Neeman denies Knesset legislation discriminatory

Justice minister offends US Jewish leaders by condemning communal life outside Israel.

yaakov neeman 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yaakov neeman 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman shocked a high-profile group of American Jewish leaders last week when he strongly defended controversial legislation and criticized them for not living in Israel.
Participants in the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) leadership mission to Israel met with top Israeli and Palestinian decision-makers including President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Neeman, opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s senior adviser, Ron Dermer. The JCPA bills itself as the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community in guaranteeing the safety and security of the State of Israel.
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The delegation was briefed by Neeman’s aides about his ministry’s efforts to counter the delegitimization of Israel around the world.
Their conversation with Neeman at the Knesset on Wednesday was short but ended with him raising his voice and scolding the Americans.
“There is no discrimination in any of the legislation,” Neeman told the group, according to US Jewish leaders present, who were taking notes.
When pressed specifically about proposed loyalty oaths, he said: “We will have a majority of non-Jews if not. This is a Jewish state. If you don’t like it, you can move to another country.”
The group asked Neeman about an advertising campaign by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry aimed at persuading Israelis living in the US to return home. Netanyahu ordered the campaign canceled after it received harsh criticism from American Jewish leaders and commentators, but Neeman strongly defended the campaign.
“All Jews need to come home to Israel,” he said. “I want them here. A Jew who doesn’t live here in Israel is not doing the most important thing.”
When Neeman told the group that the two issues that must unite Jews around the world were belief in God and commitment to State of Israel, Chicago Board of Rabbis executive director emeritus Ira Youdovin, who is Reform, responded to him that “lots of Jews do not believe in God here in Israel, and there are Jews who do not believe in a State of Israel here in Israel.”
Participants in the meeting said Neeman raised his voice and said he “could not disagree more” with justification for Jews not believing in God or being committed to Israel.
“Show me a nation that still exists after 2,000 to 3,000 years that was exiled and still exists that doesn’t believe in one nation,” he said. “We existed, and we returned. It is due to the belief in God and that we returned to our homeland.”
He told the group that “the No. 1 danger” to Jews was “not Iran, but assimilation.” He warned that the Jewish nation could disappear as a result of assimilation, accomplishing what Adolf Hitler did not achieve. As an example of the extent of assimilation in America, Neeman said he spoke to a rabbi in San Francisco who told him that 95 percent of marriages in the Bay Area involving Jews were intermarriages.
JCPA Chairman Conrad Giles responded politely but critically, telling Neeman “there will always be a Diaspora” and that “if positions of the State of Israel will not allow all of us Jewish people to feel the same unity, our concern is that our fellow Jews should not feel diminished.”
Youdovin responded more critically after the meeting, saying Neeman “has an inaccurate perception of American Judaism” and calling the figure the minister cited about intermarriage in San Francisco “preposterous and reckless.”
“Our group included leaders representing the diversity of American Jewish life,” Youdovin said. “Many of us were shocked by some of the statements Neeman made. Much of what he said was problematic and some of it offended people.”
Youdovin said he was worried by Neeman’s “indifference to the fact that those who work to counter assimilation look to Israel to exert a strong cohesive force.
“This is undermined by state-supported discrimination against the non-Orthodox streams, which apparently is endorsed by the minister of justice,” he said. “This raised concerns about the ability of top Israeli officials to understand even their strongest supporters in the US.”
Neeman declined to comment because he spoke in a closed-door meeting and associates of Neeman said the statements were taken out of context.