Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz vowed on Tuesday that if he becomes Israel’s next prime minister, he will embrace all the different streams of Judaism and revive a deal granting the Reform and Conservative movements equal status at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
“We are part of an inspiringly colorful mosaic of cultures and traditions,” Gantz told the closing session of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, earning a loud round of applause. “I will nurture this pluralism. I will promote the implementation of the Western Wall agreement. Every time I go to the Western Wall I look at the sea of stones – the different sizes and shapes, like the streams we have in Judaism."
He added, "I’m telling you today: The Western Wall is long enough for us all.”
The Western Wall deal was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2016, but cancelled a year later under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties that are partners in the ruling coalition. The deal would have provided the non-Orthodox movements with a large and easily accessible space at the Jewish holy site for holding egalitarian prayer services. The cancellation of the deal sparked outrage in the Jewish world.
Gantz promised that if he should assume the role of the nation’s leader, he would work to heal the divide between Israel and world Jewry that has deepened in recent years due to, among other reasons, the cancellation of the Western Wall deal.
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“When I will be prime minister, I will visit your communities. I will listen to you – to your sons, your daughters, your grandchildren,” he said. “I will encourage young Jews of the Diaspora to take part in the work of Tikkun Olam [repairing the world] under a Jewish flag. I will promote dialogue between Jewish communities around the world and in Israel.”
Gantz received a mandate to form the next government last week, after Netanyahu failed to do so. Kahol Lavan emerged as the largest party in the do-over September 17 election.
Addressing the same forum of world Jewish leaders on Monday, Netanyahu did not mention the Western Wall deal or Jewish pluralism. Instead, he chose to focus on the dire threats facing Israel from Iran and the need for a national unity government. He blamed “forces” in Gantz’s party for the fact that no progress had been made in forming such a government.
Gantz also referred to the Iranian threat, saying it was “real and acute,” but sought to reassure his audience. “As someone who prepared our forces to deal with the multiplicity of operational and strategic challenges our country faces, I am confident about Israel’s capability to defend itself,” he said.
The Kahol Lavan leader also earned a round of applause when he declared his intention to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I will not shy away from the prospect of peace because I believe our people, and any people, should have something to believe in,” he said. “I want the children of Israel to believe that there can be a better tomorrow.”
Gantz took the opportunity to express solidarity with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh on the one-year anniversary of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, and promised that Israel would do everything possible to protect Jews around the world.
“Antisemitism is on the rise,” he said. “All over the world, we see shocking statistics, an unprecedented rise in verbal and physical assaults against Jews. As former chief of staff of the IDF, as the political leader tasked with forming the Jewish state’s next government, and above all, as a Jew, I say to our brothers and sisters around the world: Israel stands with you and behind you. Israel will do all in its power to ensure that from Paris to Jacksonville, from Berlin to Manchester, Jews can walk on the streets without hiding their identity.”
Gantz was introduced by Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog who revealed to the audience that his late father, former Israeli President Chaim Herzog, had been among the British forces that liberated Bergen Belsen, where Gantz’s mother Malka had been a 17-year-old prisoner.