Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the nationalist religious Jewish Home party, said Tuesday that the fallout from the government’s decisions to halt the creation of a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall and to restore the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Israeli conversion was damaging relations between Israel and liberal US Jews.
He said in a written statement that US Jewry feels it has been “slapped in the face.”
“Over the past 24 hours we have held a marathon of meetings with the heads of US Jewish communities currently in Israel, and the picture is troubling,” Bennett said. “The representatives of US Jewry feel they were slapped in the face by the Israel government and that they are apparently no longer welcome here. Of course this isn’t true.”
While he acknowledged that “mistakes were made,” he denied that the government had acted against world Jewry and blamed the reaction of US Jews on misunderstandings and “a campaign of misinformation.”
“The Jews of the US are welcomed and loved, they are our brothers. But mistakes were made regarding timing and the way things were done. Additionally there is an apparent campaign of misinformation claiming the [Western Wall] is being closed to Diaspora Jews and that the status of conversions is being changed. This is false,” he said. “This is why, over the next day, we will hold a series of meetings to listen to the leaders of Diaspora communities and reach an understanding allowing us to end this crisis.”
Hours after sending out the statement, Bennett read it to the camera during a press conference at the Education Ministry marking the end of the school year.
On Sunday the cabinet suspended a government-approved plan to establish the pavilion at the Jerusalem holy site, which was to have had joint oversight by all streams of Judaism, following calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies for scrapping the deal. Also on Sunday, ministers voted to advance legislation to cement a de facto ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversions to Judaism in Israel.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Sunday that Netanyahu had instructed Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman and Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to formulate a new plan for the site.
It also said construction work on the southern edge of the Western Wall plaza — where the pluralistic prayer pavilion was slated to be built — would continue uninterrupted.
Braverman said Monday that preparations for the pluralistic prayer section would continue at the explicit instruction of Netanyahu. Referring to a barrage of criticism from across the liberal Jewish world directed at the prime minister, who was seen as caving in to ultra-Orthodox demands, he accused critics of trying to score political points and said they had “paid no attention” to the details of the decision.
The cabinet decision on Sunday coincided with a High Court of Justice deadline for the state to respond to petitions on its failure to implement the agreement and construct the mixed-gender plaza near Robinson’s Arch by this week.
The conversion bill, which was propounded by the ultra-Orthodox parties, would pull the government’s recognition of private conversions, namely those not conducted by the Chief Rabbinate. Its approval by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday gives the proposal coalition support, although an appeal against it by the Yisrael Beytenu party could undermine its chances of advancing.
Earlier Monday, a senior ultra-Orthodox lawmaker said protestations of liberal Jews over alternative access to the Western Wall are merely provocation since they don’t even believe in the sanctity of the site.
Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas said worship practices at the site — the last retaining wall of the biblical Jewish temple — have been in place for centuries and not everyone can “come and change the rules.”
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements have canceled meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest his government’s decision to scrap plans for a mixed-gender prayer area. They’re warning of an unprecedented crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora.
Cohen told Army Radio that “the Western Wall doesn’t interest Reform Jews. They don’t believe in the Holy Temple.”
AP contributed to this report.