Addressing North American Jewish leaders in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his controversial freezing of a compromise deal to expand the pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall, blaming pressure from the “ultra-Orthodox street,” and arguing that religion and state issues in Israel have always been settled with “ad hoc compromises” and “slowly evolving arrangements.”
While the agreement — made in January 2016 and suspended a year and a half later — will not be fully implemented, he vowed that a new “refurbished” prayer platform will open very soon.
Dismissing the discussion over the wall and other contentious matters, such as conversion, as issues that can easily be “overcome,” Netanyahu said the biggest problem facing world Jewry today was the loss of Jewish identity, and that the development of Jewish consciousness and pride in the minds of young Jews was the Diaspora’s most important mission.
Asked about Diaspora Jews’ concerns regarding the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, Netanyahu replied by noting that even the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had failed to bridge the gap between the secular majority and an ultra-Orthodox minority, without which he was unable to form a government.
“These are two conflicting principles — you can’t resolve it with a unifying principle. You resolve it by a series of ad hoc compromises, and they evolve over time,” Netanyahu said at the closing plenary of the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly.
“From time to time, the status quo is challenged. It evolves in step-functions. By the way, most of human progress until recently has been step functions. You sort of settle on a status-quo and it goes up to a certain point, and then it changes,” he continued.
On the matter of who would be authorized to perform conversions to Judaism, Netanyahu said that during his first term as prime minister he had found a good compromise with the Yaakov Ne’eman Commission, which survived for 20 years before it was challenged. The current government then commissioned a report by Moshe Nissim, which Netanyahu said was a “good compromise,” but added that he is currently unable to pass it. “It depends on the political realities,” he said.
Turning to the Western Wall, he recounted negotiating a compromise deal calling for a pluralistic prayer platform at the holy site that would be “accessible in an uplifting way” to everyone. That blueprint included the creation of a joint entrance to all three prayer areas — the pluralistic one and the two gender-separated sections to be used by Orthodox worshipers.
“We had technical drawings, the whole thing. Part of that [agreement] had explanatory notes, when I brought it to the government, which would imply an indirect recognition in Israel of the Conservative and Reform streams,” Netanyahu said. “And that was okay. People agreed. Then it was challenged, immediately, by the ultra-Orthodox street, and they basically said, you know, ‘Choose: You have a government, no government.’”
Netanyahu also said that members of the opposition may attack him for caving to the pressure, but that he has proof that they had themselves had made offers to the ultra-Orthodox parties “that exceed the ones given by Likud.”
Rather than canceling the agreement, he merely suspended it, Netanyahu said. “Keep it there. Don’t cancel it. But move with what the agreement actually says you do, which is refurbish the plaza.”
Netanyahu noted that work started on Tuesday to put back the boulder that fell out of the wall on to the egalitarian platform in July.
“This should speed up the conclusion and I expect the plaza to be completed [soon],” he said. “We finished nearly all the regulatory work, which was just impossible, but we’re getting there. That plaza will be there, refurbished, new, safe, very beautiful.”
Israel is and will remain the home of all Jews, the prime minister went on, to applause from the audience. “I don’t care whether they’re Conservative or Reform or Orthodox, and I don’t care if they’re completely secular or non-believing.”
The balance between religion and state in Israel is different from the system that exists in the US or elsewhere, he went on, “But it is what it is here. This is what we have: a series of slowly evolving arrangements.” Ultimately, those arrangements reflect the “evolution of the Israeli electorate,” he said.
Toward the end of his appearance, as his host, outgoing JFNA chair Richard Sandler, was about to bid the prime minister farewell, Netanyahu asked to make another point, stressing what he said really worries about him about Diaspora Jewry.
“What I’m concerned with when it comes to the Jewish people is one thing, and that’s the loss of identity. It’s not the question of the Wall or conversion; we’ll overcome that. It’s the loss of identity,” he said.
Paraphrasing an article by Ammiel Hirsch, Netanyahu said that those who are not concerned with Jewish survival will not survive as Jews.
“There is some basic truth to that,” he said. “Jewish survival is guaranteed in the Jewish state, if we defend our state. But we have to also work at the continuity of Jewish communities in the world by developing Jewish education, the study of Hebrew, having the contact of young Jews coming to Israel.”
What is needed is a new approach, suitable for the internet age, that will help Diaspora Jews “understand that their own future as Jews depends on continuous identity,” Netanyahu said.
“It’s protecting Jewish identity and developing Jewish consciousness that is the most important thing. It transcends politics; it touches on the foundations of history,” he concluded. “We’re one people. Let’s make sure that every Jewish child in the world knows how proud they should be to be Jews.”