They thought they had a deal.
But despite promises from the Israeli government, and despite agreements they thought the government would honor, on Sunday diaspora Jewish leaders learned that Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu caved to the charedi parties that make up his coalition and reneged on his promise to create an equitable space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.
Netanyahu announced the suspension of a 2016 agreement to expand the holy site’s southern section, used for egalitarian prayer, and to appoint an interdenominational commission to oversee it. The compromise was a result of three years of negotiations among the Jewish Agency for Israel, non-Orthodox leaders, the Israeli government, and the Western Wall’s charedi Orthodox management.
The decision to freeze the agreement coincided with a High Court of Justice deadline for the state to respond to petitions on its failure to implement the agreement and construct the mixed-gender plaza near Robinson’s Arch by this week.
The announcement also came as Jewish federation leaders were in Jerusalem for meetings of the Jewish Agency, which promptly canceled meetings with the prime minister and passed an unprecedented resolution criticizing the Israeli government.
In response to Netanyahu’s move, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey issued a statement that expressed its great disappointment with the move.
“We are deeply concerned about the decision the Government of Israel made to suspend the 2016 Kotel agreement to establish ‘one wall for one people,’” the federation’s outgoing president, Jayne Petak, and its CEO, Jason Shames, wrote.
“It is clear that internal religious politics have impacted governmental decision-making in Israel, undermining efforts at fostering a greater Klal Yisrael,” they continued. “It is our sincere hope that the Government of Israel will review its decision-making process and re-embrace this historic compromise.
“Israel is unique in that it represents the wide range of values of an entire faith. It is critical that the government considers the views of all Jews and the impact its decisions have on world Jewry.”
The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago’s president, Steven Nasatir, also responded quickly and passionately. “The Federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill,” he said. “None. They will not be welcome in our community.”
“We’re past the time when we’re standing and applauding and being nice because they’re members of Knesset or because they hold this position or that position,” he said. “People who don’t have the understanding of what this bill means to the Jewish people — God bless ‘em, but they’re not welcome in our community, period.”
Another part of the original agreement, expanding the small egalitarian section at Robinson’s Arch, which is not visible from the main part of the wall, will continue during the suspension, Netanyahu’s office said. But any new agreement would have to be negotiated by Israel’s Cabinet and come to a new vote before moving forward.
The suspension is a result of pressure from Netanyahu’s charedi Orthodox partners, who allowed the compromise to pass last year but since have railed against it, blocking its implementation. American Jewish leaders had hailed the agreement last year as a step forward for Jewish pluralism and, at the time, Netanyahu called it a “fair and creative solution.”
Now the American Jewish leaders who pushed for the agreement say they feel betrayed by Netanyahu. “To see the agreement go into dormancy for 18 months, and then in one day to have it frozen for political reasons, is feeling like you were sucker-punched and completely devalued,” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, said. “It is a direct insult.
Silverman said that he and other diaspora leaders are determined to fight back — to have the Western Wall deal implemented as originally agreed, and to challenge the government’s new conversion bill.
“We are developing a strategy for a campaign to convince the Knesset and all Israelis as to the reasons why the Kotel [Western Wall] plan is so important,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Jewish Agency for Israel took out large advertisements in major Israeli newspapers saying that the government’s decisions to halt the creation of a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall and to restore the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Israeli conversion “endangers the unity of the Jewish people.”
In a interview with Israel Radio, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who was intimately involved in making the Western Wall deal, said that the problem was Israel’s refusal to recognize Reform Judaism.
“It all exploded because the State of Israel did not recognize the Reform,” he said. “This is a very dangerous message that can keep Jews away. We must do everything possible to change the message from the Israeli government.”
Advocates for the agreement have warned of a crisis among American non-Orthodox Jews should the compromise collapse. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that he was strongly disappointed. He cited a list of recent Israeli government decisions that the Reform movement opposed, including recent legislation to bar supporters of Israel boycotts from entering the country, and another law legalizing Israeli settlements’ appropriation of Palestinian land.
“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 said. “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.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, said the best way forward for non-Orthodox leaders may be Israel’s Supreme Court. A court petition filed by a range of Israeli pluralist groups in 2013 seeks to compel the government to provide for non-Orthodox prayer at the wall, but had been tabled while the 2016 agreement was being negotiated and implemented.
Now that the agreement is suspended, Schonfeld believes the Supreme Court may rule favorably on the petition, forcing the government to accede to non-Orthodox demands.
“The Israeli Supreme court seems to be the only governmental venue that appreciates the long-term impact of Israel advocating its role as the home for all Jews,” she said. “Inevitably, we will find our way back to the courts. We will continue to protest.”
Leaders of diaspora Jewry and the Women of the Wall group originally sought a space at the familiar Western Wall plaza to the north of Robinson’s Arch where women and men could pray together and women could wear tallitot and kippot and pray from a Torah scroll. The January 2016 compromise called for a larger and more permanent prayer space to the south of the plaza, a single entrance to the entire Western Wall complex, a pluralistic joint committee to oversee the southern area and a budget to pay for it.
Anat Hoffman, chair of the Women of the Wall prayer group, called the decision “shameful to the government and its women ministers who were exposed using their vote against women.”
“It’s a terrible day for women in Israel when the prime minister sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists, who want to enforce their religious customs while intentionally violating the rights of the majority of the Jewish world, 51 percent being women,” she said.
“Women of the Wall will continue to pray as we always have in the women’s section at the Western Wall, with a Torah scroll and prayer shawls, until women’s equality will be established at the Kotel. Just like you wouldn’t ask a man to take off his kippah, don’t ask us to stop praying according to our conscience.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and one of two Cabinet members to vote against the decision to freeze the agreement, said in a statement that it “constitutes a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, Jewish communities, and the fabric of relations between the State of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora.”
Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, spoke in English at the beginning of his party’s faction meeting in order to reach the Jewish diaspora, particularly U.S. Jews, he said.
“I want to tell you that the vast majority of the citizens of Israel oppose the two decisions taken yesterday by the government,” he said, referring to the Western Wall decision and a separate conversion bill that would solidify conversions in Israel under the authority of the charedi-dominated Chief Rabbinate.
“Do not give up on us. We have no intention of giving up on you. We are one people. It might take time. It might take elections. But in a democracy the majority decides and the majority in Israel want us to be one nation.”
Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party leader Arye Deri, who opposes the Western Wall compromise, said during his party’s meeting that the canceled plan “destroys Jewish unity.
“Every Jew in the world, and non-Jews, can come pray there. We have nothing against Jews, in any place they may be. They are all our brothers. Our fight is against the approach, this ideology which is attempting to bring a new Judaism here, is trying to destroy everything that we built here over the years.”
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the charedi United Torah Judaism party also welcomed the Cabinet decision as a victory over liberal Jews.
“This decision sends a clear message to the entire world that Reform Judaism has no access to or recognition at the Western Wall,” he said Sunday in a statement. “I thank the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, and the chief rabbis of Israel. To their merit we were able to sanctify God’s name.”
A range of other groups criticized Sunday’s decision, including the American Jewish Committee, the Women of the Wall, the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and the Jewish Agency, whose chairman, Natan Sharansky, was one of the architects of the 2016 agreement.
“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities,” Sharansky said in a statement. “Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”
Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative movement in Israel, wrote an op ed in a daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, saying that he regretted reaching a compromise with the government.
“We made a mistake,” he wrote. “We believed the government, we believed the prime minister, we believed that we needed at last to end this squabbling among ourselves over the Western Wall, and we agreed to a compromise arrangement.
“But the Cabinet’s decision last night — a cynical, even wicked decision — took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world.”
Non-Orthodox leaders also decried the Israeli government’s advancing a bill to centralize authority for Jewish conversions under the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a charedi-dominated body. Silverman compared the bill to a 2010 bill on conversions in Israel, which American Jewish groups also opposed because they argued it would delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions.
“The conversion bill that was approved by the ministerial committee and Knesset is one that definitively changes the status quo in conversions,” Silverman said. “This is something that almost every 10 years comes up, and would have a dramatic effect on who is a Jew, which obviously has a significant impact.”
JTA Wire Service/Times of Israel
Amanda Borschel-Dan, Larry Yudelson, and Joanne Palmer contributed to this report.