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Hundreds of US rabbis protest new Israeli government in public letter

Leaders of several religious nationalist parties will be part of the most hard-right  administration in Israel’s history, one US rabbis say endangers Jewish values.

Israel’s Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement after Israeli President Isaac Herzog assigned him the task of forming a government, in Jerusalem, Nov. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

(RNS) — Hundreds of U.S. rabbis have signed an open letter protesting Israel’s new hardline government and pledging to block the most extreme Jewish nationalist members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet from speaking in their congregations or organizations.

The letter, drafted by two prominent retired rabbis, drew more than 300 signatures from rabbis in the Reform, Conservative, Renewal and Reconstructing movements of Judaism.

“We, the undersigned, who care deeply about the security and well-being of the democratic State of Israel, are signing this letter of protest, pledging to not invite any members of the RZP bloc — including but not limited to Otzma Yehudit leaders — to speak at our congregations and organizations,” the letter said, referring to the nationalist parties who will fill out the new Netanyahu government. 

Several far-right Israeli lawmakers will have ministerial roles in what is being called the most hard-right administration in Israel’s history. In advance of taking office, representatives of those coalition parties have made demands intended to limit the powers of the judiciary and curb the independence of the police.

The rabbis’ letter mentions five proposals now being considered by the incoming government, including overriding  rulings of the Israeli Supreme Court, eroding LGBTQ rights, expanding the settlement project in the West Bank and refusing to recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

“This feels like one action to put forward to fight against what I think is a distorted vision of Jewish values and of responsible government and democracy,” said Rabbi Deborah Waxman, CEO of Reconstructing Judaism, a small liberal branch of American Judaism.

Waxman said at least 70 of her movement’s rabbis were among the signers.

The letter was drafted by Rabbi David Teutsch, a former executive director of Reconstructing Judaism, along with Rabbi John L. Rosove, former chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Since many of the far-right lawmakers do not recognize the U.S.-centered liberal Jewish movements and are unlikely to speak to its members, the attempt to block them from U.S. synagogues is symbolic.

But the letter is a sign of the rising tensions between the U.S. and Israel. The Biden administration has indicated it will hold Netanyahu personally responsible for the actions of his more extreme cabinet members and avoid any direct contact with those members.

U.S. Jews who are predominantly liberal, both theologically and politically, harbor rising fears of the new Israeli government.

The letter says the implementation of some of the nationalists’ proposed policies “will cause irreparable harm to the Israel-Jewish Diaspora relationship, as they are an affront to the vast majority of American Jews and our values.”

Rabbi Debra Cantor of B’nai Tivkoh-Sholom, a Conservative congregation in Bloomfield, Connecticut, told Religion News Service that “this particular flavor of Jewish life is coercive, narrow and flies in the face of democracy, rights for LGBTQ folks and protecting minorities.”

Cantor said she had no hesitation about signing the letter, even as she acknowledged she was speaking for herself and not her congregation.

Not all U.S. Jews are ready to do battle with the incoming Israeli government.

In a press release congratulating Netanyahu, the American Jewish Committee acknowledged “inflammatory rhetoric” by some members of the coalition but said, “we trust that Israel will continue to uphold the values that have allowed it to stand out as a beacon of freedom in the Middle East and as a source of pride and spiritual sustenance for the Jewish people as a whole.”

Though Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is largely secular, the other parties in his coalition are all religious. About 40% of Israelis are secular, and 8% are Haredi, or strictly Orthodox. The rest fall in between, according to a Pew Research study.

Rabbi David Teutsch said it was easy to amass the more than 300 signatures.

“What the letter does is help to provide evidence of how strong our objection is,” he said. “Hopefully it will signal to the Israeli and American government that these changes are not acceptable to most American Jews.”

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