Reform Jews praying in Jerusalem (illustrative)
Reform Jews praying in Jerusalem (illustrative)Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90

Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents Reform congregations in North America, penned an open letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Sunday, demanding he recognize the Reform Movement’s ‘rights’ to a non-traditional prayer space at the Western Wall and official recognition by the State of Israel.

The Reform Movement, represented in Israel by the Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, has few adherents in the Jewish state, with only a few dozen congregations and a few thousand active members.

Nevertheless, the movement’s North American branch has lobbied the Israeli government for decades for official recognition and state funding – a move which would violate Israel’s decades-old status quo on religion and state.

Bolstered by Supreme Court rulings in the past, including a 2002 decision requiring the state to recognize non-Jews who had undergone non-traditional conversions abroad as Jewish, the Reform Movement has pushed for use of state mikveh’s – ritual baths needed in conversion ceremonies – funding for Reform community rabbis, and autonomy at the Western Wall.

While a mixed-gender prayer area for non-traditional prayer services is already available to the Reform and Conservative movements at the southern end of the Western Wall, both movements have demanded the prayer space be expanded and, most contentiously, that they be given partial authority over the space, which is currently administered by the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch.

On June 25th, however, the Netanyahu government shelved a proposed plan to expand the non-traditional prayer area and grant partial control of it to the Reform Movement – a move which drew a torrent of criticism from North American Reform and Conservative leaders.

This month, Netanyahu again raised the ire of Reform leaders when he accused the Reform Movement of pursuing a “backdoor path” to recognition.

On Sunday, Haaretz published an open letter by Jacobs to the Prime Minister, decrying haredi opposition to Reform Movement attempts to expand their influence in Israel and demanding his government’s assistance in protecting the North American Reform Movement’s “rights” in Israel.

In the piece, Jacobs denied Netanyahu’s claim that his movement is seeking ‘backdoor recognition’, saying that the Reform Movement has been explicit in its pursuit of that goal for years.

“The Reform Movement does not clandestinely demand recognition, but we do so openly and publicly. How can you claim otherwise in light of the record?”

Despite the movement’s marginal support in Israel and the dearth of members in the Jewish state, Jacobs said he would settle for nothing short of full recognition and “full equality”.

“We did not enter through a back door. On the contrary. We sat together in your Prime Minister’s office to hash out the difficult details, everyone losing a bit and everyone winning a bit, as in every successful negotiation. We have always demanded and continue to demand recognition and full equality. We will settle for nothing less.”

Jacobs also accused Netanyahu’s government of violating the religious rights of Reform Jews.

“Our love for Israel transcends the hateful words and actions against us by Jewish religious extremists in Israel. Your government’s policies limit our religious freedom. The chief rabbi of Jerusalem - paid by Israeli tax dollars - says we’re worse than Holocaust deniers, yet faces no consequence.”

“Your recent actions demonstrate once again, that you are not able and not willing to be in dialogue with us. We are not giving up on Israel, on equality, or on democracy. We will continue to insist on our rights. You may try to avoid us, but we trust that the Supreme Court, the protector of democracy in Israel, will give us a swift decision ensuring equality and freedom of religion for all Jews in Israel.”