Leaders of the progressive Jewish movements in North America have reacted angrily to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that “ideological elements” of the Western Wall agreement of 2016 had been delaying the implementation of physically upgrading the site.Netanyahu made his remarks on Tuesday by video to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which took place in Los Angeles this week. “The 2016 decision wasn’t to create a prayer space, it was to improve the existing space. We are moving forward with construction to do just that,” commented Netanyahu.Rabbi Steve Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, described the prime minister’s comments as “not truthful and not respectful,” and said that Netanyahu must be “called out” over such erroneous remarks.“What he said is not fact. The ideological issues were the whole reason for the negotiations over the agreement,” Wernick told The Jerusalem Post.“We didn’t need four years of negotiations just to make physical upgrades [to the existing site]. The government could have gone ahead with physical upgrades without a government resolution.”Two of the key elements of the 2016 agreement were that a dramatically upgraded prayer site for egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall would be accessible from within the main Western Wall complex, and that representatives of the progressive movements would be members of a governing committee that would administer the site.The Haredi political parties belatedly objected to these clauses after the agreement was approved, however, eventually leading to the indefinite suspension of the resolution in June this year, to the consternation of Diaspora Jewish leadership.
Despite Netanyahu’s claims, the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall organization had made clear throughout the nearly four years of negotiations that without these two critical clauses they would not accept the plan.Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement in the US, also rejected Netanyahu’s claims, saying he was profoundly disappointed with his speech.Jacobs said that Netanyahu’s message every year at the General Assembly was always one of unity and trust, but that this message has not been actualized.“The reality is so glaringly not that, and it is the failure to honor a government decision and to do something that wouldn’t be simple but would be profound,” he told the Post.“The ideological parts are not separate from the physical. To be in that space completely shut off from the upper plaza, for people not be able to find the space... this is not anything close to what was promised.”During his brief remarks, Netanyahu promised that despite the indefinite suspension of the 2016 government resolution, he remains committed to advancing a solution for progressive Jewish prayer at the Western Wall, and that a physically upgraded site would be ready by next year.After the original plan was frozen in June this year, the Prime Minister’s Office allocated some NIS 19 million to physically upgrade the existing facilities at the current site at the southern end of the Western Wall, which is available for non-Orthodox prayer.Netanyahu was referring to these plans when he told those gathered at the General Assembly that the upgraded site would be ready by next year.“Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so,” averred the prime minister.“I took on the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall because I strongly believe that all Jews, without exception, should feel at home in Israel, he continued.“What the government froze in June were only the most ideologically charged elements of the Western Wall plan. They were holding the practical elements of the plan hostage.... We are moving forward with construction to do just that. I hope, and I am working to make sure, that this happens, that you will see the improved prayer space before the next GA.”Netanyahu also took aim at those who have criticized him for failing to implement the deal, saying that changes to the religious status quo in Israel had always happened “as a result of evolution, and not revolution.”“Despite the disagreements, despite a lot of distortions, and despite the disparaging remarks about me and my government, I remain committed to moving forward. I believe that the Jewish people are all one family, I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer in the Kotel.”Jacobs quipped, however, that the extensive period of time taken to negotiate the Western Wall agreement should constitute a process of evolution.“The time for speaking is over, the time for action is upon us,” he asserted.“The prime minister claims to want to solve problems, but then doesn’t,” said Wernick, “and then, when he does try, he doesn’t implement the proposed solutions, and it becomes an even bigger problem.“These problems are not going away, and they go to the core of Jewish peoplehood. If we want Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, then the job of the prime minister is to act for the citizens of the state, but also to act so that the Jewish and democratic state is the nation state of the Jewish people and not just [of] Israeli citizens. The prime minister has expressed this vision but not acted on it.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick at Jewish Agency meetings in Jerusalem on Kotel deal cancellation, October 30, 2017. (Tamara Zieve)