Netanyahu Tells U.S. Jews He Remains Committed to Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Jewish Federations' General Assembly via video link on November 14, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Jewish Federations' General Assembly via video link on November 14, 2017.Credit: Youtube via JLNOW

LOS ANGELES - In his address to attendees of the Jewish Federations' General Assembly on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was fully committed to the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and revealed that Israel had offered humanitarian assistance to Sunday's Iranian and Iraqi earthquake victims via the Red Cross.

The Q&A session with Board of Trustees Chair Richard Sandler via satellite video marked the closing of the three day convention that included an extremely well attended address by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. The event's venue was markedly less full for Netanyahu's session on Tuesday, however.

Netanyahu's audience was generally sympathetic, despite the growing tension between parts of the American Jewish community and the Israeli government over the government's backtracking on its promise to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and over its consideration of a bill that would legalize the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.

On Monday the federation leadership passed a bold resolution that slammed the Israeli government's backtracking, and called on it to reverse the freeze, citing the damage it has caused in the relationship between the American Jewry and the State of Israel. 

Sandler referred to the resolution in his first question to Netanyahu, but avoided confronting him on the issue: “We passed a resolution at the GA yesterday requesting that the [Kotel] resolution be implemented,” said Sandler, and asked Netanyahu what should he tell those in the community who feel that as reform or conservative Jews they are not fully welcome in Israel. 

“You are fully welcome," he responded. "Israel is the home for all Jews and it must remain so...The 2016 decision wasn’t to create a prayer space, but to improve the existing space. We are moving forward with construction to ensure just that. I hope you will see the improved space before next year. 

“I remain committed to moving forward,” he continued, “I believe that Israel is the home for all Jews and that all Jews should have access to pray at the Kotel.” 

Sandler’s following questions were equally as fluffy and non-confrontational, and avoided challenging the prime minister on topics of key importance for many of America's Jewish community, such as the issue of pluralism in Israel or the lack of progress in peace talks with the Palestinians. Instead, they discussed Israel’s achievements and future goals.

The issue of the Iranian nuclear deal was also raised: “Iran should not get a nuclear weapon,” the prime minister declared.  He said that one positive outsome of the tensions with Iran was that it had bought Israel "closer to its neighbors." 

The Prime Minister went on to thank U.S. President Donald Trump for his stance on the Iran nuclear deal, and Ambassador Nikki Haley for her pro-Israel stand in the UN.

A week after Haaretz reported that Netanyahu would not be addressing the yearly gathering, officials at the Prime Minister’s Office said last week that he would indeed be interviewed by live satellite during the event. In his video address, Netanyahu held up a newspaper which said he was planning to boycott the Jewish Federations general assembly and said, "Just because you read it in the Israeli press doesn't necessarily make it true. I am waiting for you next year at the next General Assembly in Tel Aviv."

Netanyahu holding a printout of a Haaretz article during his video address to the Jewish Federations of North America.Credit: Screenshot

At the end of his talk Netanyahu announced that Israel had approached the International Red Cross and offered to send humanitarian assistance to both Iraq and Iran following the earthquake that took place on Sunday.  At least 530 people were killed on Sunday in an earthquake that struck the Iranian-Iraqi border, and over were 1,700 reported injured.

“Our humanity is greater than their hatred,” he said. 

A source in the Prime Minister's Office said that Netanyahu's remarks were part of his strategy "to communicate directly with the Iranian people" and to make the distinction between the regime in Tehran and the Iranian people. It said that Israel offered humanitarian assistance to Iran, but was immediately rejected.

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