Jewish Federations Set to Pass Resolution Criticizing Israel for Backtracking on Kotel Deal

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall during a Jewish holy day, September 2016.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall during a Jewish holy day, September 2016. Progressive Jews are unhappy that plans for an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel were frozen in June 2017.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The Jewish Federations of North America is expected to pass a resolution at its General Assembly on Monday harshly criticizing the Israeli government over decisions to suspend a Western Wall agreement and promote a controversial conversion bill.

The leaders will meet Monday morning in Los Angeles to discuss the resolution ahead of a vote during the annual GA, which is expected to attract some 3,000 North American Jews.

JFNA President and CEO Jerry Silverman mentioned the resolution in his speech to GA attendees on Sunday night.

The growing tension and disappointment among Diaspora Jews toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be one of the key issues under discussion, both on various panels and in unofficial hallway chatter.

The rift intensified over decisions made by the Israeli government in June to thwart a long-negotiated agreement on the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel in Jerusalem and to mull a bill that legalizes the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.

As part of its efforts to fight these decisions, the JFNA leadership has drafted a resolution on religious pluralism in Israel, which is expected to pass on Monday. It is a relatively bold statement that says inaction by the Israeli government on the Kotel agreement and conversion bill could cause irreversible damage to relations between Israel and American Jewry, and calls on all Knesset members to fight it.

The resolution warns of the devastating effect the conversion bill could have on hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Jews and Israelis if the Knesset backs it.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will address the GA on Monday afternoon. He is expected to raise the issue and explain the political complexity that accompanies political decisions regarding the relationship between religion and state in Israel.

An ultra-Orthodox man walking in front of the Western Wall, February 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu, who will address the GA via satellite on Tuesday, is also likely to mention the subject. He will be interviewed by Richard Sandler, chair of the JFNA Board of Trustees, but it is unclear if Sandler will confront Netanyahu on the issue.

Early Sunday morning, guests from the 148 Jewish Federations across the United States and Canada started arriving at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Los Angeles to register for the three-day event. Security at the hotel became visibly tighter as policemen, some escorted by security dogs, checked all arrivals and departures.

Outside the Marriott, several religious Christian demonstrators protested, playing loud covers of Beatles songs while holding signs accusing the Jews of killing Jesus.

Various stands were arranged in the hallways next to the conference halls, promoting such causes as Israeli tourism, supporting Israel Defense Forces soldiers and cancer research.

The GA is taking place at a time of transition for the JFNA’s Federations. In an interview with the EJewish Philanthropy website ahead of the conference (titled “Floundering or Flourishing?”), JFNA Executive Vice President Mark Gurvis said its leaders are conflicted about how to define the organization’s work today. “Some Federation professionals look at engagement work in a more traditional way – that the ultimate goal of engagement efforts is to convert those they engage into donors,” Gurvis said. “Others are looking at the goal of engagement as just that, engagement in Jewish life – and not about the Federation gift.” These different approaches are expected to be discussed in sessions at the conference.

The JFNA has itself faced criticism in recent weeks following Haaretz’s report on its transparency and some of its financial practices. In the interview with EJewish Philanthropy, Gurvis was asked about the role of the annual campaigns, which in past used to be the core of Federation funding. He admitted that the JFNA “does not necessarily have robust data on all funds being collected in other ways.”

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