Jerusalem - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been scrambling to extinguish a firestorm after his religious affairs minister questioned the Jewishness of hundreds of thousands of North American Jews.

Speaking about followers of the most progressive branch of Judaism, known as Reform, David Azoulay said last month, "I can't allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew."

His comments have deeply embarrassed Netanyahu because polls show more than one-third of American Jews identify with Reform Judaism.

The movement, the biggest Jewish denomination in the US, makes large donations to Israel, and many of its members are among Israel's staunchest supporters.


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Netanyahu hurriedly distanced himself from Azoulay's comments, calling them "hurtful" and saying that they did not reflect the government's position.

In Israel, only traditional Orthodoxy - the strictest of the main streams of Judaism - is officially recognised. Its rabbis have been given extensive and often intrusive powers over large areas of Jewish citizens' private lives, including marriage, divorce, and burial.

The row coincides with a recent survey that revealed a growing proportion of Jews abroad feel alienated from Israel. Young Jews especially believe Israel ignores them, and they question whether Israel is sincerely pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

Azoulay's remarks threaten to undermine strenuous government efforts over recent months to persuade Jews living overseas to immigrate to Israel.

In February, after attacks on a kosher supermarket in Paris and a synagogue in Copenhagen, Netanyahu called on Jews to come to Israel en masse.

"We say to the Jews, to our brothers and sisters, Israel is your home and that of every Jew. Israel is waiting for you with open arms," he said.

Under the Law of Return, all Jews are entitled to automatic Israeli citizenship.

More than a third of American Jews identify with Reform Judaism [Reuters]

Neve Gordon, a professor of politics at Ben-Gurion University, said Netanyahu viewed Jewish immigration to Israel as a vital weapon in what was effectively a "demographic war against the native Palestinian population".

"Rabbis like Azoulay want a monopoly over determining very narrowly who counts as a Jew," Gordon told Al Jazeera. "But that undermines Netanyahu's claims that Israel is the true home of all Jews."

In an effort to restore calm, Netanyahu hurriedly announced the establishment of a "round-table" among government ministries and the various Jewish religious movements.

The intention, he said, was to give non-Orthodox rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements greater influence in Israel.

Rabbis like Azoulay want a monopoly over determining very narrowly who counts as a Jew. But that undermines Netanyahu's claims that Israel is the true home of all Jews.

Neve Gordon, professor of politics at Ben-Gurion University

Indications of the difficulties ahead, however, were revealed last month when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called all Judaism's main streams for a meeting at his home.

Rabbi Uri Sherki, the Orthodox representative, pulled out at the last moment. He had previously referred to Reform Jews as "heretics".

Rivlin, too, has criticised the Reform movement, once terming it "idol worship and not Judaism".

The Reform movement has found itself in a head-to-head confrontation with Orthodoxy on high-profile social issues, especially over equality for women and gay rights, said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of Israel's Reform movement. He said there has been a feud between the two movements for 200 years.

The ultra-Orthodox believe Jews are fully obligated by traditional Jewish religious law, or the "halacha".

"We in the Reform movement find it an important spiritual resource, but also believe that today not all parts of it apply or should be observed," Kariv told Al Jazeera.

Reform rabbis doubt Netanyahu has the resolve or interest to challenge the dominant power of the Orthodox rabbinate.

"Netanyahu reacted quickly because he understands the strategic importance of world Jewry to Israel," said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who heads Hiddush, an organisation lobbying for religious freedom and equality in Israel.

"But creating the round-table is really little more than an exercise in cynical damage limitation," he added. "It is unlikely to make any meaningful changes. In the end, Netanyahu cannot afford to break up his coalition on this issue."

Azoulay took charge of the religious affairs ministry in May after two ultra-Orthodox parties joined Netanyahu's coalition. With their backing, Netanyahu has a slender majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament.

According to a recent survey, a growing proportion of Jews abroad feel alienated from Israel [Reuters]

The backlash in the United States was swift in coming. 

The Central Conference of American Rabbis immediately demanded that Netanyahu fire Azoulay, and the secular Anti-Defamation League called his remarks "demeaning and hateful".

Under pressure from Netanyahu, Azoulay made a formal apology in the Israeli parliament, but in doing so, he caused further offence. He called Reform Jews "sinners" and accused the movement of being responsible for "the greatest danger facing the Jewish people - assimilation".

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, of the National Council of Young Israel, supported Azoulay, saying Reform Judaism was a "failed model" in the US. 

"Reform leaders claimed that the Jews could abandon the path of Torah, abandon the code of conduct that has set us apart for thousands of years, and remain Jewish. In America, this experiment has proven itself a failure of historic proportions. For all his undiplomatic language, MK Azoulay had it right," said Lerner.


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Although Orthodoxy is the only recognised stream of Judaism in Israel, other movements have significant followers.

A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2013 found about eight percent of Israeli Jews identified as Reform or Conservative.

Arik Ascherman, a Reform rabbi and co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, said the Orthodox rabbinate's opposition to non-Orthodox Judaism was motivated in part by a fear of losing its monopoly over Jewish life in Israel.

"A lot of this is about money and power," he said. "The Orthodox establishment is keen to maintain its exclusive control over state institutions."

A columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz recently argued that the Orthodox rabbis' grip on citizens' private lives meant secular and Reform Jews were the "victims of Israel's theocracy".

But Orthodoxy's authority has been coming under greater challenge of late from the Reform and Conservative movements, Ascherman said. They have been pushing for reforms that would allow their rabbis to conduct weddings and burials, and oversee conversions.

Meanwhile, recent polling data found that 62 percent of Israelis do not want ultra-Orthodox parties influencing the government. Another showed that 80 percent of secular Jews and 54 percent of religious Jews from non-Orthodox streams in Israel want to end the rabbinate's control over marriage.

Challenges to the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs have also grown following the arrival of more than one million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s. Despite qualifying under the Law of Return, the Orthodox rabbinate refused to recognise the Jewishness of about 350,000 of them.

Most of them are not able to marry in Israel and few have wanted to convert according to the strict rules of Orthodoxy, leaving them in a legal and social limbo.

Source: Al Jazeera