Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers threatened a coalition crisis Wednesday over comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the previous day, in which he expressed support for the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism in Israel.
In an effort to reach out to the US Jewish community, of which nearly 80 percent identify as Reform or Conservative, Netanyahu told the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly that Israel was working to strengthen non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox streams of Judaism within Israel, and made a veiled call for reforms at the Western Wall.
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni rejected the Prime Minister’s comments, saying the Reform Jews “stick a knife in the Torah of Israel.”
“What Netanyahu said is very serious and we will demand clarifications when he returns to Israel,” Gafni said.
Fellow UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler accused Reform Jews of destroying Judaism. “They’re not Jews because 80 percent of their kids are assimilators,” Eichler said. “Whoever wants to uproot Jewish law to lead to heresy, to make the God of Israel something amorphous, to make the Torah of Israel into legends, that’s not Judaism. That’s the destruction of Judaism.”
Eichler also accused America’s Jewish community federations of corruption and of funneling money to anti-Israel groups. “I’m talking about the leaders and organizations of the Reform — the federations, the corruption,” Eichler told Israel’s Army Radio. “You know that they take money for Israel from innocent Jews and leave 95 percent of the money in the United States. Where does the money go? To the anti-Israel organizations.”
Netanyahu had told the annual assembly that Israel will be home to all Jews from all streams, including Reform and Conservative, and said the Western Wall – a point of recent tension between different Jewish denominations – must be a source of unity, not disagreement.
“I want to guarantee one thing to each and every one of you: As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews – all Jews,” he said.
Netanyahu said there had been a “governmental decision” to establish a forum aimed at addressing the concerns of the different streams of Judaism in Israel.
“For the first time, the government of Israel is joining with the Jewish Agency to invest in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel. I am also hopeful that we will soon conclude a long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel is a source of unity for our people, not a point of division,” he said, using a Hebrew term for the Western Wall.
Health Minister and United Torah Judaism chair Yaakov Litzman suggested the comments could cause a coalition crisis, saying the initiative “explicitly contradicts the coalition agreement he [Netanyahu] signed with us.”
Litzman vowed to fight against any efforts to recognize non-Orthodox strands of Judaism in Israel.
“Throughout the generations we’ve known that the Reform and Conservative are tearing apart the Jewish nation. We mustn’t allow them to harm the Torah of Israel,” he said. “It’s sad that the prime minister made the comments and we will do everything in our power to make sure his promise will not be kept.”
Netanyahu’s other Haredi coalition partner, the Shas party, also attacked the comments.
“The stance of Jewish believers regarding the Reform Movement is known. We oppose them in every way,” Shas MK Yoav Ben Tzur said in a statement. “This position of ours will not change,” he declared.
In July, Shas Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay said in a radio interview that he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish, and urged them to turn to Orthodox Judaism.
“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” he said.
Azoulay added, “These are Jews that have lost their way, and we must ensure that every Jew returns to the fold of Judaism, and accept everyone with love and joy.”
Netanyahu quickly rejected Azoulay’s “hurtful remarks” at the time and said in a statement they did not reflect the position of his government.
“Israel is the home for all Jews, the Israeli government serves all citizens of Israel — both religious and secular regardless of the stream [of Judaism] they’re from,” the prime minister told the cabinet.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.