Outraged at Netanyahu Over Western Wall, Jewish Agency to Rethink Ties With Israeli Government

'Support for Israel doesn't necessarily mean support for the Israeli government,' says agency's new chairman, Michael Siegal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on before praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 28, 2015.
Marc Sellem, AP

The Jewish Agency will reevaluate its relationship with the Israeli government, the newly installed Chairman of the Board of Governors Michael Siegal told Haaretz on Monday, in wake of two decisions that have sparked outrage in the Jewish world.

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The Israeli cabinet voted on Sunday to suspend its plan to create a new and permanent space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Later in the day, a ministerial committee voted to move forward a bill that would deny recognition of conversions performed in Israel but outside the state-sanctioned Orthodox system. Both decision were taken in response to pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Michael Siegal
Jewish Agency

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“We represent the Jewish people, not the government of Israel,” said Siegal, who assumed his new position just one day earlier. “The government of Israel has taken certain actions that threaten the Jewish people, and we want our communities back home to understand that support for Israel does not necessarily mean support for the government of Israel.”

>>Read more: Government drops compromise on egalitarian prayer space at Western Wall| Analysis Netanyahu to American Jews: Drop dead | Opinion A handful of religious ignoramuses is taking Israel back to the Middle Ages>>

The Agency's Board of Governors, which is convening in Jerusalem this week, issued a special resolution on Monday urging Israel to reverse the two controversial decisions, but stopped short of any concrete action. “We call upon the government of Israel to understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly,” it said.

The resolution said decisions have "deep potential to divide the Jewish people and to undermine the Zionist vision" and called upon Israeli lawmakers and other elected public officials “to take all necessary action to ensure that these dangerous and damaging steps are halted.” The Board of Governors vowed “to build a broad coalition of Israelis, together with partners from around the world, who care passionately about keeping our people united and who are committed to the Jewish people.”

>> READ FULL TEXT: The Jewish Agency resolution on the Western Wall crisis <<

A former chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, Siegal is known to be a close friend of Netanyahu. Yet rarely has a leader of the quasi-governmental agency come out so strongly against the Israeli government.

A new immigrant from North America kisses the ground after arriving to Israel on a special flight in cooperation with the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.
Shahar Azran

Siegal said the board will spend the next few days considering new strategies “that allow us to continue to support Israel and the Jewish people while making our displeasure known to the government of Israel through actions that make it clear that its decisions are not acceptable.”

This gives context for the Jewish Agency's decision, announced early Monday morning, to boycott a dinner scheduled with Netanyahu in the evening as a sign of its displeasure with the government’s latest actions.

The decision was taken following hours of discussion into the late hours of the night. Spearheading the move were several Jewish Federation directors who were described as enraged by the moves of Israeli government, among them leaders of the New York, Chicago and Philadelphia federations. “You could definitely call this a grassroots rebellion,” said a source present at the late night discussions. “They pushed the Jewish Agency leadership into the decision.”

Another explanation given for the step was the fear that many of the Jewish Agency representatives would not show up at the dinner and that those who do might heckle the prime minister.

While sending Netanyahu a very clear message, Siegal said the Jewish Agency had no intention of abandoning its friends and allies in the government and in the Knesset. For that reason, a high-ranking delegation headed by him had opted to meet later on Monday with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman voted against the cabinet decision on the Western Wall deal and the Yisrael Beiteinu party he heads, which is part of Netanyahu's coalition, has submitted an appeal against the decision to advance the controversial conversion bill.

Explaining the move to cancel the dinner with the prime minister, Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA Federation of New York, told Haaretz: “This is not business as usual. The decisions taken yesterday violate the principle that Israel should be the home for all the Jewish people.”

In a briefing with reporters, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said a backlash against the government’s decision was already being felt abroad. Several Federation heads had reported, he said, that their constituents were threatening to withhold donations to Israel and to cancel their trips to the country in response.

“The message that the government has sent to world Jewry in its decisions,” he said, “is that ‘you are not part of us.’”

The New York Jewish Federation, the largest in North America, issued the following strongly worded condemnation of the government decision on Monday morning:

"We are outraged at two Israeli government actions yesterday that would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home.  

"The decision by the Cabinet to suspend the landmark Kotel agreement is a rejection of the practice and traditions of millions of Jews around the world. The Kotel agreement would have protected worship for Jews of every denomination. Instead, a single group will continue to control prayer at the Kotel restricting the rights of millions of Israeli and Diaspora Jews."

The statement said the Federation was "equally outraged" by the ministers' approval of a bill that would give the Rabbinate a monopoly on conversions.

"Yesterday's actions will only deepen the already accelerating divide between Diaspora Jews and Israel, precisely at a time when Jewish unity has never been more important," it said. The Federation called on Israel to reverse its position on the conversion bill and restore the Western Wall agreement, noting that it is "a rare, unified compromise between all denominations that would be a landmark achievement for all Jews."