Seven Jewish US senators, some of them top officials in the Democratic Party, recently sent an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning him against harming the status of Reform and Conservative Jews vis-a-vis their right to hold egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall.
The letter was cosigned by Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, Richard Blumenthal, Benjamin Cardin and Brian Schatz in response to a decision taken in June by the Israeli government to freeze progress on plans to construct an egalitarian section at the Western Wall to cater for the holy site’s more liberal visitors.
"We fear actions like the conversion bill and the suspension of the Kotel agreement will strain the unique relationship between our two nations, particularly if the majority of American Jews see the movements to which they are committed denied equal rights in Israel," the letter said.
"Given all the challenges Israel faces on the international stage, we urge you not to alienate committed Zionists," the senators implored the prime minister.
The letter went on to discuss the Kotel agreement according to which a space near the Wall was to be allocated for egalitarian prayer.
"We are also very concerned by the Israeli government's recent decision to freeze a widely agreed-upon plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space in the Western Wall. We urge you to respond affirmatively to the High Court's request that your government declare its willingness to reinstate the agreement it forged and signed," the letter stated.
Regarding the conversion bill—which has been frozen for now—the senators wrote: "We fear this would have significant ramifications for the religious equality of all Jewish movements in Israel and we worry that our modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox constituents will see this as an attack on their Jewishness and the status of their rabbis."
The letter concluded by calling on Netanyahu to "keep working on a solution that respects all movements and is acceptable to all."
"We're in the midst of a great crisis"
According to Executive Director of the Reform Movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the letter demonstrates the divisions caused among American Jewry and Israel by Netanyahu's decision to put the brakes on the agreement.
"The senators' letter proves the strategic damage caused by the Israeli government's failed and crude handling of the Wall and conversion issues. The seven senators who penned the letter comprise Israel's safety belt in Congress, just as the millions of Reform and Conservative Jews all over North America are the basis for the support and special relationship between Israel and the US," said Kariv.
"The Israeli government's attitude towards non-Orthodox denominations, its habitual breaking of promises and ignoring continued offenses against the sensibilities of a large portion of the Jewish people all contribute to gnaw and weaken this support base," he continued.
Kariv then appealed to the Israeli premier to bring the situation under control. "We call upon the prime minister to open both his eyes and his heart, and understand we're in the midst of a great crisis. Most Israeli citizens and world Jewry, including prominent and influential Jewish leaders, expect him to stop acquiescing to a small and destructive minority and to loyally serve the interests of the entire Jewish people."
In a press briefing in New York Monday, Netanyahu noted Reform and Conservative Jews tried utilizing the Kotel agreement to achieve "backdoor recognition", and the government is therefore not about to recant its decision to freeze the agreement's implementation.
"I never canceled the Kotel agreement. I only suspended one article of it. We misunderstood its importance running the gamut from the practical to the symbolic, in light of the Reform Movement's years' long struggle for recognition and hedging the Rabbinate's power, but the government hasn't moved to change it."
Netanyahu's statements incensed Executive Director of the Conservative Movement in Israel attorney Yizhar Hess. "If those were indeed the prime minister's words in briefing, I cannot find other words to describe it other than 'fraud'. Saying 'wanted to achieve' and 'backdoor recognition'? Have you no shame? You're the ones who offered it to us," he tweeted in response.
In light of this escalating crisis, representatives of the Reform and Conservative Movements sat out Netanyahu's New York meeting with leaders of American Jewry for the first time.