Reform Jews Cancel Their Meeting With Netanyahu in Protest Over Western Wall

Jewish Agency canceled dinner with Netanyahu as board member blasts Netanyahu's 'war on Zionism' | Protest follows Israel's decision to suspend plan for egalitarian prayer space at Western Wall due to ultra-Orthodox pressure

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall in 2015, with his son Yair in background.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall in 2015, with his son Yair in background.Credit: Emil Salman

The heads of the Reform movement in the U.S. and in Israel have decided to cancel their meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in protest of the government's decision to freeze the implementation of a deal to see a non-Orthodox prayer space erected at the Western Wall.

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The meeting was scheduled for Thursday at the Prime Minister's Office and was coordinated a number of weeks ago, before Sunday decision to suspend its plan to create the egalitarian space following pressure from Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / Government Press Office

Earlier in the day, the Jewish Agency cancelled a special dinner with Netanyahu that was due to take place at the Knesset on Monday in protest of the decision to freeze the implementation of a plan to build an egalitarian prayer space at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

The meal had been arranged to mark the change of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors' chairman and was due to take place with the participation of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

In the course of the emergency meeting convened by the leadership of the Jewish Agency, Uriel Reichman, a member of its board and the president of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said the Israeli cabinet's decision to suspend the plan for the Western Wall was akin to "war against Zionism."

Reichman suggested that the Jewish Agency board of governors cut all ties with the Israeli government. A source who participated in the meeting noted that most of the Jewish Agency leadership rejected the proposal, saying that at this stage there was no need to result to the "nuclear" option.

>>Read more: Government drops compromise on egalitarian prayer space at Western Wall| Analysis Netanyahu to American Jews: Drop dead | Opinion A handful of religious ignoramuses is taking Israel back to the Middle Ages>>

The decision, taken by the Board of Governors, was part of a wider move that seeks to address the crisis that has erupted following Sunday's freeze.

The board also issued a special resolution on Monday urging Israel to reverse the two controversial decisions, but stopped short of any concrete action. “We call upon the government of Israel to understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly,” it said.

Orthodox Jews pray at the Robinson's Arch section of the Western Wall in a feared attempt to challenge the site's designation as a place for Reform and Conservative prayer, October 20, 2016. Credit: Emil Salman

The resolution said decisions have "deep potential to divide the Jewish people and to undermine the Zionist vision" and called upon Israeli lawmakers and other elected public officials “to take all necessary action to ensure that these dangerous and damaging steps are halted.” The Board of Governors vowed “to build a broad coalition of Israelis, together with partners from around the world, who care passionately about keeping our people united and who are committed to the Jewish people.”

The government decision goes against commitments made to representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the U.S.

Senior officials in the Jewish Agency said chairman Natan Sharansky fumed over the backtrack. According to the officials, it was Netanyahu who asked Sharansky to extend his term by another year to see the implementation of the prayer space plan through, but failed to even update Sharansky that the issue was on the agenda of Sunday's government meeting.

Sharansky arrived at the government's meeting to take part in a discussion on a new report by the Jewish People Policy Institute. Senior officials within the Jewish Agency noted that when Sharansky arrived he was shocked to discover the vote on freezing the plan was on the slate.

Jewish groups fume

Jewish worshippers cover themselves in prayer shawls as they recite the priestly blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot October 19, 2016. Credit: Baz Ratner, Reuters

Jewish organizations responded with outrage to Sunday's Israeli cabinet decision to cede to ultra-Orthodox pressure and suspend a plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed prayer services.

Only two members of the cabinet, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, voted against the move, which was forced on Netanyahu by his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who do not consider the Reform and Conservative Jewish religious practice legitimate.

The plan to create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, approved by the cabinet in January 2016, had been hailed as historic in most of the Jewish world.

Sharansky, the key architect of the Western Wall plan, expressed deep disappointment with the government decision. “Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, ‘one wall for one people,’” Sharansky said in a statement.

“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities. Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult. The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people,” he said.

Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, called the government decision a “capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox parties,” noting that “nothing like this has ever happened before.” He thanked the two ministers who voted against the decision, but said he was “absolutely astonished by the other ministers, and the prime minister above all.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of Reform Jewry in North America, called the government’s decision an “unconscionable insult” and threatened to take action. "Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision to say 'no' to his previous 'yes' is an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry,” said Jacobs in a statement. "We are assessing all next steps. The Israeli Supreme Court will rule, but even in waiting for the court, we will not be still or silent. The stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox parties have on Israel and the enfranchisement of the majority of Jews in Israel and the world must – and will – be ended."

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