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

AIPAC leaders traveling to Israel to meet with Netanyahu over Kotel plan

Foreign Ministry instructs Israeli missions in North America to show understanding to protests from liberal Jewish leaders and explain the political reasons behind the decision to freeze plan for egalitarian area at Western Wall.

The heads of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are making an emergency trip to Israel to warn Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a drop in support from AIPAC's donors over the government's decision to freeze the Western Wall egalitarian prayer area plan and the advancement of the conversion bill.



Outgoing AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus will be joined by incoming President Mort Fridman and Managing Director Richard Fishman.


The plan to officially recognize a 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.


Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC conference (Photo: Reuters) (Photo: Reuters)
Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC conference (Photo: Reuters)


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. The area would be managed by representatives of the three main movements in Judaism—Reform, Conservative and Orthodox—rather than just by the Orthodox as the existing prayer areas are.


But the program was never implemented, as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition government raised objections, leading the government to freeze the plan's implementation on Sunday.


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.


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)


Israeli embassies and consulates in North America have been flooded with complaints over the government's decision, leading the Foreign Ministry to istruct Israeli diplomats to grant any request by Jewish leaders to meet so they could express their protest in an official, organized manner.


"It's likely these meetings are going to be charged because of the existing level of frustration. It's possible there might be protests outside some of the missions," the Foreign Ministry wrote to the US embassy and consulates. "You should obviously welcome the delegations and protesters with the utmost courtesy and show understanding of their feelings of disappointment. You also ought to initiate such meetings by inviting them at your discretion."


The Foreign Ministry instructed the Israeli diplomats to explain the political circumstances that led to the government's decision."Please stress that the prime minister has instructed that the construction of the ‘Israel prayer area,’ which is meant to provide a proper place for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall, be speedily advanced. You should also emphasize that the plan has been suspended, not canceled, and that Minister Tzachi Hanegbi was instructed to hold talks on the issue. Furthermore, you should stress that the High Court of Justice is attuned to the matter of prayer rights at the Kotel and would not allow for any solution that does not protect the basic rights of the liberal movements and of Women of the Wall."


The Israeli consulate in Chicago has already reported to the ministry it encountered reactions of disappointment and hurt over the decision, including comments about "the loss of trust, feeling deceived, and some even used harsher words. Some of those we spoke with explained this would have consequences when it comes to donations, political support, etc."


פרסום ראשון: 06.28.17, 15:40
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