The head of the leading organization of Reform rabbis in North America has expressed disappointment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not responding more forcefully to attacks on the movement from members of his cabinet.
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“We would want Netanyahu to denounce people in his government who discriminate, and especially those who discriminate on a religious basis,” said Rabbi Steven Fox, the executive director of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which will hold its annual convention in Israel next week.
“The prime minister says he sees himself not only as the leader of the State of Israel but also as the leader of the Jewish people,” Fox said. “If he wants to view himself as leader of the Jewish people, then it’s our expectation that that include all of the Jewish people.”
Fox was referring to remarks made two weeks ago by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who called Reform Jewry a “waning world” and said that Chelsea Clinton’s marriage to a Jew was proof that the movement condoned assimilation. Though Netanyahu rejected his remarks, saying that Reform and Conservative Jews were "part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect," since then, ultra-Orthodox members of the ruling coalition have also issued disparaging remarks about the Reform movement. They were prompted by the recent cabinet government decision to set up a new egalitarian space at the Western Wall where non-Orthodox Jews can hold mixed-gender prayer services, for men and women.
More than 300 rabbis will attend next week’s convention, the first to be held in Israel in seven years. Among the participants, Fox told Haaretz, will also be a delegation of Reform rabbis from Europe and the former Soviet Union, who typically do not participate in this annual event.
For the first time, the convention will divide its sessions between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Fox said. (Previously, all sessions were held in Jerusalem.)
A small group of CCAR leaders are scheduled to meet both with Netanyahu and with President Reuven Rivlin during the week. Since assuming the presidency, Rivlin has tried to make amends for offensive remarks he made in the past about the Reform movement.
Asked what the organization’s message would be to Israeli leaders, Fox said: “We want them to understand that Reform Jews worldwide are committed Zionists, committed to the State of Israel, and committed to an Israel that is democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian. We believe in an Israel that supports rights for all, that is inclusive and that provides full and equal status for all forms of Judaism.”
Although Fox was dismayed by Levin’s remarks, he said he did not support a boycott of him or any other cabinet members who referred disparagingly to Reform Jews.
“My personal belief is that dialogue and engagement is very important,” Fox said. “I don’t believe in shutting down dialogue, and it’s even more important in times of debate. A lot of people still have a lack of knowledge about what Reform Judaism is and about our commitment to Israel. I may not have the opportunity to do so this week, but I’d be willing to meet with him.”
Fox said he was optimistic that the plan to create a new prayer space at the Western Wall for Jews who do not identify as Orthodox or who want to pray in mixed groups would move ahead, despite opposition within certain circles.
“I think that by the time we come back here in seven years, we will be praying at that new area,” Fox said.
The next priority for the Reform movement in Israel, he said, would be achieving parity in government allocations.
“To the extent that the government supports Orthodox rabbis, it must support Reform and Conservative rabbis,” Fox said. “And to the extent that it supports Orthodox schools, it must support progressive schools.”