Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
(photo credit: AMIT SHABAY/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday night that “roundtable discussions” will be opened between the leadership of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel and members of the government, in a forum that will be chaired by cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
The move follows a wave of criticism by US Jewish organizations and community leaders of comments made by the Religious Services Minister David Azoulay (Shas), who said during a radio interview that he could not refer to Reform Jews as Jews.
Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post on Friday that it has long been difficult for Israeli governments to engage in dialogue with the non-Orthodox movements for the lack of an appropriate framework.
The new forum aims to address this shortcoming.
He described Azoulay’s comments as “terrible and irresponsible,” and said that such sentiments within factions of the coalition make the roundtable discussions ever more necessary.
“It is clear that there are parts of the new government that are not ready to have a normal and welcoming relationship with the non-Orthodox streams, but we do need to help facilitate the problems that these movements have in Israel,” said Sharansky. “There are frequently day-to-day concerns and problems that arise as well as more serious ones that involve government ministries, such as the ministries of Education, Culture and Religious Services and their relationship to the other Jewish streams.”
Sharansky said that issues of Jewish status for citizens and especially immigrants need to be dealt with by the Interior Ministry, while securing state-subsidies for educational programs run by the non-Orthodox denominations is another longstanding concern.
By creating such a framework for dialogue, Sharansky and Mandelblit will be able to liaise with the Prime Minister’s Office, “advance projects proposed by the [non-Orthodox Jewish] streams themselves, help them lobby for their interests and mobilize the Prime Minister’s Office to this effect.”
Although the haredi parties in the government oppose recognition of and cooperation with the non-Orthodox movements, Sharansky said that programs had been advanced and problems solved for the Reform and Conservative movements over the last two decades despite the frequent presence of haredi parties in the government and insisted that the new forum could be successful.
He also rejected arguments that the State of Israel did not need to cater to non-Orthodox groups because of their small presence numerically in Israel by insisting that the relationship between Israel and its Diaspora, and especially North America with the its large Reform and Conservative communities, is interdependent.
“Jews around the world feel that future of Jewish people depends on Israel. Faith, along with our history and traditions and Zionism is what unites us,” Sharansky said. “But while Israel is important for Jews, Jews around the world are equally as important for Israel, and because of our interdependence we cannot see them as part of our family and then not listen to them.”
He added that it is also a basic task of a democracy to not just cater to the majority, but to ensure the rights of minorities.
He added, however, that the Reform and Conservative movements need to invest greater efforts and resources on building institutions in Israel if they want their movements to expand and have greater influence.
“If only a tiny majority of Israelis are involved in their activities then of course they won’t have the influence they want to have. If 2 million [non-Orthodox] Jews make aliya, then of course the dialogue will be very different,” he said.