For Liberal Jews, ‘Israel Has Lost Its Way’


A series of recent events in Israel — including a controversial new nation-state law — “are really troublesome and represent a continuing slide towards a potential theocracy,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that for those “who do not love Israel,” these latest events — including a new anti-LGBTQ surrogacy law — provide “ammunition to denigrate and delegitimize it.”

Rabbi Dov Haiyun, the Conservative rabbi of a 150-family synagogue in Haifa, said these events — including his being detained by authorities last week for performing a non-Orthodox wedding in Israel — have convinced him that “Israel has lost its way. … Now it is the state of the Orthodox, not of the Jews.”

The rabbi’s arrest at his home shortly before 5:30 a.m. last Thursday was denounced by a myriad of American Jewish organizations, as were the recent spate of Knesset actions. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned by the disturbing reports involving Rabbi Dov Haiyun,” and said steps must be taken to “prevent a recurrence.”

Rabbi Haiyun told The Jewish Week that he has been invited to speak at a rally Saturday night in Habima Square in Tel Aviv to protest his arrest. He plans to announce his candidacy for the city council in Haifa. He said he eventually would like to run for the Knesset as a member of the Labor Party.

“All of the Jewish world needs to call the prime minister and say, ‘If you want us with the State of Israel, you need to recognize all of us and not only the Orthodox,’” he said.

Asked what American Jews should do who buy Israel Bonds and support the state in other ways, Rabbi Haiyun replied. He said that “until there is change,” they should “give their money to the Reform and Conservative movements to make them bigger in Israel. They need to open more synagogues in Israel. We need more Reform and Conservative Jews in the Knesset … if we want to change the laws.”

“What happened to me will be the beginning of a big change,” predicted Rabbi Haiyun, 56, a native Israeli who is married and the father of two. “We need to change the rules [and to do that] we need to be inside. … I need people to help me and it is going to take a lot of money.”

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Manhattan, said he would not withhold support from such groups as Israel Bonds but believes millions of dollars needs to be raised to grow the Reform movement in Israel.

…. We can never have a normal relationship with the State of Israel while Israel suppresses non-Orthodox Judaism.

“It is a colossal failure of leadership on the part of the Reform movement that for all of these decades we have been unwilling or unable — and I believe unwilling — to direct tens of millions of dollars to develop the Israel Reform movement on a grass roots level,” he said. “There has been substantial and impressive growth over the decades, however the Israeli population has also grown and our influence has not substantially increased. … We can never have a normal relationship with the State of Israel while Israel suppresses non-Orthodox Judaism.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, agreed that “support for the streams [of Judaism] is an important way to influence Israeli society.” But, she added, “It is going to be a bottom-up as well as a top-down challenge because Israeli society as a whole has to get to know and develop respectful relationships with their diaspora brothers and sisters in a way that they heretofore have not. Having more Masorti [Conservative] and Reform Jews as elected officials would clearly be helpful, but there is no substitute for educating an Israeli population that knows little about the half of world Jewry that doesn’t live in Israel.”

Rabbi Haiyun’s arrest followed the Knesset’s passage of a new nation-state law that amends Israel’s Basic Law to say that Israel is the Jewish and democratic state of the Jewish people. It states that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the measure, calling it a “defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the State of Israel.” Supporters of the bill say it restores to prominence the Jewish component of the Jewish-democratic nature of the state. They say the liberal courts had taken the society too far to the left. But those on the left, and many in the center, have criticized the law, which preserves the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people,” not all citizens. Members of Israel’s Arab minority — which comprise 20 percent of the country’s 9 million residents — called it racist and verging on apartheid.

Rabbi Jacobs called it a “sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done … is enormous.”

The Knesset also passed another law last week that sparked additional controversy — it voted to exclude same-sex couples from a law that expands surrogacy rights for heterosexual couples and single women. It sparked a mass rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square that was attended by some 60,000 people.

“If we don’t strengthen the more inclusive character of the Jewish state, we will have done harm,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “The LGBTQ ruling is part of the whole shift, and it causes a lot of distress for the people who love Israel — and I think that’s the lion’s share of us.”

Rabbi Wernick said he finds what is happening in Israel “dangerous — that a rabbinic court in Haifa could instruct police to arrest a rabbi for officiating at a wedding, that an extremist rabbinate can disqualify conversions, that a woman can be arrested for carrying a Torah, and that buses can segregate” men and women.

Israel is a very polarized society and we have to figure out how the two poles can come together for am Yisrael [the people of Israel]…

“Israel is a very polarized society and we have to figure out how the two poles can come together for am Yisrael [the people of Israel],” he said. “I don’t expect the charedim to agree with me, but I expect Israel as a civil society to be ruled by laws based on liberal democratic principles that guarantee religious pluralism instead of supporting a coercive system.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, a lawyer who is representing Rabbi Haiyun and is also CEO of Hiddush- For Freedom of Religion and Equality in Israel, said he was sending letters to Israel’s deputy attorney general and deputy state attorney demanding they investigate the arrest of Rabbi Haiyun.

Rabbi Regev said Rabbi Haiyun called him at 5:30 a.m. last Thursday to tell him police had come to arrest him. Rabbi Regev said he spoke with one of the officers and explained to him that Rabbi Haiyun had spoken on the phone with three other officers the previous day and had agreed to come in for questioning the following Monday. Rabbi Regev said Rabbi Haiyun told the three officers that he was unable to come to the police station the following day because he was scheduled to be in Jerusalem to speak at the home of the Israeli president for a pre-Tisha b’Av program. Rabbi Haiyun recorded his end of those calls, Rabbi Regev said.

Rabbi Haiyun was arrested anyway and taken to the police station in a “police van with bars on the window.” But he was released about an hour later at the directive of Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, who ordered a suspension of the police investigation pending his office’s review of the case.