Highlighting Rift Between Israel and U.S. Jews, Netanyahu Won't Address Annual Jewish Federation Confab

Senior Federation sources believe the prime minister is unwilling to share limelight with President Reuven Rivlin, who is scheduled to speak at the conference

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Knesset, September 3, 2017.
Abir Sultan / POOL / REUTERS

In a sign of the growing rift between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be appearing this year at the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Only once since being reelected prime minister in 2009 did Netanyahu not address this influential forum. Unforeseen developments forced him to cancel his participation in the 2011 conference at the last minute, after he had notified the organizers that he would attend.

Every other year, he has addressed the General Assembly of the JFNA either in person, via direct satellite or in a video message. The annual gathering, which takes place in November, is considered the most important event of the year for the North American Jewish establishment. This year’s three-day gathering will be held from November 12 to November 14 in Los Angeles.

Many American Jewish leaders were livid with Netanyahu when in June, under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, he decided to back out of his commitment to create a special area at the Western Wall where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed-gender prayer services. The overwhelming majority of affiliated Jews in North America identify either as Conservative or Reform. The decision to create the egalitarian prayer space had been approved by his government in January 2016 but was never implemented.

The crisis over the Western Wall has created a great rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

At the time that the government announced its about-face, Michael Siegal, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors and the former head of the JFNA, remarked in an interview with Haaretz: “Support for Israel doesn’t necessarily mean support for the Israeli government.”

American Jewish leaders have also been deeply concerned by Netanyahu’s decision to promote legislation that would give the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over all conversions performed in Israel. Responding to these concerns, Netanyahu offered to put the controversial legislation on hold for six months. That six-month period ends in December.

“Netanyahu clearly understood that if he had addressed the GA this year, he risked putting himself in the position of being the first Israeli prime minister ever booed or shouted at in this forum,” said a senior representative of one of the non-Orthodox movements who asked not to be identified.

But senior Jewish Federation sources believe the main reason Netanyahu had declined to attend the event was his unwillingness to share the limelight with President Reuven Rivlin, who will be appearing at the forum for the first time. Although they are both from the ruling Likud party, Netanyahu and Rivlin are known for their acrimonious relations.

As the GA schedule boasts in reference to the Israeli president, “It’s his first major talk to a Jewish audience outside Israel. And we can’t wait to hear what he’ll say. President Reuven Rivlin – or as Israelis affectionately know him, Ruvi – will address the latest on the North American Israeli relationship and so much more.”

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

A spokesman for the JFNA issued the following statement: “As is our practice, the prime minister is always invited to the GA, but because he was just in the United States six weeks ago for the United National General Assembly and because of the distance to Los Angeles, he was understandably unable to fit it into his schedule. But that does not preclude the possibility of a live satellite or video message from him as we’ve had in the past.”

The current schedule does not make reference to any live satellite or video message from Netanyahu.

The leaders of the non-Orthodox movements in the United States had been concerned about Rivlin when he first assumed the presidency because of a derogatory remark he once made about Reform Judaism. However, since becoming president, Rivlin has invested great efforts in demonstrating his openness to all streams of Judaism.

In September, when Netanyahu visited New York to attend the UN General Assembly, he met with leaders of various Jewish organizations, but representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements were conspicuously absent from these discussions.

Israel’s Supreme Court is now hearing a case brought by the non-Orthodox movements against the government for backing out of its commitment to provide them with their own prayer space at the Western Wall.