The issues, all revolving around the ever-thorny questions of who is a Jew and what claim non-Israelis can stake to matters of Israeli life, have been simmering for years. But last month, when the Israeli government issued a swift one-two punch to non-Orthodox Jewish observance by nixing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and approving a bill that would block all but the most religious rabbis from performing Jewish conversions, the pot boiled over.
When Netanyahu bowed to ultra-Orthodox pressure late last month and nixed a hard-won agreement to build an egalitarian space at the Western Wall the move was seen as a slap in the face to the majority of the globe’s Jews.
On the very same day, the Israeli government also pushed through a controversial conversion bill that would declare the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the sole power for determining who is indeed a Jew.
The response from diaspora Jewish organizations was swift and scathing. The Jewish Agency, the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit and a key supporter of immigration to Israel, immediately canceled a planned dinner with Netanyahu in protest and issued a rebuke, saying it “deplore[d]” the decision. It called upon the Israeli government to immediately “understand the gravity of its steps” and reverse course.
“This is a serious issue for Zionism. Zionism is meant to relate to the Jewish people, not just the Jewish state.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents some 1.5 million Jews in the United States and Canada, says the term “rift” is an understatement. “There has been a bit of a tectonic shift,” he says. “What happened on June 25 signaled something unprecedented.… It’s no longer business as usual, and it strikes at the very heart of some core commitments of Jewish life.”
So why, then, would the Israeli government allow a fringe group of rabbis to push through legislation that adds fuel to the fire?
Jacobs says, they gambled on world Jewry sitting idly by. It was, the Reform rabbi believes, a bad bet.
“I don’t believe many members of this current cabinet have a deep understanding of the strength of world Jewry,” Jacobs says. “We’re all in this together, but these decisions signaled that we’re not as together as all of us may have thought, and that causes real harm. It was a profound miscalculation.”
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