspora, Bennett is proud of the fact that addressing [the needs] of Jews of every kind and will continue to meet with all Jews of every stream.”

In July, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party went so far as stating that a Reform Jew who fails to follow Jewish tradition ”is, let’s say, a problem. I can’t permit myself to say he is a Jew.” Following those comments, Bennett responded that “every Jew, whether he is Conservative, Reform, ultra-Orthodox or secular, is Jewish.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly admonished Azoulay, saying that his views “do not reflect the position of the government” and stating that Israel “is home to all Jews.” On a visit to the United States a month ago, the prime minister promised to strengthen ties between the state and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad.