Netanyahu suggests Diaspora is drifting away from Judaism

At US meeting, PM says he sought to reassure Jewish leaders on Israel’s commitment to pluralism, democracy

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meeting with US Jewish leaders in New York on September 28, 2018. (PMO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meeting with US Jewish leaders in New York on September 28, 2018. (PMO)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a conversation with Israeli reporters Friday suggested that the cause of Israel’s troubled relationship with Diaspora Jews was that the latter were moving away from Judaism.

The prime minister, during a wide-ranging interview with the traveling press corps while in the United States, recounted reading an article in Mosaic magazine, which, he said, argued that the problem was not that Israel was drifting away from Diaspora Jewry, or that the Diaspora were drifting away from Israel, but that they were drifting away from Judaism.

“There is a lot of truth in that,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu spoke of a meeting he had with representatives of US Jewish groups this week, during which he sought to reassure them over their concerns regarding religious freedom and democratic rights in the Jewish state.

“It was a very candid and wide-ranging conversation,” Netanyahu recounted, adding that he told the Jewish leaders that Israel was moving forward with the construction of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall.

“I described plainly and honestly what had transpired — the ultra-Orthodox objections,” he said.

“I said I would move forward in practical terms to prepare the [pluralistic] plaza. Right now we have one step left before work can begin, which is the approval of the district planning committee. That’s the last thing left and then we can get it done.”

The pluralistic platform has become a point of increased friction between Israel and Diaspora Jews.

The original decision to build the pavilion dates back to January 31, 2016, when the government — spurred by decades of high-profile activism by the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall — approved the so-called Western Wall compromise. Painstakingly negotiated since 2012 with leaders of liberal Judaism and other prominent figures, it provided for the construction of a permanent pluralistic area at the site of a currently existing temporary one. Other key aspects of the plan included a single entrance to the area to be shared with the Orthodox gender-segregated prayer plaza, and the establishment of a board of pluralistic Jewry to oversee the mixed-gender area.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office on September 17, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But on June 25, 2017, Netanyahu, facing intense ultra-Orthodox pressure, froze the compromise. While killing off the joint entrance and pluralistic governing board, however, he vowed to continue with the construction of a permanent platform.

He also said Friday that he’d “raised the issue of conversion” with the US Jewish leaders and he detailed government work on the contentious issue, describing a proposal earlier this year to overhaul the system of conversion to Judaism in the country as “very interesting.”

In June, Moshe Nissim, a former justice, finance, and industry minister, presented Netanyahu with a report and recommendations on a proposed bill to streamline conversion into a uniform process under the auspices of a new state-authorized Orthodox body.

The proposal was immediately condemned by Orthodox leaders who urged the premier to bury it, warning it would divide Jewry and facilitate the loss of Jewish heritage.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018 (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)

“I believe the Moshe Nissim document is very interesting, it’s an important work. It will serve us in our deliberations,” Netanyahu said he told Jewish leaders.

However, he acknowledged to them that a major reform was unlikely to be passed at present do to the objections of ultra-Orthodox members of government.

A recent survey has shown Jewish Israelis seek more liberal religious policies and disapprove of the government’s handling of the issue.

The prime minister said the conversation also focused on Israel’s recent Jewish nation-state law, which enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” in its quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

American Jews expressed grave concerns over the legislation, which has been criticized inside Israel and outside of it as discriminatory towards Arabs and other minorities.

Netanyahu said he had “explained why we had legislated the nation-state law. I explained it step-by-step, and beyond that I explained the issues with balancing the two systems — democratic and national; that the objective was not to disenfranchise anyone, and that it didn’t hurt anyone’s individual rights.”

He claimed Jewish leaders had been receptive to his explanations. “They asked me if I’m ready to speak to Reform and Conservative communities [on the matter]… The answer is yes.”

Netanyahu has called the law “vital” in ensuring that “Israel will remain the Jewish nation-state for generations to come.”

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