A demonstrator wears a shirt reading 'Boycott Israel' [File].
(photo credit: AFP/ MOHD RASFAN)
A few days ago, I met with Steve Nasatir, the president of more than 30 years of the Jewish Federation of Chicago, one of the strongest Jewish communities in the US. Nasatir updated me regarding political and legal action the Chicago federation has been taking behind the scenes to counteract the BDS movement, including legislation in Illinois outlawing any company or organization that operates within the state from any action that cooperates with the boycott movement. In addition, Illinois Congressman Peter Roskam, a Republican, is promoting an anti-BDS bill in Congress.
Illinois is playing a major role in the fight against BDS, one of the most difficult and serious problems the Jewish state has ever dealt with.
I mention this story in reaction to the recent statement made by Religious Services Minister David Azoulay, who said that he doesn’t consider Reform Jews to be Jewish.
“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say he is a Jew,” Azoulay said.
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When he stood at the Knesset podium 24 hours later, Azoulay tried to correct himself, but only ended making matters worse. “It is with great sorrow that we watch as Reform Jews bring upon the Jewish people the greatest danger of all: Assimilation. We will continue to pray that every Jew around the world repents and comes back to religion.” Although Azoulay was attempting to rectify the situation, just like Balaam from the Bible story in the Book of Numbers, his words just added fuel to the fire.
I doubt that Minister Azoulay has ever heard of Steve Nasatir or knows much about the Jewish federation umbrella organization in the US.
He is probably not aware of the strength of the Reform Movement, which numbers more than 1.5 million members, and that it is has much more power and influence than Israel does in the fight against the BDS movement and a host of other anti-Israel campaigns taking place in the UN. This community plays a huge role in attaining the generous aid and political backing Israel receives from our greatest ally year after year.
The Jewish community in America is shrinking and many Jews have unfortunately assimilated, while at the same time the Hispanic and African-American communities in the US are strengthening. And yet despite these phenomena, the Jewish lobby in the US still stands strong and the legal system and Congress still manage to support pro-Israel rulings. The Obama-Netanyahu relationship is at an alltime low, and Israel is waging a public struggle against the impending Iran agreement to the visible displeasure of the US administration.
Israel speaks against American Jewry in a duplicitous voice. On the one hand, Israel asks the US for direct and indirect assistance. This direct aid amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars every year and hundreds of Israeli organizations are funded by donations from American Jewish donors. I’ve never heard of an Israeli organization checking which denomination its supporters are – Reform, Conservative or Orthodox; money has no smell, as we all know. Whenever a war, intifada or sticky security situation erupts in Israel, American Jews immediately get their checkbooks out and hand over incredibly generous amounts of money.
As the former director-general of JFNA (formerly UJC) Israel, I participated many times in federation allocation meetings, during which it was decided which organizations would receive funding. I was present when requests would arrive from the prime minister, ministers or mayors of Israeli cities requesting that funds be channeled to their offices. Often times, these requests were turned down, to the great chagrin of the people who made the requests.
On the other hand, Israel invites all of the young Jews living in America to come visit Israel and see what it’s like to live here. We tell them, “Come to Israel, come home.” But what happens when they do finally come and want to get married and raise a family in the Jewish homeland, or when, God forbid, one of them dies while serving in the IDF, and the state rejects their Jewishness? More than once I’ve met with young Zionists who want to live in Israel and marry an Israeli, only to be rejected by the Religious Services Ministry and told they were not part of the Jewish people after all.
Prime Minister Netanyahu was right to quickly rebuke Azoulay for his unacceptable comments. But castigating Azoulay is not enough – Israel must understand that if the continued existence of the 16 million-strong Jewish people is important to us, we must adopt a completely new mindset. Instead of pushing our brothers and sisters away, we must embrace them.
We must accept the fact that all of us – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox alike – are Jewish to the same extent.
Instead of making the conversion process even more difficult and restrictive, as the government did in the legislation passed this week, we must do the opposite: make conversion easier and more welcoming. We must tell our new members, “We want you here, with us, now.”The author is an MK from the Zionist Union and chairman of the Lobby for Strengthening the Jewish People and US-Israeli relations.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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