Leaders representing the vast majority of American Jewry lashed out in unusually blunt terms at the Israeli government this week for going back on its commitment to establish a permanent section of the Kotel (Western Wall) for egalitarian prayer.
The cabinet vote, coupled with another on Sunday that would give the Israeli Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversions, could well result in less support — financially and politically — from American Jews, the leaders acknowledged.
Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, who was in Jerusalem for a meeting of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, said, “We are outraged at two Israeli government actions that would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home.”
Though prayer at the Western Wall is not an activity most Israelis participate in or seem to care about, it has become a major issue to liberal American Jews who see it as symbolic of their struggle for recognition from Israel, whose religious life is controlled by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
Goldstein told The Jewish Week that if contributors vent their anger at Israel by reducing donations to UJA-Federation, the organization’s domestic programs would suffer as well.
“A lot of people are expressing significant concern about these actions and their implications for the relationship between America and Israel,” he said, adding: “Of course, I share that fear.”
Locally, UJA-Federation of New York raised $153.4 million for its annual campaign in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016. Although the figures vary each year, last year about 20 percent of the money was sent to Israel, another 17 percent was allocated to other international programs and 63 percent was spent for local projects.
Rabbi Hara Person, chief strategy officer for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of Reform Judaism, the largest denomination of American Jews, said the cabinet decisions will “make it increasingly difficult for our rabbis to make the case to support Israel — which in many cases is an uphill battle to begin with.”
She said that “many Reform Jews today feel alienated from Israel. They believe it is not a place that welcomes egalitarianism and pluralism.”
Compounding that estrangement was the cabinet decision to advance a bill that would deny recognition of conversions performed in Israel by all but the state-sanctioned Orthodox system. Such a move would further reduce the chances that hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Israeli citizens might convert to Judaism.
Both of these developments blindsided members of the board of the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit working with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities worldwide, and a delegation of Reform Jewish leaders from Israel and North America, all of whom were in Jerusalem last week.
Both groups canceled meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a form of protest.
Netanyahu did meet with a small group of Jewish federation leaders, reportedly to tell them that ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition government compelled him to suspended the agreement.
UJA-Federation’s Goldstein, who took part in the meeting, said that although Netanyahu told the group that he was not “torpedoing” the Kotel expansion, “the practical effect is that he is not going forward with the current deal — the product of four excruciating years of discussion.”
Michael Siegal, the newly elected chairman of the Jewish Agency board, told The Jewish Week that he was disappointed with the government’s decision and that “many members [of the board] were outraged.”
He declined to provide any details about the meeting but said his organization would “continue to push for what we think is in the best interests of the Jewish people. … It’s a dynamic and fluid situation.”
But some analysts said they could see this conflict coming because the Reform and Conservative movements were publicly flaunting the Kotel agreement, heralding it as something comparable to recognition – something the haredi or ultra-Orthodox parties would never countenance.
Rabbi Person explained the euphoria this way: “It is not ultimately about the Kotel but about the fight for equality and freedom of religion in Israel. … The ability of women to pray at the Kotel out loud, wearing a tallit and with the Torah, has become a very meaningful symbol for lay people.”
These two Israeli actions are liable to hit Jerusalem in the pocketbook. Reform and Conservative Jews (who together comprise nearly three-quarters of affiliated Jews in the U.S.) reportedly contribute $1.3 billion annually to Israel.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who headed the negotiations that led to the Kotel deal, told reporters Tuesday that reprisals by American Jews were already being felt. He said several Jewish federation leaders have reported that their supporters are threatening to withhold donations to Israel and cancel their trips to the country.
“The message that the government has sent to world Jewry in its decisions,” he said, “is that ‘you are not part of us.’”
Rabbi Person of the Reform group suggested that “Jews may be giving money to Israel in different ways in the future — supporting different organizations within Israel that support Reform Judaism and pluralism.”
The Kotel deal, agreed to in January 2016, called for expanding the Wall’s southern section (also known as Robinson’s Arch) that is now used for egalitarian prayer. It was to have an interdenominational commission to oversee it, and had plans for constructing a common entrance that would branch off to three sections – egalitarian, women’s and men’s.
Even though he froze the agreement, Netanyahu said construction to expand Robinson’s Arch would be accelerated. In addition, he said, Israel’s cabinet would now formulate and approve a new agreement.
Rabbi Person asserted that the issue “is not ultimately about the Kotel but about the fight for equality and freedom of religion in Israel. … The ability of women to pray at the Kotel out loud, wearing a tallit and with the Torah, has become a very meaningful symbol for lay people.”
Netanyahu has told American Jewish groups, including the national gathering of the federation movement in Washington, D.C., last November, that his government would complete a “long overdue understanding that will ensure the Kotel will be a source of unity for the Jewish people, not a division.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, questioned how it was possible the agreement was suspended.
“It was a government agreement that was passed into law — they can’t just undo it unilaterally,” she said. “The prime minister made a proposal to create one wall for one people and that agreement has now been nullified, breached, annulled.”
Regarding the conversion bill, Rabbi Schonfeld said it “is the same ‘who is a Jew’ issue we have struggled with for over 30 years. They periodically dust off this horrible piece of legislation in which the charedi rabbinate attempt to take control over ‘who is a Jew.’ The reason such a law never passed is it would be detrimental to the State of Israel. …[Israel’s] Law of Return explicitly states who is eligible for automatic citizenship” as a Jew.
In fact, the issue arose this time because the High Court of Justice was asked to recognize for the purpose of the Law of Return conversions performed in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis. But before the court ruled, the haredi parties introduced the pending legislation that would codify the status quo, which recognizes only those conversions performed in Israel by the state-sanctioned Orthodox system.
Thus, conversions performed by Reform and Conservative Jews outside of Israel would still be recognized for the purpose of making aliyah.
Rabbi Philip Scheim, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, noted in an email that the proposed legislation “affects the moderate Orthodox world in addition to the non-Orthodox in placing all conversion in the hands of the chief rabbinate. With hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens not halakhically [according to Jewish law] Jewish forced to rely on an extremist rabbinic court, drastically limiting the number of conversions, coupled with the total non-acceptance of non-Orthodox converts, [it would] cause enormous hardship to many who desperately want to identify with the Jewish people.”
The next step for the Reform movement is litigating these issues in the High Court of Justice, according to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. He noted that he expected the case to be heard soon.
He said the Kotel case, “along with the unconscionable conversion bill that the cabinet just passed on to the Knesset for approval, are two severe signs that political expediency is more important to the current Israeli government than is either unity of the Jewish people or the strengthening of a pluralistic, inclusive Judaism for Jews in Israel and across the world. …
“This is a long fight,” he said, “but we are not going to back down.”
But Rabbi Scheim said he believes the courts cannot resolve the issues. “Unless the charedi parties lose their political clout in a future election, little will change,” he said.
Phyllis Chesler, a founder of Women of the Wall, said in an email that she hopes and prays “Jewish women will one day receive as much protection exercising their religious rights as all other religions do under Israeli rule.”
Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, who took part in the meeting with Netanyahu, pledged to fight the Kotel and conversion decisions in the court of public opinion. He noted that most Israelis, including some members of the Knesset, do not realize how important these issues are to diaspora Jewry.
Similarly, Goldstein of UJA-Federation said he is convinced that Israelis have a perspective that is “based on a lack of understanding of how vibrant Jewish life is in America. We do not want to prevent the ultra-Orthodox from practicing as they want,” he said. “But at the same time they should have similar respect for the Conservative and Reform movements.”