Reform Movement Says It Won't Meet Netanyahu Until He Offers Solution to Western Wall Crisis

Jewish Federations chief warns: Controversy over prayer at Jewish holy site 'cascading' into college campuses

Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall, October 9, 2017.
Michal Fattal

In an unusual step, the Reform movement has resolved to reject any invitations for meetings from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until a concrete offer for solving the Western Wall crisis is put on the table.

The decision was publicized on Wednesday during a meeting of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora, which addressed the effects of the ongoing controversy on Israel’s relations with the Jewish community of North America.

“We in the Reform movement have taken a decision to stop meeting with the prime minister – and this is unprecedented – as well as with our friend Tzachi Hanegbi, whom we consider to be a true friend, because we want the government to stop misrepresenting these meetings as attempts to resolve this crisis,” said Rabbi Noa Sattath, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.

Hanegbi, a minister in the prime minister’s office responsible for strategic cooperation, was assigned by Netanyahu the task of resolving the dispute over prayer at the Western Wall.

“The government is trying to buy time, and we’re not going to allow that to happen anymore,” Sattath continued. “If it doesn’t think there’s a solution to this, then let it say that.”

A year ago, the Reform and Conservative movements, together with the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall, petitioned the Supreme Court demanding that the government fulfill its commitment to build a permanent and upgraded egalitarian prayer space for them at the Western Wall. That was many months before the government officially announced its decision to suspend the agreement.

The decision by the Reform movement to avoid contacts with the Prime Minister’s office was prompted by fears that such meetings could be misinterpreted by the court as signs of progress in resolving the dispute.

“The only solution, as far as we are concerned,” said Sattath, “is going back to the original agreement.”

At the Knesset committee meeting, Nachman Shai, a member of the Labor party, chastised the Reform and Conservative movements for taking their grievances to court. “That is a strategy doomed for failure,” he said, touching off a shouting match with another opposition lawmaker, Tamar Zandberg of Meretz, who accused Shai of “blaming the victim.”

Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federations of North America, warned the committee members that the Western Wall controversy is dominating the discourse about Israel among American Jews. “I visit communities all the time, and the number one topic that people want to talk about is why won’t Israel implement the Kotel agreement,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

It was not only Reform and Conservative Jews, he said, who felt let down by the Israeli government. “What many Orthodox rabbis have said to me is, ‘Listen, we may not have been in agreement about the solution, but once there’s an agreement, and once it’s signed off, it should be implemented,’” he said.

The JFNA leader, who generally refrains from outright attacks on the Israeli government, warned that the controversy over prayer at the Western Wall threatened to further distance young American Jews from Israel.

“It is something that is even cascading into the college campuses, and it is not an issue we want to be focusing on there. The latest data show that the connection to Israel among young Jews has gone down, so we definitely don’t need anything to continue that slide or lack of connection,” he said.

At the meeting, Ronen Peretz, an advisor to the prime minister, noted that a committee was drawing up plans to expand and renovate the temporary egalitarian prayer plaza at the southern side of the Western Wall. When pressed about the composition of the committee, he said it was comprised of representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Israel Antiquities Authority and The Jewish Quarter Development Company.

“So you’re all just talking to yourselves,” remarked Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, implying that the non-Orthodox movements were not party to the discussions.

The Knesset committee resolved to meet again in another four months in order to monitor whether any progress had been made.

Earlier this week, members of the Jewish Agency board of governors met with Hanegbi, who tried to reassure them that Netanyahu remains committed to the original Western Wall agreement.

They were not convinced, and no further meetings were scheduled between the disputing sides.