A host of Jewish leaders in Israel and the Diaspora, including the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements, strongly denounced the government’s decision Sunday to scrap the agreement to formally establish a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a central figure in formulating the plan, expressed deep disappointment over the determination to indefinitely freeze implementation of the agreement.
“Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into – in his own words – ‘one wall for one people,’” Sharansky said.
“After four years of intensive 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.
“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. The Jewish Agency, nevertheless, remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people.”
President of the Jewish Federations of North America Jerry Silverman called the decision “deeply disappointing,” saying it would do nothing to bring the global Jewish community together.
“This agreement was embraced by North American Jewish communities and it was negotiated in good faith,” said Silverman. “I believe that this decision creates divisiveness especially towards our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, was far more blunt, denouncing the behavior of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to say ‘no’ to his previous ‘yes’ is an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry,” fumed Jacobs, who said the High Court of Justice may intervene on the issue.
“The stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox parties have on Israel and the [dis]enfranchisement of the majority of Jews in Israel and the world must – and will – be ended,” he asserted.
Rabbi Philip Scheim, president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Rabbis, described the decision as “hurtful and deeply disappointing” but specifically said it would not impact “the love and devotion” of Conservative Jews for the State of Israel.
“Many Diaspora Jews feel disrespected, but love is still there,” said Scheim.
“This won’t have a cataclysmic effect on Israel-Diaspora relations because hurting those you love is not necessarily a good tactic and not what the Jewish people need at this time. But it isn’t in the interests of the State of Israel to be governed by a haredi hegemony.
Nevertheless, we will continue to advocate, raise money and get political support for Israel in all our communities around the world.”
The Women of the Wall prayer group, whose activities led to the compromise agreement in the first place, were fiercely critical of the decision to repeal it and of Netanyahu.
“The fact that the prime minister, who himself initiated the agreement, is retreating from that historic decision, is shameful to the government and its women ministers who were exposed using their vote against women,” said WOW chairwoman Anat Hoffman.
“It’s a terrible day for women in Israel when the PM sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists who force their religious customs on others and intentionally violate the rights of the majority of the Jewish people – 51% of whom are women.”
MK Nachman Shai, chairman of the Lobby for the Strengthening of the Jewish People and Lobby for US-Israel Relations, said the issue has caused feelings of “disappointment, frustration and a sense of betrayal” for much of US Jewry.
He added that the agreement had given hope, but now “that hope is gone.”
“The US Jewish community is a strong and stable bridge in the relations between the two countries. This morning it cracked.”
Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, head of the Knesset caucus on religion and state, echoed this, accusing the government of “systematically leading a deep Jewish rift.”
“The Israeli government has slammed the door on Diaspora Jews and created an unprecedented crisis in the relationship,” she said.
The American Jewish Committee also expressed deep disappointment over the development.
“The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” said AJC CEO David Harris. “This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”
Along with Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, the only other cabinet member to vote against the decision was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
“The cancellation of the decision today is a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, Jewish communities and the fabric of relations between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jews,” said Liberman “I call upon my friends in the nationalist camp to return to sanity, to prevent a rift within the Jewish people and to follow in the footsteps of [Theodor] Herzl, [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky and Max Nordau.”
The chief rabbis and ultra-Orthodox, political parties, however, expressed satisfaction with the outcome.
United Torah Judaism and Shas leaders, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and Interior Minister Arye Deri, and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said the freeze amounts to “de facto repeal of the Western Wall agreement and a return to the previous situation.”
“This decision reflects the will of the majority of the people who want to protect the sanctity of the Western Wall and its status as it has been since time immemorial,” they said.
Chief Rabbi David Lau, meanwhile, said the initial decision “to split the Western Wall, the heart of the Jewish people, was a mistake from the very beginning,” and welcomed the repeal.
“The Western Wall should not be portioned up. For many years, the Jewish people have come to the site in droves from around the world and will continue to do so as one people, with one heart, in accordance with the Jewish laws and traditions that are the customs of the site,” he said.