Diaspora minister: ‘Not implementing Western Wall compromise was a historic failure’

As he prepares to leave office, Nachman Shai tells ToI he’s proud to have restarted dialogue between Israel and US Jewry, sees Netanyahu as the only hope for maintaining these ties

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

  • Then Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai attends the Jewish People's Lobby, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Then Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai attends the Jewish People's Lobby, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • The Western Wall's mixed-gender egalitarian prayer section in Jerusalem's Old City, July 26, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    The Western Wall's mixed-gender egalitarian prayer section in Jerusalem's Old City, July 26, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Nachman Shai was the first Diaspora affairs minister in over a decade to be neither right-wing nor religious. He has long-standing ties to US Jewish institutions and their leaders, and while he is not personally affiliated with the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, he has deep sympathies for them and for their causes.

Since Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine in February, Shai has also been one of the most outspoken Israeli politicians about the need for Israel to assist Kyiv militarily — sometimes prompting the government to distance itself from his views — as well as help Ukrainian Jews, whether or not they choose to immigrate to Israel.

All of these have made Shai a well-regarded Israeli politician in progressive Jewish circles, while engendering enmity from right-wing and religious figures in Israel and, to a far lesser extent, abroad.

It is not yet clear who will succeed Shai in the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, a government office that was formed in 1999. The right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Shas party is said to have been promised the ministry in coalition negotiations, but this is still far from certain.

The Times of Israel sat down with Shai in his satellite office in Tel Aviv, on the seventh floor of the World Zionist Organization building across the street from army headquarters, to discuss his year and a half in office, his successes and failures, and his predictions for the future of the already shaky relationship between Israel and American Jewry.

Shai says he is profoundly concerned about the future of the Israel-Diaspora relationship, particularly between Israel and American Jewry, which has been strained for years, stemming in part from active decisions made by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shift away from American Jews and toward Evangelical Christians, but also from broader trends moving Israelis rightward and American Jews leftward.

He is proud of the progress that the outgoing government made in restoring ties with progressive American Jews, but acknowledges that even his coalition, which he considers to have been the ideal for dealing with Diaspora issues, failed to address some of the most significant ones — chief among them the Western Wall compromise deal.

The deal, which was approved and then frozen by the Israeli government in 2017, would have given official standing to non-Orthodox denominations in the management of the egalitarian section of the Wall while ratifying the gender-segregated status of the main plaza.

The outgoing government initially said it planned to implement the deal, but amid pushback from within the coalition and pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the opposition, that never materialized. It is highly unlikely to be implemented as is under the incoming administration.

Shai also discussed a contentious program that he rolled out, the Jewish Renewal Administration, in partnership with the Panim organization, which allocated NIS 30 million ($9 million) of matching government funds for a variety of Jewish programs and initiatives in Israel, mostly ones that were not Orthodox. This program has received pushback in Israel — incoming government officials have urged shutting it down — for focusing on programs in Israel, as opposed to in the Diaspora, and for questionable management practices. Shai rejected these criticisms, noting that the High Court of Justice threw out a number of petitions that tried to end the initiative.

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

So you’re coming to the end. How do you summarize your tenure as Diaspora affairs minister?

Too short. Not just for me personally, but professionally. If you really want to have an influence in your position — not just in superficial or symbolic gestures, but with something significant — you can’t do that in such a short period of time.

If you really want to make a change, you need to study the field. The Diaspora is a diverse field in terms of languages, places, people, and processes. If you want to have an influence, you need time. And so now I’m just left hanging, having done a lot less than I had hoped to do.

And now after too little time, this government is going home and the new one coming in is going to not only undo what it did but is going to do contrary things. Not just to overturn what was, but to take things in the opposite direction.

I did what I could. I set for myself the goal that Israel needed to give and not just to take. There’s something in the relationship between us and the Diaspora that needs to change. It can’t just be them raising money, them going to the Capitol, them talking to their local politicians for us. We need to think about what they need. What do they need from us?

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, and Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai march in the Celebrate Israel parade in Manhattan on May 22, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

This office is a strategic one. It’s a long-term one. It’s looking at things 10, 15, 20 years down the line.

I am a Zionist but I have a quote-unquote non-Zionist office. I build exiles and Diaspora. I have said this before: We need to lay the foundation, creating communities of people who are aware, who are connected to Judaism and Israel. Otherwise, we can’t build the “second floor” of Zionism and aliyah.

Today Israel has a new role. It is the strong, established, legitimate, internationally known part of the Jewish people. Let’s admit it. Yes, the Jews in the United States are also strong and well-situated economically, but today we are the ones that have to take responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people. And that’s hard for me to explain to Israelis. They think, the Jews in the Diaspora have enough money. Let’s use those funds here, in Yeruham, in Nof Hagalil. But that’s the best investment you can make. Every dollar pays for itself. I’m investing in the Jewish people.

Let’s talk about some of the areas where you feel that you had some accomplishments.

I think we started a discussion that was lacking and that had practically disappeared. The past few years have been years of a growing crisis in the relationship, particularly between the Jews of the United States and Israel, with the government. [Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu] made some mistakes. [Former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron] Dermer made some mistakes. Together they made a decision to get closer to the Evangelicals than to the Jewish population. I think that’s the wrong orientation.

They left the issue of the Western Wall compromise stuck in our throat: We can’t swallow it and we can’t spit it out.

They left the issue of the Western Wall compromise stuck in our throat: We can’t swallow it and we can’t spit it out. So it’s stuck; that’s the worst situation. They have other disappointments from Israel on different issues. Things were frozen. We cleared the blockages in the pipe. And things started to flow again. They started talking to us, we started talking to them. Prime ministers have met with them.”

By “them,” you mean the leaders of non-Orthodox denominations.

Yes, but the heads of those denominations are also just active parts of the community. They have an influence on the other heads of the community. They are on the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.

When I started, I set a number of principles to follow. One was equality between the different denominations, from a pluralistic viewpoint, not a one-dimensional one.

From right, Rabbi Leah Muhlstein, Yaron Shavit, Didi Almog, presumed chairman-elect of the Jewish Agency Doron Almog, president of the Union for Reform Judaism Rick Jacobs, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, Yair Lotstein, MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv, and head of the Israeli Reform movement Anna Kislanski during the Reform movement’s biennial conference at Kibbutz Shefayim on June 17, 2022. (Reform movement)

We saw that Israel for years had only financially assisted the Orthodox. Reform and Conservative Jews — they were set apart, they were out of the camp. That created a very narrow view that saw them as “different Jews” — [religious lawmakers] always talk about the bar mitzvahs for the dogs and other nonsense. This is both dangerous and stupid. They’re the majority in the United States. So if you refuse to deal with them, you’re cutting out your legs from under yourself.

So we decided to deal with everyone equally. That means with financial allocations. That’s how we express things in our business, with funding — not with words, with actions.

We’ve also allocated NIS 10 million ($3 million) for programs with the Reform movement and soon with the Conservative movement in America. It will be for programs for high school-age teenagers.

When they go to university, they aren’t prepared for the quote-unquote battlefield and sometimes the not-quote-unquote battlefield they find themselves in. So together with these two denominations, we have developed programs for high school students. Some of the money has already been sent over and some hasn’t yet. There is one program that will bring them on trips to Israel — called Root One — but the rest is for programs there for their youth groups, which will deal with Judaism and with Israel.

But if you are talking about people who are involved in Reform and Conservative youth groups, that’s people who are already pretty actively involved in Jewish life. The largest “denomination” of American Jews is “unaffiliated.” How do you get them?

I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to reach them. I can go to a place where there’s some organization. If I go to a place where there are Jews, I can do something. What do I do about a Jew living out in the middle of nowhere? There are little communities. It’s hard to reach them. We try to do different programs, but it’s hard.

You also created the Jewish Renewal Administration with Panim. There have already been calls for it to be closed by the incoming government.

The program will continue. The money has already been allocated. But there will be a question mark when the money runs out.

I have heard from some organizations that they are concerned that even some of the money that has been allocated for them won’t actually reach them under the new government.

They are allowed to worry.

There has been criticism of this program — why this initiative which funds Jewish initiatives inside Israel is part of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and not the Culture Ministry or the Religious Services Ministry.

We are able to allocate funds for programs in Israel. That came up in the petitions to the High Court that were filed against this program. It is also in the law. There’s nothing barring us from allocating funds in Israel. If we get everything done, we also plan on doing so for the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, through the Jewish Agency.

I think that the recipient organizations deserve to enjoy the resources of the State of Israel. And I think there’s some chutzpah in the criticism of this program. From people who all their lives received funding 10, 20 times greater than what is being allocated here. It’s far too little, far too late and far too limited. The other side gave out more and more and will continue to give out more money.

I want young Israelis to grow up thinking that they should be proud of their Judaism, that they don’t need to hide it, that Judaism is compatible with the values that they have, their humanitarian values.

I want young Israelis to grow up thinking that they should be proud of their Judaism, that they don’t need to hide it, that Judaism is compatible with the values that they have, their humanitarian values.

Among secular Israelis, there are growing feelings of antipathy toward religion. Even I, personally, feel that way sometimes. Showing that there’s another way, that there’s a way to be proud of your Judaism, that it doesn’t need to be Orthodox, and that there can be other ways. I want to make that available for Israelis. I want Israelis who go abroad to not feel that there Jews and there are Israelis and that they are unrelated to one another.

Those were some of your successes, but this government also failed to address some of the core issues with the Diaspora. I’m thinking specifically of the Western Wall compromise.

Not advancing the Western Wall compromise was a failure — not a personal one, I pushed for it — but this was the government that was the most ideal. If you tried to come up with a coalition that would be best suited for passing the compromise, you couldn’t come up with a better choice. No one was against it.

I believe Zeev Elkin was against it.

Yes, Elkin was against it. But it didn’t start and end with Elkin. We found solutions for Elkin’s concerns. But at some point, Naftali Bennett stopped being on board with the idea. Suddenly there were all of these difficulties. All of the reforms that Matan Kahana was advancing in kashrut and conversions brought pressure from the ultra-Orthodox. And with that pressure, the Western Wall fell too. And that’s a shame to me.

We didn’t want to take anything from the people who want to pray separately at the Western Wall. We didn’t want to take anything from them. But we were giving something very important to the other side. Not advancing the Western Wall compromise was a historic mistake. Because now it won’t happen.

Not advancing the Western Wall compromise was a historic mistake. Because now it won’t happen.

But it wasn’t just the full Western Wall compromise. This government also didn’t significantly improve conditions at the egalitarian section, even after the incident this past summer when extremists disrupted bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies taking place there.

The chief rabbi of the Western Wall told me a year and three months ago: There will be no change with the egalitarian section. It won’t happen. Even the small amount that we wanted to do, we didn’t do.

The egalitarian section still doesn’t have actual access to the Western Wall after stones fell from it in 2018.

It’s true. I told them, jokingly, why not just bring a front loader and put the stones back? [Laughs] They told me, if we bring a front loader in here and start moving around stones, a world war will break out. But seriously, even that small matter of granting access to the Western Wall doesn’t exist.

The small amount that they had, they took that too. I am very, very worried about how non-Orthodox Jews will respond to what happens in Israel.

Your office also provided support to the Jewish community in Ukraine at the outbreak of the war.

We were the first to give money to Ukraine. We gave NIS 10 million to Chabad rabbis and to the Joint Distribution Committee so that each would help the populations they serve. That was the first time Israel has done something like that. I took money from my budget and put it there. We also put on summer camps, along with other organizations, for Ukrainian refugees, and we’re going to do camps for the winter — to give them rest.

There are Jewish refugees! In my lifetime! I never thought that could happen. I thought Jewish refugees, like my family, stopped existing after World War II. Apparently not! Again there are Jewish refugees traveling across Europe. The difference is that now they have somewhere to go.

We just did a study about Jewish refugees from Ukraine, the ones who have decided to stay in Europe. We don’t want to lose them. The Jewish communities in Eastern Europe weren’t ready for them. It fell on them like a bomb. So we’re helping them.

Despite considering your tenure to be too short, do you believe that you’ve been successful in some ways? In terms of strengthening Diaspora communities, in getting Israelis to think about the Diaspora — to think of it not just as a thing that exists but as a thing that matters?

We have a polling company that we use to measure our activities and calculate their success. According to that measure, we are having an influence.

But am I succeeding? I’ll tell you what: We are mostly dealing with influencing processes and long-term planning. Accomplishments you need to see immediately. If I train a generation of Jewish activists on campuses abroad, and they return to their communities and start taking action, and more people join them — that’s a success. If I don’t get them, and they find themselves out of the community and they intermarry — which is their right — and then we naturally start losing them after two or three generations, that will pain me.

Even before the new government has been formed, there’s already been pushback from Diaspora groups against proposals and initiatives being floated by the different parties. How do you expect Diaspora Jews to act going forward? How will they react to things like proposed changes to the Law of Return or to revoking recognition of non-Orthodox conversions?

I expect them to speak out.

I said from the start [to Diaspora Jews] that they should feel comfortable to express an opinion about what is happening in Israel. That they shouldn’t just accept everything as though it was handed down [from God] at Sinai and can’t be touched.

We are all under one tent. You can and you should express opinions. If you’re against something, say it. If you’re in favor of something, also say it. Be part of the discussion.

If you’re against something, say it. If you’re in favor of something, also say it. Be part of the discussion.

I tell Israeli leaders: Don’t do anything without talking to Diaspora Jewry.

And how do you expect the Israeli government to act?

What I want to do is to issue a warning in the clearest way possible: Don’t do rash, baseless, unilateral things with the relationship between them and us. That will reopen the wounds and I don’t know when they’ll heal again.

And I say that to the Haredim, who have been waiting for this moment to build new barriers, but I’m also saying it to the prime minister-to-be: Don’t give in to the pressure. Like Ariel Sharon used to say about these things, “It’s not a burning issue. It’s waited 2,000 years, it can wait another.” Don’t do things rashly, because they can be irreversible. We’re not working on stable ground. As it is, the ground is soft.

Netanyahu is my big white hope. He will need to be the defender to tell the Orthodox: You are not going to take advantage of this situation to drive the Jewish world away from me. I won’t let you. You don’t own the Jewish world.

Netanyahu is my big white hope. He will need to be the defender to tell the Orthodox, you are not going to take advantage of this situation to drive the Jewish world away from me. I won’t let you. You don’t own the Jewish world.

He has to tell them: We won’t let you pass all these amendments. There is no need to roil the entire Jewish world. He won’t touch the Law of Return. The Law of Return has been in place for 70 years. Now suddenly there’s some new constellation so they want to remove the “grandchild clause”? Why?! The ones who aren’t Jewish, give them a chance! They want to come to Israel. They want to live here. Maybe we can get them to convert. For this we’d need a more comfortable conversion program. But they want to live here. We need people! And we vowed that this would be the state of the Jewish people.

Don’t touch those things. It is forbidden to touch those things.

And what are your plans for the future?

I’ll be the next editor of The Times of Israel. But seriously, I don’t have plans yet. I haven’t thought about it yet.

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