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Why the Sudden Backlash Against Reform Jews?

Why the Sudden Backlash Against Reform Jews?

Group of dozens of rabbis and other Reform Jews holding Torah scrolls at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls

My Facebook feed has been inundated in recent weeks with articles, videos, and angry rants addressing the obstacles to religious freedom in Israel. Friends across denominations are voicing strong opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s capitulation to the demands of an illiberal minority. From the Kotel crisis to the conversion bill to the blacklist of certain Diaspora rabbis, our blood pressure is rising. After long negotiations with the ruling coalition, its calculating and cowardly head decided to trade away our rights to save his hide. 

Let’s examine for a moment, though, the forces that caused Netanyahu to renege on his promises. The Haredi members of Knesset threatened to leave his coalition, thereby jeopardizing his role as Prime Minister. Acting as kingmakers, this relatively small number of representatives can exercise power out of proportion to their share in the general population. Still, waving that big stick around constantly is not a wise political strategy for a group that wants to both remain within the coalition, and be able to make credible threats. It is a stance reserved for specific times and causes.

So why now? Why the onslaught of regressive, intolerant and anti-egalitarian actions? Because we are growing — and they are scared.

The fastest-expanding Reform population in the world is in the State of Israel. The movement is weeks away from ordaining its 100th Israeli Reform rabbi. The number of Reform congregations there has doubled in the last fifteen years. We are not talking about communities filled with only English-speaking expats; progressive Judaism is taking root among native-born Israelis. It turns out the Diaspora provides far more than economic or military support, we have created forms of Jewish expression that speak to the needs of Israelis.

Progressive Judaism is not imported into Israel and kept in its Diasporic packaging, either. It is adapted to fit Israeli desires and sensibilities. The old narrative that Israelis are either extremely religious or extremely secular is shifting, and many are discovering egalitarian practice as a resonant form of Judaism. The Reform and Masorti streams, among others, are providing space for community, learning, celebration, and support in undeniably meaningful ways for hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

It is deeply painful to see machlokot (disagreements) lead to ugly clashes among a people founded on open debate and difference of opinion. Videos of extremist Jews ripping up prayer books belonging to the Women of the Wall and spitting on their coreligionists are hard to watch. Yet it is important to remember that this backlash comes in response to progress.

We will withstand political setbacks, and even these assaults. The values of inclusivity and equality will ultimately prevail. As we say in protest, in struggle and in solidarity: I believe that we will win.

Chelsea Feuchs is a rising second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She previously served as the communications and social media associate for ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.


Chelsea Feuchs
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