The “Not Real Jews”

As someone who is used to being periodically told I’m not a “real Christian” because I’m not a biblical literalist and/or do not find much support in the Bible for a secular agenda focused on abortion, homosexuality, feminism (bad!) and laissez-faire capitalism (good!), I can certainly empathize with the anger of Reform and Conservative (and for that matter, non-religious) Jews who must deal from time to time with Israeli government officials who embrace an ultra-Orthodox definition of what it means to be a “real Jew.”

The Orthodox monopoly on authorized Jewish religious practice in Israel has been a long-time problem on subjects ranging from conversions to marriages–basically areas where tensions are between different religious Jews rather than with the majority of Israelis who are relatively non-observant except for universal practices like circumcision and observance of High Holy Days. But whenever the ultra-Orthodox secure authority over religious issues via participation in a governing coalition, like that of Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud-led government right now, trouble is always on the horizon.

Israel’s strictly Orthodox minister of religious services said Tuesday that he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish, inflaming internal discord over religious issues and underscoring tensions with American Jews, who mostly belong to the more liberal streams of Conservative and Reform Judaism.

“The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a problem,” the minister, David Azoulay of the Shas party, said on Army Radio, adding, “I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew….”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Mr. Azoulay’s remarks. In a statement, he described them as “hurtful” and said they “do not reflect the position of the government.” Mr. Netanyahu said he had spoken with Mr. Azoulay “to remind him that Israel is a home for all Jews and that as minister of religious affairs, he serves all of Israel’s citizens.”

Still, many liberal Jews in Israel and abroad have lamented the return of ultra-Orthodox political parties as partners in Mr. Netanyahu’s new governing coalition, and the reassertion of monopoly control of strictly Orthodox rabbis over state-recognized religious affairs in Israel.

Clearly, the timing for Azoulay’s outburst was terrible, given heightened tensions between the Netanyahu government and American Jews, who are dealing with constant accusations they are not “good Jews” if they don’t back Bibi’s foreign policy and/or fail to excoriate Barack Obama for pursuing a foreign policy that’s independent of Bibi’s.

Netanyahu’s quick repudiation of Azoulay’s smear shows he understands the stakes here. But there’s only so much he can do to risk offending a partner in his fragile coalition, and only so many words of his own he can take back from his my-way-or-the-highway posturing prior to the last election.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.