Israel Diaspora Minister Senses Trouble for Liberal Judaism

Israel Diaspora Minister Senses Trouble for Liberal Judaism

Nachman Shai sees recent support for Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel as losing out to the rising influence of the ultra-Orthodox and far right political parties.

For years, liberal Jews have campaigned for the right to worship as they please at the Kotel, the Temple’s Western Wall.
For years, liberal Jews have campaigned for the right to worship as they please at the Kotel, the Temple’s Western Wall.

Israel’s outgoing cabinet minister of diaspora affairs believes that his country’s relationship with liberal Jews in America may face an uncertain future under Israel’s new government.

Nachman Shai has, for the past year and a half, been responsible for repairing the Israeli government’s relationship with Reform and Conservative Judaism. He said, in a mid-December interview, that he thought the new right-wing coalition formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will undo much of what he feels he and the recent administration has accomplished.

“We have improved the relationship through a number of projects, initiatives and conversations with the various denominations and also with a number of American Jewish organizations. But I’m afraid it won’t last long, because if this government adopts the proposals and the policies which were recommended by their potential partners in the upcoming coalition, then we will see a repetition of the previous crises, if not bigger ones.”

As an example of better diaspora relations, in February, for the first time in six years an Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, met with the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements. The meeting, ostensibly to talk about the implementation of an agreement to open worship at the Kotel, the Western Wall of The Temple, to liberal Jews, was seen as a positive step. It was particularly encouraging, at the time, for Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“Our movement expressed our unconditional support for the State of Israel and our expectation that the prime minister takes steps that prove his commitment that the State of Israel as the home of all Jews in Israel and around the world.”

(Right) Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has criticized the policies of Itamar Ben Gvir.

But that burst of optimism was shattered in recent weeks as the new prime minister, Netanyahu, has worked to transform his right-wing coalition into a new government. In an interview with National Public Radio on Dec. 15, Netanyahu defended his decision to appoint Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the far-right Otzmar Yehudit party, as national security minister with an expanded portfolio.

Ben-Gvir has multiple convictions in Israel for incitement, racism, and terror-related charges. However, Netanyahu said Ben-Givr is a changed man.

“He’s modified a lot of his views since then,” Netanyahu told NPR. “And I have to say that with power comes responsibility.”

But the URJ leader Rick Jacobs has lost no time in condemning the appointment. He told Ynet News in Israel that the Ben-Gvir appointment was like appointing “David Duke, one of the heads of the Ku Klux Klan, as attorney general.”

“We are very concerned about Israel’s existence and its place in the world,” Jacobs was quoted as saying. He described Ben-Givr as “someone who has made a career out of hatred and encouraging violence.”

For his part, Shai was particularly proud of the attempt he made last July to establish a branch of his ministry that supports progressive Judaism. He announced the funding of what he called a “Jewish renewal administration” that would fund educational activities of progressive communities in Israel. It would also help to increase cooperation with diaspora communities to fight antisemitism. Israel, he said, needs to fight antisemitism around the world more effectively.

Nachman Shai has been Diaspora Affair Minister since June 2021.

“I would like to see Israel taking the lead. And I made it clear to the prime minister (Bennett) that I’ve been working with what I hope it will be done in the future. I proposed that we will set up a state authority to combat antisemitism in the world. As a government, we do not work collectively, we don’t work together to fight antisemitism.”

But such an effort in the diaspora, as urgent as it might seem to Shai, is likely to be put on hold as the new Netanyahu government addresses the concerns of its partners at home, in Israel.

Earlier this month, the Israeli religious party, United Torah Judaism, publicly announced its goals as part of the governing coalition. It proposed tougher laws to enforce Sabbath observance, more segregation of men and women on public beaches, and an end to government support for any form of liberal Judaism.

While the Israeli diaspora minister concedes that Israel is a thriving democracy, he is not certain that the values of some parties in the new government are congruent with those of a majority of American Jews.

“When I look at the American Jewish community, the values there like democracy, the rule of law, human rights and so on were common to both Israel and the diaspora. Some of those values are not that deep in Israel. It will be hard for American Jews to identify with Otzma Yehudit and other extremists. And, of course, you have the values of the ultra-Orthodox parties. All of them are members of the Netanyahu’s upcoming government and they will have senior positions.”

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