Several weeks ago, large numbers of Jews from around the world took part in “Unity Day,” an event created by the families of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and murdered a year ago to mark the “spirit of unprecedented unity among the Jewish People” following the tragedy.
Someone please remind Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulai, who this week stated publicly that he does not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish. On an Army radio program, he said, “any Jew who observes the Torah and commandments is for us a Jew. …A Reform Jew, from the moment he does not follow Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew.”
Such a remark, dismissive of the largest denomination among American Jews, would be harmful enough if it were a rhetorical lapse. But Azoulai, a member of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, reflects an attitude prevalent among many charedi leaders, whether or not they say so publicly. Not a hopeful sign, then, that in his ministerial role he controls rabbinic appointments and, after a cabinet vote on Sunday, authority over rabbinical courts as well.
Also on Sunday the cabinet took a major step backward in the struggle for religious freedom in Israel. It repealed a conversion policy, instituted by the previous Knesset, that sought to counter the restrictive actions of the Chief Rabbinate and make conversion more appealing for some 300,000 citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish. The bill would have permitted community rabbis in about 30 municipalities to perform conversions, making the process more accessible.
Both chief rabbis, the Ashkenazic David Lau and the Sephardic Yitzchak Yosef, opposed the more liberal bill, along with the charedi political parties who made joining the Netanyahu coalition contingent on repealing conversion reform.
At a time when Jerusalem is said to be worried about the increasing distancing of younger American Jews, and its strategic impact on Israel, the prime minister made a deal to bolster his coalition by agreeing to allow the reversal of important reforms on conversion that would have loosened the Chief Rabbinate’s hold. It is difficult to conclude that this was anything other than a glaring example of Netanyahu placing politics over peoplehood.