Jewish Federations of North America Formally Slam Israel for Backtracking on Western Wall Deal

Few believe the resolution will have tangible effect, though senior officials in the U.S. Jewish community appreciate its declarative value

File photo: Women pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Michal Fattal

LOS ANGELES - The leadership of Jewish Federations of North America on Monday passed a resolution criticizing the Israeli government over decisions to suspend an agreement permitting an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall agreement and promote a controversial bill rejecting all conversions performed outside the Orthodox-sanctioned state system.

The Federations, currently gathering at their annual assembly in downtown Los Angeles, stated they will actively oppose such measures and “urge the leaders of Israel to fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this matter, and its detrimental effect on Jewish unity and world Jewry relations.”

“The Jewish Federations of North America view, with the highest priority, the preservation of the unity of the Jewish people,” the resolution opens, “the centrality of Israel to all Jews is fundamental to our very Peoplehood...and the support of the Jewish people for the State of Israel and identification with it are one of the most important strategic assets of the State of Israel.”

The Federations slammed the Israeli government's decision to suspended its resolution to implement the Western Wall deal, “which would have ensured that the Kotel remain a unifying symbol for Jews around the world fulfilling the vision of “One Wall for One People.” It also highlighted Israel's effort to “advance a conversion bill that would grant a formal and permanent monopoly on conversions in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, which could take steps that permanently exclude hundreds of thousands of Israelis and other potential new immigrants from being considered part of the Jewish people.” 

The Federations' resolution states that “these decisions create divides between the North American Jewish community and Israel and could undermine the Zionist vision and the State of Israel’s sacred role as a national home for the entire Jewish people” and therefore “calls upon the Government of Israel to reverse its decision freezing the previously agreed to resolution on the Kotel and take all necessary action to ensure that these divisive and damaging steps, including those with regard to conversion, are halted.”

According to a JFNA official, discussion surrounding the resolution was more about grammar and semantics, rather than its content. The final resolution, he said, is hardly different than the draft which was presented the leadership prior to the vote, and the minor changes were done unanimously.

However, few believe the decision will have an immediate effect, if at all. The American Jewish community have no leverage with the Israeli government, explains a senior community leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. “No one wants to be the first to suggest halting or suspending federations financial support in Israel, as there is no way back from such decision,” he said. He emphasized that political support of Israel in groups such as AIPAC remains quite stable, and would not be affected by the Israeli government's actions on these matters. 

Realism aside, leaders in the Jewish world seems to appreciate its declarative value. Rabbi David Saperstein, senior policy advisor for the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz that he “deeply appreciates the strong and consistent support for the rights of all religious streams of the religious community in Israel.” He added that “we urge the government of Israel to hear the voice of the overwhelming numbers of the Jews in north America and of the major Jewish organization of northern Jewish life, by reversing the decision on the kotel, putting aside efforts to pass a conversion and begin to take serious steps to provide full and equal rights for the various religious streams.”

The New Israel Fund offered likeminded support for the resolution. Daniel Sokatch, NIF’s CEO, issued a statement saying that "reneging on the Kotel agreement was a slap in the face to American Jews and the values we hold dear. NIF has been at the forefront of fighting and funding the work to protect religious pluralism for decades, and we know how deeply betrayed American Jews feel when Israel's government sells out our values. I'm glad to see JFNA taking a stand to support religious pluralism in Israel. We also know that this isn't the only issue where the Netanyahu government's policies are at odds with American Jewish values, and we welcome Federations to join us in standing up for those values."