Five years on, ‘Kotel crisis’ sparked the next phase of global Jewish connectivity

The agreement’s shocking reversal caused by pressure from the ultra-Orthodox faction of Netanyahu’s coalition, created a deep sense abroad that the Jewish state had just rejected the Jewish world.

THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem, in 2019. (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem, in 2019.
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

American Jewry – particularly its leadership – took it like a punch in the gut.

“The Federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill,” responded Steven Nasatir, Chicago Jewish federation president. “None. They will not be welcome in our community.”

Major North American philanthropist Charles Bronfman wrote to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he didn’t know of another country that “denies any Jew based on denomination.” In case the message still wasn’t clear, the prime minister was uninvited to the annual Jewish Agency gala.

The fist’s source? The most powerful symbol of Jewish continuity and unity: the Western Wall.

It’s been exactly five years since the Kotel crisis, which saw the last-minute canceling of a seemingly secure political deal made in January 2016, to formally recognize an egalitarian section of the Western Wall central platform overseen by non-Orthodox religious groups, as an alternative to the ultra-Orthodox controlled main platform. The government decision was the culmination of a four-year negotiating process launched by Netanyahu and led by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to find a solution that the denominations and Israeli government could all get behind.

PROTESTERS GATHER in Jerusalem next to the Prime Minister’s Residence to protest the Kotel crisis. (credit: REUTERS)PROTESTERS GATHER in Jerusalem next to the Prime Minister’s Residence to protest the Kotel crisis. (credit: REUTERS)

The agreement’s shocking reversal caused by pressure from the ultra-Orthodox faction of Netanyahu’s coalition, created a deep sense abroad that the Jewish state had just rejected the Jewish world, the majority of whom affiliate with non-Orthodox Judaism.

Kotel's importance

While most Israelis remained oblivious to it all, for those of us following, the crisis served as a dramatic wake-up call - our peoplehood moment. Israel’s failure to appreciate the Kotel’s centrality to world Jewry signaled not only a threat to pluralism, but Zionism itself – the basic tenant ensuring Israel’s ability to live up to its mission as the Jewish nation-state. Moreover, if Israel didn’t respond to the crisis underneath the crisis – that Israelis don’t feel a sense of connectivity with world Jewry – there would be increasingly dire implications for Israel as a homeland and us as a people.

This moment launched a series of actions led by a handful of Israelis to take the wheel away from the short-term political considerations of a select number of politicians and hand it over to a civil society empowered to navigate Israel’s relationship and destiny with the Jewish world.

While acknowledging the ongoing pain of a pending Kotel agreement, we are here to simultaneously celebrate the fifth anniversary of this peoplehood awakening by sharing progress made in Israel over the last half-decade.

First, within the government, there are now numerous ministries and parties that understand the significance of Israel’s relationship with world Jewry. This is demonstrated clearly in the Diaspora Ministry’s recent investment in Israeli peoplehood, whether it be through Diaspora Week, which took place this year for the first time across Israel, or launch of an organization supporting Reverse Birthright trips and peoplehood training. Current Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai is a steadfast advocate in weekly cabinet meetings for the diverse spectrum of world Jewry.

IN ISRAEL’S last elections, nearly all parties published platforms regarding strong relations with world Jewry – almost all of which were new additions. Overall, there is a renewed declarative and operative commitment by our government towards world Jewry.

Our national institutions – the WZO and Jewish Agency – joined the wave with the launch of the WZO’s peoplehood branch and the Jewish Agency’s Connecting the Jewish People unit.

Simultaneously, a growing number of philanthropists and foundations started investing in Israeli peoplehood, understanding that you can’t guarantee the Jewish people’s future by exclusively connecting American Jews to Israel. This list includes Charles Bronfman via the ENTER initiative, the Rodan Family Foundation, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and federations such as UJIA of Toronto and the UJA Federation of New York. These financial resources inject new energy into the field.

But the heart of our progress lies within the creation of an organized leadership network. It can’t be understated the unprecedented way in which Israeli civil leadership has stepped up in fostering peoplehood.

Our leadership built a home in Israel’s Peoplehood Coalition, initiated by the Reut Group in direct response to the crisis. The coalition aims to organize and mobilize a growing community of diverse Israelis connected by the single common denominator that is peoplehood.

Since 2017, the efforts of coalition members have led to concrete actions. In formal education, a new peoplehood curriculum for public schools was created within Israel’s Israeli-Jewish culture and identity unit. In informal education, youth movements now have a specialized peoplehood curriculum and counselors. Pre- and post-military programs have peoplehood days about the Jewish world, and numerous leadership training programs now place peoplehood as a central pillar.

Overall, the Peoplehood Coalition’s mapping project, which continuously analyzes Israel’s peoplehood activity, revealed that the field has more than doubled in the last 20 years, with 32% joining in the last six years. New programs have increased dramatically and reach increasingly diverse audiences.

We can now say with confidence that American Jewish leaders have real partners on the ground who are eager to build bridges and shared work plans.

Slowly, our movement is spreading. A 2022 Diaspora Ministry survey found that 56%-58% of Israelis recognize Israel’s responsibility and commitment regarding the continued existence of Jews outside of Israel. 57% of respondents believe that the state should take into account world Jewry’s interests when making decisions on foreign and security policy issues that may impact the diaspora.

As more Israelis see themselves as part of a greater Jewish people, we gain traction towards a Kotel agreement, and similar disasters can and will be prevented as a result.

The bottom line is that without peoplehood, we will fail to carry out the Zionistic project that Theodore Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and countless others set into motion. Ultimately, it is the central task and privilege of our generation to continue their legacy, as a manifestation of our commitment to 21st-century Zionism at the Kotel and beyond.

Naama Klar is the director of the Koret International School for Jewish Peoplehood, former deputy CEO of the Reut Group and founder of the Peoplehood Coalition.

Tracy Frydberg is the director of policy and strategy at the Center for Jewish Impact and former adviser to two ministers of Diaspora affairs.