A high-profile group of Jewish leaders cancelled a gala event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to protest his government’s decision to scrap plans for a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
The move reflects an unprecedented gulf that has erupted between Israel and the Jewish diaspora over how Judaism can be practised in Israel. Most Jews in the U.S. belong to more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox authorities that question their faith and practices.
The board of governors of The Jewish Agency, a non-profit that works closely with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities worldwide, said it was calling off its dinner with Netanyahu and altering the agenda of its annual meetings to address the crisis.
The government decision has set off a cascade of criticism both in Israel and abroad, where Jewish leaders warned that it could undermine their longstanding political, financial and emotional support for Israel.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was just one of senior officials who condemned the move, saying it undermines Jewish unity and calling on the government to reverse course.
“This gives a very strong message that you (the diaspora) are not important to us,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.
Dennis Ross, a former top U.S. peace negotiator and currently chair of The Jewish People Policy Institute, said he was afraid that Jews in the U.S. would no longer see Israel as a home.
“We’re a small people. We are, in a sense, in one house and there shouldn’t be any exclusion and there shouldn’t be those who define for others whether or not they’re Jewish,” Ross told the radio. “It is dangerous if there are steps taken here that would alienate the vast majority of American Jews.”
The dramatic about-face at Sunday’s cabinet meeting followed the initial approval of the plan in January 2016 to officially recognize the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall — the holiest site where Jews can pray.
The compromise was reached after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities and was seen at the time as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.
But the program was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu’s coalition government raised objections to the decision they had initially endorsed. Under ultra-Orthodox management, the wall is currently separated between men’s and women’s prayer sections and those attempting to hold egalitarian services in the area are often heckled and harassed.
Sunday’s nixing of the planned $9 million US plaza, coupled with another government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions, sparked the immediate ire of liberal Jews.
Highlighting its sensitivity, the issue was not listed on the Cabinet’s agenda and no official statement on the decision was made.
Netanyahu himself notably refrained from addressing it in a speech to young diaspora Jews on a Birthright trip to Israel and has kept mum amid the outpouring of anger, even among some of his closest allies.
Elazar Stern, a modern Orthodox lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party, asked the attorney general on Monday to review what he called a murky decision-making process.
“Cancelling the Western Wall agreement causes a severe crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora, and when such a decision is taken secretly, away from the eyes of the public and without ministers having a chance to prepare for it adequately, a large shadow is cast upon it,” he wrote.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces and burials. The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation, and it resists any inroads from liberals it often considers to be second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages.
The liberal streams have made some progress in recent years, but have encountered a wall of ultra-Orthodox resistance when it comes to official state recognition and breaking the monopoly on religious practices.
“We made a mistake. We believed the government, we believed the prime minister, we believed that we needed at last to end this squabbling among ourselves over the Western Wall, and we agreed to a compromise arrangement,” Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative movement in Israel wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.
“But the Cabinet’s decision last night — a cynical, even wicked decision — took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world.”
Columnist Amihai Attali wrote the decision was even more outrageous, given how much Israel relies on the donations of the Jewish diaspora.
“The Jews of the diaspora are our reserves,” he wrote in Yediot.