Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit notified Thursday the leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements that he intends to block any deal to hand over control of the southern section of the Western Wall to a right-wing settler group.
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He was responding to a furious letter issued by the heads of the non-Orthodox movements, both in the United States and Israel, protesting the secret deal.
Mendelblit heads the government committee that is drafting recommendations to resolve the ongoing conflict over prayer at the Western Wall between the ultra-Orthodox and other streams of Judaism. A key recommendation of the committee is that part of the southern section of the Western Wall be designated as a new egalitarian prayer area, where Conservative and Reform Jews can hold their services. It would also be the area designated for Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational women’s prayer group.
This week, Haaretz reported that the right-wing settler group Elad-City of David Foundation is on the verge of assuming the management of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and the Davidson Center, which includes the entire southern section of the Western Wall. Elad already manages the City of David National Park just outside the Old City walls and works to settle Jews in the Palestinian village of Silwan.
The leaders of the non-Orthodox movement wrote in their letter that they were “shocked and dismayed” to learn of this development because it had never been raised in any of their discussions with committee representatives over the status of the new egalitarian prayer section. “It is infuriating and unacceptable to find that while this negotiation was going on, other negotiations were taking place to put us under the authority of a group with a right wing Orthodox religious point of view,” they wrote.
In addition, the Conservative and Reform leaders noted that it was becoming clear to them that the government had no intention of granting them any real authority over the new prayer section. For example, they noted, the committee refused to acknowledge the Reform and Conservative movements explicitly in the regulations that were being drawn up, and it rejected their request for funding for publicity and educational purposes. “Surely you will understand that we would like to know why the government of the State of Israel does not accept our legitimacy to form a governance body, but finds the Ir David Foundation (Amutat EL-AD) suitable to do this and much more,” they wrote.
Handing over control of the area to Elad, the Conservative and Reform leaders warned, would make them “vulnerable to become the intended or unintended victims of political changes, political deals and other interests.”
The letter was signed by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement; Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president and CEO of the Conservative movement; Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, the president of The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement; Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Masorti-Conservative movement in Israel; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement; Rabbi Steven Fox, the CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Richard Block, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel.
Another American Jewish leader also warned the government on Thursday to refrain from any measures that would jeopardize a future compromise over prayer at the Western Wall. In a statement, Jerry Silverman, the president of The Jewish Federations of North America, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "stay the course toward a compromise that satisfies both traditional and pluralistic approaches and access to the area."
"Any major deviation from this existing plan would be very unfortunate,” he warned.