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We need to listen to Diaspora, Rivlin says, in subtle jab at Netanyahu

After year of frayed ties, president tells US Jewish leaders that Israel must do better at taking non-Orthodox streams into account

President Reuven Rivlin leading a community prayer at the President's Residence synagogue in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin leading a community prayer at the President's Residence synagogue in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin leveled rare criticism at the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a series of moves opposed by Diaspora Jewry, saying Israel had to work to heal the rift with Jews from outside the country.

Rivlin told a group of Jewish American leaders in a conference call Wednesday that relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry had contained several low points over the past year, appearing to reference decisions to freeze a pluralistic prayer plaza at the Western Wall, clamp down on acceptable conversions, and back US President Donald Trump against allegations of anti-Semitism, among other issues.

“Many of them were deep disappointments, when expectations were not met. Some people are quick to let go. They talk of separation, of a growing gap, of a crisis that cannot be stopped. That is not our way,” Rivlin told leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, according to a statement from his office.

Jewish figures in the US and elsewhere have warned of a growing rift between Israel and Diaspora Jews over the government’s decisions, many of which seem to disregard non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which are a sliver of the community in the Jewish state but represent the lion’s share of Jews abroad.

In June, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the cabinet had decided to freeze plans to expand the Western Wall plaza to include a pluralistic prayer space and would push forward with a plan to cement ultra-Orthodox control over deciding which Orthodox conversions abroad are accepted in Israel.

Thousands of people praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem before dawn on September 28, 2017 prior to the upcoming Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Both moves drew widespread anger from Jews abroad, with some warning that support for Israel in the Diaspora could begin to wane.

Some Jews have also expressed dismay over the Netanyahu government’s willingness to tolerate xenophobic or anti-Semitic groups when other interests converge. Netanyahu has been a vocal defender of Trump even as the US president has been accused of being soft on neo-Nazis and other white nationalist groups, and has remained mum on the ascent of the far-right AfD to the German parliament this week.

Rivlin said Israel needed to listen to Diaspora Jews rather than disregarding them.

President Reuven Rivlin leading a community prayer at the President’s Residence synagogue in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“We will never let go of you. We will never turn away from our family outside of Israel.” he said. “It is time we listen and learn. It is time we learn to really understand each other better. It is time to face not only what ties us together, but also what makes us different.

Before his ascent to the presidency in 2014, Rivlin had come under fire for his criticism of non-Orthodox Jewish streams. He opposed granting equal status to the Reform and Conservative movements and drew outrage in the past for calling Reform Judaism “idol worship” and refusing to address Reform rabbis as “rabbi.”

Since he became Israel’s head of state in July, Rivlin’s approach appears to have softened, and he has sought a policy of inclusiveness rather than isolation.

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