Reform Leaders Warn Netanyahu Over Orthodox Takeover of Zionist Institutions

Over 1,600 congregations leaders and donors sign urgent letter to prime minister, begging him to stop right-wing and Orthodox move that ‘rattles the hearts of Diaspora Jews’

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, August 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: POOL/REUTERS
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Representatives of Reform Jewish communities across North America warned Thursday that the implementation of an agreement that would effectively strip the progressive Zionist movements and parties of influence in key institutions would have dire consequences for Israel’s relations with the Diaspora.

More than 1,600 leaders and members of Reform congregations in the United States and Canada, many of them key donors to the movement, issued the warning in an urgent letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sent a few hours ahead of a pivotal vote on the agreement at the World Zionist Congress.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu, you served as Israel’s leader when the Kotel agreement was canceled, and we ask you not to repeat the same mistake and further deepen the rift between the Jewish people,” they wrote. The letter was referring to the Israeli leader’s controversial decision in 2017 to withdraw from a deal that would have provided the non-Orthodox movements with their own special prayer plaza at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where they would have enjoyed equal status and full recognition.

“We know that you are well aware of the implications of the agreement that is currently being formed in the World Zionist Congress,” they wrote. “It is an extreme agreement that will bar the liberal Jewish Zionist movements and organizations from all positions of influence, leaving a large part of the Jewish people around the world unrepresented.”

The so-called “coalition agreement,” drafted by leaders of the right-wing and rigidly Orthodox delegations to the congress, “rattles the hearts of Diaspora Jews,” the letter said.

Requesting Netanyahu’s immediate intervention in the crisis, the signatories wrote: “We feel that the State of Israel is again demeaning the majority of Jews in the world who are non-Orthodox.”

It’s very rare for leaders of the non-Orthodox movements outside of Israel to issue such a plea to an Israeli prime minister.

Signatories to the letter included Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, international chair of Arzenu, the umbrella organization of Reform and Progressive religious Zionists; Rabbi Charley Baginsky, interim director of Liberal Judaism; Rabbi Célia Surget, chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors; and Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, chair of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors.

The World Zionist Congress was supposed to have voted on the agreement on Tuesday, the first day of its proceedings. Faced with opposition from key Jewish organizations in the Diaspora – among them B’nai B’rith International and Hadassah – a decision was taken to postpone the vote for two days in the hope of reaching a compromise.

A final agreement had yet to be reached as of Thursday afternoon.

The agreement had been drafted over the weekend by right-wing and Orthodox parties holding a majority of seats in the congress (among delegations with voting rights). It would effectively hand them control of the World Zionist Organization and its affiliate organizations – the Jewish Agency, United Israel Appeal (Keren Hayesod) and the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael).

Agreements on the divvying up of positions and departments in the Zionist institutions have traditionally been reached through widespread consensus among all the parties and movements represented in the congress.

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