The leaders of the coalition Yisrael Beytenu and opposition Yesh Atid and Zionist Union parties railed on Monday against the cabinet decision to rescind a plan to build a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall. Meanwhile, US Jewish leaders held a flurry of meetings with Israeli lawmakers in the Knesset, and strongly decried the surprise decision from within the halls of power.
Flanked by leaders of US Reform and Conservative Jewry, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni, in separate meetings, took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to task over Sunday’s Western Wall decision. They also protested a decision at Sundays Ministerial Committee for Legislation to give initial approval to a bill that cements the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions in Israel.
Earlier, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the moves amounted to “religious coercion.”
The cabinet’s suspension of the plan for a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall, which it had previously approved, came following calls by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the deal.
The plan would have seen the establishment of a permanent 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 Israel as part of the Jewish Agency’s annual conference, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Conservative movement, visited the Knesset hours after the Jewish Agency’s executive body passed a resolution calling on the government to rescind the decision, saying it contradicted the vision of Israel’s founding fathers and the spirit of Zionism.
Speaking alongside Lapid at his Yesh Atid faction meeting, Jacobs and Schonfeld expressed their dismay at the decision, but said they would not set aside their support for the Jewish State
“What is most remarkable to us as Masorti, Conservative Jews is that we are so frankly misunderstood here, and of course quite distressed that we are handled with so little regard,” Schonfeld said emphatically. “How can it be that when we look to the ark and when we face Jerusalem and when we look to the Israeli flag of our Jewish homeland, that the message that is sent to us over and over again is, ‘You don’t belong here.’ We aren’t relevant here.”
Jacobs said that millions of progressive US Jews “stand up against Israel’s deligitimization every day” but the actions of the government, “delegitimize us.”
“We love the State of Israel and will continue to do. But we will not sit idly by while the State of Israel delegitimizes us and frankly says to the Jews of North America and the Jews of the world, ‘You do not matter,'” Jacobs said.
Addressing the Knesset members in attendance, he said, “You matter to us, this state matters to us, and we are going to do everything in our power to build the strong bonds that this government has weakened.”
Speaking in English, Lapid said that eventually the decision would be overturned and pleaded for US Jews not to stop supporting Israel.
“Do not give up on us. We have no intention of giving up on you. We are one people. It might take time. It might take elections. But in a democracy the majority decides and the majority in Israel want us to be one nation. If you distance yourselves from us now, you reward those who are trying to divide the people of Israel,” he said.
Jacobs also sat down with Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni and MK Robert Ilatov of the coalition Yisrael Beytenu party, in meetings that had been scheduled before the cabinet decision was announced Sunday. He was also seen conversing with Deputy Minister Michael Oren of the coalition Kulanu party, the former Israeli envoy to the United States.
Jacobs on Monday also canceled a meeting set for Thursday with Netanyahu, saying: “We cannot go about our scheduled meetings as if nothing has happened.”
Speaking ahead of his meeting with Livni, Jacobs said his Reform movement was still considering how to respond to the decision.
“We’ve been in serious negotiations with the government for over four years. We are now quite perplexed as to what it means to be in negotiations and what it means to have an agreement with the government of Israel. Evidently, it doesn’t mean very much,” he said.
“We are strategizing even more effective ways to stand up and say, zu lo haderech [this is not the way],” Jacobs said, adding that the decision wasn’t merely “a bump in the road” or “business as usual.”
While he said his movement would “reassess” its partnerships with Israeli politicians, Jacobs denied it would align with any particular Israeli political party or camp, but rather with those who share its interests.
In the United States, we “line up according to our values, not according to one political party, so any parties that share our common convictions, we will work with. ”
Jacobs also commended Liberman, the defense minister, for voting against shelving the deal. “We’re very proud of [Yisrael Beytenu’s] stance and Avigdor Liberman’s vote in the cabinet yesterday,” he said.
Speaking later at the Zionist Union faction meeting, Livni said the suspension of the Western Wall deal and the new conversion bill were “ripping apart the Jewish people.”
“The prime minister who in the past whispered in the ears of rabbis that the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish has himself forgotten what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be the prime minister of the Jewish nation,” she said.
At the Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting, Liberman said that shelving the Western Wall pluralistic pavilion and attempts to cement the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversions constituted “religious coercion.”
This is “not a religious matter, but the opposite — religious coercion,” he said.
Liberman described the parallel decisions, at the prodding of the ultra-Orthodox parties, as an attempt “to transform Israel from a Zionist state to a halachic [Jewish legal] state.”
“I am against religious coercion,” he added. “I am against a halachic state.”
But Liberman also suggested he wouldn’t derail the coalition over the disagreements, saying he hopes that he can cut a compromise in the coming week.
At their own faction meetings, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers criticized Reform Judaism as “destroying Jewish unity,’ and defended their opposition to the prayer space.
The decision 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.