NEW YORK – Leadership within the world’s largest Jewish umbrella organization expressed fury with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday over his decision to suspend his own 2016 policy allowing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
In private emails obtained exclusively by The Jerusalem Post, senior leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America called the decision “deeply troubling” and “regrettable.” They further warned that a Knesset bill approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday would be “disastrous for global Jewry.”
“We urge all [executives] to communicate with their local Israel consul-general and share with them the community’s disappointment on the government decision to suspend the Kotel resolution,” read an internal email to executive chairs and leadership from Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. “At the same time, you should urge the consuls- general to communicate with the Foreign Ministry and let them know how disastrous this new conversion legislation would be for global Jewry.”
Silverman was scheduled to discuss the matter with Netanyahu on Monday night, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
The Israeli cabinet approved an egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel, or Western Wall, in January of last year, a move facilitated by Netanyahu’s leadership and encouraged by JFNA, among several other Jewish American organizations.
The policy was pioneered by Natan Sharansky, a refusenik and intellectual who has served as chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency since 2009.
“Jewish Federations worked with the religious streams, the Israeli government, Women of the Wall and the Jewish Agency to help reach the agreement,” said the email. “Implementation of the plan was halted due to political pressures. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky issued a statement that appears in full below. We echo his sentiments.”
A public statement from the agency expressed “disappointment” in the government’s decision, but declined to use the forceful language used by the organization in private.
Meanwhile, the new conversion bill, sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, would effectively end the government’s recognition of private conversions. The JFNA exchange says the legislation “changes the status quo of conversion in Israel and would block access to Israel’s courts.”
Other American-Jewish organizations voiced their outrage on Monday, mostly offering criticism of the Israeli government for deepening the divide between Israel and Diaspora Jews.
According to UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric S. Goldstein, the decision to suspend the Kotel agreement “would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home.”
“The Kotel agreement would have protected worship for Jews of every denomination,” Goldstein continued. “Instead, a single group will continue to control prayer at the Kotel, restricting the rights of millions of Israeli and Diaspora Jews.”
Goldstein also criticized the Knesset’s conversion bill that would recognize only those conversions performed by the Chief Rabbinate. This, he said, does “enormous damage to the hope and promise of Israel as a Jewish state for all of the Jewish people.”
The American Jewish Committee, which had hailed the Kotel agreement when it was first approved by the Cabinet in January 2016, also expressed deep disappointment on Monday.
“The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” AJC chief executive David Harris said.
“This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee issued a refrained statement on the crisis: “The debate is ongoing and the democratic process in Israel which provides for input from many voices is the best hope for a productive outcome,” a spokesman told the Post. But other major US-based groups had harsher words on offer.
AJC, which has focused on issues of religious pluralism for decades, pointed out that in a September 2015 letter to the organization, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated his commitment “to strengthening the unity of the Jewish people” and pledged “to unequivocally reject any attempt to divide us or to delegitimize any Jewish community – Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.”
Just before the decision was announced on Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet met for almost two hours with the Jewish People Policy Institute, or JPPI, a policy planning think tank focused on issues relating to Israel and the Diaspora. Sharansky was also invited to participate.
Representatives of the group presented their 14th Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People, which examined trends for 2016 to 2017 across five dimensions of Jewish well-being, including geopolitics, bonds between communities, identity, demography and material resources.
Based on their findings, the institute recommended that the cabinet “encourage pluralism in every venue possible and fight trends that distance the Diaspora as this is critical to maintaining the unity of Jewish people worldwide.”
“Israel is a Jewish state and the state of the Jewish people and therefore it needs to make Jews of all beliefs welcome,” JPPI co-chairman Stuart Eizenstat said. “Implementation of the Sharansky compromise on the Kotel would be an important positive signal.”
One of JPPI’s broad objectives, the organization said, has been to “promote policies that enhance acceptance of pluralism in Jewish life and to identify better ways of fostering tolerance and accommodation of all the different streams of observance.”
According to the report presented to the cabinet, one of the strains on the relationship between Israel and American Jews is the concern in the US about Israel’s living up to liberal values, including religious pluralism, human rights and minority rights. This concern, JPPI believes, should draw the attention of decision-makers as these values are an important component of Israel’s special relationship with the United States.
The Conservative movement slammed the decision as well. “Speaking as a whole, [the movement] deplores this action, yet another failure to uphold an agreement reached after years of negotiations,” an umbrella group for the organized denomination said in a statement.
“Because we love Israel and see the rising influence of an intolerant religious establishment as an existential threat to its future and to the unity of the Jewish people, we will not rest until these decisions not only are overturned but also until Israel fulfills the promise of its Zionist origins,” said the Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Mercaz Olami, Masorti Olami and the Masorti movement in Israel.
“The more the Israeli government is seen as implementing conservative policies and as being unwilling to implement the compromise Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky negotiated to open a third, egalitarian, section at the Western Wall, or acting contrary to what many perceive to be liberal norms, the more it may alienate a significant segment of American Jewry,” JPPI stated in its study.