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US Jewish groups slam arrest of Conservative rabbi, Israel's nation state bill

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman, sit at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, May 23, 2016.
AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

The passing of Israel’s nation state bill and the arrest of a Conservative rabbi in Haifa on Thursday caused leading Jewish groups in the US to issue statements expressing a widening gap between Diaspora Jews and Israel.

The first incident which outraged US Jewish groups was the arrest of Conservative Rabbi Dubi Haiyun, who was woken up at his home early Thursday morning by Israeli police and abruptly detained on charges that he performed non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate.

Haiyun is the head of the Masorti (Conservative) synagogue of Haifa and has married many couples under the authority of the Masorti movement.

In Israel, following an amendment to the Law for Marriage and Divorce in 2013, any person who performs a wedding ceremony and neglects to register the couple’s marriage with the Chief Rabbinate risk two years in jail.

The arrest of Haiyun caused the US based United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to issue a statement expressing “outrage” over the move.

“Today’s actions against Rabbi Haiyun marks a new and dangerous step in the ongoing attack on religious freedom and civil liberties in Israel,” the statement read on Thursday.

The UJA-Federation of New York issued a similar statement slamming the arrest of Haiyun.

“Today’s action is dramatically inconsistent with Israel’s promise as the home of the entire Jewish people, and its commitment to equality and respect for all its citizens,” said the charity's CEO, Eric S. Goldstein, following the arrest. 

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), a group representing Conservative rabbis worldwide, said “Today’s detention of a respected former President of the Israel RA gravely undermines the integrity of government institutions and is contrary to the values of Israel and the Jewish people.”

The other development that infuriated US Jewish groups was the passing of a controversial law that officially defines Israel as the Jewish nation-state.

One of the clauses in the bill states that “The state will work in the Diaspora to preserve the affinity between (Israel) and the Jewish people.”

However, the original wording of the clause, “The state will work to preserve the affinity between (Israel) and the Jewish people everywhere,” was changed on the insistence of ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who are fighting to preserve their right to decide on religious matters in Israel.

The change from “Jewish people everywhere” to simply “Diaspora” thus solidifies the gap between ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel and Diaspora Jews, which Rabbi Steven Wernick who is the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in North America pointed out in a letter to the Israeli government on Thursday.

"After my colleague in Haifa is pulled out of bed, arrested and summoned back for officiating at a non-Orthodox wedding and the passage of the nation-state law, I do not believe we can talk about a 'gap' between Israel and the Diaspora. It is now a 'canyon.'" Wernick wrote.

"These are the actions of Iran and Saudi Arabia. What's next” Will the police enforce the Rabbinate's modesty rules? Kashrut rules? Shabbat rules? If you are an Israeli Arab today, you certainly are feeling deligitimized as a citizen of the State. For what gain?" the letter asked.

Finally, Wernick concluded that "Israel is losing its soul and weakening its democracy and Jewish character. It's beacon of light on the nations is now dim. Even I am having difficulty seeing it."

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