U.S. Jewish Leaders Warn: Israel-World Jewry Relations at Risk if Western Wall Crisis Not Solved in Next Few Weeks

Netanyahu tells high-ranking delegation of religious leaders that he was committed to implementing plan but suggested that modifications would be necessary to overcome objections voiced by ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Members of Women of the Wall gather at the Western Wall on Jan. 31, 2016.
Emil Salman

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday of a major crisis in relations with world Jewry if the controversy over the new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall was not resolved over the next few weeks.

Netanyahu told the high-ranking delegation of religious leaders that he was committed to implementing the plan but suggested that certain modifications would be necessary to overcome objections voiced by his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz that he and his colleagues had requested a meeting with the prime minister “to express our deep concerns and frustrations” with the government foot-dragging in implementing the agreement.

“We told him that we must see real progress and that this is not only an issue for North Americans but also for Israelis,” said Jacobs. “We expect that this historic agreement simply must come to be.”

Rabbi Steve Wernick, chief executive officer of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, described the discussion as “substantive” but warned that “the next few weeks will be telling.”

Even before the controversy was resolved, Netanyahu told his interlocutors he would be willing to go ahead with certain confidence-building measures, including beginning work on expanding and renovating the existing plaza at the southern part of the Western Wall. He also promised to provide the Jewish Agency with funding to help support the non-Orthodox movements in Israel. 

Also participating in the meeting were the prime minister’s senior aides, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, Jewish Federation of North America President Jerry Silverman, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, and several board members of Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group.

In a statement following the meeting, Women of the Wall called on Netanyahu “to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox attempts to derail the plan, not to give in to the bullying and pressure of ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who wish to exclude women and non-Orthodox Jews from Jewish life in Israel.”

The government approved the plan to create a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in January, but since then, no progress has been made in its implementation. The ultra-Orthodox parties have expressed objections to several key elements of the deal. As approved in the cabinet, the deal would provide access to the new egalitarian space through a common entrance with the existing gender-segregated prayer spaces. For the Conservative movement especially, this shared entryway was seen as a key element of the deal, symbolizing the equal status of all Jewish worshippers at the holy site. But the ultra-Orthodox are now demanding separate entrances. Another clause in the agreement widely opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties would grant the Reform and Conservative movements representation on the board of governors that will administer the mixed prayer area. They also object to funding the new egalitarian space through the official state budget, preferring that the money come from non-governmental or quasi-governmental organizations like the Jewish Agency.

Two months ago, Netanyahu order his bureau chief David Sharan to present recommendations for resolving the crisis within 60 days. Sharan failed to meet the deadline, which expired last week. 

During their meeting, the prime minister drew comparisons with the crisis his government faced over the controversial natural gas deals. He expressed optimism that in this case as well, he would manage to find a solution that keeps “90 percent” of the original plan intact.