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Israel’s Lack of Freedom for Non-Orthodox Branches of Judaism Is Alienating American Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
April 2013

The fact that non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, which represent the majority of Jews throughout the world, do not enjoy religious freedom in Israel is, argues Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, alienating American Jews.  
Rabbi Yoffie wrote an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (Jan. 29, 2013). It was headlined, “Dear Prime Minister, U.S. Jews Are Fed Up With Not Being Valued.”  
“American Jews are exceedingly agitated about issues of religious freedom,” writes Yoffie, “… the simple fact is that the failure of Israel to offer recognition and support for the streams of Judaism with which the great majority of American Jews identify is nothing less than a disgrace — and an obstacle to engaging fully on all the other issues on Israel’s agenda.”  
In Yoffie’s view, “American Jews are fed up. They have had enough. They are finished being understanding and patient. They will no longer accept that Reform and Conservative rabbis are scorned and despised in Israel; they will no longer sit silently while Israel’s official representatives offend them and denigrate their religious practices. YOU have seen some of this newly aroused anger in the reaction of Diaspora Jewry to the arrests and detentions at the Western Wall; and this is only the beginning. And make no mistake: the angry voices are not coming from the ranks of the indifferent or the fringe left. They are coming from the heart of American Jewish leadership.”  
Advising Prime Minister Netanyahu, Yoffie declares: “You could point out that only 2 million of the 13.5 million Jews in the world are Orthodox, and that the overwhelming majority of American Jews come from the Reform and Conservative streams. YOU could say that these streams are the heart of our Jewish family … Then you could say that you will use the authority of the Prime Minister’s office to assure that allocations will be made to synagogues and rabbis of the Reform and Conservative streams on the same basis as the Orthodox stream … This is a time for you to inspire American Jews and demonstrate that the State of Israel values the religious choices that they make.”  
Writing in The Forward (Jan. 25, 2013), Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, a nonpartisan and non-denominational Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality, reports that, “A new campaign is now under way to elect Rabbi David Stav, head of the Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization Tzohar, as the next Ashkenazic chief rabbi.”  
He notes that a possible deal has been struck between Stav and Shlomo Amar, the current Sephardic chief rabbi. According to Regev, “The Jewish Diaspora is being encouraged to rally support behind Stav’s candidacy based on the promise that with him the Chief Rabbinate is going to be inclusive … This is indeed just an illusion. In the case of Amar, the picture is clear. His sentiments against non-Orthodox Judaism are so strong that he issued a statement attacking the Supreme Court for ordering the State of Israel to recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis serving in rural communities. He demonized Reform Judaism as ‘destroyers, terrorists, God’s enemies’ and worse. Coming from the Chief Rabbinate, these attitudes against Jewish pluralism, gender equality and the like, are increasingly offending the overwhelming majority of world Jewry.”  
Regev points out that, “Both candidates, as well as the others whose names have come up for the post, hold the view that Israel should exercise religious coercion and deny both non-Orthodox and secular Jews their freedom of and from religion. Instead, what Israel needs is to fully realize its founding promise for ‘freedom of religion and conscience’ as envisioned in Israel’s Declaration of Independence — nothing more and nothing less. … Celebrating religious freedom will make Israel both more democratic and more Jewish. Perpetuating a coercive Chief Rabbinate … achieves the exact opposite.”  
In February, ten women, including two American rabbis — one of them the sister of comedian Sarah Silverman — were detained by Israeli police. They are part of the group Women of the Wall, which has gathered each month for the past 24 years to protest the ultra-Orthodox insistence that only men may pray at the wall wearing traditional religious vestments, a rule that has been backed by the Israeli Supreme Court.  
In its 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Department of State declares that, “Israel continues to discriminate on the basis of religion in both policy and law, against non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jewish movements.”  
Rabbi Regev said of the State Department report that, “it reveals to the world the sad fact that in the area of religious freedom, Israel is closer to radical Islamic countries than the Western democratic world.” •

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