Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently toughened his language in support of non-Orthodox religious streams in Israel and abroad, but his brief note on the subject, while welcome, is no substitute for the systemic changes that are being demanded by proponents of pluralism.
In a Rosh Hashana letter to leaders of the American Jewish Committee, Netanyahu intensified his rebuke of David Azoulay, Israel’s religious services minister, who last summer said that Reform Jews represent “the greatest danger to the Jewish people, the danger of assimilation.”
Earlier Netanyahu referred to Azoulay’s remarks as “hurtful.” This time, he wrote, “I share your feelings regarding the hateful remarks made by the minister for religious affairs. I have reminded him in no uncertain terms that, as a minister, he must represent all of Israel’s citizens.” Netanyahu continued: “The government of Israel which I head remains committed to strengthening the unity of the Jewish people, and will unequivocally reject any attempt to divide us or to delegitimize any Jewish community — Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.”
For the prime minister’s strong words to have meaning, they must be matched by action. The AJC, as the coordinator of the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, is pushing for pluralism within Israeli politics and institutions. Its goals are concrete: loosening the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over issues of personal status, including marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion; and ensuring that non-Orthodox strains are recognized by Israeli government bodies and accorded equitable rights and privileges.
For groups that have been active in promoting pluralism in Israel, including the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, this issue is not just about the hurt feelings of American Jewry’s non-Orthodox majority. It’s a question of peoplehood and politics. As the AJC leaders explained to the prime minister, denunciations by Israelis of Reform and Conservative Jews “only serve to call into question the place of Israel in their lives and the very notion of Jewish unity and oneness. Moreover, any sense of alienation or distance from Israel, regrettably, could have other important ramifications to the detriment of Israel’s standing in the world and its vital link with the United States.”
In other words, Israel has enough problems. Driving away Jewish supporters shouldn’t be one of them.