American Jews who are members of the Union for Reform Judaism, formerly the Union Of American Hebrew Congregations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu generated both warm praise and fierce condemnation Tuesday night after he announced that the government would directly fund Reform and Conservative Jewish communities in Israel.
The statement was welcomed by the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations but denounced by senior haredi political leadership as contravening coalition agreements with the ultra-Orthodox political parties.
“I want to guarantee one thing to each and everyone of you. As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews, all Jews,” the prime minister said during his speech to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington.
Netanyahu told the gathering he had established a round-table forum with government officials and religious leaders from the different Jewish denominations to discuss problems and their solutions regarding religion and state issues in the country.
“For the first time, the government of Israel is joining, with the Jewish Agency, to invest in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel,” Netanyahu declared.
Netanyahu’s comments come in the wake of several outbursts from Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of the haredi Shas party against non-Orthodox Jews, and against the background of the ongoing dissatisfaction felt by the Reform and Conservative communities in the US and Israel about the control of religious life by the Orthodox establishment.
Netanyahu said he also was committed to providing a solution to the requests of the non-Orthodox movements for prayer space at the Western Wall, and that he was working to find a dignified solution to the problem.“I’m also hopeful we will soon conclude a long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] will be a source of unity for our people and not a point of division, and we’re getting there,” Netanyahu said.
Non-Orthodox communities are not generally funded by the state, although at least four Reform rabbis serving communities in the country began to receive salaries, like their Orthodox counterparts, after a petition to the High Court of Justice forced the state to do so.
As part of the agreement to fund these rabbis, the state insisted that the salaries be paid from the Culture Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman of United Torah Judaism said Netanyahu’s comments contravened the coalition agreement signed between his party and the Likud.
“Throughout the generations, we have known that the Reform and Conservative [movements] are tearing the Jewish people apart and it is forbidden to lend them a hand to tear up the Torah of the Jewish people,” the minister said. “It is a shame that the prime minister made these comments, and we will do everything so that this commitment is no fulfilled.”
Senior haredi MK Moshe Gafni, UTJ, also denounced Netanyahu’s declaration.
“The Reform [Movement] is sticking a knife into the Torah of the Jewish people,” he said late Tuesday.
“What Netanyahu said was extremely severe and we will demand clarifications when he returns to Israel,” he warned.
However, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel welcomed the prime minister’s comments and called for his promise to be implemented practically.
“Netanyahu’s comments illustrate how close to his heart the issue of the Jewish people is to him,” said Yizgar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel.
“This is a declaration that has symbolic significance, operative significance, but mostly Zionist significance. The State of Israel is the State of the Jewish people and in order that it continue as such it must be obligated to the fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish,” Hess said.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the director of the Reform Movement in Israel, said: “Ongoing discrimination” against the non-Orthodox communities in Israel was damaging to Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state, and that “we expect the prime minister’s announcement to lead to a change in the way the government of Israel relates to the non-Orthodox communities.”