In first-ever direct challenge, Jewish Agency urges Israel to reinstate Western Wall deal
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Decision contradicts 'spirit of the Zionist movement and Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people'

In first-ever direct challenge, Jewish Agency urges Israel to reinstate Western Wall deal

Hours after disinviting Netanyahu from gala dinner in protest at ‘deplorable’ move, board of governors calls on government to reinstate previous compromise that would formalize a pluralistic prayer area

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

This file photo taken on October 19, 2016 shows Jewish worshippers performing the annual Cohanim prayer (priest's blessing) at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 19, 2016. (AFP/Gil COhen-Magen)
This file photo taken on October 19, 2016 shows Jewish worshippers performing the annual Cohanim prayer (priest's blessing) at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 19, 2016. (AFP/Gil COhen-Magen)

The Jewish Agency on Monday passed a resolution calling on the Israeli government to rescind its decision to halt the creation of a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, saying that the government’s move contradicts the vision of Israel’s founding fathers and the spirit of Zionism.

The resolution, passed unanimously by the agency’s Board of Governors in an emergency meeting in Jerusalem, marked the first time the institution — which predates the existence of the State of Israel — has explicitly called on the Israeli cabinet to walk back a decision.

“We deplore the decision of the [Government of Israel] which contradicts the vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky and the spirit of the Zionist movement and Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people and the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world,” the agency said.

“We declare that we cannot and will not allow this to happen,” the resolution vowed. “We call on the GOI to understand the gravity of its steps and accordingly reverse its course of action.”

The resolution also condemned another decision by the government, on Sunday, to advance legislation to cement a de facto ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversions to Judaism in Israel, saying it “has the devastating potential to permanently exclude hundreds of thousands of Israelis.”

Earlier on Monday, in a highly unusual move, the Jewish Agency’s executive board decided to cancel a gala dinner at which it was to host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Citing Sunday’s controversial vote, the agency’s board of governors, which is currently convening in the capital, said it ”will be changing its entire agenda for the remaining two days of its meetings in Jerusalem, in order to address the ramifications of these decisions.”

On Sunday, the government suspended a plan it had previously approved for a pluralistic prayer area, following calls by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the deal. The plan would have seen the establishment of a properly prepared pavilion for pluralistic prayer — as opposed to current temporary arrangements — under joint oversight involving all major streams of Judaism.

The reversal was immediately condemned by liberal Jewish groups around the world and by the Jewish Agency, whose chairman Natan Sharansky was intimately involved in making the deal.

In this Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010, file photo, Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency's chairman is seen during a press conference (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)
Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency’s chairman (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)

On the sidelines of Monday’s emergency plenary session, the agency’s number 2, David Breakstone, told The Times of Israel that opposition to the government’s policy vis-a-vis the Western Wall was a matter of consensus.

“There were no Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular Jews in the room. Everyone was saying: one wall for one people,” said Breakstone, the deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency’s executive board.

“It’s not just an issue for the religious streams. It’s not just an issue of American Jewry and it’s not just an issue of Diaspora Jewry. There’s a growing number of Israelis who are very cognizant of the importance of the Kotel,” he added, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall. “It has nothing to do with the number of people who would show up there. It has to do with the symbolic significance of the Kotel for all of us. There was complete consensus around the room.”

On the sidelines of the emergency meeting, senior members of the Board of Governors discussed taking the entire delegation for a spontaneous visit at the Western Wall.

Breakstone said that the agency decided to set up an “action committee” immediately that would tackle the issue.

“It was stated very explicitly that this is not an issue that we can let die when the members of the board of governors go home, but that it will continue to be front and center in terms of what will be doing,” he said. “It was agreed by everybody that this is our number one priority right now. The unity of the Jewish people is what the Jewish Agency stands for.”

The section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall by Robinson's Arch in Jerusalem's Old City is open for Jews, both men and women, to pray together as seen here, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
The section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall by Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem’s Old City is open for Jews, both men and women, to pray together as seen here, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Breakstone was hesitant to discuss what further steps the agency was going to take to fight the cabinet’s decision on the Western Wall, but said that canceling the gala event planned for the prime minister was certainly “a turning point” in the organization’s effort on this matter.

“It’s very important to reinforce the position of the Jewish Agency as the genuine, authentic voice for world Jewry and for the struggle for pluralism and tolerance in Israeli society. And our special relationship with the government [of Israel] is one thing, but we can’t allow that to obfuscate our role and our sacred responsibility to the Jewish people as a whole.”

The agency has already started to reach out to Israeli lawmakers from all parties, including the Haredi factions that opposed the initial framework reached a year and a half ago.

Breakstone, who has been a member of the Jewish Agency’s board since 2001, expressed disappointment at Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett’s absence during Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “It is certainly appropriate for us to approach him and to again explain why this is so important. In the past, he has spoken out [in favor of the January 2016 agreement] and it’s of great concern to me that in this particular moment he has remained silent.”

Jewish Home party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in response to the UN vote against Israeli settlements, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, on December 25, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Jewish Home party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in response to the UN vote against Israeli settlements, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on December 25, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the same time, he lauded Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Immigration Minister Sofa Landver’s vociferous opposition to Sunday’s cabinet decision.

Liberman and Landver (both from Yisrael Beytenu), along with Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), were the only ministers to vote against Sunday’s decision to freeze the plan.

The government decision came amid calls from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to dial back the plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which was approved by government ministers in January 2016.

It also coincided with a High Court of Justice deadline Sunday for the state to respond to petitions on its failure to implement the agreement and construct the mixed-gender plaza near Robinson’s Arch.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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