The Israeli government chose to show its friendly face to the Reform movement by sending defense minister Ehud Barak as the top Israeli representative to the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Barak meet with President Barack Obama for 30 minutes at the conference center. The Defense Ministry said in a statement that the two leaders discussed regional issues and the challenges facing the Middle East, the United States and Israel.
Barak thanked Obama for strengthening the security ties between Israel and the United States during his term.
There are not many officials in the current Israeli coalition government that can offer a warm embrace to America’s largest Jewish denomination.
The Reform movement has been critical of many current Israeli policies and of trends in Israeli society including the controversial attempt to change conversion laws, growing gender segregation in the public sphere, and legislation aimed at limiting civil-society institutions.
But Ehud Barak, the former leader of Israel’s Labor Party, offered an olive branch to his listeners from the Reform movement.
Referring to the Reform audience as a “loud and proud family,” Barak, who usually focuses on national security issues when speaking overseas, devoted a significant part of his speech to addressing some of the fears Jewish Americans, especially those affiliated with the liberal side of the Jewish world, have regarding recent activities of Israel’s government and lawmakers.
“I know that in this room there is genuine concern regarding the wave of proposed legislation that has the potential to harm our democracy and the rule of law,” Barak said. “As the Defense Minister of the State of Israel, I can assure you that I will stand rock solid against any attempt to curb freedoms or undermine our democracy. I will not allow politicized, targeted legislation to undermine the value of the supremacy of the law.”
To the cheers of the crowd Barak added: “The only Jewish Democratic State in the world must remain exactly that: a Jewish and democratic state.”
Barak even went a step further and made a point of debunking the claim that Israelis do not wish to hear any criticism from Diaspora Jews, criticism of the kind that the Reform movement had leveled at times.
“Your presence and voice is essential to our decision making,” Barak said. “We welcome the debate and value your input.” He even topped his praise for the Reform Movement by commending the group’s “fiery spirit of pride and progress” that “burns so bright.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.