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Israel’s Lack of Religious Freedom Is Causing a Rift with American Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2017

In June, Israel’s government backtracked on a decision to create a space at  
the Western Wall in Jerusalem where men and women could pray together and  
non-Orthodox rituals could be practiced. The suspension of the plan by  
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from ultra-  
Orthodox Jews, has deepened the divide between Israel and a majority of  
American Jews, who are affiliated with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.  
In Israel, Orthodox Judaism is, in effect, the state religion. Reform,  
Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis cannot perform weddings or  
funerals, and their conversions are not recognized. Israel’s holy Jewish  
sites are managed by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The area for prayer at the Western  
Wall is divided according to gender. Women are not permitted to read aloud  
from the Torah, wear prayer shawls or sing there.  
Writing in The Jerusalem Post, editor Yaakov Katz declared that this “… will  
go down in history as a shameful day for the State of Israel, another nail  
in the coffin of Israel’s failing relationship with Diaspora Jewry.”  
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said: “We are  
not going to quietly accept this. It is so insulting. I know there will be a  
series of responses. The decision delegitimizes the overwhelming majority of  
Jews on the planet.”  
Charles Bronfman, the Canadian-American billionaire and a major Jewish  
philanthropist, sent a letter to the Israeli prime minister taking him to  
task and noting that, “To my knowledge, no other country in the world denies  
any Jew based on denomination.” (The New York Times, July 4, 2017).  
Writing in The Forward (June 25, 2017), editor Jane Eisner declared: “Prime  
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just gave the finger to a huge chunk of American  
Jews, and by doing so, dangerously upset the precarious relationship  
between the Israeli government and the Diaspora. Netanyahu showed his true  
colors by essentially dismissing non-Orthodox Jews the world over …  
Netanyahu has turned his back on pluralistic Jews and that fundamentally  
changes the relationship between Israelis and the Diaspora.”  
Eisner notes that, “Israel asked Diaspora Jews to ignore the half-century  
occupation of the Palestinians, to spend millions trying to defeat the Iran  
nuclear deal, to lobby for billions of American taxpayer dollars for  
Israel’s military and to send more billions of dollars its way to pay for  
every sort of charitable fund imaginable. And in return the American Jewish  
leadership — and the Jewish Agency speaking for Diaspora Jews — asked that  
non-Orthodox Jews be recognized as Jews, too … We have to write new rules  
for this relationship, because the old ones were just merely tossed away …  
According to UJA Federation of New York CEO Eric S. Goldstein, the decision  
to suspend the Kotel agreement “would destroy the fundamental principle that  
Israel … is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home. The …  
agreement would have protected worship for Jews of every denomination.  
Instead, a single group will continue to control prayer at the Kotel,  
restricting the rights of millions of Israeli and Diaspora Jews.”  
Washington Jewish Week (July 6, 2017) editorially stated: “The new, clear  
message from Israel is that Diaspora Jews are kosher enough to be relied  
upon to act as a unified community to help and support Israel from afar, but  
not kosher enough to be welcomed as one people in Israel. The discordance of  
that message is unnerving, and consequences should be of real concern.”  
The view of Israel’s ultra-orthodox community toward non-Orthodox Jews can  
be seen in an editorial published in an ultra-Orthodox news site which  
described Reform Judaism as “perhaps a kind of religion, but a foreign  
religion like Christianity and Islam.” (New York Times, July 4, 2017)  
Some critics have noted that Jewish groups have been vocal in criticizing  
Israel for denying equal rights to non-Orthodox Jews, but have been silent  
when it comes to Palestinians.  
Rabbi Brant Rosen, who serves Tedek Chicago Congregation and also serves as  
Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee, wrote  
an article in The Forward (July 2, 2017) with the, headline, “The Real Wall  
Problem: When Will Diaspora Jews Fight for Palestinians?”  
He writes that, “The North American Jewish establishment is furious with  
Israel and has just let loose an astonishing fusillade of collective  
protests. … Has the Jewish institutional community finally broken their  
abject silence over Israel’s human rights abuses? Are Jewish communal  
leaders finally finding the courage of their convictions on the issue of  
Rabbi Rosen notes that, “While Israel’s oppressive occupation now marks its  
50th year and the cause of a just peace remains more remote than ever, our  
Jewish leaders are still more concerned about the rights of Jews than the  
rights of all who live in the land … We will willingly violate our own  
values for you. Just give liberal Jews rights and we’ll remain silent on  
your unchecked militarism and oppression of the Palestinian people. The  
silence is all the more egregious given the humanitarian crisis Israel is  
currently inflicting on the people of Gaza. Now, 11 years into its crushing  
blockade, the government announced this past month that it will start  
cutting electricity to the Gaza Strip, a move that could cause 21-hour  
blackouts just as the heat of the summer is gearing up. Surgeries have  
already been canceled … Medical equipment is rapidly degrading due to  
constant fluctuations in electrical currents. The effect of the Israeli  
blockade upon children is particularly tragic. Almost 50% of Gaza’s  
population is 14 or younger. According to UNICEF, the 2014 war took a heavy  
toll on children.’ More than 500 were killed, 3,374 were injured — nearly  
one third of whom suffered permanent disability, and more than 1,500 were  
orphaned. Hundreds of thousands were left in trauma.” He concludes that, “I  
can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in liberal Jewish  
establishments over these cruel human abuses? While I certainly believe in  
the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-  
minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with Jewish rights  
in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who  
live under its control. Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism  
— even the more ‘liberal’ among us seem only to be able to express their  
tolerance selectively.” •

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