Israel Rejects Freedom for Non-Orthodox Streams of Judaism

By Brownfeld, Allan C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Israel Rejects Freedom for Non-Orthodox Streams of Judaism


Brownfeld, Allan C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


ISRAEL'S GOVERNMENT backtracked in June on a decision to create a space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where men and women could pray together and perform non-Orthodox rituals. Israel's holy Jewish sites are managed by the ultra-Orthodox, and the area for prayer at the Western Wall currently is divided according to gender. The suspension of the plan by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has deepened the divide between Israel and the majority of American Jews, who are affiliated with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

While many Americans assume that Israel embraces a philosophy of Western-style religious freedom, this is not the case-even for Jews. There is no separation of temple and state in Israel. Instead, Orthodox Judaism is, in effect, the state religion. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis may not perform weddings or funerals, and their conversions are not recognized. Moreover, because Israel has no civil marriage, non-Orthodox and non-Jewish Israelis who wish to marry must leave the country to do so.

Even some commentators in Israel were sharply critical of the government's decision to renege on the agreement to provide an area for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Writing in The Jerusalem Post, editor Yaakov Katz declared that this "will go down in history as a shameful day for the State of Israel, another nail in the coffin of Israel's failing relationship with Diaspora Jewry."

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, to which more American Jews belong than any other branch of Judaism, said: "We are not going to quietly accept this. It is so insulting. I know there will be a series of responses. The decision delegitimizes the overwhelming majority of Jews on the planet."

Charles Bronfman, the Canadian-American billionaire and a major Jewish philanthropist, sent a letter to the Israeli prime minister taking him to task and noting that, "To my knowledge, no other country in the world denies any Jew based on denomination."

Writing in the June 25 Forward, editor Jane Eisner declared: "Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just gave the finger to a huge chunk of American Jews, and by doing so, dangerously upset the already precarious relationship between the Israeli government and the Diaspora. Netanyahu showed his true colors by essentially dismissing non-Orthodox Jews the world over...Netanyahu has turned his back on pluralistic Jews and that fundamentally changes the relationship between Israelis and the Diaspora."

Eisner went on to point out that, "Israel asked Diaspora Jews to ignore the half-century occupation of the Palestinians, to spend millions trying to defeat the Iran nuclear deal, to lobby for billions of American taxpayer dollars for Israel's military and to send more billions of dollars its way to pay for every sort of charitable fund imaginable. And in return, the American Jewish leadership-and the Jewish Agency speaking for Diaspora Jews-asked that non-Orthodox Jews be recognized as Jews, too...We have to write new rules for this relationship, because the old ones were just merely tossed away..."

According to United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York CEO Eric S. Goldstein, the decision to suspend the Western Wall agreement "would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel...is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home."

At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu endorsed an Orthodox party bill that gave the ultra-Orthodox a monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel by ending government recognition of "private conversions" by rabbis not approved by the ultra-Orthodox. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Israel's Orthodox parties and chief rabbinate control "all Jewish marriage in Israel." In the opinion of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who is Jewish, "run-away Orthodox politics threatens to disconnect Israel from its most committed supporters."

It is not only non-Orthodox rabbis who are found lacking by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. …

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