Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday the establishment of a roundtable for the purpose of conducting a discussion with the non-Orthodox denominations, in the wake of the tension with Reform and Conservative congregations in the United States. He was forced to do so after Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay of Shas woke up one morning and decided, apparently on his own cognizance, to erase millions of people belonging to American Jewry - 35 percent.
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“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” declared the minister. After the statement caused an uproar in the United States and in Israel, the prime minister reprimanded the minister, who then reported to the Knesset dais, and retreated partially from the unfounded and insulting statement, but continued to criticize Reform Judaism.
Although millions of Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States are accustomed to harsh statements from ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians in Israel, Azoulay’s statement still breaks a record of ignorance and lack of awareness of what is happening in the Jewish world. It reflects a regrettable confusion between a basic dispute about beliefs and opinions and an inferior brand of delegitimization and hatred.
There is nothing wrong with an ideological debate among religious beliefs, but the words of Minister Azoulay join a large number of Israeli actions and statements designed to express delegitimization and disrespect of non-Orthodox denominations. In addition to Azoulay’s outburst there was last week’s removal of a skullcap-wearing Conservative female tourist from the Western Wall plaza. There was also the recent clash between President Reuven Rivlin and the Israeli Conservative (Masorti) Movement, which wanted to celebrate a bar mitzvah ceremony for children with disabilities in the Prime Minister’s Residence, and was prevented from doing so. That incident caused reverberations in the United States.
Every divisive and hostile statement by an Israeli minister, as junior as he may be, resounds painfully in Jewish communities abroad, in all the denominations; touches exposed nerves; and distances Jews from Israel and from their Jewishness. The dangerous historical process in which Israel is turning into a controversial entity among American Jews - especially young people, including the Orthodox, as well as among rabbis who refrain from speaking about it in their Shabbat sermons in order not to arouse an uproar - is fueled daily by actions and statements like Azoulay’s. More than other subjects on the agenda, questions of religious identity are causing American Jews to become alienated from Israel.
Increasingly, the present government seems to have decided to fight the Jewish people, when it overturns its previous decisions to ease the conversion process somewhat for its new immigrants “without religion,” when it strengthens the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and Religious Affairs Ministry control over the rabbinical courts, or when one of its members hurls venomous words at millions of Jews worldwide.