JERUSALEM — Israel’s strictly Orthodox minister of religious services said on Tuesday that he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish, inflaming internal discord over religious issues and underscoring tensions with American Jews, who mostly belong to the more liberal streams of Conservative and Reform Judaism.
“The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a problem,” the minister, David Azoulay of the Shas party, said on Army Radio, adding, “I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.”
Mr. Azoulay said he did not want to be the one to determine who is a Jew and who is not. When he was asked specifically about American Reform Jews, Mr. Azoulay referred to people who “try to fake and do not carry out the religious law properly, and give it other interpretations.”
“These are Jews who erred along the way,” he added.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Mr. Azoulay’s remarks. In a statement, he described them as “hurtful” and said they “do not reflect the position of the government.” Mr. Netanyahu said he had spoken with Mr. Azoulay “to remind him that Israel is a home for all Jews and that as minister of religious affairs, he serves all of Israel’s citizens.”
Still, many liberal Jews in Israel and abroad have lamented the return of ultra-Orthodox political parties as partners in Mr. Netanyahu’s new governing coalition, and the reassertion of monopoly control of strictly Orthodox rabbis over state-recognized religious affairs in Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet decided on Sunday that the country’s rabbinical courts would be transferred to Mr. Azoulay’s Religious Services Ministry from the Justice Ministry. The cabinet also rejected a proposal that was intended to make it easier to convert to Judaism in Israel by setting up local conversion courts; that initiative had been promoted by secular and liberal parties in the previous government.
Conversion will now remain under the full control of the Chief Rabbinate, which is dominated by strictly Orthodox rabbis and keeps a firm grip on matters like Jewish marriage and burial.
Israel’s conversion policy and the power of its state religious authorities have been contentious issues for Jews abroad for some time. The Anti-Defamation League expressed disappointment with the cabinet’s reversal on the conversion courts.
Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the league, called the central rabbinate’s conversion process “obstructionist and cumbersome” and said its “refusal to recognize the vibrant diversity of mainstream Jewish religious practice is of particular concern to the American Jewish community.”
The Anti-Defamation League also criticized what it described as Mr. Azoulay’s “demeaning and hateful comments about Reform Jews.”
Mr. Azoulay has offended non-Orthodox Jews before. In June, he was reported to have told another minister, “Reform Jews are a disaster to the nation of Israel.”
Responding to Mr. Azoulay’s latest remarks on Army Radio, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, wrote in a Facebook post that just as Mr. Azoulay said it was hard to see Reform Jews as Jews, “the truth is that it is also hard for us to see him as the minister of religious services.”
Rabbi Kariv said that Mr. Netanyahu’s expression of disagreement was no longer enough, and that the prime minister should start “a strategic dialogue with the leaders of the non-Orthodox movements about their status in Israel and state recognition of their rabbis and communities.”
The Conservative movement — known in Israel as Masorti, Hebrew for “tradition” — reacted angrily to an episode last month in which a group of Israeli children with disabilities, who had participated in a special bar mitzvah training program led by Masorti staff and rabbis, attended a ceremony at an Orthodox synagogue in the presence of an Orthodox rabbi after the Masorti movement’s efforts to organize a more inclusive ceremony failed.
The more liberal forms of Jewish practice advocated by the Reform and Conservative movements, to which most affiliated American Jews belong, have never taken strong root in Israel. Fewer than 10 percent of Israeli Jews are said to identify with those movements.
President Reuven Rivlin infuriated American Reform Jews with remarks he made in the 1980s, when he was a member of the Israeli Parliament. After attending a service at a Reform synagogue in New Jersey, he told an Israeli newspaper, “This is idol worship and not Judaism.”
Since becoming president, though, he has sought to mend relations with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. When he met with a delegation of American Reform leaders in November, he told them, “We are one family, and the connection between all Jews, all over the world, is very important to the State of Israel.”
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(via NY Times)