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Education Minister Naftali Bennett
Photo: Motti Kimchi
Bennett to meet with US Jewish leaders over Western Wall crisis
Amid accusations the Israeli gov't 'betrayed' and 'gave the finger' to Diaspora Jews over decision to freeze the Western Wall egalitarian area plan, Bennett and Netanyahu try to calm the tensions; meanwhile, US Jews warn of ramifications of decision, including going to the High Court, dropping support, and possibly reduction in donations to Israel.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett invited the heads of the Jewish communities in the US for an emergency meeting on Tuesday amid the crisis with Diaspora Jews over the Israeli government's decision to freeze plans for a mixed-gender egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall.

 

 

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, both members of Bennett's Bayit Yehudi party, will also attend the meeting.

 

Most American Jews belong to the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel's ultra-Orthodox authorities, who question their faith and practices.

 

Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: AP)
Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: AP)
 

The plan to officially recognize the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall was reached in January 2016, after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and Israeli authorities. It was seen at the time as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.

 

The Western Wall, or Kotel, is the holiest site where Jews can pray, and its main plaza is divided into separate men's and women's prayer sections. Those attempting to hold egalitarian services in the area are often heckled and harassed. Under the plan, the small egalitarian area would be expanded and receive a more central entrance alongside entrances to the current male and female prayer sites.

   

But the program was never implemented, as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition government raised objections. The about face, coupled with another government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions, provoked the ire of liberal Jews, with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements canceling meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in protest.

 

"The decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal, and I see no point to a meeting at this time. We will make our arguments in the Supreme Court," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America.

 

Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: AP)
Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: AP)

 

Jacobs further called the decision "insulting" and "shameful" and asserted it "communicates so loudly and clearly that non-Orthodox Jews don't matter."

 

"We all care deeply about Israel, and we all see this as a distressing and dark day," he went on to say, adding "That is not only hurtful, it is wrong and it is a strategic danger to the well-being of the State of Israel."

 

Jacobs also took issue with the advancement of the contentious conversion bill, which would essentially give the ultra-Orthodox full control of Jewish conversions, revoking state recognition of conversion done through independent Orthodox rabbis, as well as Reform and Conservative conversions.

 

"The annulment of the Kotel resolution and the passing of the conversion law have caused an acute crisis between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry," he said, adding that "we feel at this moment, after more than four years of negotiations, it is not clear that the current Israeli government honors its agreements."

 

Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: AP)
Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: AP)

 

Journalist Jane Eisner also slammed the decision in an editorial on the Forward, writing that "Netanyahu just gave the finger to a huge chunk of American Jews," adding the prime minister "showed his true colors by essentially dismissing non-Orthodox Jews the world over."

 

Serious ramifications

American Jewish groups have warned of an unprecedented crisis between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora over the issue and hinted the move could undermine their longstanding political, financial and emotional support for Israel.

 

Even though it is currently unclear what would be the actual ramifications of the decision, it would likely be a significant blow to Israel. Reform and Conservative Jews make up over 50 percent of American Jews and their annual donations to Israel amount to some $1.3 billion.

 

In the short term, the rift could lead to a decrease in their motivation to defend Israel abroad—for example against efforts to discredit it by the BDS Movement—as well as to less volunteering for Israeli causes as well as visits to Israel.

 

However, the real damage would be the long-term one, which could mean a gradual decrease in donations to Israel.

 

"We might not feel it immediately in donations and delegations, but it would increase the disconnect and alienation among the young Jews in the US, who would stop defending Israel," an American Jewish official warned.

  

Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: AP)
Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: AP)

 

Bennett, who also oversees Diaspora affairs, said the crisis was ill-timed.

 

"The representatives of US Jewry feel they were slapped in the face by the Israel government and that they are apparently no longer welcome here. Of course this isn't true," he said. "Mistakes were made regarding timing and the way things were done. Additionally there is an apparent campaign of misinformation claiming the Kotel is being closed to Diaspora Jews and that the status of conversions is being changed. This is false."

  

Ultra-Orthodox leaders, meanwhile, ramped up their criticism and said Diaspora Jews would have no say in how religion was conducted in Israel.

 

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen of the Shas party said worship practices at the site have been in place for centuries and not everyone can "come and change the rules."

 

"The Western Wall doesn't interest Reform Jews. They don't believe in the Holy Temple," Cohen told Army Radio, expressing a view that many Reform Jews would take issue with.

 

After his dinner with the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors was canceled, Netanyahu met on Monday evening with Jerry Silverman, the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Jewish Federations of North America, along with leaders from the three largest federations.

 

Even though the prime minister promised them he was not backing out of the Western Wall plan, the American Jewish leaders came out of the meeting unconvinced.

 

Eric S. Goldstein, the CEO of the UJA Federation New York, said following the meeting, "The Kotel agreement would have protected worship for Jews of every denomination. Instead, a single group will continue to control prayer at the Kotel, restricting the rights of millions of Israeli and Diaspora Jews."

 

Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: Y.R.)
Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall (Photo: Y.R.)

 

Netanyahu's office tried to deflect some of the criticism, noting that there are already arrangements for egalitarian prayer and saying that construction to expand that area would continue. 

 

Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman issued a statement on the matter on Monday evening, stressing it was "important to Prime Minister Netanyahu that every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall."

 

This led the head of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, to accuse Braverman of "throwing dust in the eyes of the public," further stating that "expecting the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement and the Women of the Wall to now happily negotiate after the government made a unilateral decision is an insult to our intelligence."

 

The Jewish Agency's Board of Governors condemned the decision on Monday, saying it has "a deep potential to divide the Jewish people and to undermine the Zionist vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and Jabotinsky to establish Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people." 

 

Itamar Eichner, Amihai Attali, Tzipi Shmilovitz, Moran Azulay and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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