American leaders oppose Netanyahu’s Western Wall decision

American Jewish leaders are reacting in a way rarely seen – speaking critically of current Israeli policy.

They say that 17 months after achieving a historic agreement to provide a non-Orthodox space at Judaism’s holiest prayer site, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged in a Cabinet vote Sunday, June 25, effectively canceling the deal and caving to the interests of his haredi Orthodox coalition partners.

The compromise would have expanded a non-Orthodox prayer section south of the main Western Wall plaza, created a shared entrance to all prayer areas and appointed an interdenominational council to oversee the non-Orthodox section.

“I have gone to four GA meetings where Netanyahu promised to support the needs of all Jews,” said Milwaukee Jewish Federation President and CEO Hannah Rosenthal, referring to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. “That he would renege on the deal is galling.”

The deal would have allowed a greater role for women at the Western Wall.

A view of the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Sukkot 2015. Photo by Gil Cohen/AFP/Getty Images/JTA.

“Israel does not have religious freedom for me,” Rosenthal said. “On a personal level I feel totally betrayed.”

Three AIPAC leaders reportedly warned Netanyahu of a “crisis of faith” among American Jews in the aftermath of the freezing of the Western Wall agreement. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is a major pro-Israel lobbying group.

Outgoing president Lillian Pinkus, her successor, Mort Fridman, and vice CEO Richard Fishman offered what a source told JTA was an “analysis” of the impact of the freeze on American Jews and the divisions it might cause.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents more than 50 national Jewish groups, in a letter to Netanyahu said that a lack of unity between Diaspora Jews and Israel over the Western Wall agreement “could lead to an erosion of support.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, called the vote a “sleight of hand.” A senior Israeli official told JTA that Netanyahu views it only as a freeze of the interdenominational council, with wiggle room for expansion of prayer space at the Western Wall to continue.

But Wernick is treating it as a cancellation of the agreement, given that the agreement had not been implemented nearly a year and a half after being passed.

“It’s not really a freeze, it’s a kill,” he said. “It’s already been frozen. It hasn’t been moving for 18 months. We were waiting, and assured by the prime minister that entire time that negotiations were happening and they would get back to us. That hasn’t happened.”

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall prayer group, whose activism led to negotiations over the wall, said that any physical expansion of one of the most sensitive sites in the world would take years. Given the delays that have already plagued the process, Hoffman said she is hesitant to trust assurances from Netanyahu.

“We sat for three years in good faith, our group split over this, we paid such a price, how could I possibly believe you?” she recalled telling Tzachi Hanegbi, a government minister and Netanyahu ally. “And now you’re going to compromise over the compromise?”

On Tuesday, June 27, at the conclusion of its board of governors’ meetings in Jerusalem, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky urged 200 employees who represent the agency abroad to prepare for criticism. The night before, the Jewish Agency canceled its scheduled gala dinner with Netanyahu over the Cabinet vote.

According to a statement, Sharansky urged the emissaries to “listen to expressions of anger and criticism that are being heard in many Jewish communities and bring them to the attention of public figures and politicians in Israel.”

Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post that over the past few years, Netanyahu had made many promises to the liberal streams of Judaism without “thinking deeper whether he could really deliver them,” and that the prime minister had promised things without “thinking out thoroughly whether they were possible.”

After meeting with the prime minister on Monday, June 26, Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told The Times of Israel that American Jewish groups plan to lobby Israelis to support their concerns about religious pluralism. American Jewish leaders, he said, will also invest more in lobbying Israeli lawmakers.

America’s most prominent Orthodox organizations have remained mostly quiet. The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America, two umbrella American Orthodox bodies, both told JTA they are not commenting on the matter.

And while some modern Orthodox rabbis have criticized Israel’s actions, they have not called for retaliatory action against the Israeli government. Others sympathize with what they see as the Chief Rabbinate’s defense of traditional Jewish law, according to JTA.

Conversion bill

Initially in June, Israeli government ministers approved a bill that would require the state to recognize only conversions conducted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.

This led to an outcry from Reform and Conservative movements and American Jewish communal organizations, who felt that the bill would impugn the validity of non-Orthodox Judaism.

“The federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill. None. They will not be welcome in our community,” Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told The Times of Israel in an interview published Tuesday, June 27.

Then, just days later, while also under pressure due to the Western Wall controversy, Netanyahu shelved the conversions bill.

Netanyahu’s office announced Friday, June 30 that the legislation will not be considered for six months while a “team” he will appoint comes up with recommendations for an “arrangement” on the issue.