Shas leader Deri: Decision reflects will of the people • Senior Reform rabbi decries “unconscionable insult” to most of world’s Jewry • Jewish Agency cancels event with PM Netanyahu in protest • PM orders top aides to formulate alternative solution.
The government on Sunday shelved a long-overdue plan to open a mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a major policy reversal that infuriated the liberal streams of Judaism that represent most Jews in the United States.
The egalitarian prayer plan was approved in January 2016 as a compromise reached after years of negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities. It was seen as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox establishment controls every facet of Jewish life.
But the program was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism threatened a coalition crisis if any progress on the plan was made on the ground.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trying to avoid a political crisis, instructed Regional Cooperation Minister Tzahi Hanegbi and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman to formulate a new plan, but said little more.
The decision to suspend the plan prompted warnings that it may spark a crisis with Diaspora Jews, especially in the United States.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who alongside Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz voted against the decision, said freezing the plan “deals a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, to various Jewish communities and to the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.”
Lieberman said his party would fight the decision.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of “national irresponsibility” and of forfeiting his role as leader of the Jewish people.
“Israel today became the only democracy in the world where there are no equal rights for Jews,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “This is an insulting, irrational affront to the deep religious feelings of millions of Jews.”
Jewish Agency Director Natan Sharansky said he was “deeply disappointed by the government’s decision to suspend the egalitarian prayer plan, which would have created a respectable and equal prayer space at the Western Wall.
“After four years of intensive negotiations, we reached a solution agreed upon by all the major religious streams, which was adopted by the government and welcomed by the Jewish communities around the world. Today’s decision reneged on that agreement and makes it exceedingly difficult to us to bring Israel and the Diaspora closer.”
Protesting the government’s decision, the Jewish Agency announced that it was canceling an event it had planned to hold in the Knesset on Monday evening, where Netanyahu was scheduled to speak.
The Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency said it was calling off its dinner with Netanyahu and promptly altered the agenda of its meetings to address a crisis.
‘Decision an unconscionable insult’
The government’s decision set off a cascade of scathing criticism from liberal groups both in Israel and abroad.
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs tweeted, “Just landed in Israel to news that Netanyahu has walked away from our Kotel agreement. We will see him in court.”
Jacobs later issued a statement saying, “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to say ‘no’ to his previous ‘yes’ is an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry. We are assessing all next steps. The Israeli Supreme Court will rule, but even in waiting for the court we will not be still or silent. The stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox parties have on Israel and the enfranchisement of the majority of Jews in Israel and the world must — and will — be ended.”
He further warned that the decision could lead many to rethink their support for Israel.
“There is a limit to how many times you can be delegitimized and insulted. This is the core mission of the Jewish state — to be a home for all Jews. It is unthinkable, but the unthinkable just happened.”
On Monday, Reform leaders who were scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Thursday, canceled the meeting.
The cancellation of the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and the government’s backing of a bill giving the Chief Rabbinate exclusive authority over conversions — including the power to disqualify conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis overseas — are the “culmination of a severe crisis” between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry, Jacobs said, adding, “We feel that we have northing talk about with the prime minister.”
Director of the Conservative Movement in Israel Yizhar Hess said the government had “surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox parties and had left Jewish communities around the world stunned.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president of the Israel Reform Movement, said, “The decision by the government is a reprehensible and embarrassing surrender to pressure by the haredi political parties, which severely damages the basic core interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The prime minister and his coalition partners actively gave their blessing to this anti-Zionist step that will hurt the relations between Israel and the Diaspora, and weaken the connection of millions of Jews to Jerusalem. We will continue to fight for the right of equality and freedom of religion at the Western Wall and every other site in the State of Israel, together with our many partners in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.”
Kariv noted he plans to petition the High Court of Justice, saying, “We believe that it will defend the Jewish and democratic values of the State of Israel.”
Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, described the decision as a “slap in the face” of Diaspora Jews.
Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall group that has pushed for egalitarian access to the wall, said she was “outraged by this government decision. I think it shows cowardice. For two years, we negotiated in good faith with the government and then today they decide that it is null and void, that they’re not going to implement it, that equality is out the window.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the New York-based Rabbinical Assembly, an association for Conservative movement rabbis, said the decision was not surprising given the clout of ultra-Orthodox parties yet shocking nonetheless for its divisive message. Still, she said it would not affect her devotion to Israel.
“The people of Israel still need our support and our love and the fact that an unbelievably, spectacularly shortsighted government cannot see its way to understand the critical importance of unity of world Jewry is something that is the fault of the politicians,” she said.
‘Move preserves status quo’
Shas leader Aryeh Deri welcomed the government’s decision to block the plan he said would have harmed the “sanctity of the site. … Preserving the status quo of the Western Wall reflects the will of most of the people. There is no room there for destructive factions whose only purpose is to desecrate the site. I’m glad the government stopped this. It was a very important step.”
United Torah Judaism head Yakov Litzman said the decision “sends a clear message to the world that the reformists will never be allowed a foothold on the Western Wall.”
Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) said the decision “succeeded in preventing unnecessary division that would have harmed the social and religious fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish people. We will continue to defend and strengthen the status quo and Jewish identity for the benefit of Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora.”
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau said, “The government decision that had divided the Western Wall, the heart of the Jewish people, was fundamentally wrong, and it is good that it will not go ahead.
“The Western Wall cannot be divided. Over the decades, the people of Israel have come there en masse from all over the world. The Western Wall has been and will continue to be [administered] according to the custom of the place and according to Halachah [Jewish law] and tradition.”