Jewish Congressman Warns: Israel's Western Wall Backtrack Sends Bad Message to U.S. Jews

Ted Deutch, first congressman to publicly comment on Israel's nixed commitment to egalitarian space at Western Wall, has been fielding calls from 'hurt and disappointed' constituents, who wanted Netanyahu to honor his own plan

Representative Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Florida, speaks during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Thursday, July 28, 2016
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON - Rep. Ted Deutch is considered one of Israel's strongest supporters in the current-day Democratic party. A member of the House's Foreign Affairs committee, the Florida congressman has sponsored legislation to support Israel's security and initiated debates about its regional threats and diplomatic challenges. In 2015, he broke with his party's line by voting against the nuclear deal with Iran. 

Over the last few days, however, Deutch has been hearing from Jewish constituents in his home district in Florida, who are very unhappy with the government of Israel. "These are members of the community who deeply love and support Israel," he told Haaretz in an interview on Monday, "and they're hurt and disappointed. I have to say I'm disappointed too. And I say that not just as a member of Congress, but also as an American Jew." 

The reason for his disappointment is the Israeli government's decision to reverse its own plan, which was accepted just last year, to set up an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, one of Judaism's holiest sites. The decision caused an uproar among the leadership of the American Jewish community - especially among the Reform and Conservative denominations - and according to Deutch, it has also saddened and infuriated many American Jews who are not regularly involved in community politics. 

>> Explained: Why Jews are fighting each other over the Western Wall >>

"I have real concerns about the message this sends to Diaspora Jewry, including many in my area of south Florida, who have raised it with me," Deutch said. "People understood that a compromise was reached and were happy about it, and they now see that the compromise is being tossed aside." 

Deutch is the first member of Congress to publicly address the issue, but other Jewish congressmen who represent districts with large Jewish populations have also described similar concerns of their constituents in private conversations. 

Deutch said that he has made a point to discuss the Western Wall plan with every Israeli lawmaker he has met in Washington in recent years, and also with Prime Minister Netanyahu during a visit to Israel last year. "I wanted all of them to understand that while this is not an issue that Congress will consider, it is an important issue that our community cares deeply about," he said. "I was hopeful that the compromise will be enacted rather than revoked." 

In his conversations with Israeli officials, Deutch added, "the point that I've made repeatedly is that this is not just a decision about what happens at the Kotel, this is a decision about how the majority of American Jews are viewed by the state of Israel, and I reminded them on every occasion that this is a community that is deeply committed to Israel and defends Israel." 

However, Netanyahu had been signaling that he would go back on his commitment to the plan, and on Sunday, his ministers officially froze it in a vote. Since then, Deutch said, he has been hearing complaints from "community members and leaders in my own area who are just hurt by the decision, which seems to treat their connection to Israel - a deep and abiding connection - as somehow less important than it really is." 

Deutch is worried about the effects this decision will have on Israel's relationship with American Jews, but doesn't believe disengagement is in the cards. "As frustrating as this decision is the connection doesn't change, in my mind," he said. 

He also doesn't think U.S. Jews will give up on the egalitarian space at the Western Wall. "My guess is the effort will be re-doubled. I know there are people who were not paying attention closely to this issue before, and will now get involved," he said. 

On another matter, Deutch was also appalled by the barring of gay pride flags featuring Jewish symbols from Chicago's "Dyke March" event. "The reports I read about Chicago were disgusting," he said. "This is not consistent with progressive values in any way, and comes just weeks after the Tel Aviv pride parade, which is one of the largest in the world. Instead of promoting inclusivity, this sows hatred and I find it appalling."