In Rare Move, U.S. Orthodox Leaders Visit Israel to Lobby Against Kotel, Conversion Deals

Delegation will meet with Israeli prime minister, president and Jerusalem mayor in two days of intensive lobbying against demands of non-Orthodox Jewish groups

Jews praying at the the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, December 28, 2017.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Hoping to block any concessions to liberal Jews on the hot-button issues of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and conversion, a delegation of Orthodox Jewish leaders from the United States arrived in Israel on Monday for two days of intensive lobbying.

Delegates have meetings scheduled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and various members of the Knesset.

It is rare that U.S. Orthodox Jewish leaders launch such a lobbying effort in Israel. The last time it happened was nearly 20 years ago, when they came to protest proposed changes in the Israeli conversion law.

Of paramount concern to the current delegation is the Israeli government’s decision to move ahead with plans to build a new and improved egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, where non-Orthodox Jews will be able to hold mixed prayer services. Construction of the new prayer plaza began earlier this month.

However, the government did renege on other key aspects of the so-called Western Wall deal – including its decision to allow representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements to administer the egalitarian prayer space.

After the government announced its controversial decision to suspend the Western Wall deal last June, Netanyahu was accused of forsaking and betraying non-Orthodox Jews, who account for the vast majority of American Jews.

The deal was suspended in response to pressure from Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) governing coalition partners.

In their meetings with Israeli leaders and decision-makers, the Orthodox delegation will make clear that it opposes any concessions to the Reform and Conservative movements on conversions in Israel.

The government was about to push forward legislation last year that would have denied recognition of any conversions performed in Israel outside of the state-sanctioned Orthodox system. It reneged at the last minute, bowing to pressure from Reform and Conservative leaders abroad.

A special mediator was appointed to draft a compromise agreement on the issue. He was supposed to have presented his recommendations last month, but did not meet his deadline and received a three-month extension.

The mission was organized by Agudath Israel of America, a strictly Orthodox movement. However, it describes itself as representing “a broad swath of the American Orthodox Jewish community – Haredim and Modern Orthodox, clergy and laypeople, men and women.”

In a press statement, mission leaders said the purpose of the trip was “to dispel the myth that American Jewry is represented by the Reform and Conservative movements,” and that it hoped to counter “the false narrative that non-Orthodox groups are the true voice of American Jewry.”

A position paper published by the mission leaders ahead of their visit argued that there is no justification for providing Conservative and Reform Jews with a new and improved prayer space at the Western Wall, since they make little use of the existing temporary space known as Ezrat Yisrael.

“It is unlikely, bordering on inconceivable, that an ‘egalitarian’ space at the Kotel will be used for even a few hours a week by a group of worshippers larger than Ezrat Yisrael can comfortably hold,” according to the position paper. “Yet the non-Orthodox American Jewish leaders, and their allies among the Women of the Wall [the feminist prayer group], make demands on Israel that she accommodate them with her investment of time and funds, on their terms.”

The group also warned that if Israel decides to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions, the result will be a “sociological disaster in the Jewish state.”