Belonging to the Reform Movement does not make anyone less Jewish, Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee chairman David Rotem said Thursday.
“Comments attributed to me regarding the Reform Movement have been misinterpreted by elements within the media. I have never said belonging to the Reform Movement makes anyone less Jewish,” Rotem (Likud Beytenu) wrote on Facebook.
The statement followed reports that, in a Tuesday Constitution Committee meeting, Rotem said Reform Jews are “not Jewish” and “another religion.”
Rotem explained on Thursday that, “while as an Orthodox Jew, I have theological differences with the Reform Movement’s perspective, I maintain the greatest respect for all Jews, regardless of their denomination and background. I apologize for any misunderstanding and all offense generated by the content of my comments.”
“I hope that this clarification can generate the necessary debate on how to further unify the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora, around our shared vital interests and concerns, rather than limiting it to the differences that exist among us,” the lawmaker concluded.
A Knesset staffer present in the meeting said he did not hear Rotem say Reform Jews are not Jews, but that they are “a different stream” within Judaism.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said: “It is absolutely unacceptable for a high public servant to make statements that delegitimize parts of our own people and are extremely damaging to the relationship between the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.”
Sharansky added that he spoke to Rotem and he “sincerely hope[s] that the clarification will repair the damage that has already been done.”
On Wednesday, Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman called Rotem’s comments “inappropriate, offensive and unjustified,” and called on him to retract his statements “quickly and unequivocally” and apologize to the Reform Movement.
“The suggestion that Jews throughout the world who identify with the Reform Movement are somehow not a part of the Jewish people is an unacceptable characterization of a proud, highly engaged and committed group of Jews,” Foxman wrote to Rotem.
“Among many US non-Orthodox Jews, rejectionist rhetoric of this kind fosters divisiveness and feelings of alienation towards elements of Israeli society. As someone who has long been engaged in the issue of Jewish identity, we are surprised and saddened that you expressed these views.”
Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform Movement in Israel, called on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to reprimand Rotem.
“An assertion such as this makes it impossible for lawmaker Rotem to continue to chair discussions on sensitive issues such as conversion, who is a Jew and other topics that are associated with religion and state matters, and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora,” Kariv said.
A statement from the Reform Movement in Israel pointed out that use of the expression “another religion” was deliberate, since Israel’s Law of Return uses the same term to exclude non-Jews from making aliya.
By using the term, the statement said, Rotem is saying Reform Jews have no place in Israel.
The leadership of the Conservative Movement – including Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – in a statement Wednesday lamented “the utter lack of leadership that makes these outrages so frequent and undermines the very aspirations that are the foundations of Judaism and the Jewish state.”
Saying “The Jewishness of the Reform Movement is beyond question and in no need of defense,” the statement called on the government of Israel to censure Rotem and remove him from leadership roles.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said Rotem’s comments “are not only blatantly wrong and hurtful but are also destructive to the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community.
Such irresponsible statements serve to alienate the very community which works tirelessly to ensure a strong relationship between the American government and Israel.”