Is David Rotem, the Knesset member who raised hackles when he reportedly declared that the Reform movement “is not Jewish” devious or clueless?
Rotem, a member of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party and chairman of the influential Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, made his second apology for his remarks on Sunday, following a firestorm of condemnation from religious and other Jewish groups in Israel and the United States.
“I had no intention of hurting anyone or the Reform movement,” Rotem said, reading from a prepared statement, according to Haaretz. “There were those who tried to twist my words into meaning that I did not believe that Reform Jews are Jewish. For me, any Reform Jew born to a Jewish mother is a Jew like any other.”
That’s unlikely to assuage his critics, who note that this is not the first time the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker has sparked the ire of liberal Jews.
The scenario is similar to what happened when the Rotem Conversion Bill was under consideration in 2010, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at
At that time, Rotem said “he was going to solve the problem of conversions and, in what Westerners thought was a sleight-of-hand, added an amendment making conversion subject to the Chief Rabbinate,” explained Sarna.
That amendment would have put the authority over conversion in the hands of an institution hostile to Diaspora Judaism. The bill never passed.
“Rotem said he was misunderstood and he was sorry,” recalled Sarna.
“The bill was only stopped because Jewish federations and denominations leaned heavily on Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu,” noted Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Jacobs said Rotem’s comment is particularly problematic because of the “serious work” Rotem’s committee does, including on issues of Jewish identity and religious pluralism.
“We’re trying to build an infrastructure for pluralism” in Israel, he said. “These kinds of comments set us back.”
Jacobs is worried that Rotem isn’t up to the task of shepherding Israel through changes now underway.
“There’s a lot of tension right now in the world of the ultra-Orthodox,” he said.
“With all the changes going on about the role of the ultra-Orthodox in the army and in the economy, and the changes that are about to happen at the Western Wall [with the planned institution of pluralistic prayer], we need to make sure that people in positions of power and influence have the nuance and sensitivity and diplomatic skill to negotiate the important changes happening.”
Liberal groups were quick with their condemnation after Rotem’s remarks. A
statement from the Reform movement in Israel pointed out that use of the expression “another religion” was deliberate, since Israel’s Law of Return uses the same term to exclude non-Jews from making aliyah.
The leadership of the Conservative movement — including Rabbis Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly and Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative
Judaism — in a statement lamented “the utter lack of leadership that makes these outrages so frequent and undermines the very aspirations that are the foundations of Judaism and the Jewish state.”
In a letter to Rotem, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said the lawmaker’s views are “inappropriate, offensive and unjustified.”
But Sarna said Rotem’s comments are, to some degree, understandable.
“It’s not a surprise that someone like Rotem will make a comment and not understand how it would play,” he said. “In his religious circle it’s a matter-of-fact comment. It’s either a lack of knowledge or a lack of sensitivity. Whichever, the result is disastrous.”
But, he added, “It was necessary to get across the message that delegitimizing more than 1 million American Jews was going to have a strong response.”
The incident stems partly from the problem that Israel and American Jews, “the two great centers of Jewry, better than 80 percent of world Jewry, are not better acquainted,” said Sarna.
And while American Jews have “limited understanding of the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] world in Israel,” Israel studies programs at American universities are plentiful, he said. “But if I put together all the people in Israel who do American studies, I might not have a minyan.”
Rotem is not entirely unfamiliar with Reform Judaism, Jacobs pointed out. The
Israeli once took a tour of Reform institutions “to see the reality. For him to even walk into our institutions felt like he was visiting a foreign country.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.