Over 500 people gathered Saturday evening in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem to protest decisions by the government freezing plans for a permanent pluralistic prayer space overseen by all streams of Judaism at the Western Wall and pushing forward an Orthodox monopoly on Jewish conversions in Israel.
“The prime minister will discover in the coming weeks that the cry from the Israeli street and from the Jewish communities cannot be underestimated,” Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Reform Movement in Israel, declared.
“We will not allow an ultra-Orthodox monopoly in the field of conversion, and we will not give up until the full implementation of the Western Wall outline is reached.”
Demonstrators held up signs reading “Western Wall for Entire Jewish Nation,” “We are all Women of the Wall” and “Religious freedom in Israel.”
The Netanyahu government approved a plan in January 2016 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. It gave non-Orthodox Jewish leaders a joint role in the oversight of the pluralistic site. Currently, a temporary prayer facility exists there.
But the program was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu’s coalition government raised objections to the decision after they had initially endorsed it. And last Sunday, the cabinet voted to freeze the deal.
Under ultra-Orthodox management, the main Western Wall area is separated between men’s and women’s prayer sections.
The government last Sunday also advanced a bill that would have granted the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a haredi Orthodox-dominated body, sole authority over recognized Jewish conversions within Israel. The conversion bill, however, was shelved Friday for six months.
In fending off scathing criticism by many American Jewish organizations and individuals over the Western Wall reversal, an Israeli government official downplayed the move’s significance, underlining the fact that anyone who wishes to pray according to Conservative or Reform custom is able to do so today at the current temporary facility.
On Friday, Netanyahu’s office flatly denied a report that it instructed diplomats to blame non-Orthodox Jews for the controversy over the Western Wall.
Israeli diplomats in North America were told to blame the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements for the ongoing crisis in relations between Israel’s government and US Jewry, according to a report in Israeli daily Ma’ariv. According to Ma’ariv, the directive happened in a conference call this week between the diplomats and Jonathan Schachter, a senior aide to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s office unequivocally denied the report.
“The Prime Minister’s Office denies the directive and the position that were attributed to Schachter in the article,” the statement Friday read. “The conversation did not occur as depicted in the article.”
Schachter’s directive was given orally, according to the Ma’ariv report, which did not detail the language that Schachter had reportedly asked the diplomats to use. One ambassador reportedly said he would comply with the directive only if Jerusalem transmits the talking point in writing.
A diplomat who was not named in the Ma’ariv article told the newspaper: “It defies belief that after everything that’s happened, the prime minister’s staff are seeking to blame US Jews, who were deeply offended by the government decisions, for the situation.”
The decisions announced earlier this week sparked an unprecedented uproar, with major Jewish groups across the board harshly condemning the developments. On Sunday, in its first ever such move, the Jewish Agency called on the government to rescind its decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise. Dozens of leading Jewish philanthropists and entrepreneurs, among them major donors to Israel, have also expressed their disappointment with the Israeli government’s decisions regarding the Western Wall and the Conversion Bill as well.
Major Jewish groups have implored Netanyahu to resolve the crisis, warning of of erosion of support for Israel. Some groups have intimated the decisions might impact financial contributions to Israel.
According to a survey conducted by Hiddush, a local organization that aims to advance religious pluralism in Israel, 63 percent of Jewish Israeli respondents said they disagreed with the decision to suspend the 2016 government-approved deal regarding the Jewish holy site, while 37% supported it.
The Conversion Bill was almost equally unpopular with the majority of Jewish Israelis, the Hiddush survey found. According to the results, 64% of respondents said they opposed the bill, while 36% expressed support for the legislation.
The poll was conducted among a sample of 500 Jewish adults in Israel on June 27 by the Smith Institute. It has a 4.5% margin or error.