Jewish Agency cancels dinner with PM over Western Wall decision
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AJC says decision a setback to 'the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews'

Jewish Agency cancels dinner with PM over Western Wall decision

Board of governors scraps agenda, to focus on cabinet decision to freeze plan for pluralistic prayer pavilion

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, signs books at a Times of Israel event in Jerusalem, May 7, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, signs books at a Times of Israel event in Jerusalem, May 7, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors announced Monday that it had canceled a planned gala dinner Monday evening with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following Sunday’s cabinet decision to freeze a plan for a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall.

The agency, whose board of governors is currently meeting in Jerusalem, said in a statement that it would be scrapping the rest of its agenda in order to deal solely with the Western Wall prayer issue, and with the implications of a bill advanced by ministers yesterday that would cement an ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversion to Judaism in Israel.

“In light of yesterday’s decisions by the Government of Israel, the Board of Governors of The Jewish Agency for Israel will be changing its entire agenda for the remaining two days of its meetings in Jerusalem, in order to address the ramifications of these decisions,” the agency said in a terse statement.

“The scheduled dinner with the participation of the prime minister has been canceled,” it said.

The Prime Minister’s Office had no immediate response.

A ceremony to mark the opening of the board of governors at the Knesset set for later Monday was also canceled, the Knesset said.

On Sunday, the government suspended a plan that it had previously approved for a pluralistic prayer area, following calls by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the deal.

The move 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.

Women from the Women of the Wall group pray at the women's section of the Western Wall, Sunday, June 25, 2017. (Michal Fattal/Courtesy Women of the Wall)
Women from the Women of the Wall group pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall, Sunday, June 25, 2017. (Michal Fattal/Courtesy Women of the Wall)

 

Speaking Monday to Israel Radio, former Jewish Agency head and ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor called the government’s decision “upsetting and sad.”

“The Western Wall belongs to all Jews,” he said. “This is a slap in the face to world Jewry,” he said, noting what he called a complete disregard for the rights of other Jews, particularly those in the United States, who make such a contribution to Israel’s security and well-being.

The American Jewish Committee also slammed the cabinet decision, saying it would weaken ties between American Jewry and Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AJC Executive Director David Harris (right) during a meeting Monday in Israel (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/AJC)
AJC Executive Director David Harris (Olivier Fitoussi/AJC)

“The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” said AJC CEO David Harris. “This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”

On Sunday, Sharansky, who was at the meeting in which Netanyahu announced his decision, said in a statement, “As chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, and on behalf of our partners, I must express my deep disappointment at today’s decision by the government of Israel to suspend the implementation of its own decision to establish a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.”

“After four years of intensive negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities,” he said.

This “decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult. The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people,” said Sharansky.

The agency plays a key role in maintaining and fostering the connection between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel.

For many liberal Jewish leaders who spoke with The Times of Israel, the sense of betrayal was compounded by a bill, also approved Sunday by ministers, that would give the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the sole authority over conversions to Judaism in the country.

Ultra-Orthodox coalition members Shas and United Torah Judaism said on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted their position to “freeze” the Western Wall prayer plan, a move that “reflects the will of most of the nation that seeks to safeguard the Western Wall’s sanctity and status.”

The decision was a “de facto cancellation of the plan,” the parties said in a joint statement, noting it could only be changed by a further cabinet decision.

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu instructed Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman and Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to formulate a new plan for the site.

It also said construction work on the southern edge of the Western Wall plaza — where the pluralistic prayer pavilion was slated to be built — would continue uninterrupted.

An illustration of Natan Sharansky's proposal, which will expand the Western Wall and create a permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson's Arch area. (photo credit: Creative Commons/Graphics by Uri Fintzy/JTA)
An illustration of Natan Sharansky’s proposal, which will expand the Western Wall and create a permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. (photo credit: Creative Commons/Graphics by Uri Fintzy/JTA)

The government decision to freeze the plan came amid calls from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to dial back the plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which was approved by government ministers in January 2016.

It also 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 by this week.

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