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July 14, 2017  RSS feed
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Text: T T T

Many Jewish leaders angered by Israel moves on Wall, conversions

By BEN SALES JTA news service

Women praying in the women’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. 
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images Women praying in the women’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images Many American Jewish leaders are calling it a betrayal.

They say that 17 months after achieving a historic Western Wall 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 same day, the Israeli government advanced a bill giving the Chief Rabbinate complete control over conversions in Israel. Both votes brought swift and angry reactions from the non-Orthodoz American Jewish community, and at least in the case of the conversion bill yielded some results with the Israeli Cabinet postponing the law for six months.

As for the freeze on the Wall agreement, Netanyahu disagrees that the Cabinet vote killed the agreement on expansion of non-Orthodox space there. Far from killing it, he believes the vote has given it new life. And far from betraying Diaspora Jewry, he says the vote shows his concern for Jews around the world.

The Western Wall agreement, which was passed by the Cabinet in January 2016, has three components, explained a senior Israeli official. First is a physical expansion and upgrade of the non-Orthodox prayer section south of the familiar Western Wall plaza. Second is the construction of a shared entrance to the Orthodox and non-Orthodox sections. Third is the creation of a government-appointed, interdenominational committee to govern the non-Orthodox section.

The Cabinet’s decision, the senior official said, leaves in place the physical expansion of the prayer site while suspending the creation of the committee, which was to include Reform and Conservative representatives. Netanyahu’s haredi partners, the official said, objected to the idea that the committee amounted to state recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism.

With the controversy over the committee frozen, the official said, actual building at the site can start unhindered and will be expedited.

However, some non-Orthodox officials do not accept that explanation and are wary the prayer space will be expanded anytime soon, and even if the expansion goes ahead, several aspects of the project as it stands are murky. It isn’t clear whether the expansion of the site will proceed according to the dimensions outlined, whether construction will begin on the shared entrance or whether the non- Orthodox space will have a staff, prayer books and Torah scrolls, as promised in the 2016 agreement.

The official told JTA that the suspension of the deal is itself a compromise: the haredi parties wanted to cancel the deal altogether, a step he said that Netanyahu was unwilling to take. Freezing the agreement, the official said, allows for continued negotiations to rework it.

The official added that, “The prime minister takes Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry very seriously.”

Non-Orthodox leaders in America were not placated by these assurances. Members of a variety of Jewish organizations, as well as Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders decried the Israeli votes. Here is a look at the reactions:

Conservatives concerned

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was upset over both the vote to freeze the Western Wall agreement and the vote on conversions. He called the Western Wall vote, “sleight of hand” and 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.”

He spoke before a Knesset committee on July 11 and warned, “We are on the edge; on the edge of very real, very serious and very harmful distancing of Israeli Jewry with Diaspora Jewry.”

On the issues of religious pluralism in the Jewish State, he said, “We have lost our patience and that’s why we’ve seen the response we have. It is no longer acceptable for Israel to simply claim it is the Jewish Homeland without it actually being the Homeland of all the Jews.”

The rabbi pointed out that North American Jewry has lobbied their governments for political, economic and strategic support for Israel; responded to the Boycott Divestment and Sanction movement against Israel and the United Nations’ delegitimization of Israel; invested billions of dollars in Israel and sent billions in charitable contributions; supported aliyah and sent their own children as lone soldiers.

“We support Israel because we are Zionists. We share the vision of a nation-state for the Jewish People – lihiyot am chofshee b’artzaynu,” or a free people in our land, he said.

“And an essential element of that vision, a key ingredient of what it means to be a free people in our land, is for our religious expressions that give meaning to our Jewish identities and lead us to be Zionists are respected and supported in our Jewish homeland by its government,” Rabbi Wernick said.

Reform leaders upset

Last year Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said collapse of the Western Wall deal “will signal a very serious rupture in the relationship between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.” After the Cabinet vote Jacobs expressed strong disappointment, but did not say it would lead to any concrete loss of support for Israel from the Reform movement. “This decision screams out that when all is said and done, the state of Israel and government of Israel is willing to sell our rights and our well-being for coalition politics,” he told JTA. “This does not add up to be a compelling example of what all of us understand Jewish life to be, and if there’s growing dissonance between those who lead the state of Israel and those who lead American Jewry, the consequences are serious.”

As for proceeding with expansion of the non-Orthodox prayer space, he noted, “What the government is currently planning to do in no way meets the promises and the details of this agreement.”

Daryl Messinger, the chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, will be boycotting El Al, Israel’s national airline and will make a point of buying non-kosher wines produced in Israel – a show of support for Jews who don’t observe traditional kosher laws.

“I want to make sure my dollars are working for my needs and for a pluralistic Israel,” Messinger told JTA. “The Israeli economy is the place where our American dollars are really impactful, so we need to be really clear about what goods and services we want to support and see thrive in Israel.”

According to a 2014 analysis by the Forward, American Jewish groups give nearly $1.8 billion to Israel each year. “My original gut reaction when I read about what happened was to say, ‘The heck with this,’” said Henry Levy IV, treasurer of the Union for Reform Judaism, or URJ. “Why should I give my money to Israel if they don’t want to recognize me as a Jew, much less believe in egalitarian prayer? My only vote is with my pocketbook. I don’t have a vote as an Israeli.”

Levy will not be suspending his giving to Israel, but he and Messinger are two of several active Reform Jewish donors who will be reapportioning their Israel philanthropy. Some URJ Oversight Committee members also told JTA that they would be giving more to nonprofits that champion pluralism rather than large, general-interest Jewish fundraising bodies.

Even as they spoke of pressuring Israel financially, Reform donors denied any parallel to the BDS movement. Instead of isolating Israel economically, these donors are considering increasing their giving – but changing which Israelis get it. “This is about redirecting funds strategically,” Messinger said. “It’s not about spending less. It’s about investing in areas where it’s clearly promoting democratic, pluralistic Israel – an Israel we’d like to all be part of.”

Orthodox reaction ambivalent

As others have decried the Israeli votes, 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.

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.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox leader, was sympathetic with his non-Orthodox colleagues – up to a point. “I’m disappointed in the modern Orthodox for not responding strongly, because of the divisive effect that this has on the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Lookstein. “And I am concerned about some of the overreactions of liberal groups who are calling for all kinds of boycotts and actions on the part of American Jewry to punish Israel for these decisions.”

Haredi Orthodox Americans, meanwhile, insist that the Jewish communal organizations criticizing the rabbinate do not speak for them. Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, told JTA that the Chief Rabbinate is a “bulwark” against eroding and multiplying standards for Jewish observance and identity.

“If Israel is to retain a Jewish identity, it is essential for her to have a single set of standards determining who is a Jew and what is a Jewish marriage or divorce,” Rabbi Shafran wrote to JTA in an email. “Were a constitution to impose multiple standards for such things, it would lead to plethora of ‘Jewish peoples’– Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and others. That would spell disaster for both Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.”

Federations, others weigh in

“It is imperative that the government move expeditiously to address this matter and come up with a resolution that is equitable to all, as you sought to do in the agreement that was reached before,” reads a letter by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents more than 50 national Jewish groups.

“Given all the challenges facing Israel and American Jewry, this is a time when achdut, unity, is more important than ever. A lack of unity could lead to an erosion of support, which has been identified by Israel’s National Security Council as a vital security asset for Israel,” the letter states.

“We are outraged at two Israeli government actions today that would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home,” the New York Jewish Federation, the country’s largest, said in a statement.

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. Silverman was also critical of the conversion bill vote.

Steven Nasatir, president of the Chicago Jewish federation, told The Times of Israel that any lawmaker who votes for the conversion bill is not welcome in his community.

Isaac “Ike” Fisher, a board member of the Israel lobby AIPAC from Coral Gables, threatened to suspend his Israel philanthropy and wrote in an email to JTA that he hopes “Jews in the Diaspora will recognize the threat that a creeping theocracy can have on a democratic state.”

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall prayer group, said any physical expansion of the non-Orthodox prayer area would take years. Given the delays that have already plagued the process, she said she is hesitant to trust assurances from Netanyahu.

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