Jewish Agency Cancels Dinner With Netanyahu in Protest of Western Wall Egalitarian Prayer Space Freeze

Jewish Agency head Sharansky enraged after Israel decided to suspend plan to create egalitarian prayer space at Western Wall following pressure from ultra-Orthodox

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

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

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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.

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

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The decision, taken by the board of governors, was part of a wider move that seeks to address the crisis that has erupted following the government's Sunday decision to suspend its plan to create an egalitarian space following pressure from Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties.

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 government's decision to backtrack from the Western Wall plan. According to the officials, it was Netanyahu that 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

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.
Emil Salman

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.

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.
Baz Ratner, Reuters

“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.

The Jewish Agency executive committee is due to hold a special meeting early Monday to decide what, if any, measures should be taken in response to the cabinet decision. That will be followed by an emergency session of the Jewish Agency board of governors, which will be asked to approve any proposals drafted.

Sources at the Jewish Agency said it was unlikely that any “retaliatory” measures would be adopted against the Israeli government, adding that the board would probably suffice with a strongly worded statement expressing its disappointment. Some board members had broached the idea of boycotting a dinner scheduled for Monday evening with Prime Minister Netanyahu but their proposal was immediately rejected.

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."