Senior Israeli Minister Urges World Jewish Leaders to Fight Controversial Conversion Bill

In Knesset meeting, Tzachi Hanegbi reassures them that Israel's government had no intention of scrapping entire Western Wall mixed prayer space deal

File photo: Chief Rabbinate-run conversion court in Jerusalem, May 23, 2004.
Eyal Warshavsky

A veteran Likud minister, known for his close ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urged world Jewish leaders on Tuesday to fight against a controversial new conversion bill supported by his government and reassured them that it was far from a done deal.

Speaking at a special session in the Knesset, Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office with responsibility for national security and foreign affairs, told Jewish leaders from North America: “You have to go on fighting and not surrender and not give up hope and not give up optimism. The conversion bill is not final. There are issues to be discussed and you need to make sure that leaders of every faction in the government understand what this means for all of us.”

The Knesset Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People held a special emergency session on Tuesday morning to address the crisis over recent actions taken by the Israeli government that have enraged large segments of the Jewish world.

On Sunday, the cabinet voted to suspend a plan to create a permanent space for egalitarian prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism holiest site. Later in the day, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to advance a controversial bill that would give the ultra-Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate a complete monopoly over conversions undertaken in Israel.

On the issue of the conversion bill, Hanegbi said: “There are always changes that can be made and clarifications that need to be made. It’s not the end of this fight. On the contrary, please feel that everything is open and don’t lose hope. That’s my message to you.”

Hanegbi, along with Cabinet Secretary Zahi Braverman, was appointed by Netanyahu to oversee negotiations over a new deal on prayer at the Western Wall to replace the agreement that was suspended on Sunday. Hanegbi reassured the participants in the Knesset meeting that the government had no intention of scrapping the entire, original deal. “It didn’t evaporate, and it’s definitely there waiting for renewal,” he said. 

File photo: Men holding prayer shawls as they stand in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayers site in Jerusalem's Old City May 17, 2017.
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Hanegbi told them that Netanyahu was still committed to the “physical segment” of the compromise. He was referring to the construction of an enlarged prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Western Wall for mixed-gender prayer services.

By mentioning this particular facet of the deal, Hanegbi was indicating that the prime minister could not agree to give the non-Orthodox movements legal jurisdiction over the area, as had originally been promised.

Considered to be among the more moderate ministers in Netanyahu’s government, Hanegbi said he still believed the original deal, which was suspended on Sunday, was “a good compromise.” 

Under the terms of that arrangement, the temporary platform designated for egalitarian prayer in the southern part of the Western Wall, near the area of archaeological excavations known as Robinson’s Arch, would have been replaced with a much bigger and permanent prayer plaza. This new plaza would have been accessed through the same entryway as the existing gender-segregated prayer area, and would have enjoyed equal visibility. (The temporary platform, set up by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, is relatively hidden and accessed through a separate entryway.)

The agreement also stipulated that control over the egalitarian plaza would be given to a new public authority, on which members of the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall – the multi-denominational feminist prayer group – would be represented.

In a meeting Monday evening, Netanyahu had promised American Jewish leaders that the temporary platform would be expanded and improved.

Speaking at Tuesday's Knesset session, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America, pooh-poohed that offer. “It’ll be a second-class place for second-class Jews in the Jewish state, and that is not acceptable,” he said.

Freedom of religion, Jacobs added, “is not something that the government of Israel extends to us like a cookie – it is a right, and this is an issue worth fighting for.”

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, scoffed at the prospect of a new round of negotiations surrounding worship at the Western Wall. “How can I tell Women of the Wall to believe you (the government) anymore?” she asked.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, warned that the two controversial decisions taken by the government this week threatened not only to divide the Jewish people but also to jeopardize overall American support for Israel. 

“If we wonder who will be at the AIPAC conference in five or 10 years,” she said, referring to the pro-Israel lobby's annual event in Washington, “who will be talking to our senators and congressmen in the United States and guaranteeing money for Israel’s security and for weapons programs and for Iron Dome – those people are the children, actually, of people sitting in this room. 

“When we consider the conversion bill that would not accept Reform and Conservative conversions, that includes people who sit in the room right now and for sure includes a significant number of our children and grandchildren. And so when we are looking at Israel’s security, her safety, her place in the world, we cannot pass a bill that would assign the official legal authority for conversions, for the first time in the history of this country, to the hands of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate.”

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, also strongly denounced the decisions taken by the government in which he serves.

"The liberal Jewish communities in North America are fighting our battles,” he said. "On the campuses, they’re fighting against the delegitimization of Israel. For us to alienate them by canceling this Kotel arrangement goes not just against the economic and security interests of this country but against the very raison d’etre of what this country is about.”

Oren, a member of the center-right Kulanu party, described the crisis of recent days as “a battle for Israel’s soul – nothing less.”

Nachman Shai, a member of the oppositionist Zionist Union and co-chair of the Knesset caucus, promised the American Jewish leaders present that lawmakers from both the coalition and opposition would join forces “to see if the decisions taken on Sunday can be eliminated or changed.” 

“You should feel at home here because you are brothers and sisters to us,” he told them, “and I hope we can overcome this crisis.”

Calling the government’s decisions a “disgrace,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who heads the Zionist Union, said Israel was taking a “dangerous course.” 

“The young generation in America is losing its faith in Israel because they feel they are being shut out,” said Herzog, “and we must do whatever we can to change this course and prevent this enormous risk and tragedy.”