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Bias Against Non-Orthodox Has Deep Roots in Israel

(JTA) — Israeli Religious Services Minister David Azoulay — from the haredi Shas Party — drew a wave of backlash earlier this week when he said that Reform Jews aren’t Jews. Among those who spoke out against the minister was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” Azoulay told Israel’s Army Radio Tuesday. “These are Jews that have lost their way, and we must ensure that every Jew returns to the fold of Judaism, and accept everyone with love and joy.”

Sure, it wasn’t the most diplomatic thing to say. But were Azoulay’s comments such a departure from longstanding Israeli policy? Israel considers Jews of all denominational stripes Jewish. But that same legal system doesn’t recognize Reform religious ceremonies or — for the most part — Reform rabbis. Reform Jews can gain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. And — as in most other developed countries — they have the right to worship as they choose. But that’s about where it ends.

Israel’s religious policy, formulated and supervised by Azoulay’s ministry, does not recognize Reform (or Conservative) marriage, divorce, conversion or burial. In Israel, the only recognized marriages and conversions are Orthodox — performed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Israel’s mikvahs, or ritual baths, may be used for non-Orthodox conversions, but the conversions will remain unrecognized by the state.

Community rabbis who receive salaries from the Religious Services Ministry are all Orthodox. The past few years have seen a handful of non-Orthodox rabbis gain the right to government salaries — but those are provided by the Culture and Sport Ministry, not Azoulay’s office. Most Conservative and Reform rabbis don’t get a penny from Israel’s government.

The rejection of non-Orthodox Judaism stretches beyond Azoulay’s office. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, when he was still a Knesset member, visited a Reform synagogue in 1989 and referred to the service as “idol worship and not Judaism.” Rivlin has made conciliatory gestures since entering office, meeting with Conservative and Reform leaders — though controversy returned after Rivlin allegedly excluded a Conservative rabbi from a bar and bat Mitzvah ceremony held at his residence.

Netanyahu wasn’t the only member of his government to speak out against Azoulay. On Wednesday, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett wrote on Facebook, “All Jews are Jews. Whether conservative, reform, orthodox, haredi or secular. And Israel is their home. Period.”

Bennett, of course, preceded Azoulay as religious services minister. During his stint, Bennett attempted to make Israel’s religious policy more efficient and user-friendly — while keeping it Orthodox.

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