JERUSALEM (AP) — A recent gathering of American Reform rabbis in Jerusalem was meant to celebrate the small gains the liberal Jewish movement has made in Israel in recent years. But a series of comments by Israeli officials denigrating the group marred the event, reflecting an awkward relationship that many fear is alienating the world's second-largest Jewish community from Israel.
The Reform Movement is the largest stream of Judaism in the United States, claiming to represent 1.5 million people, and its members provide a key source of financial support and political advocacy for Israel.
But the movement is marginal in Israel, where religious affairs are dominated by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment. Israeli lawmakers, both secular and ultra-Orthodox, have repeatedly disparaged the group, questioning their Judaism and accusing them of promoting Jewish assimilation.
"How do you ask Jews around the world to support Israel politically, economically, socially ... and at the same time you have these ministers who say to our people 'you're not really Jewish' or 'you don't have a place here in Israel?' That incongruity is a real problem for us," said Rabbi Steven Fox, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which held its septennial convention in Israel last week. The group represents 2,000 rabbis.
In the U.S., Reform synagogues are commonplace, characterized by practices such as mixed-gender prayers, services led by female rabbis and members who drive to synagogue on the Sabbath — customs that violate Orthodox norms.
In Israel, Reform Judaism is often seen as a curiosity and in some cases, a threat. This in turn has placed obstacles in the way of the movement's effort to make inroads in Israel, beaten back by an Orthodox monopoly over Jewish rituals such as marriage, burials and conversions.
Reform rabbis have made small gains in Israel, and in January, the movement was jubilant over perhaps its greatest victory — Israel's announcement that it would create a special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The wall, managed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who opposes having Reform customs at the site, is the holiest place where Jews can pray. The new area will also permit women to wear prayer shawls and skullcaps, a rite reserved for men under Orthodox custom.
The announcement came after three years of painstaking negotiations between Israeli officials and the liberal streams of Judaism and appeared to mark a historic turning point in relations between Israel and diaspora Jews.
But right after the plan was approved, Israel's secular Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said the Reform movement was a "waning world." He accused it of tolerating intermarriage, encouraging assimilation and predicted the mixed-prayer area would become unnecessary within two or three generations. Under religious law, Jews cannot marry non-Jews.
Even after Reform rabbis criticized him, Levin expressed no remorse. "It's very important that we'll be aware of the problem of assimilation and do our best efforts in order to solve it," he told The Associated Press.
A chorus of other lawmakers, most of them Orthodox, have publicly lashed out at the Reform movement. As the rabbis' convention was kicking off, a legislator from an ultra-Orthodox party compared the movement to the "mentally ill."
The rhetoric has put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a tough spot. Early this month, he rejected "disparaging and divisive remarks" about Reform Jews and called the movement "part and parcel of the Jewish people."
He also met the visiting American rabbis. But, possibly wary of antagonizing religious factions in his coalition, his office made no announcement of the meeting, as it often does with high-profile visitors.
Fox, the rabbi group's chief executive, said the encounter was "more positive" than past meetings with Netanyahu, though they were surprised by the absence of the public announcement.
"The ministers here paint us as if we're not really Jewish. And the ignorance they display makes my congregants ... think 'is Israel really that backward of a nation?' It reflects poorly on the state of Israel," said Rabbi Denise Eger, another leader of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Netanyahu's office said he does not put out public statements on all his meetings. It declined to discuss the meeting with the Reform rabbis or say why he had decided to keep silent.
For decades, American Jewry — the second largest Jewish community in the world after Israel — has served as a bedrock of support for Israel. But there are signs of that support eroding, particularly among younger and more liberal Jews.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based group that teaches Israeli leaders about the American Jewish community, said that at a time when Israel faces so many challenges, it makes no "strategic sense" for Israeli leaders to alienate American Jews.
"A smart politician would say, 'These Jews are different than us, but they play a very important strategic role,'" he said.
Beyond the Western Wall compromise, the Reform rabbis say they do see progress elsewhere as well.
Israel's Supreme Court ruled last month that the country's ritual baths must accept all converts to Judaism, even those who have undergone non-Orthodox conversions outside the country.
The rabbis also point to the movement's small but growing base in Israel and their invitation to a parliamentary committee during their convention last week, where lawmakers, mainly from centrist parties, showered them with gratitude and praise.
"When I read statements by the Israeli tourism minister about Reform Judaism in the United States, it comes from a denial and a misunderstanding and an ignorance about the importance of the powerful contribution that you make to relations between the two countries," Nachman Shai, a lawmaker from the centrist Zionist Union, told the packed auditorium, where women and men wore rainbow-colored skullcaps and sang Hatikva, Israel's national anthem.
Reform leaders told the meeting that the harsh reactions from some lawmakers were an unfortunate but expected response to the gains the movement has made.
"These are clearly changes that are long overdue," said Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. "The change signals to the ultra-Orthodox that there will no longer be a monopoly."