Destructive Proclamation. . . Last Wednesday, Knesset Member David Rotem, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and Chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset, stood on the Knesset floor and declared Reform Jews not to be Jews, and Reform Judaism to be a different religion. This is the same David Rotem who, in July of 2010, proposed a law that would have given the Chief Rabbinate ultimate authority over the validity of conversions, marriages and divorces, and potentially nullified the conversion status of countless Jews who were converted by non-Orthodox rabbis or rabbis not approved of by the Rabbinate. There was an avalanche of protest from Jews the world over, in addition to the strong opposition of Jewish Agency head Natan Scharansky, so Rotem’s bill did not go through.
Outrage. . . Last Wednesday, within several hours Rotem’s statement, Jewish leaders within Israel and the United States reacted with appropriately forceful refutations. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League wrote in an open letter to Rotem: “We are deeply disturbed by reports of comments attributed to you about the Reform Movement’s ‘not being Jewish.’ Such views are inappropriate, offensive and unjustified. “ And Foxman added that such rhetoric “fosters divisiveness and feelings of alienation toward elements of Israeli society.” Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, called on Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset, to reprimand Rotem: “An assertion such as this makes it impossible for lawmaker Rotem to continue to chair discussions on sensitive issues such as conversion, who is a Jew, and other topics that are associated with religion and state matters, and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.” Kariv further explained that by using the term “another religion,” Rotem’s ulterior motive was to exclude Reform Jews from making Aliyah, since Israel’s Law of Return uses that terminology to exclude non-Jews from making Aliyah. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive VP of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Steven Wernick of United Synagogue, voiced the opposition of the Conservative Movement, as they cited “the utter lack of leadership that makes these outrages so frequent and undermines the very aspirations that are the foundations of Judaism and the Jewish State.”
Because of the storm of protest that ensued, David Rotem retracted his statement later in the week, accusing the media of deliberately misconstruing his remarks. I am grateful for the outcries of our colleagues and fellow Jews, which reminded Rotem and his cohorts that this sort of irresponsible rhetoric is damaging to Israel and the Jewish People, and we will not allow it to stand. Nevertheless I am saddened at the enmity and ill will that is spread by this rhetoric, and its disregard for civility and the needs and realities of the Jewish People.
Michael Oren’s Statement. . . I do not believe that David Rotem represents the majority of Israelis. Witness the recent statement of former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. In an article this week in The Times of Israel, Mr. Oren recalled conversations he had had during his time as Ambassador with a broad spectrum of American rabbis. He said that the only thing that all the rabbis he met with agreed upon — be they Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — was their opposition to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which doesn’t recognize even most US Orthodox conversions today. More broadly, he said, Israel needed “to re cognize all forms of Judaism. We have to recognize the roles of those movements in Judaism within different life-cycle events in Israeli life. We risk alienating them. The amazing thing about the Reform Movement is that, after so many years of not being recognized by the State of Israel, they remain so pro-Israeli. That to me is extraordinary.” Nevertheless, Oren warned Israel not to continue to ignore these rabbis or their lay leaders. “I‘ll sit with American Jewish Reform and Conservative leaders who care passionately about Israel,” Oren said. “But they’ll say to you: I can’t tell you how hurtful it is that the State of Israel doesn’t recognize my form of Judaism. It is the worst pain when you say something like that. It’s something we have to address as a society if we are to remain the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Michael Oren understands the value and necessity of a pluralistic society. The Jewish People has survived, lo these thousands of years, because it has been able to accommodate diversity, not in spite of it. We have brought the art of debate and dialogue to their greatest heights, all the while maintaining our ultimate need for camaraderie and good will toward each other as our utmost priority.
Commitment to Pluralism. . . The nechemta (comfort) for me in all this is the week I just spent at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is a beacon of pluralism and openness for all Jews. The institute is marked by serious learning and vigorous debate, carried on in the spirit of K’lal Yisrael, the community of Israel, whose tent is big enough to tolerate differences and honor a multitude of perspectives. The rigidity and rejectionism of David Rotem and his inner circle do not characterize the spirit of Israel, nor do they represent Theodor Herzl’s vision of an open, independent state for all Jews.