Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu told a visiting delegation of the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition (ZRC) that he is against the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.
The ZRC, which is made up of a dozen Reform, Conservative and Orthodox American rabbis, visited Israel this past week, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
A spokesman on behalf of Eliyahu, a member of the far-right-wing Otzma Yehudit Party, said in a written statement that as part of the meeting with the ZRC delegation, “rabbis and leaders from various movements in the US participated, including leaders from the Conservative movement who complained and asked about the ‘Bennett Plaza’ [the egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel, which was built by Naftali Bennett as religious affairs minister about a decade ago] and the attitude towards them.”
The statement continued that “Minister Eliyahu stated during the meeting that he personally considers the entire Western Wall to be the largest Jewish synagogue in the world and claimed that this must not be changed,” meaning: Eliyahu thinks that all parts of the Kotel should be run like an Orthodox synagogue.
“The minister pointed out that there is indeed a Jewish and ethical obligation for every Jew to feel that the Western Wall is their own synagogue, but there is no doubt that all this should happen without changing the current local regulations of the Kotel, as has been kept by our ancestors for generations,” according to the statement.
The ZRC participants asked Eliyahu about the current situation in Judea and Samaria and the burning of houses by rampaging settlers in the Palestinian village near the settlement of Ateret.
“I strongly condemned it,” the minister replied. “But I’m speaking to you, not only as a minister in the government, but also as a resident of Judea and Samaria. I heard about the hard feelings among the friends of those murdered in the Eli [Palestinian terror] attack... These young men felt that law enforcement wasn’t doing enough for their safety.”
Eliyahu emphasized that “unfortunately, the feelings among the residents of Judea and Samaria, who in many cases feel like sitting ducks, are difficult and frustrating,” adding that he doesn’t “justify their actions and of course what the boys did is a wrong act, which again, we do not justify even for a moment. Yet, we must understand how we got to such a situation, that young boys feel such great pain.
“As a party, we work within the government to encourage the system to strengthen the sense of protection and personal security among all Israeli citizens, and we will continue to push for this, in the hope that we will not see such scenes again.”
Meeting with other notable Israeli officials
The ZRC delegation also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana.
The coalition was established three years ago, after rabbis, mainly from the Reform and Conservative movements, felt that their movements weren’t representing them on issues regarding Israel and Zionism.
Ever since the cancellation of the Kotel Compromise six years ago, the Reform and Conservative movements haven’t been in dialogue with Netanyahu and were only welcomed back at the Prime Minister’s Office when Bennett and Yair Lapid served briefly as prime ministers.
Netanyahu and Dermer, who was ambassador to the US for many years, wouldn’t hold a direct dialogue with these movements, but only with members of the movements who do not represent their streams officially, in a back channel.
In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, ZRC Chairman Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, a Conservative rabbi from Potomac, Maryland, wouldn’t speak of the content of their meetings with Netanyahu or Dermer, but said that both leaders met with them for an hour and that the meetings were positive.
He said of the meeting with Chikli that “we primarily spoke about... the program that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry rolled out for formal education in North America. We spoke about the things that the ministry is thinking of doing and we gave feedback, as well as suggested ideas for working together to strengthen Jewish identity.”
Weinblatt stressed that “we recognize the importance of conversation and dialogue with individuals affecting Jews in the Diaspora. In several of our meetings we spoke of the judicial reforms and part of the message was the importance of encouraging compromise, regardless of which side you support or believe.
“We understand the complexities better and the root causes of the divisions in Israel,” Weinblatt concluded, adding that these causes are also “reflected in the American Jewish community.” He added that “we wanted to see how to build the bridges between American Jewry and Israel.”
Chikli said in a statement about the meeting with the rabbis that he was “happy to meet with a distinguished delegation of rabbis from the ZRC, led by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt.”
Chikli explained that “our discussion centered around the pressing challenges and promising opportunities pertaining to Jewish education in North America, as well as strategies to fortify the Jewish identity and foster a deeper connection to Israel in the present era.”