Knesset member David Rotem on Thursday apologized for comments earlier in the week to the effect that members of the Reform movement were not truly Jewish. Rotem claimed that his remarks, which were lambasted by multiple Jewish organizations, had been misunderstood, and said he would meet with the leaders of Israel’s Reform community to clarify the issue.
“Comments attributed to me regarding the Reform movement have been misinterpreted by elements within the media,” Rotem said in a statement posted to Facebook. “I have never said belonging to the Reform movement makes anyone less Jewish.”
Rotem, who is Orthodox, may have “theological differences with the Reform Movement’s perspective,” but still maintains “the greatest respect for all Jews, regardless of their denomination and background,” he wrote.
“I apologize for any misunderstanding and all offense generated by the content of my comments yesterday. I hope that this clarification can generate the necessary debate on how to further unify the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora, around our shared vital interests and concerns, rather than limiting it to the differences that exist among us,” the MK said.
Rotem is chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, and a member of the ruling coalition from Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party. Rotem made the remarks during a committee discussion on changing Israel’s child adoption law, where he was reported to have said that “the Reform movement is not Jewish… they are another religion.”
Rotem on Thursday in an interview with Army Radio admitted that he had made “a big mistake” and implied that the issue had arisen because of a terminological misunderstanding. The Reform movement is “another Jewish religion,” he told the radio, just like the ultra-Orthodox community could “of course” be considered as “also another Jewish religion.”
“The Reform are all Jews,” he said, and added that “we have a lot of differences… [but] we need to put those aside so on Shabbat we can eat together.”
Rotem said that after his words caused a firestorm, he had a “very long” telephone discussion with Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, and arranged to meet with a group of Reform leaders next week to clarify the matter.
Kariv on Wednesday had called on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to reprimand Rotem for the remarks.
“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 said.
A statement from the Reform movement in Israel pointed out that use of the expression “another religion” was deliberate, since Israel’s Law of Return uses the same term to exclude non-Jews from making aliyah. By using the term, the statement said, Rotem was saying Reform Jews have no place in Israel.
The Union for Reform Judaism called Rotem’s comments “unacceptable” and urged Edelstein to remove him from his committee chairmanship.
“There is no way that someone who holds these views — and has consistently stated them in public — can be a fair arbiter over laws that impact the very essence of Klal Yisrael,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote in a statement.
The leadership of the Conservative movement — including Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly and Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — in a statement Wednesday lamented “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.”
Saying “the Jewishness of the Reform Movement is beyond question and in no need of defense,” the statement called on the government of Israel to censure Rotem and remove him from leadership roles.
The Anti-Defamation League called on Rotem to retract his statements and apologize to the Reform movement.
In a letter to Rotem, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said the lawmaker’s views were “inappropriate, offensive and unjustified.”
“The suggestion that Jews throughout the world who identify with the Reform movement are somehow not a part of the Jewish people is an unacceptable characterization of a proud, highly engaged and committed group of Jews. Among many US non-Orthodox Jews, rejectionist rhetoric of this kind fosters divisiveness and feelings of alienation towards elements of Israeli society. As someone who has long been engaged in the issue of Jewish identify, we are surprised and saddened that you expressed these views,” Foxman wrote.
JTA contributed to this report.