Head of Conservative Judaism Movement Compares Israel's Religious Authorities to Iran and Saudi Arabia

'Israel is losing its soul and weakening its democracy and Jewish character,' Rabbi Steven Wernick says

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before the Knesset plenum approved on Thursday the Basic Law on Nationality
Olivier Fitoussi

Leading Jewish groups in the United States offered blistering criticism on Thursday over two developments that made headlines in Israel: the police questioning of a Conservative rabbi in Haifa for officiating a non-Orthodox wedding, and the Knesset's passage of the nation-state law, which, among other things, downgraded the status of the Arabic language in Israel. 

The combination of the two events happening on the same day created a sense of crisis and despair among liberal Zionists in the United States. This sense was expressed in the strongest terms by Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization of the Conservative movement in North America. 

"After my colleague in Haifa is pulled out of bed, arrested and summoned back for officiating at a non-Orthodox wedding and the passage of the nation-state law, I do not believe we can talk about a 'gap' between Israel and the Diaspora," Wernick wrote in a letter to the Israeli government. "It is now a 'canyon.'"

"These are the actions of Iran and Saudi Arabia," Wernick wrote, a rare choice of words for the leader of a movement which overall is considered very supportive of Israel.  "What's next," he asked."Will the police enforce the Rabbinate's modesty rules? Kashrut rules? Shabbat rules?" Wernick also addressed the passage of the nation-state law by asking: "If you are an Israeli Arab today, you certainly are feeling deligitimized as a citizen of the State. For what gain?"

Wernick added that "Israel is losing its soul and weakening its democracy and Jewish character. It's beacon of light on the nations is now dim. Even I am having difficulty seeing it." 

Hours after he sent the letter, Wernick wrote on Facebook that while the Iran and Saudi Arabia comparison was made "at the height of emotion," he believes that "the risk of theocracy in Israel is not just hyperbole." He also commended Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for hosting Rabbi Hayun at an event marking the fast day of Tisha B'Av at the president's official residence. 

The American Jewish Committee, which earlier this week expressed support for Israel's reaction to Hamas' rocket launchings from Gaza, also expressed concern over the incident in which Rabbi Dubi Hayun was brought for questioning. "We are deeply concerned by reports that Conservative Rabbi Dubi Hayun was brought in for questioning after conducting a wedding in Israel," the organization stated. "Rabbi Hayun is a longtime friend of AJC and recipient of the 2017 AJC Unity Award."

The organization also put out a statement against the nation-state law, stating that it was "deeply disappointed" over its passage. According to AJC, "two elements of this new Basic Law put at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic: First, the measure downgrades Arabic from its longstanding status as one of Israel’s official languages to one that has 'special status.'” 

"Second, the clause in the bill saying 'the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation' could be read as a euphemism for the originally proposed endorsement of support for Jewish-only communities in Israel."

The Anti-Defamation League came out against the controversial law  as well, stating that "While there are provisions that we agree with - notably with regard to state symbols like the anthem, flag and capital Jerusalem; as well as in reaffirming that the State of Israel is open to Jewish immigration - we are troubled by the fact that the law, which celebrates the fundamental Jewish nature of the state, raises significant questions about the government’s long-term commitment to its pluralistic identity and democratic nature."

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, stated that " this is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous."

He added that "it is regrettable that the government of Israel has been unresponsive to the voices of protest from Israel and world Jewry that are rooted in love for Israel, Zionism and respect for the Jewish and democratic state envisioned by Israel’s founders."