The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) took out an ad in major Israeli newspapers slamming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s June 25 decision to suspend the January 2016 agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall — and then canceled a gala to which Netanyahu had been invited.
The Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, scratched a meeting with the prime minister and called his decision “unconscionable.”
Haaretz took a headline from the 1975 Daily News playbook, writing, “Netanyahu to Diaspora Jews: Drop Dead.”
The Western Wall agreement, negotiated over a four-year period in large part by Natan Sharansky, JAFI’s chair of the executive, would have created a space next to the main Kotel worship area for egalitarian prayer unsupervised by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the rest of the plaza in Jerusalem’s Old City. In September 2016, Israel’s Supreme Court excoriated the Israeli government for dragging its feet on implementing the deal.
Shortly after announcing the decision, Netanyahu’s government approved a bill that would revoke the right of Jews converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis to register with the Interior Ministry and grant state recognition of those converted by certain Orthodox rabbis.
Local rabbis and the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ sharply criticized Netanyahu’s decisions because they disenfranchise diaspora Jews, alienate liberal Jews and young people, and renege on an agreement negotiated over a period of years.
“I think what happened was indeed unfortunate and the timing was embarrassing and insulting to the leaders of the diaspora who had come to Israel, and upon their arrival these two issues surfaced,” said Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, a board member of the Jewish Agency, and the immediate past chair of ARZA: The Association of Reform Zionists of America.
He said the two issues were “brought about by pressure from what I consider to be religious terrorists or non-Zionist zealots who happen to be in the government.”
Miller made a point of not referring to those who quashed the deal as “charedim” or “ultra-Orthodox” because, he said, “I think that is insulting to those in the Orthodox community who understand that the Jewish community is made up of a wide swath of Jews who care deeply about the land and people of Israel.”
By reneging on the Kotel agreement as well as the conversion issue, Miller said, Netanyahu caved in to the wishes of a small group, while shelving an agreement that took years to negotiate and to which all parties had agreed.
“It does not in any way benefit the country or the unity of the Jewish people,” Miller said. “The conversion bill is an attempt to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Jews.”
Miller said he doesn’t know if JAFI will renegotiate, “but clearly this has united the diaspora community in a significant way, with individual communities and national organizations right now determining how they’re going to respond.”
In Israel, Miller predicted, the controversy will encourage the growth of progressive streams of Judaism; he noted that the Reform and Conservative movements there have received “enormous free publicity” from the compromise’s opponents.
Rabbi Lisa Malik of Conservative Temple Beth Ahm of Aberdeen said she “vehemently disagreed” with the Kotel decision, found the conversion bill “absolutely disgusting,” and was very upset that the Jewish state was being turned into the “Orthodox state and the Kotel treated like an Orthodox synagogue.”
But she also criticized moves to penalize Israel.
“As someone who is egalitarian and very supportive of the Kotel compromise, I was very excited when the compromise went through,” she said. “I was very disappointed in the Israeli government and especially Prime Minster Netanyahu acceding to the wishes of a few he needs for his coalition.
“But,” Malik went on, “I have to say my love for Israel is unconditional, and I’m equally upset by some of my Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative colleagues. While I understand some criticism of Israel is legitimate, the Israel bashing I hear from some liberal Jews is not OK.”
Malik said she fears their drumbeat of criticism in some cases may feed into anti-Israel forces already portraying Israel as an oppressor of Palestinians and may have a detrimental effect on America-Israel relations.
Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, executive director of Rutgers University Chabad and religious leader of Orthodox Congregation Sons of Israel in Wayside, recalled spending two years at a Jerusalem yeshiva, during which time he would often go to the Kotel in the middle of the night.
“I was always amazed at the prayers I heard at the Kotel,” said Carlebach, particularly those from secular Jews who felt a connection to Judaism there. On one occasion, at 2 a.m., he heard such a person repeating lines from the Amidah prayer, pleading with God to save his sick mother, finally yelling in Hebrew as he looked up, “Do you hear?”
“He was speaking directly to God,” said Carlebach. “He saw it as a place of last resort to speak to God. Sadly, that’s not what people involved here see it as. It has become a political football. There are certain things that should remain apolitical.”
In regard to the annulment of the Kotel compromise, Carlebach cited Israel’s non-Orthodox first prime minister imposing Orthodox practices in the newly founded state. “David Ben-Gurion was not kosher, but he made the Israeli army kosher because he knew it had to be kosher. You can’t make something half-kosher.
“That same attitude has to be applied to the Kotel. It has to be kosher for no other reason other than it has to be kosher, or we are making a political statement. I think we all have to step back and recognize what the site is, and I think a lot of us have lost that part of the equation.”
Federation CEO Keith Krivitzky said, “I think the whole federation world has appropriately come together in concern and surprise and even outrage at this recent move by the prime minister and cabinet.”
Jeff Schwartz, president of the federation, responded to the announcement by sending a letter to the consul general of Israel in New York, Dani Dayan, expressing “our deep disappointment” over both the Kotel and conversion issues and called on the government to honor previous agreements.
“Enabling these pathways for Jews to connect with their deepest values should be a shared concern of both the Jewish communities in the diaspora and in Israel,” he wrote. “At a time when there is a weakening of ties within Jewish people and with Israel, in particular among younger Jews, efforts must be made to build bridges and emphasize the importance of our bonds as one people.”
Schwartz said the government’s action “undermines Israel’s position in our community, encourages further distancing of many from Jewish life and Israel, and hurts our ability to build support for the Jewish state.”
He said while Jews have been encouraged for years to support Israel, the government is “sending a mixed message which will result in even more Jews being disconnected from Israel.”
The federation, Schwartz said, will continue to connect Jews “to their heritage and values” and develop personal connections to Israel. But, he went on, “It is a shame that the government of Israel, by backing out of prior agreements concerning the Kotel and conversion, has shown itself to be less of a constructive ally in these efforts.”
Krivitzky echoed those sentiments, pointing out the government’s decisions “have made our job so much harder,” especially among young people and non-Orthodox Jews.
“The second challenge, on a very existential level, is: Is Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people or just a home for those people who happen to live there?” he said.
“Our leaders have said up until now for generations it has been the former,” said Krivitzky. “This is a serious problem and very disheartening.”
Although “we are one extended family,” he said, “our cousins living in the homestead have just shown they don’t care about anyone else in the family.”
Still Krivitzky encouraged people not to give up.
“I know there are people who want to make a statement and punish the government of Israel,” he said. “I would suggest they need to be careful how they do this.”
He urges people to remember “what we’ve said to people who support the [anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement: ‘Don’t divest, invest.’ And I say the same thing about people who care what goes on in Israel and want to make a statement. Invest in values you care about and show you’re going to remain committed to the importance of this relationship.”