For American Jews engaging with Israel can feel like talking to the Wall

Will the cabinet’s decision on the Kotel and conversion affect Jewish support from the Diaspora?

Reform Movement prayer service at the Western Wall  (photo credit: Y.R)
Reform Movement prayer service at the Western Wall
(photo credit: Y.R)
ISAAC (IKE) Fisher, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist from Florida and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) purchased $1 million of Israel Bonds at the end of June.
But Fisher, who donates to various projects in Israel, just days later declared that he is now suspending all his fundraising efforts on behalf of the Jewish state until a solution is found to the crisis caused by the cabinet decisions on June 25 to suspend the egalitarian prayer agreement at the Western Wall and approve legislation that sanctions only non-Orthodox conversion.
And Fisher is not alone. One hundred and seventy-seven Jewish Agency envoys to North America sent a letter to Agency chairman Natan Sharansky warning of the damage liable to be caused by the decisions.
“With embarrassment, and in sorrow, we are witnessing feelings of rage, insult and astonishment that are being expressed by the members of the Jewish communities in which we serve in response to the cabinet’s decision to suspend the Western Wall arrangement to establish a dignified space at the Western Wall run by the government and by the liberal streams, and in wake of the reinstatement of the monopoly over conversion in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate,” the envoys wrote. “We view with great concern the damage caused to the delicate relationship between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel. These decisions directly affect our common future as a people, the State of Israel’s security and economic interests, and the original designation of the Jewish nation-state.”
The representatives called on Israelis to pressure elected officials and demand that they change the policy on the two issues.
The first decision froze the January 2016 agreement to open a mixed-gender prayer area at the southern section of the Western Wall in addition to the existing separate prayer areas for men and women. The compromise was reached after years of campaigning by the feminist Women of the Wall group and arduous negotiations mediated by Sharansky. The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties originally endorsed the compromise, albeit reluctantly, but later reneged on the deal.
The second decision to anger North American Jews came when the ministerial committee on legislation endorsed a bill drafted by the Haredi parties that would give the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate exclusive authority over conversions to Judaism, including the power to disqualify those performed by rabbis from the liberal Reform and Conservative streams overseas.
Unlike Israel, where the vast majority of observant Jews identify as modern-Orthodox or Haredi, a majority of North American Jews affiliate with the Reform and Conservative movements.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces the possibility of an indictment on graft charges in the coming months, sees the two Haredi parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, as vital to both the current coalition and any government he may head in the future. Granting the ultra-Orthodox leeway on issues of religion and state at the cost of angering left-leaning liberal branches of Judaism, which have virtually no political clout in Israel, was a political gamble he was prepared to take.
However, the prime minister clearly miscalculated and was unprepared for the maelstrom of criticism from American Jewry and backlash that spread way beyond the Reform and Conservative movements.
The reaction was sharp.
Sixty-five prominent North American Jewish community leaders and major donors put their names to an ad published in several Israeli newspapers saying they were “deeply disappointed and disheartened” by the government decisions.
“All Jews must be welcomed and treated equally under the law,” the statement read. “It is the vision upon which Israel was founded.”
THE JEWISH Agency canceled a scheduled gala dinner event in Jerusalem with the prime minister and, in an unprecedented move, called on the government to rescind its decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise.
A high-ranking official with one of the largest organization of donors was reported to have said his organization was considering suspending its fundraisers and conferences and may stop inviting prominent Israeli officials to speak to potential donors.
Others talked about a sense of betrayal, of being abandoned by the prime minister for narrow political calculations.
A top-level AIPAC delegation flew to Jerusalem to warn Netanyahu about the ramifications of the government decisions and the potential impact on AIPAC’s ability to function as a powerful pro-Israel lobby.
A delegation of Reform leaders from the US also canceled a scheduled meeting with the prime minister saying they “had nothing to talk about.” More than 60 Canadian rabbis from various denominations signed a letter to Netanyahu urging him to rescind the decisions.
“We believe in Jewish unity, not uniformity. The spectrum of Jewish practice is di verse, but it need not lead to divisiveness,” the rabbis wrote. “Our differences are eclipsed by all that unites us: millennia of shared history and a shared future.”
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an observant Jew and son of a rabbi, said he understood the anger and frustration of American Jews but that it is “unthinkable” that Jewish organizations would reconsider their support for Israel.
President Reuven Rivlin urged the government to make Jewish unity its top priority.
“We have an obligation to remember that we are all one family, and every Jew has a special place in his heart for the Western Wall. The Israeli government must always keep Jewish unity in mind,” he said.
Responding to the wave of criticism, Netanyahu convened a stormy meeting of coalition faction heads on July 2 , and told them, “Internal peace within the Jewish people is the something that is important to me.”
He then froze passage of the Conversion Bill for six months and requested that the High Court delay hearing petitions on the question to give the government time to reach a compromise.
THE HAREDI politicians stormed out of the meeting, making it clear that the damage limitation exercise was not to their liking.
United Torah Judaism Knesset Member Moshe Gafni said after the meeting, “There will never be any dialogue with the Reform Jews who sabotage the holy Torah.”
The Conversion Bill, according to the Haredi politicians, is merely an attempt to preserve the existing religious-secular status quo.
Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Women of the Wall group, warned of the possible consequences if the government accedes to Haredi pressure.
“Today it’s the Western Wall plan, tomorrow it could be a barrier [separating men and women] at the bank and the post office. They won’t stop there.”
Netanyahu has bought himself a six month breathing space to come up with a compromise on conversions acceptable to all sides, while the standoff over the Western Wall continues. But, as far as North American Jewry is concerned, it may be too late. Many believe the bond has been broken and it is now difficult for them to perceive Israel as the home of the entire Jewish nation.
The Orthodox establishment in Israel appeared unmoved by the criticism and, in a move bound to further anger Diaspora communities, the Chief Rabbinate published a blacklist of 160 rabbis from around the world, including many Orthodox rabbis, rejecting their authority to approve Jewish and marital status. Without such approval, new immigrants find it difficult to register for marriage in Israel.
The Chief Rabbinate released the list, which includes prominent rabbis from Jewish communities in North America, Argentina, South Africa and Australia, under Israel’s freedom of information law, but refused to reveal the criteria used to disqualify the rabbis.
Only time will tell if the crisis of the summer of 2017 will have a lasting impact, and whether political support and financial donations will begin to decline. But one thing is for sure: The government of Israel will have to work overtime to begin the long process of restoring trust with Diaspora Jewry.