Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have considered whether he could deliver on pledges to change the status quo on conversion and at the Western Wall before making promises that he could, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said on Monday.
Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post in an interview 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.”
Sharansky’s comments came during a break in meetings of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, which was seething at the government’s decision on Sunday to cancel its January 2016 decision to establish a third plaza at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer services, as well as to advance a controversial conversion bill that would grant the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly over conversions in Israel.
In an unprecedented move, the board canceled a gala dinner planned with Netanyahu for Monday evening to protest the decisions. It also passed a harshly worded resolution calling upon the government to “understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly.”
Sharansky was a central figure over the past five years in formulating the plan for the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, something Netanyahu himself dubbed as transforming it into “one wall for one people.”
Despite his involvement, Sharansky said he had been “blindsided” by the decision and found out about it only during the cabinet meeting itself, where he was present because of the annual report of the Jewish People Policy Institute. Ironically, he noted that one of the observations of the report was that damage was being done to ties with Diaspora Jews with every passing day that the Western Wall compromise was not implemented.
Sharansky quoted Netanyahu as saying at the cabinet meeting that he personally recognized the legitimacy of all streams of Judaism and wanted a place for prayer at the Western Wall for all of them, but that he was freezing the plan because “frankly, there are parts of our coalition who don’t recognize” those streams.
“I am ready to freeze the plans but not cancel them in order to keep my coalition,” Sharansky quoted the prime minister as saying.
The Jewish Agency chairman said Netanyahu understood American Jewry better than any other prime minister.
“That is why he sincerely wanted a compromise,” he told the Post
. “And at the same time, he is a politician, and there is no doubt that the [haredi] parties used the political system to pressure him. It is up to him to decide.”
Sharansky, a close ally of Netanyahu’s for a long time, said, “In the end, all the promises to all the streams were all erased in one day by the political considerations of the moment.”
If Netanyahu decided that he had to buckle to the pressure, “he had to think, as a politician, how to do it, how to compensate,” Sharansky said.
“He did not talk to anybody about it – not to me, not to the leaders of the streams. He could have said, ‘Look, unfortunately and despite all the promises, I will have to stop for another year. Let’s look at other things I can do.’”
Despite the tremendous disappointment and anger expressed by Diaspora leaders during the Board of Governors meeting – Sharansky said he had been forced to fend off calls from some on the fringes to stop sending money or missions to Israel – the Jewish Agency chairman called it “demagoguery” to say that this was a turning point or a breaking point in Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora.
Diaspora Jews will not disconnect from Israel because of these decisions, he said. But, he added, the decisions will give those debating whether to be involved with Israel and Judaism an excuse to opt out. “There is a process [of disengagement from Israel and Judaism] that is very alarming, and the Americans can be blamed for it as much as Israel: the weakening of identity, intermarriage, indifference.”
Sharansky said it was commonly agreed that there were two anchors against assimilation: faith and Zionism, a connection to Judaism and a connection to Israel.
“If you have both, wonderful,” he told the Post
. “If you have one of them, you can work with that. If you have neither, eventually they will not be Jews.”
The upshot, he said, was that it was very important to keep Diaspora Jewry interested and involved with Israel.
“These decisions accelerate the process of disengagement,” he explained.
Sharansky said that for the ardent Zionists, the government’s moves would not change anything.
“But for those not interested, this decision gives them more of a reason to disconnect, saying, they [Israel] don’t want me anyway,’” he said.
He added that the haredim who had pushed for the decision, as well as some secular Israeli politicians not bothered by it, had written off the liberal and non-affiliated streams of Diaspora Jewry, saying that since those Jews had no connection to Judaism and were not going to come live in Israel, “why should we risk the stability of our state for these people?”
Sharansky described the ultra-Orthodox as viewing the connection of so many Diaspora Jews to Israel and Judaism as tenuous, and therefore they “should not be interested in them.” His own position, he said, was the opposite.
“The only way that some of these people will be a part of our mutual journey,” he explained, “is to make them more interested – through Israel – in their Jewishness.”
Sharansky dismissed the notion that these issues were not critical because they affected only a relatively small proportion of the rabbis and community leaders in the Diaspora who were passionately involved in the issues. He said that many were subconsciously deciding whether to be part of the Jewish community or not, and if, as a result of issues like these, rabbis do not want to speak about Israel, it will have a much wider trickle-down impact.
He also disagreed with the notion that these issues only affect the Diaspora and that Israelis really don’t care that much.
“Israelis do care about unity,” he said. “They understand that Israel is for all the Jewish people.
But it is not a priority.”
In other words, someone on the Right might be in favor of a more liberal conversion policy but is not going to make that the determining factor when it comes election day, he explained.
“Would that person vote for a party with a liberal conversion policy that will compromise on the Land of Israel?” he asked.
Likewise, he said, the Left was not going to forfeit its electoral chances by making these issues their top priority.
“I want to say that with all the drama of this crisis, it is not unique in Jewish history, and not something for which the Left could say, ‘If only we were in power it would not happen,’” he said. “The same things have happened in the past.”
Asked whether he ever thought during his long years as a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union that these would be issues the Jewish people would fight about, he said: “Of course.”
“On the one hand, when I was in prison, there was this powerful feeling of unity that everyone was behind me, and that was the most wonderful thing,” he said. “On the other hand, as a spokesman of our [refusenik] movement before my arrest, I knew very well how Jews were fighting with one another, how organizations were not talking to one another.”
He said he remembered a time when he had different Jewish tourists smuggle the same document out of the Soviet Union to two different organizations in New York, knowing that the organizations would not share them with one another.
“The secret of the Jewish people, the secret of our survival, is to constantly fight one another,” he said, “but at the same time remember that something much bigger unites us.”Tamara Zieve contributed to this report.