'Pathetic': U.S. Jewish Leader Blasts Netanyahu and His Government for 'Hate Speech' Against Reform Jews

The past week has seen Reform Jews being blamed for an earthquake, labeled non-Jews and even told to behave, all by members of Netanyahu's gov't

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, June 24, 2018. Gali Tibbon/Pool via Reuters - RC17D0A648C0/File Photo
\ POOL New/ REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The leader of the Reform Movement, the largest Jewish movement in North America, said that the responsibility for hateful comments against Reform Jews made in recent days by Israeli politicians lays with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who has been leading the Union for Reform Judaism since 2012, made the statement in response to accusations by members of the Israeli coalition that Reform Jews are unwelcome in Israel and are to blame for an earthquake that took place in the country this week.

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"Taken by itself the outpouring of hate from MK Yinon Azoulay is simply pathetic," Jacobs told Haaretz on Thursday. Azoulay, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, blamed the minor quakes in Israel this week on the lobby to build an egalitarian prayer space in the Western Wall. His party is a member of the Netanyahu's ruling coalition.

Speaking at a Knesset debate on the contested mixed-gender prayer space in the Western Wall, Azoulay said: "Today we heard there was some kind of earthquake, maybe we should do some soul-searching that this earthquake was because someone is trying to touch that which is sacred to us? Hear our pain, they are not Jews."

Lawmaker Yinon Azoulay (Shas) in the Knesset plenum, March 13, 2018, Jerusalem
Noam Revkin-Fenton

Criticizing Azoulay, Jacobs added that "when connected to the litany of denigrating statements by senior members of the Israeli government over the past weeks, it shows us how Prime Minister Netanyahu's government has normalized expressions of hate towards millions of Reform Jews." Among the recent statements Jacobs was referring to, is a comment made earlier this week by Culture Minister Miri Regev, who said: "I've met Reforms in Argentina. They were very nice, but they should be Reform in Argentina. Here in Israel they should behave," she said.

Regev's comments came during a discussion within the Israeli government about the implementation of a government commitment to expand the egalitarian prayer area to the south of the Western Wall. The plan was formulated in coordination with the U.S. Conservative and Reform movements and originally included the establishment of a new public council to be in charge of the new mixed prayer space.

"Anyone who claims to be the prime minister of the Jewish people should have zero tolerance for such hate speech," Jacobs told Haaretz. The Reform leader has had a tense relationship with the Israeli premier ever since the Israeli government decided last year to backtrack on its agreement with the non-Orthodox Jewish streams to establish the new prayer space.

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Jacobs also told Haaretz that "In these somber weeks leading to Tisha B'av, Israel's leaders should know the consequences of Sinat Hinam - baseless hatred toward fellow Jews." He added that these "hate rants" won't stop his movement from campaigning for a change of the prayer arrangements at the Western Wall.

Jonathan Greenblatt, who heads the Anti-Defamation League, echoed the sentiment, saying that "the recent increase of Israeli political and religious officials demonizing non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews is utterly reprehensible.

"These types of comments poison relations between U.S. Jews and Israel, and contribute to the growing disconnect between our two communities."

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, the largest organization representing the Conservative stream of Judaism, also responded to Azoulay's statement, saying that "There is simply no place in a Jewish and Democratic government for this type of 'Sinat Hinam' from a member of government."

He added that his organization is expecting Netanyahu and the Knesset to censure Azoulay and to "implement the Kotel deal for the sake of Klal Yisrael immediately," he said, using the term for the wider Jewish community.  

Earlier this week, during a visit to Israel, Wernick warned over his Twitter account that "the government is drawing a false conclusion about the Diaspora. It will prove to be a colossal mistake. But it's not too late. Fulfill your promises and reengage dialogue to build bridges." Wernick also urged Netanyahu to go back to the original Western Wall agreement from 2016.