By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org
When Israeli Religious Affairs Minister MK David Azoulay (Shas) told Israel’s Army Radio station in July that “a Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” it’s likely that few observers focused on who was on the receiving end of those controversial comments.
Israeli broadcaster Razi Barkai, who conducted the interview with Azoulay, actually had an immersive experience in the American Jewish religious spectrum not very long before Azoulay belittled U.S. Jewry’s largest denomination.
In June, Barkai participated in a trip organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which is headquartered in both Boston and Israel and prioritizes the issue of Israel-Diaspora relations. Among other programs dedicated to educating Israelis on different aspects of American Jewry, the foundation brings Israeli journalists on trips to the U.S. to witness the country’s pluralistic Jewish community firsthand.
Barkai—who on the trip met with Jewish leaders across denominations, as well as Jewish social activists and journalists—told JNS.org that he learned “how rich, diverse, and flourishing Jewish life is in the U.S.” He said he also realized that “unlike European Jewry, which still sees Israel as a kind of place of shelter because of anti-Semitism there and… as a kind of insurance certificate, U.S. Jewry doesn’t need [Israel] anymore.”
Then came the bombshell of Azoulay’s remarks on Reform Jews.
“When I got to the interview with the religion minister, it was interesting to hear what he thinks about these denominations,” said Barkai. “We got the answer that we got.”
Barkai said he believes that Israel should “recognize all the Jewish denominations as legitimate and equal” because “the Law or Return (which allows Diaspora Jews to obtain Israeli citizenship) does not differentiate between who is a Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jew. The Law of Return says a Jew is a person whose mother is Jewish, period, or has converted.”
The Azoulay controversy reflects an ongoing point of tension between Israel and parts of American Jewry. In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate is in charge of Jewish religious life and and adheres to Orthodox practices. Other streams of Judaism that are popular in the U.S., such as the Reform and Conservative movements, are not officially recognized by the Israeli government. Further, important Jewish rituals such as marriage, burial, and conversion must be conducted through the Orthodox-geared Chief Rabbinate.
The current Israeli governing coalition—which includes two Orthodox political parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism—recently cancelled a planned reform law that would have eased conversion requirements and allowed non-Jews to go through with Israeli government-sanctioned conversions through non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
Israel Friedman, editor of the religious Israeli news outlet Yated Ne’eman, attempted to clarify Minister Azoulay’s comments, stating that “the question is not whether the Reform are Jews… but the question is whether Reform [Judaism] is Judaism. Indeed, Reform [Judaism] is, perhaps, a religion, but a different religion like Christianity and Islam… The [Israeli] Religion Office does address all ‘faiths,’ but the Reform [movement] insists on speaking for Judaism as a legitimate spokesperson. And it is not.”
Striking a different tone, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of the village of Efrat in Judea and Samaria, told Israel National News that he does not know any arbiter of Jewish law “who would claim that if you don’t keep mitzvot l’halutin (completely), you are not Jewish. That’s not the definition of Judaism and it’s never been the definition of Judaism.”
While Riskin supports the tradition of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, he said, “I don’t believe an individual’s religious practices ought to be coerced.”
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Azoulay’s remarks “hurtful.”
“I have spoken with Minister Azoulay to remind him that Israel is a home for all Jews and that as Minister of Religious Affairs, he serves all of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister’s reaction was lauded at the time by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, who said that “we appreciate the prime minister’s strong and welcome words.” At the same time, the Reform umbrella organization expressed “grave concern about the [Israeli] government’s actions, such as the recent decision to repeal the conversion reform law passed by the previous government.” Shas and United Torah Judaism, the Orthodox parties, were not part of the previous Israeli coalition.
Netanyahu also ordered his government to convene a special forum that will include representatives from all Jewish religious streams, in order to facilitate dialogue between the denominations.
Part of the dilemma surrounding the status of the Reform movement in Israel goes beyond the disagreement over which denominations should be accepted as Jewish. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told the Times of Israel in July that on a practical level, Israel simply doesn’t have very many Jews who identify as Reform.
“We have a flourishing secular Jewry in Israel,” but “Israelis who are unhappy with the Chief Rabbinate won’t necessarily seek out the Reform movement instead,” said Sharansky.
Popular commentator Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine, wrote that that while he agrees with Reform and Conservative leaders who protest the lack of Jewish pluralism in Israel, he advises the Jewish community “to look at Israeli society in its own context rather than judging it by the standards of Jewish life in the United States.” The “core problem” in Israel is not “who is a Jew,” but rather “who is a rabbi,” he wrote.
“[Israel’s] lack of a separation between synagogue and state means that in Israel the government pays rabbinic salaries, making the right to be accorded official status a political and economic issue rather than a purely religious one,” he wrote. “Thus the right of the non-Orthodox streams to be recognized hinges on an ability to mobilize political support. Since they command the allegiance of few Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox constitute a powerful voting bloc in the Knesset due to the country’s proportional representation, the non-Orthodox inevitably are the losers in this tug of war.”
Yet Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman told JNS.org that such an argument does not “give Israeli leaders the right to disrespect Reform and Conservative Jews,” especially since “these [American] Jewish communities directly impact Israel’s security through their work to ensure a strong relationship between Israel and the United States.”
Israel needs American Jews to continue to have a political conversation about the Jewish state, said Barkai. But the issue of the Israeli government’s treatment of non-Orthodox denominations may be aggravating a situation in which some American Jews might already be looking at Israel as just any other country, like Italy or France, he said.
“How ‘sexy’ is Israel in the eyes of those Jews as it was during, for example, the 1970s during the Entebbe operation?” Barkai asked rhetorically, referring to Israel’s famed counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission in Uganda.
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