FOCUS-Abuse hurled at Reform rabbis at Western Wall

Reuters/February 7, 1999
By Danny Gur-arieh

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Orthodox Jews shouted "Nazis" and "Jew-haters" at American Reform rabbis who challenged Orthodox Jewish tradition Monday by holding a mixed prayer service of men and women at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

The liberal rabbis, part of a group of 33 Reform clergy visiting Israel to meet officials and candidates ahead of the May 17 general election, held the prayer service at Judaism's holiest shrine.

About 100 Orthodox Jews, reacting to the Reform violation of a ritual ban on a "mixed" congregation, hurled abuse in the stone plaza where men and women worshipers pray in separate enclosures.

"It's inconceivable that this small group, this cult, will come here and stir a riot in Israel," Orthodox lawmaker Avraham Lazerson said at the shrine, a perimeter wall of the ancient Jewish Temple compound.

Israel's Orthodoxy refuses to recognize the rabbis of the Reform and Conservative movements, even though 90 percent of affiliated Jews in the United States -- home to the world's largest Jewish community -- belong to the two movements.

The two liberal groups do not have a large following in Israel, where the Orthodox maintain a tight hold over official religious institutions.

"The Western Wall is ... not an ultra-Orthodox synagogue and we won't allow the ultra-Orthodox to take away from the Jewish people national shrines," said Ammiel Hirsch, a leading Reform rabbi who heads the delegation to Israel.

Many members of the delegation voiced anger at a law Orthodox parties pushed through parliament last week to limit the influence of Reform Jews on local religious councils that distribute funds to synagogues and other institutions.

Hirsch said he believed the legislation, which followed Israeli judicial rulings allowing non-Orthodox Jews to serve on religious councils, would affect campaign contributions by American Jews to Israeli political parties.

"We have told people in the community not to contribute to any entity ... that cannot state to their satisfaction that they believe in religious pluralism and that they have respect for Reform and Conservative Jews," Hirsch told Reuters.

U.S. Jews give an estimated tens of millions of dollars to Israeli candidates and parties during election campaigns.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party largely supported the religious councils legislation and former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai of the new, and still unnamed, centrist party cast the deciding vote in favor.

Hirsch said after the vote last week that Mordechai's support of the bill would make it hard for him to raise funds among American Jews.

Mordechai's number two in the centrist party, former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, visited the United States last week to try to drum up financial support. The party gave no details about the trip but Israeli media reports said he got a cool reception.

The new law states that membership in a local religious council is conditional on a declaration of allegiance to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

Some Reform and Conservative rabbis have agreed to take such a vow in order to have a say in allocation of council funds long denied to their movements.

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