Words matter

A chief rabbi shouldn't be granted the ability to use the power of the state to harass and oppress his fellow Israelis.

Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For those of us who live and work for pluralism and justice in Israel, being accused of terrible things is nothing new. For many in this country Reform Jews are a terrible bogyman (or worse, woman) seeking to destroy Judaism. They say we have no respect for tradition, no fear of the Almighty and no love for the People of Israel. All this coming from the people comparing us to monkeys and Holocaust deniers.
This week, Shlomo Amar, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, said that we, Reform Jews, are worse than Holocaust deniers because of our demand for our own share of Judaism’s holiest site. The reactions were predictable. Why does this man receive a salary from the state? Rabbi Amar’s feelings about Reform Jews are well known. We have seen for years how he never misses an opportunity to throw his ire and righteous indignation against many who simply want to live their lives in peace. This has not been exclusive to Reform Jews; his hate speech toward gays and lesbians, women in general, or any other group or minority that irritates him has found its way into the press many times before.
I am not condemning his religious practice (as he does mine.) Rather, I condemn a government that gives him a position that allows him to use the power of our state to harass and oppress his fellow Israelis.
It is also important to understand the power of these words. When religious leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community accuse us of being like Islamic State, their followers often feel compelled to act against this threat. Just last week a man was indicted for attempting to burn down a Reform synagogue in Ra’anana, and we have been documenting for years the rise of violent hate groups in Israel, like Lehava, which have taken the words and religious fervor of their leaders to the streets, committing terrible acts of violence.
At the Israel Religious Action Center, we have fought for 30 years to end the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious life in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made multiple statements (mostly in English) assuring all Jews that they have a place in Israel. But the fact that is that whenever these statements carry a political price he seems more interested in his government remaining intact than in doing what is right. This means that, again, Rabbi Amar will face no professional reprimand for his hateful speech.
Prime Minister Netanyahu was only able to muster a stock condemnation (again, in English only), without even mentioning the man by name. This is another example of how liberal Jews are told out of one side of his mouth how crucial we are to the Jewish state, while at the same time he protects extremists who would see our Jewish democracy descend into a theocratic nightmare. We are and should be judged by the company we keep, and the prime minister keeps company with men who incite against Jew and non-Jew alike. He cannot continue claiming to want a homeland where all are welcome while handing over the resources of the state to men like Shlomo Amar.
Over the past 50 years the Reform Movement in Israel has grown into an important part of our society. We work to build an Israel that is strong, pluralistic, and just to all its citizens. We respect Jews whose practices are different than our own and we respect non-Jews whose beliefs are different than our own.
It is time for our elected leaders, religious and secular, to stop appeasing fanatics who put religious dogma above what is best for society. It is time for Prime Minister Netanyahu to remove rabbis like Shlomo Amar who use their position to preach hate.
Shana Tova.
Rabbi Noa Sattath is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the social justice arm of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ).