World Reform Leaders Heckle Sharansky, and Cheer Amoz Oz
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World Reform Leaders Heckle Sharansky, and Cheer Amoz Oz

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Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of industry and trade, encountered hostility this week at a meeting of world leaders of the Reform movement.

Sharansky initially was greeted warmly when he arrived to address the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s 29th a??? convention in Jerusalem.

But seconds after taking the podium, a rabbi hurled insults at the former Soviet Jewish dissident, who was an icon in the struggle led by U.S. Jewry to free Soviet Jews during the 1970s and 1980s.

“He’s been voting against us all the time,” shouted Rabbi David Liliental of Amsterdam. “He owes us and he’s betrayed us.”

Liliental was referring to support given by Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, the immigrant party that Sharansky leads, to Orthodox-backed legislation in the Knesset that Reform Jews say delegitimizes liberal Jews.

Sharansky replied that fervently Orthodox Cabinet ministers have been accusing him of not backing their cause strongly enough, and said he was “proud of his role” in building bridges among religious streams.

But many of the 250 Reform rabbis and community leaders attending this week’s conference from around the world said they were disappointed when Sharansky failed to address the issues that have been straining Israel-Diaspora relations.

Instead, he talked about a recent trip to Russia.

At the end of his address, another participant shouted: “Why did you vote that we are not rabbis? Why did you vote for the conversion bill?”

Sharansky said he was in favor of dialogue, but did not want “legislation or the Supreme Court” to decide the issues.

The hostile atmosphere put a damper on what the Reform movement hoped would be a festive occasion, as it presented Sharansky with the first-ever Russian- language Reform prayer book.

Only a small portion of the crowd cheered when he left.

In contrast to Sharansky’s cool reception, Amos Oz, the secular Israeli author, drew cheers as he repeated a recent pledge to join the Reform movement in its struggle against the Orthodox.

He also charmed the crowd with insights on the pluralism conflict, peppered with humor and literary language.

Oz said the heated debate between religious and secular Jews was actually a healthy manifestation of traditional Jewish culture, and will never spark a “full-scale civil war” like those that had devastated Europe and the United States:

“I don’t think Israel is going to give the world this horrible spectacle,” he said, adding that in 50 years, “this will be the world’s most popular city for a healthy argument.”

Oz also urged the Reform movement to refocus its struggle on providing an alternative to “a deep-seated emotional and intellectual stagnation” that he feels characterizes fervently Orthodox Judaism today.

He said the battle for equal rights would not be won only in the Knesset or Supreme Court, but through an “erotic game” of education.

“We need to attract, we need to seduce,” he said, commanding: “Thou shalt make your kind of Jewishness desirable.”

On Saturday night, the conference was expected to pay tribute to Rabbi Richard Hirsch, executive director of the World Union, who is retiring from the movement after 25 years of service.

Hirsch was instrumental in moving the Reform movement’s headquarters from the United States to Israel, and played a key role in bringing the movement back to Zionism.

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