Divisive issues continue to strain Israel-Diaspora relations

The passage of the mikve law was perhaps the most serious incident of all in recent months.

A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative] (photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative]
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
The failure to implement the agreement approved by the cabinet on January 31 this year for creating a government- recognized pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall has generated anger among leaders of Diaspora Jewry, and elicited consternation from Diaspora communities.
But this issue, although the most prominent, is by no means the only factor currently straining Israel- Diaspora relations.
The recent Knesset approval of a law barring the Reform and Masorti movements from using public mikvaot (ritual baths) for conversions; the continuous rejections by the Chief Rabbinate and the religious establishment of the credentials of Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora; and the ongoing invective that is uttered by haredi ministers, MKs and public officials have all led to significant tensions between Israel’s political leadership and that of North American Jewry.
The passage of the mikve law was perhaps the most serious incident of all in recent months.
The Reform and Masorti movements began their efforts in 2007 to overturn the refusal of some local religious councils to allow them the use of their public mikvaot for conversion ceremonies, when they sought permission from the Beersheba Religious Council for such a ceremony.
When this request was refused, the progressive movements filed a petition in the Beersheba District Court against the policy, and when that was rejected, filed an appeal in the Supreme Court in 2010.
The Supreme Court held hearings on the issue, and for years sought to broker an agreement whereby the state would provide alternative mikvaot for non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies, all of which were rejected by the religious establishment.
In February, the court finally ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring the rejection policy illegal and discriminatory and ordering the state to allow progressive Jewish conversion ceremonies to be performed in public mikvaot.
Yet less than six months later, the government circumvented this ruling by passing legislation at the behest of haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas that de facto bans such ceremonies in public mikvaot.
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements have argued that this legislation constitutes the first time the State of Israel has actively legislated against their practice of Judaism, and described the law as “a stain” on Israel’s statute book and on its claim to the be the nation-state of all Jews.
No less problematic are the strained relations with the institutions of Modern Orthodoxy. For years, the credentials of North American Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions and attest to Jewish status have been undermined by an attitude of skepticism and distrust by the Chief Rabbinate and the religious establishment in Israel.
In dozens of cases every year, Orthodox conversions conducted in the US are questioned and in some cases rejected by the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts, as are letters of Jewish status written by Orthodox rabbis for marriage registration purposes.
This issue exploded this year when the Petah Tikva Rabbinical Court, and then later the Supreme Rabbinical Court, refused to recognize the validity of a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent and respected Orthodox religious leader in the US.
The incident gained widespread publicity, including in the international press, since Lookstein had converted the daughter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Ivanka Trump’s Jewishness was theoretically called into question by the rulings of the rabbinical courts.
Such decisions occur on a monthly basis. In one similar incident last year, a conversion that was certified by a rabbinical court presided over by the head of the Beth Din of America, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, was rejected by the Chief Rabbinate’s department for matrimony and conversions.
Activists have decried the Chief Rabbinate’s approach as “a witchhunt” and have accused the body and the religious establishment in general of making Orthodox Diaspora Jews feel unwelcome by calling into question their religious identity and denigrating their religious leadership.
No less damaging to Israel’s relationship with its brethren abroad is the repeated, hostile and frequently offensive rhetoric spoken by senior government and state officials about the progressive Jewish denominations.
Soon after the present government was formed, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of Shas said he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish.
Worse was to come. Following the approval by the cabinet of the Western Wall agreement in January, haredi MKs and ministers unleashed a torrent of vituperation and vitriol against Reform and Conservative Jewry.
Senior UTJ MK and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni described progressive Jews as “a group of clowns who stick a knife in the holy Torah,” while chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, together with the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, said that progressive Jewish denominations were dedicated to “uprooting the Torah of the Jewish people from its essence and from its uniqueness.”
Following the ruling of the Supreme Court banning discrimination at public mikvaot, Health Minister and UTJ chairman Ya’acov Litzman belittled non-Orthodox religious practice by saying that there was no difference between mikvaot and jacuzzis for Reform and Conservative Jews, calling progressive Jewish practice “counterfeit Judaism.”
Diaspora leaders have said on numerous occasions that such inflammatory rhetoric, alongside the ongoing efforts of the haredi parties to thwart more diverse expressions of Jewish life in the Jewish state, is having a negative effect on Jewish communities in North America, particularly Reform and Conservative ones.
When the language used by opponents of religious pluralism is so bitter, and when all efforts to obtain greater religious rights and freedoms for groups close to the hearts of Diaspora Jews are so roundly rejected, it seems inevitable that the relationship between the State of Israel and its coreligionists around the world will be put under ever greater strain.