The Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel on Sunday dismissed reports of a schism between Israel and US Jews over the Western Wall deal as “fake news,” claiming that the vast majority of American Jews never set foot in Israel anyway.
He also issued a letter saying he was furious at the publication of a list of rabbis whom the Chief Rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.
Speaking at a conference organized by the ultra-Orthodox daily newspaper Hamodia, Rabbi David Lau said that the biggest issue facing US Jews was not the Western Wall or the conversion bill, but intermarriage and apathy about the Jewish state.
“In the past two weeks we have been exposed to lies, that American Jews are tearing themselves away from Israel,” said Lau. “85 percent of American Jews have never stepped foot in Israel.”
At the end of June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government backtracked on a January 2016 plan to officially recognize a separate, permanent, pluralistic prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the main Western Wall prayer area, in a compromise reached after years of negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities. The frozen deal would have given non-Orthodox Jewish leaders a joint role in the oversight of the pluralistic site. Currently, a temporary prayer facility exists there.
Under ultra-Orthodox management, the main Western Wall area is separated between men’s and women’s prayer sections.
Lau rejected claims that the Western Wall was only for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
“I was in the US a few months ago,” he said. “I was asked: Why do you not let people of other faiths come to pray at the Western Wall? I told them that is also false. I was at the Western Wall. Next to me was a man from Nigeria. I don’t know how he prayed, who he prayed to. But he stood there. Did I bother him? Did he bother me?”
Lau quoted the verse that “My house is a place of prayer for all the nations,” saying that all were welcome to come and pray. He did not explain how those who want pluralistic prayer could do so, but he said those making a fuss about the mixed gender plaza weren’t interested in coming to Jerusalem to pray.
Of the 15% of US Jews who have visited Israel, Lau said, many of them are Orthodox, or wanted only separate prayer at the Western Wall. He implied that the actual number who cared about a mixed plaza was insignificant.
In the same meeting at the end of June, the cabinet also advanced a bill that would have granted the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, an ultra-Orthodox-dominated body, sole authority over recognized Jewish conversions within Israel. The conversion bill, however, was shelved on Friday for six months.
Lau said this was also fake news and denied that the judges on the rabbinate conversion courts were out of touch with reality.
“You should know that most of the judges in rabbinic courts were officers in the IDF,” he said. “They are connected to the Jewish experience as much as everyone else.”
But he said that Israel cannot allow a situation where any three Jews can convene to form a conversion court, and award certificates of conversion. “They give a certificate,” he said, “but what about Judaism.”
He stressed that Israel bears a responsibility to care for US and Diaspora Jews, who are “our brothers.” But the way to do that was not through the Western Wall or conversion, but through education and strengthening their Jewish commitment.
Lau, along with Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, were instrumental in pushing ministers to force the government to backtrack on the Western Wall deal. Just a week before the cabinet decision the rabbinate released a letter that condemned the plans to improve the mixed-gender prayer at the Wall.
“The position of the Chief Rabbinate is that the government decision on dividing the Western Wall is invalid and cannot stand,” the letter said, according to a copy obtained by the Israel Hayom daily. “The Chief Rabbinate is the highest halachic [Jewish legal] authority in the state, and therefore it is entirely forbidden to hold mixed prayer, men and women together, at any site of the Western Wall.”
The government’s reneging on the two decisions about the Western Wall and conversions were met with fierce opposition from American-Jewish groups, philanthropists, businessmen and various figures active in the Jewish world, as well as Israeli politicians, who expressed their dismay and disappointment. Some have intimated the decisions might impact financial contributions to Israel and warned of eroding support for the Jewish state.
Also on Sunday, the Chief Rabbinate issued a list of some 160 rabbis from 24 countries who are not trusted to vouch for a person’s Jewish identity. Lau’s office published a letter saying that the list was not authorized by the Rabbinate, was made without consultation with the chief rabbi, and that he opposes both the list and its publication.
The bureaucratic structure of the Rabbinate means that the chief rabbis are not involved in the decisions of Jewish identity for potential immigrants. One mid-level official, Rabbi Itamar Tubul, handles every claim. In December the chief rabbis set up a controversial committee to vet conversions, but it is not clear whether the committee approved the published list.