Religion: American Jews are lost souls, says rabbi

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The Independent Online
An Israeli chief rabbi says millions of non-Orthodox Jews are lost souls. At the same time, moves to solve the row over conversions between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Israel have failed. Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem examines the growing dispute dividing Israeli and American Jews.

His words seem calculated to inflame. Speaking about the so-called "Who is a Jew" struggle, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, in charge of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, simply ruled out millions of Jews, mainly in America, who belong to the modernising Reform tradition.

He said that Reform Jews, who together with the non-Orthodox Conservative Jews, make up 93 per cent of the 6 million American Jewish community, were "a one-way bridge in general to assimilation and reducing the Jewish people". Conceding that Reform Jews numbered millions, the Chief Rabbi told Israeli TV that they were "millions of lost souls who have no future". He added: "A large part of their rabbis don't even believe in God."

The denunciation of non-Orthodox Jews, who make up less than one per cent of the population in Israel, has politically important consequences because it comes in the middle of a row over the Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel. This centres on the right of Reform and Conservative Jews to convert non-Jews in Israel and on their right to sit on local religious councils.

The religious parties, whose 23 seats make up a third of the government's 66-strong coalition, want to pass a law denying the Reform and Conservative Jews the right to do either. They say they were promised this by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and will bring down his government if he does not do so.

American Jews, whose political support is essential to Israel, find the suggestion that they are not Jewish enough deeply offensive. Rabbi Ehud Bandel, head of the Conservative Movement in Israel, says that the law, if passed, "will be interpreted in the eyes of US Jewry as a declaration of war".

The legislation probably will not pass through the Knesset (parliament) if it is opposed by the Russian immigrant party, some of whose supporters have had their claim to be Jewish challenged by the Orthodox rabbinate. But even if the law is rejected, the threat of such legislation has led to a sharp increase in political activity by Reform Jews in the United States. Last weekend they won control of the World Zionist Congress. This reverses a trend for religious and political militants from the right to dominate Jewish lobbying groups in the US.

Meanwhile, a settler rabbi has carried a plea from Chief Rabbi Bakshi- Doron to Sheikh Yassin, the recently released spiritual leader of Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation, in Gaza asking that "attacks on innocent people - women, the elderly and children - go against religion and are a sin and a crime and that he condemn these things". His emissary, Rabbi Menachem Froman, a West Bank settler who said he respects "the right of the Palestinians also to live in this land", said he hoped to open a dialogue with the sheikh.