Bernie Sanders, Jewish Senate Colleagues Blast Netanyahu for Blocking Equality Among Israeli Jews

Israel's government has suspended plans to create a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, amid a bill to grant the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over conversions in Israel

Senator Bernie Sanders arrives at a news conference on Capitol Hill, September 13, 2017.
Senator Bernie Sanders arrives at a news conference on Capitol Hill, September 13, 2017. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

Seven Jewish senators, including former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have expressed their “deep concern” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about recent Israeli government decisions that “reject the equality of Judaism’s non-Orthodox movements.”

In a letter sent to Netanyahu on Monday, the senators refer to the government’s decision to suspend plans to create a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and to a new bill that would grant the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over conversions in Israel. Under pressure from world Jewish leaders, Netanyahu decided in June to suspend discussion of this controversial conversion bill for six months.

The seven Democratic senators are Ron Wyden (Oregon), Ben Cardin (Maryland), Dianne Feinstein (California), Al Franken (Minnesota), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) and Sanders (Vermont).

“We fear actions like the conversion bill and the suspension of the Kotel agreement will strain the unique relationship between our two nations, particularly if the majority of American Jews see the movements to which they are committed denied equal rights in Israel,” the senators wrote. “Given all the challenges Israel faces on the international state, we urge you not to alienate committed Zionists.”

On Thursday, a day after the letter was sent to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, the State Prosecutor’s Office notified the Supreme Court that Netanyahu did not intend to reconsider the decision to suspend the Western Wall deal. This notification came in response to a request by the court that the government reconsider its actions in light of a petition by the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall.

The petitioners have demanded that the government fulfill the promise it made in January 2016 to build these groups a separate prayer space at the Western Wall’s southern expanse, or alternatively, redivide the existing gender-segregated prayer plaza at the northern expanse to make room for them.

In their notification, attorneys for the state also said they did not believe that the Supreme Court had the authority to force the government’s hand in the matter.

The seven senators urged Netanyahu “to say publicly that your government will implements its full agreement with non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall on an egalitarian prayer space.”

Noting that the Western Wall is “a beloved space and a site of immense religious and historical significance," the senators said they were “deeply disappointed” by the decision to shelve the egalitarian prayer space plan.

They also warned Netanyahu not to move ahead with the proposed conversion bill. “We fear this would have significant ramifications for the religious equality of all Jewish movements in Israel and we worry that our Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox constituents will see this as an attack on their Jewishness and the status of their rabbis,” they wrote.

At a briefing with Israeli reporters in New York, Netanyahu alleged that in the negotiations over the Western Wall deal, Conservative and Reform leaders tried to obtain recognition for their movements “secretly, through the back door.” The leaders of the movements in Israel said this description of events was both incorrect and insulting.

Netanyahu was referring to the plan to create a new authority that would have been responsible for supervising the egalitarian prayer space. According to the plan approved by the government, this authority would have included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements.

In this way, the non-Orthodox movements would have received official recognition at one of Judaism’s holiest sites for the first time. According to leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, it was government representatives – not the movements – who had proposed this arrangement, and never in their dealings with the government were they “sneaky or devious” as the prime minister insinuated.

Since the government shelved the Western Wall agreement, in response to pressure from the Orthodox parties in the governing coalition, relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry have been strained as never before.