Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett repeatedly cited his American-born parents as the source for what he called his “special closeness” with American Jewry in an interview with the Jerusalem Post last week.
But some American Jews took a very different message about their relationship with the prime minister from the interview, in which Bennett said his government would not implement the 2016 Western Wall agreement that he once championed and which would have set up a permanent space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
“The continued denial of religious freedom is directly contradictory to the Prime Minister’s and other Ministers’ stated desire to bridge the gap between Israel and world Jewry,” leaders of the Conservative movement said in a statement Sunday. The head of the Reform Movement in Israel released a similar statement Friday.
Bennett’s comments, and the reactions from the two largest non-traditional movements in the American Jewish community, marked the latest flashpoint in a years-long conflict over the place of American Jewry and its more liberal leanings in a Jewish state whose religious life is dominated by the Orthodox rabbinate and whose government is, despite the more diverse governing coalition put in place after the most recent election, still dominated by the political right wing.
The agreement Bennett said he would not implement was forged in 2016 through meetings between American leaders of the liberal Jewish movements and the Orthodox group that controls the Western Wall plaza and mediated in part by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who then served as head of the Jewish Agency. The main Western Wall plaza, which is controlled by an Orthodox foundation, is divided into separate men and women’s prayer spaces where women are not allowed to read from a Torah scroll, in line with traditional Orthodox practice.
The agreement would have seen a permanent and enlarged space for egalitarian prayer set up at an archaeological site south of the traditional prayer site at the Western Wall that is actually a continuation of the wall. Signs leading to the main Western Wall plaza also would have directed visitors to the egalitarian site, which currently consists of a raised platform that does not allow visitors to approach the actual wall.
But in 2017, facing pressure from his religious coalition partners who opposed the deal, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scuttled the deal. When Bennett’s coalition came to power earlier this year, the deal was expected to be revived. But in spite of the absence of haredi parties in the current coalition, Bennett and Kahana decided not to implement the Western Wall compromise.
According to a December report in Israeli news site Zman, Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana chalked the decision up to “incitement and hatred, especially by people from Likud, who are latching onto it.” Kahana was referring to protests at the Western Wall in November during Rosh Chodesh, the start of the new month, when hundreds of mostly Orthodox men protested and attempted to block activists with Women of the Wall, from conducting services at the main plaza - in violation of the regulations laid out by the authority charged with managing the site. Calls to protest the group were shared by several right-wing Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu, currently the head of the opposition in the Israeli Knesset.
In the interview with the Jerusalem Post, Bennett said his government could not act on the compromise due to lack of consensus on the issue within the coalition.
“Not all of our dreams will come true in this government,” Bennett told the Jerusalem Post after listing the areas of agreement among members of the coalition and noting that the Western Wall agreement was not one of them.
Anna Kislanski, CEO of the Israel Reform Movement, seemed to question whether Bennett’s government was any different from the Netanyahu government that preceded it in a statement shared to Facebook Friday.
“It is both infuriating and upsetting when the Prime Minister of a ‘change government,’ wherein all heads of his coalition have committed to implementing the Western Wall Agreement, yields to extremist factions that object to the Agreement and its implementation, just as they did with the former Prime Minister,” Kislanski said.
The statement from the Conservative leaders, which included heads of essentially all of the Conservative Jewish organizations, said the Conservative organizations “feel betrayed.”
“It is unconscionable that Prime Minister Bennett has shelved these plans in light of the fact that alongside a majority of ministers and MKs in the present government who concur with the implementation, the majority of Israelis also believes that there should be free access for all Jews to pray according to their custom at the Western Wall. It is inconceivable that the government of Israel should continue to prevent freedom of prayer and equal rights to all Jews,” they said.