The Jewish Agency 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 cancelled a gala to which Netanyahu had been invited. The Union for Reform Judaism’s Rick Jacobs cancelled 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 of the Jewish Agency for Israel, would have created a space next to the main area for egalitarian prayer unsupervised by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the rest of the plaza. 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 state recognition of those converted by certain Orthodox rabbis.
Local rabbis have mostly come out against Netanyahu’s decisions as an insult to Diaspora Jews, to liberal Jews, and to faith itself. “Those who oppose the Women of the Wall have no faith, only fear,” said Rabbi Stephen Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, referring to the group that has been at the forefront of the challenge since the 1980s. “Those who hold that a liberal presence at the Kotel in any way lessens it have a third-grade theological understanding of Judaism.”
Rabbi Cecelia Beyer of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield called it a “backward step in the all-too important struggle for religious pluralism.” She added, “Israel seems currently really good at hindering Jewish religious freedom.”
Rabbi Renee Edelman of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield has put the decision on the agenda of a scheduled June 28 interfaith solidarity gathering against religious extremism in any religion; the event was to be sponsored by two synagogues, three mosques, and several churches in Union County. In addition, the Western Wall decision will be a topic of conversation at Friday night services at Sha’arey Shalom. “In the future,” she predicted, “the Israeli government will be run by the Orthodox for the Orthodox.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, in a statement signed by at least 32 area rabbis, all from either Reform or Conservative synagogues, said it was “outraged” and “disappointed” by the one-two punch. The statement calls the “callous disregard” of the government for the “carefully crafted” Western Wall agreement “a betrayal of trust and the foundational principle that Judaism’s holiest site belongs to all Jewish people.”
Regarding the conversion bill, it states, “Should this legislation pass, it would give Israel’s Rabbinate a monopoly on the conversion process with the potential to exclude hundreds of thousands of Jews in the diaspora from emigrating to Israel, marrying in Israel, and being legally accepted as members of the Jewish people in their historic homeland.”
Several rabbis pointed to the long-term impact of the Israeli government’s decisions.
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange called the action “a slap in the face to world Jewry.” He continued, “We teach our children that Israel is the Jewish state, a homeland for all Jews, and then events like this only reinforce that the government refuses to even acknowledge and accept the diversity of Jewish practice, ideology, and expression.”
Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains worries that Netanyahu is making the mistake of taking American Jews “for granted.”
“If American Jews feel less and less welcome, as Jews, visiting the land of Israel, they will feel less and less engaged to support the State of Israel.” He added, “Kol yisrael aravim zeh bazeh — All Jews are involved one with the other; we cannot cut each other off and remain a healthy people.”
Others, like Bayar, called the basis for the decisions nothing short of un-Jewish.
Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange said that Netanyahu’s actions reject the idea that “all Jews matter.” He said, “To claim to have exclusive understanding of God’s will, to have a monopoly on the truth, is antithetical to the fundamental values of Judaism.”
Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange called the entire affair absurd. “I was particularly struck by the fact that over the years both Netanyahu and his surrogates have had the hubris to claim he speaks for the entire Jewish world.”
Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield laid the problem at the feet of the coalition form of government. “This change in the agreement is a horrific example of the power of one or more coalition partners to blackmail with the threat of either resigning or calling for a vote of non-confidence. The end result is that the prime minister’s government fails over a limited volatile partisan issue, which will most likely lead to new elections.”
Rabbi Cliff Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, however, places blame firmly with Netanyahu. Given the prime minister’s previous statements, he said, “it is hard to see this as anything other than a capitulation to the charedi right of his coalition.” As for that Haaretz “Drop Dead” headline? “Sounds about right,” said Kulwin.
But Rabbi Doug Sagal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield sees the move as more than just thumbing their nose at diaspora Jews. “Increasingly, Israeli Jews are choosing non-Orthodox synagogues and rabbis for their spiritual needs and for their lifecycle events. This reneging on a hard-fought compromise…is a rejection not just of the diaspora Jewish community, but of his own citizens, as well.”
The outrage is not limited to clergy of Conservative and Reform denominations. “As an Orthodox Jew, I try to instill in my children the feelings of extreme pride and confidence that their traditions and practices will not crumble when other Jews practice differently from them,” said Rabbi Menashe East, who leads the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph. “These new policies speak to an inner-facing, threatened, and smaller- minded Judaism. We can be better than this.”
Even for those who agree with Netanyahu, the negative discourse is concerning.
“We have lost the ability to speak to each other,” said Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky of the Chai Center and Shul in Millburn. “Whereas debating and discussing opposing viewpoints used to be the joy of mature adults, today the back-and-forth of debate has been replaced with one-sided statements of righteous indignation.”
Bogomilsky supports Netanyahu’s decision because he said the people in the time of the Temple did not worship as liberal Jews would today. “Why choose to pray specifically in the street outside an ancient structure whose form of worship would be anathema to liberal Jews?” he asked, referring to ancient traditions such as ritual purity and animal sacrifice.
Nonetheless, he added, “as we learn in kindergarten, you can’t force someone to agree with you. And you can still be friends with people who think differently than you do.”