Amid concerns that American Jews might cut back their financial support of Israel, the Trump administration and members of Congress have joined a chorus of Jewish organizations in calling for a resolution to the Western Wall crisis.
The crisis began when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet decided Sunday to suspend the implementation of an agreement to erect a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall or Kotel. The agreement had been worked out over nearly four years with Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders in the United States and was finalized in January 2016.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Jewish communities worldwide are protesting the decision, and that the Israeli Consul General in Toronto, Galit Baram, sent the following message to the Foreign Ministry: “We are receiving repeated warnings that these decisions will worsen the existing trend of growing and deepening alienation toward Israel among the younger generation.”
She said outrage is being expressed also about proposed legislation that would grant Israel’s Chief Rabbinate the exclusive right to perform all state-recognized conversions in Israel. It already determines who is Jewish for the purpose of marriage and divorce within Israel.
Rep. Eliot Engel: “I implore the Israeli government to reverse these decisions and engage in a dialogue with the diverse diaspora Jewish community on how to move forward.”
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has urged “the parties to re-engage with each other” and to “resolve this matter consensually,” according to an American the official quoted by the Jerusalem Post.
Several members of Congress have also weighed in. Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island, the only Jewish member of the House, told The Jewish Week in a statement, “The issue of the Western Wall prayer space is causing tension and division in the worldwide Jewish community. I strongly encourage the parties to come to an agreement quickly so Jews worldwide can be united at a time when unity is most needed.”
Three local Jewish Democratic representatives with a large number of Jewish constituents also expressed concern. Rep. Eliot Engel said in a statement that the Kotel decision and the conversion bill “have deeply affected the entire Jewish community, including communities in my district. I implore the Israeli government to reverse these decisions and engage in a dialogue with the diverse diaspora Jewish community on how to move forward.”
Rep. Nita Lowey was quoted as urging the Israeli government to immediately lift the suspension of the Kotel agreement and implement it fully. And Rep. Jerold Nadler said in a statement that suspension of the agreement should “disappoint everyone who extols Israel as a champion of religious freedom and a model of pluralism” and that he is worried the decision “will only affirm suspicions that [American Jews’] voices and perspectives have been deemed irrelevant.”
Rep. Jerold Nadler: “[The agreement] disappoint everyone who extols Israel as a champion of religious freedom and a model of pluralism.”
Many prominent American Jewish leaders were in Israel this week for a meeting of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency and reacted strongly to both actions. Officials of several other Jewish organizations in the U.S. said Jewish supporters here have also voiced their displeasure.
Gordon Hecker, CEO of the Jewish Federation in Columbus, Ohio, said he called Israel’s Consul General in New York, Dani Dayan, on Monday morning to “express our disappointment with the government’s action. It was upsetting to us.”
Hecker told The Jewish Week that he told Dayan that the move “could lead to a reopening of discussions about what we should do — how we should react. Could it impact funding and missions [to Israel]? It is hard to know.”
“I do not advocate people trying to punish the State of Israel for a decision by some government officials, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate punishing the state by reducing gifts to the federation,” Hecker emphasized. “The vast majority of our funds goes to supporting local programs.”
He noted that there are 25,000 Jews in Columbus and that about 2,000 of them contributed $7.2 million to the federation last year. Of that, 27 percent was allocated to Israel and Jewish communities overseas.
He added that “several dozen people contacted us through social media expressing some disappointment” with these latest actions in Israel.
At the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, its CEO, Jason Shames, said he was on a conference call Wednesday with Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, to discuss the issue.
“We are part of a collective system and we have to have unity,” he said. “We are not affiliated with any religious movement or stream. Our role is making sure there is an understanding that Israel is a unique nation and does not just represent its citizens but Jews worldwide. I as an American citizen have an attachment to that country, and the Jewish federation system is best equipped to deal with it from a global view.”
He said he too called Dayan to express his “concern about the impact on local diaspora Jewish views on Israel,” but he denied published reports that suggested his federation would consider change its “funding, support or relationship with Israel on any level.”
Rabbi Rachel Ain: “It is so disappointing from a leadership standpoint. And there is a feeling that the pluralistic way the American Jewish community approaches Jewish life is not being valued in Israel.”
Rabbi Rachel Ain, spiritual leader the Sutton Place Synagogue said that both she and her congregants are “upset because the prime minister reneged on a deal he made after everybody went to the negotiating table in good faith. It is so disappointing from a leadership standpoint. And there is a feeling that the pluralistic way the American Jewish community approaches Jewish life is not being valued in Israel.
“This is not about the Kotel but about what it represents. It doesn’t diminish my resolve to advocate for the people and the State of Israel as the Jewish homeland, but the disappointment is deep.”
Rabbi Ain added that her Conservative congregation “will continue to support those organizations that reflect our values. I’m proud that the New York federation took a loud stance against this and is supporting the Masorti [Conservative] movement.”
Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, told The Jewish Week that as upset as he is about the Kotel decision, the conversion bill “represents a real red line [because it] would for the first time codify as law the unilateral authority of the rabbinate over conversion. The leadership of federations and Aipac — people who devote their lives to strengthening Israel — are significantly comprised of Reform and Conservative Jews, and these decisions would alienate them.
“How do you capture their hearts and minds when you say to them, ‘You are unwelcome or your practice of Judaism is not authentic’? And in America, they represent the vast majority of Jewish life. Some 90 percent of the Jewish community does not identify as Orthodox.”
Late this week, AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus and CEO Howard Kohr, made an emergency visit to Israel to meet with Netanyahu regarding the Kotel deal and the conversion bill.
“For many of these communities, praying at the Western Wall is a rite of passage, and they are understandably anxious that they will not be welcome there.”
As they were flying to Israel, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the World Jewish Congress issued separate statements calling for a speedy resolution of the Kotel crisis.
“The Western Wall is an integral part of Jewish history and holds deep significance for all of us, regardless of religious practice or orientation,” said Ronald Lauder, the WJC’s president. “I am deeply perturbed by the divisiveness that has arisen in recent days over the controversy surrounding this sacred site. …I have received messages from leaders of Jewish communities around the world expressing deep concern about the current situation.
“For many of these communities, praying at the Western Wall is a rite of passage, and they are understandably anxious that they will not be welcome there. I fervently hope that a resolution can be found in the interest of Jewish unity and in a spirit of mutual understanding.”
In a letter to Netanyahu, the Presidents Conference said the Kotel decision as “evoked very strong feelings” among its constituent organizations and members of the Jewish community because it “touched on deeply sensitive issues that are both personal and communal.”
“It is imperative that the government move expeditiously to address this matter and come up with a resolution that is equitable to all, as you sought to do in the agreement that was reached before,” it said. “Given all the challenges facing Israel and American Jewry, this is a time when achdut, unity, is more important than ever. A lack of unity could lead to an erosion of support, which has been identified by Israel’s National Security Council as a vital security asset for Israel.”
The letter added that differences “can and must be brought into harmony to enable a way forward without intimidation, threats, or feelings of exclusion. … Delay will only exacerbate tensions and make an equitable outcome more difficult.”