Israel Tells Reform Jews: You’re Not Really Jewish, but Your Money Is Just Jewish Enough

Israel’s growing alienation with Diaspora Jewry is further proof of its desire to build a wall that separates it from everyone else.

Reform and Conservative Jews.
Illustration by Ruth Gvili

Another week, and yet another Israeli politician has managed to outrage American Jewry.

In what seems to have become a favorite pastime for Israel’s political echelons, Minister of Religious Affairs (and Shas MK) David Azoulay became the latest official to alienate some of Israel’s biggest supporters, this time by saying Reform Jews cannot be considered Jewish.

“Let’s just say there’s a problem,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, before adding “I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.”

Ironically, the exchange began with Azoulay saying he did not wish to determine who is or is not a Jew. That is, before he casually excommunicated 35 percent of American Jews — the single biggest Jewish denomination in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center — in the blink of an eye.

Azoulay’s comments sparked international outrage. The Anti-Defamation League slammed his “demeaning and hateful comments.” In Israel, he was denounced by religious freedom advocates and both sides of the political spectrum. Minister of Education and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennet rebuked him, saying “every Jew, whether he is Conservative, Reform, ultra-Orthodox or secular, is Jewish.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly admonished him, saying Azoulay’s views “do not reflect the position of the government” and clarifying that Israel “is home to all Jews.”

Tomer Appelbaum

Eventually, Azoulay was forced to apologize. Conspicuously, he did so without apologizing at all. Speaking from the Knesset podium, Azoulay claimed his words were “taken out of context” and “used by those with vested interests to increase divisions within the people of Israel.” Having said that, Azoulay added that Reform Jews are still “sinners,” and that Reform Judaism “bears responsibility for the greatest danger facing the Jewish people - assimilation.”

Reform Jews, understandably, weren’t impressed with Azoulay’s apology. In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, the leader of Israel’s Reform Judaism movement, Gilad Kariv, said he does not believe Azoulay’s expression of contrition. “I believe the Azoulay of yesterday,” he said.

As well he should. Azoulay’s words were no gaffe, but a clear elucidation of Israel’s policies. Azoulay’s statements accurately depict the true attitude of Israel’s religious and political establishments towards Reform Judaism, and indeed every brand of non-Orthodox Jewish faith.

They also reflect three of the defining aspects of Israel’s national character nowadays: its self-proclaimed monopoly on Judaism and Jewish identity, its growing affinity for isolationism, and the enormous hypocrisy with which it treats Jews aborad.

Reform Jews: victims of Israel’s theocracy

Last month, before he made international headlines, Azoulay made another inflammatory remark against Reform Jews. “They are a disaster,” he said in an interview with Israel Hayom. He added: “I don’t want to be the first man in the history of the People of Israel to legally recognize Reform Jews.” As of 2013, according to a report by The Israel Democracy Institute, Reform and Conservative Jews account for nearly 8 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Yet despite being roughly the same size as Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community (currently around 9 percent), Reform and Conservative Jews do not enjoy full religious recognition and are banned by the Chief Rabbinate.

That is because while Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom of religion, Israel is in effect a theocracy, where religious establishments, chiefly the Orthodox rabbinate, have absolute control over ceremonies such as marriage and burials. Only one brand of Jewish faith is in fact recognized by the state.

In Israel, the rabbinate, largely controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, has an absolute monopoly on Jewish matters, particularly those involving personal status. Non-Orthodox streams are deprived of having any real power over religious affairs. If a Reform or Conservative or secular Jew in Israel wants to get married, that person must do so with an Orthodox rabbi — or the marriage will not be recognized, unless the marriage is conducted abroad. Jewish burial, likewise, is placed exclusively in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox Chevra Kadisha burial society. Those seeking a non-Orthodox or secular burial must make do with the small cemeteries in Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim, where civic burial is allowed, but is also very expensive.

This status quo, in existence since the founding of Israel, has given enormous political and financial powers to whoever controls the state’s religious institutions, predominantly, the ultra-Orthodox parties. It has also given prominence to a very narrow definition of what constitutes a Jew.

In Israel, anyone who isn’t an Orthodox Jew (or at least agrees to adhere to Orthodox customs) is a second-class citizen in certain respects. In that regard, Reform Jews are victims of Israel’s theocracy, and are in the same boat as secular people, Jewish-Muslim couples who intermarry, and same-sex couples.

In recent years, the relationship between Israel and the Reform movement has been especially tumultuous.

Azoulay is not the first Israeli politician to disparage Reform Jews. In fact, disparaging Reform Jews has become something of a national sport among right-wing and ultra-Orthodox politicians, and an occasional derogatory. In February 2014, Israel Beitenu MK David Rotem said Reform Judaism is “another religion” and that Reform Jews “are not Jews.”

This week, shortly after Azoulay’s outburst, Haredi MK Moshe Gafni rushed to his defense and said: “Reform and Conservative Jews are Jewish, no doubt, but they also stab the holy Torah in the back.”

Incitement inevitably leads to an atmosphere of hatred. In January 2014, a Reform synagogue was vandalized in Ra’anana, part of a wave of vandalism against the city’s Reform establishments. The vandals defaced the synagogue’s walls with graffiti. Among the slogans sprayed: “Non-believers”.

Who gave Israel the monopoly on Jewish identity?

What made Azoulay believe he had the authority to excommunicate Reform Jews? Part of it has to do with the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religion in Israel, affirmed recently thanks to Shas rejoining Netanyahu’s cabinet, but part of it has to with something else: The assumption, articulated by Israeli officials in the past, that Israel is the center of the Jewish world. It is the same kind of arrogance that led Benjamin Netanyahu, following January’s terror attacks in Paris, to call upon all French Jews to emigrate to Israel, believing that a Jew who has not made aliyah is a Jew unfulfilled.

At the center of it all, there’s a huge, gaping hypocrisy, that is egregious in the state’s treatment of Reform Jews. While Israel excludes, disparages and mocks its Reform Jews, it is also dependent on the contributions and political support of Reform Jews abroad. Non-Orthodox Jews comprise most of America’s Jewish population; without their financial and political support, where would Israel be?

Essentially, Israel sends Reform Jews a conflicting message: You are not Jewish enough for Israel. But your money is Jewish enough for you to support us from abroad.

Sometimes, though, politicians get confused and inadvertently reveal this duplicity. In 2014, for instance, MK Shimon Ohayon of Israel Beitenu called Reform Jews a “bag of trouble.” He went on to say: “My message to Reform Jews is: Calm down. You don’t bring a very good dowry, only a bag of trouble, of assimilation, of disregarding Jewish education Reform Jews say: ‘We donate a lot of money to Israel.’ And I say to them: ‘Calm down. How much do you contribute? $400-500 million a year? Half of that stays in the U.S. anyway.”

Israeli politicians never truly excelled in respecting other religions, but they used to at least be respectful toward other forms of Jewish faith (even if they did nothing to make Israel’s religious establishment more inclusive), especially those of Israel’s most important allies. This, however, is rapidly changing. Israel’s hostility toward everything that doesn’t correspond with its version of things has finally been turned against Jews who support the country.

Israel’s growing alienation with Diaspora Jewry reflects not only its religious conservatism and its hypocrisy, but also its growing isolationism — its withdrawal into political and religious narrow-mindedness and its tendency to build walls within walls within walls. And this, perhaps, is the most disheartening aspect of this story. If you only make friends with people who look like you, talk like you and pray like you, eventually you’ll be left with no friends at all.