U.S. Conservative Jewish Leader Accuses Israeli Government of 'Betrayal'

In reaction to recent Western Wall and conversion moves, Steven Wernick tells Knesset panel: ‘Much of American Jewry has lost its patience’ with state of religious pluralism in Israel

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, fourth from left carrying dark-green Torah scroll, with Israeli and U.S. Jewish Reform and Conservative leaders during a protest at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016.
Emil Salman

The leader of the Conservative movement in North America delivered a damning indictment of the Israeli government in the Knesset on Tuesday, accusing it of acts of “betrayal” against Diaspora Jewry.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was referring to two recent government moves that have sparked outrage among world Jewry: its decision to suspend plans to build a new and permanent egalitarian prayer space for Reform and Conservative Jews at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and its promotion of a bill that would grant the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over all conversions performed in Israel.

“We are on the edge of a very real, a very serious and a very harmful distancing between Israeli Jewry and Diaspora Jewry,” Wernick warned in an address to the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, meeting in a special session devoted to Israel’s image abroad.

“If we are really one big family,” Wernick said, “then you need to know that the actions of the government in the last couple of weeks feel like a betrayal, and that betrayal feels like abandonment.”

Although officially, the cabinet voted to suspend a 2016 agreement to build an egalitarian space at the Wall, also known as the Kotel, Wernick said he did not interpret the decision as a temporary move. “It is a cancellation,” he insisted. “It is not a freeze.”

“The Kotel agreement for the first time in our relationship gave us a real sense of optimism,” Wernick continued, “and today we feel betrayed. Not just because that optimism was crushed, but also, because bills like the conversion bill negatively diminish not only our standing, but also, the standing of others.”

Although the legislation related to conversion, which has since been put on hold for six months, applies only to conversions performed in Israel, Wernick warned that it could also impact Jewish communities outside the country.

“If you think the rabbinate will stop with just controlling conversions in Israel, take a look at the recent news about the blacklist of rabbis that includes prominent American Orthodox rabbis,” he noted.

He was referring to a list that surfaced this week of 160 rabbis from abroad, whose letters certifying the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel have been rejected by the country's Chief Rabbinate.

The fact that both controversial decisions – on the Kotel and on conversions – were approved within the course of a single day two weeks ago, Wernick added, “sent a message not only of disrespect, but more importantly, of delegitimization of Klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish people).”

Conservative Judaism is the second-largest denomination in the United States, after the Reform movement, and the largest in Canada. An estimated one million North American Jews are affiliated with Wernick's movement, which is chiefly represented by The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Because Israel and North America are home today to 90 percent of world Jewry, Wernick told the Knesset panel, “Klal Yisrael is absolutely dependent of the success of the two communities and on their ability to be successful together and to build bridges rather than wedges. One cannot thrive without the other.”

Explaining the unusually strong reaction of leaders of Diaspora Jewry to the government’s recent decisions, Wernick said: “On the issues of religious pluralism in the Jewish state, you need to know that much of American Jewry has lost it patience.”

He added: “It is no longer acceptable to simply claim that Israel is the Jewish homeland without it actually being the homeland for all Jews.”

The day after the two decisions were taken, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, which happened to be convening in Jerusalem at the time, cancelled a meeting scheduled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an act of protest. A delegation of Reform movement leaders also backed out of a planned meeting with the prime minister.