Israel Preps Diplomats for Backlash From U.S. Jewish Community Over Kotel Crisis

Israel's consul generals in United States instructed to say Reform, Conservative Jews also to blame for Western Wall crisis

Jewish men praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, June 27, 2017.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has instructed U.S. diplomats over the wave of protests by Jewish communities and organizations following the government’s decision to freeze plans for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Israel’s consul generals were put on damage control mode and told to broadcast the message that the Reform and Conservative movements are also responsible for the crisis.

Initial reports from the Israeli consulates included them receiving harsh messages and even threats about halting donations to Israel.

The ministry began receiving reports late Monday night from its U.S. representatives about protests by Jewish communities over the suspension of the plan to create a permanent mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall.

The Israeli consul in Chicago, Aviv Ezra, sent a telegram to the Foreign Ministry, a copy of which Haaretz has obtained, indicating that the initial responses were “harsh messages of disappointment and hurt” over the freezing of the Kotel deal.

“There were also expressions of loss of faith, deception and even some who used stronger words,” Ezra wrote Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem. “Some of them explained that they believe there will be possible operative consequences like donations or a political campaign.”

He stressed, “Despite the seriousness of the response from the [Jewish] federations, at this stage there is no flood of responses.”

Ezra speculated that things hadn’t been worse because people were either “still digesting the issue here or some of them are already on summer vacation.”

The assistant consul general in New York, Galit Peleg, sent a similar telegram. She noted that reactions from Jewish organizations to the Kotel decision started pouring in immediately after the news broke. Some of them were restrained, while others were more belligerent.

Government decision

Peleg stressed that three federation heads from Ohio and New Jersey called Consul General Dani Dayan to express their bitterness over the decision. She wrote that the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Columbus, Ohio, stressed to Dayan that he intended to halt donations to Israel from his federation - a claim that Gordon Hecker, the CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Columbus, denied in an email to Haaretz.

She added that the CEO and executive vice president of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Jason Shames, told her unequivocally that the decision is liable to affect his federation’s relations with Israel.

The head of the Diaspora Division in the Foreign Ministry, Akiva Tor, sent a telegram Monday evening called “Freezing the Western Wall Plan – Recommendations for Action” to Israeli diplomats in the embassy in Washington and eight consulates across the United States.

Tor wrote that the government decision provoked harsh grievances among leaders of various Jewish denominations, Jewish federations, the Jewish press and the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.

“In addition to the protests you have already received, it is likely that the communities will soon seek to meet with you at the leadership level to express their objections in organized fashion,” Tor wrote. “It is reasonable that these meetings will be charged because of the existing level of frustration. Demonstrations outside some of the representations cannot be ruled out.”

Tor ordered the Israeli consul generals in the United States to politely receive the delegations as well as protesters seeking to meet with them, and to demonstrate empathy for their sense of disappointment. He wrote that the heads of the Israeli Embassy and consulates should also consider initiating such meetings if they think it will help.

Tor stressed the main messages to emphasize in talks with Jewish leaders. He suggested hinting that Israel’s High Court of Justice could change the decision. “You are asked to explain the political reasons that led to the government decision,” Tor wrote. “It should be emphasized that the plan was frozen and not canceled,” he wrote. “It would be correct to stress that the High Court is very receptive to the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and will not allow a solution that will not preserve the basic right of the liberal movements and Women of the Wall, as High Court justices have expressed many times orally and in their written decisions.”

The Foreign Ministry also sent its U.S. diplomats a comprehensive talking points memo about the Western Wall crisis, asking them to use it in their discussions with Jewish leaders and the media.

The talking points, coordinated with the Prime Minister’s Office, include putting some of the responsibility for the crisis on Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the United States.

“For various reasons related to both sides, the current plan has proven unfeasible,” the memo reads (emphasis in the original). “Our hope is that the suspension will allow for the formulation of a real and practical solution.”

The talking points include a further hint that the behavior of the Reform and Conservative movements contributed to the creation of the crisis. “The previous government resolution (January 2016) was not meant to change the religious status quo in the State of Israel,” the memo states. “Attempts to portray it as such only exacerbated the issue and undermined the possibility of reaching a compromise,” it notes, implying the non-Orthodox movements.

The talking points also argue that the government was forced to make the decision in light of the upcoming hearing in the High Court on the issue of the Western Wall plan, and that the petition to the High Court obliges the government to respond.

The memo stresses that ultra-Orthodox ministers in the government demanded the cancellation of the January 2016 government decision, but that the prime minister refused to accept this demand.

“The Prime Minister remains committed to the principle that all Jews should be welcome in Israel, and at the Western Wall in particular,” it reads. “He will therefore continue [working] to find solutions to this complex and sensitive issue.”

Jason Shames, Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey said: "The information that has been shared with the media in regard to my conversation with Consul General Dani Dayan is erroneous. To be clear, while I expressed concern about the impact on local diaspora Jewish views on Israel as a result of suspending the Kotel legislation I in no way said that Federation would consider any change in our funding, support, or relationship with Israel on any level."

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This article was ammended on June 28 to include a response from the Jewish Federation of Columbus