On Monday, Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party has surged to second in the latest polling, ascended the Knesset podium to talk about non-Orthodox Jews. When this happens in Israel’s parliament, it usually means something embarrassing is about to transpire. Israeli Jewry—divided between the ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist, traditional and the secular—has never much understood the Conservative and Reform denominations of its American and European cousins. These groups are typically condemned as heretical by the more religious, and dismissed as inauthentic by the more secular.
Just last week, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party likened Reform Jews to Haman, the villain of the Purim story, prompting a rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Netanyahu’s condemnation, though forceful, was delivered in English—accessible to most Israelis, but not directed to them as much as Americans overseas. Lapid in the Knesset today, by contrast, spoke in Hebrew, deliberately directing his words to the Israeli public: “Time after time, Knesset members and ministers step up to this podium and grievously insult the majority of American Jewry and a large part of European Jewry,” he said. “This is Judaism?”
Lapid then appealed to his personal history. “The largest synagogue in Europe is the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest,” he continued. “That is my family’s synagogue. It belongs to what was originally called the Neolog community, which was the Conservative movement of the past. And on the grounds of that synagogue… are buried thousands of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. And they didn’t think they weren’t Jewish. They lived as Jews, they prayed as Jews, and they were murdered as Jews. No one approached my grandfather in Mauthausen Concentration Camp and said, ‘You’re Conservative, so you’re not really Jewish. We won’t murder you.’ ”
Lapid went on to single out specific Israeli policies that infringe on freedom of religion for non-Orthodox Jews. “Only in Israel are there Jews who can’t marry according to their beliefs, visit the mikveh according to their beliefs, visit the holy sites according to their beliefs,” he said. “Are we saying to the majority of the Jewish world that they are unwanted in their own country?”
“If people continue to stand at this podium and try to push Reform and Conservative Jews out of the people of Israel, we will lose the majority of the Jewish world,” he concluded. “This is dangerous, it’s irresponsible, and fundamentally, it’s simply not Jewish.”
Watch Lapid’s full speech with English subtitles below (click “CC” if not already enabled):