'This is not something that happens in a democracy'

Rabbi’s arrest signals Israel ‘no longer for all Jews’ — US Conservative leader

Steven Wernick says ‘infuriating’ detention of Dov Haiyun for performing weddings outside Rabbinate ‘gives the impression of a religious police’

Rabbi Dov Haiyun in Jerusalem on July 19, 2018 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Rabbi Dov Haiyun in Jerusalem on July 19, 2018 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

NEW YORK — Israeli authorities’ early morning arrest and interrogation of a Conservative rabbi this week is a sign the country is “no longer a Jewish homeland for all the Jewish people,” an American Conservative leader fumed Friday afternoon.

After Rabbi Dov Haiyun was taken from his home at 5 a.m. and detained Thursday for performing weddings outside the auspices of the state-run Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Steven Wernick said Israel was not only tarnishing its already splintered relationship with the diaspora, but eroding its democratic status.

“It gives the impression of a religious police,” Wernick, who leads the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) umbrella group, said in an interview with The Times of Israel. “This is not something that happens in a democracy.”

Following Haiyun’s arrest — and a furious outcry both inside and outside Israel — Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit instructed police to halt the questioning.

American Jews were deeply alarmed over the case, raising dire concerns over its implications about the nature and character of the Jewish state.

“The actions of the prime minister and this government are actions of leadership that are making Israel no longer the Jewish homeland for all the Jewish people,” Wernick said. “What we see — through the lack of forceful response when people say really outrageous things, and by a governmental culture and policies that are allowing rabbis to be arrested, even if it is a mistake — are actions that cumulatively delegitimize world Jewry. That’s what makes me so emotional about it.”

The USCJ had previously sent out a statement Thursday directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the episode “marks a new and dangerous step in the ongoing attack on religious freedom and civil liberties in Israel.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick (Mike Diamond Photography/via JTA)

“The whole thing is infuriating,” Wernick added on Friday. “I think this is an example of something that cannot only weaken Israel as a democracy, but Israel’s status as a Jewish state.”

According to Wernick, Haiyun was summoned to appear before court for conducting a wedding that was not registered with the rabbinate. When he didn’t show up, police arrested him. It was not clear why he ignored the summons.

“I don’t know if he didn’t get it. I don’t know if he didn’t understand it. I don’t know what the reason for that was,” Wernick said.

Haiyun, who has been officiating at non-Orthodox weddings in Israel for decades, appeared hours after his release at an event at the residence of President Reuven Rivlin, participating in a program in which he taught Torah to Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Secular Jewish scholars.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbincal Assembly, delivers the closing benediction Monday, July 25, 2016, at the first day’s proceedings of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Ron Sachs)

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who leads the US-based Rabbinical Assembly which represents Conservative rabbis worldwide, also expressed indignation over the arrest.

“It’s almost like a Ghandi moment,” she said. “We can’t let our anger about this destroy us. There’s so much escalating bitterness and rancor between the government of Israel and the Diaspora.”

Haiyun’s detention, she emphasized, was a manifestation of the reality under which non-Orthodox Jews live in Israel — and that Diaspora Jews confront when they visit.

“Israel deserves us, in the positive sense, and we deserve them. We deserve this positive relationship,” Schonfeld said. “We can’t let anybody, including any politicians with their shortsighted desires, take that away from us. It’s not theirs to take away.”

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