Jewish Federations in Letter to Netanyahu: We Expect You to Deliver on Western Wall Deal

Board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America votes to send a letter to Israeli prime minister underscoring the 'urgency' of creating an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Non-Orthodox demonstrators clash with a protester at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016.
Emil Salman

Despite major setbacks, the Jewish American establishment is not giving up its fight for an egalitarian space at Western Wall where men and women can pray together. 

Convening at their big event of the year, the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America voted Monday – the second day of their 2016 General Assembly – to send a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscoring the “urgency” of implementing the decision passed in his cabinet in January to create such an area at the southern expanse of the Western Wall.

“We know you recognize the growing sense of urgency to fully implement the Government Resolution, which resulted from the work of your office together with [Jewish Agency Chairman] Natan Sharansky’s leading of the parties to a compromise,” the letter says. “Your declaration at last year’s General Assembly that there is ‘one Wall for one People’ has become a statement that our communities truly believe and expect to see come true.”

Full of praise for Netanyahu, the letter notes that “no Israeli leader understands the importance of religious pluralism or has done more in this area than you have.”

The deal to create a new section at the Jewish holy site, initiated by Netanyahu, was finalized after three years of negotiations. However, under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Netanyahu has refrained from implementing it.

The Reform and Conservative movement have launched an aggressive campaign in recent months to pressure the government into actions. In addition to petitioning the High Court of Justice, leaders of the non-Orthodox movements encouraged their members to email Israeli government leaders letters during the High Holy Day period protesting the impasse in the Western Wall deal. Close to 20,000 such emails were sent.

JFNA leaders were originally partners to the email campaign. They ultimately distanced themselves from the effort, however, fearing it would spark animosity and backfire.

Protesting the deadlock in the Western Wall deal, Reform and Conservative leaders staged a demonstration at the Jewish holy site two weeks ago, drawing angry words in response from Netanyahu. The demonstrators broke through security barriers carrying Torah scrolls in their arms in defiance of the ultra-Orthodox authorities who run the Western Wall site. Netanyahu later referred to their actions as a “unilateral breach of the status quo.”

The plea issued today by the JFNA is far milder in tone than any of the protest statements written in recent months by the Reform and Conservative movements – further indication of a split within the organized Jewish community on how to respond to the Israeli government’s inaction.

Speaking by phone with Haaretz, Richard Sandler, chair of the JFNA board of trustees, expressed confidence that the Western Wall deal would ultimately be implemented. Referring to Netanyahu, he said: “I’m not telling him what to do. None of us are telling him what to do. I’ll leave it up to him. He was behind this from the beginning. This is just a reminder of the concerns we have. But I have full confidence that he’ll figure out the best way to get it done.”