Key US donor suspends activities over Western Wall, conversion spat

Real estate tycoon, leading AIPAC and Miami Federation activist, Isaac ‘Ike’ Fisher says Israeli government showing ‘contempt’ for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

A leading US philanthropist and fundraiser on behalf of Israel has suspended his efforts in protest of the Israeli government’s decision to nix a pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall and its backing for a bill, shelved on Friday, that would make the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the only body authorized to convert people to Judaism in the country.

Isaac “Ike” Fisher, a Florida real estate tycoon, leading fundraiser in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and member of the board of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said that he would freeze his philanthropic activities for the Jewish state unless the government reversed its decisions.

Fisher confirmed the move in a Channel 2 TV interview later Sunday, saying he was “suspending” his philanthropy, rather than ending it, just as the Israeli government had “suspended” its original Western Wall commitment, and that he was reacting to the government moves in “language they understand.”

Fisher’s announcement, originally conveyed in a letter to former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who is now an MK, came as some groups have intimated the decisions might harm financial contributions to Israel.

“It is not a matter of Reform and Conservative,” Yedioth’s report quoted him as saying. “What has happened here is a serious act of contempt toward the rabbis and leaders of our communities. They are saying to them, ‘You are irrelevant.’ They are saying to our women, ‘Your Judaism isn’t Judaism.’ This is intolerable, and we must put an end to it.”

The Netanyahu government approved a plan in January 2016 to officially construct 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 Israeli authorities. It would give non-Orthodox Jewish leaders a joint role in the oversight of the pluralistic site. Currently, a temporary prayer facility exists there.

Businessman and AIPAC official Isaac 'Ike' Fisher (courtesy)
Businessman and AIPAC official Isaac ‘Ike’ Fisher (courtesy)

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. Last Sunday, the cabinet voted to freeze the deal.

The government decisions, announced last Sunday, sparked an unprecedented uproar, with major Jewish groups across the board harshly condemning the developments. Even the Jewish Agency for Israel, in its first-ever such move, called on the government to reverse its decision to freeze construction of a new Western Wall prayer section. On Friday, ministers agreed to freeze the conversion bill for six months in order to hammer out an agreed-upon formulation.

Major Jewish groups have implored Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resolve the crisis, warning of of erosion of support for Israel.

Fisher said he would step down as chairman of the UJA Federation of Greater Miami fundraising efforts, Yedioth said.

According to the report, which said Fisher oversees hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to Israel, he recently bought $1 million in Israel Bonds but has since decided to cancel the purchase.

“I have advised the federation that my work will be put on hold unless Israel changes,” he explained.

Fisher’s move could affect a Tel Aviv University scholarship program and programs in Or Akiva and Yeruham, Yedioth reported.

Last week Fisher sent a letter to Deputy Minister Oren informing him of the measures he intends to take, the report said.

“As you know, I am an active supporter of Israel,” he reportedly wrote. “But I wish to inform you that my support is being suspended until the Israeli government changes its decision on the Western Wall and conversions.

Kulanu MK Michael Oren, who would later that year be appointed as Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's office in charge of public diplomacy, seen here on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Kulanu MK Michael Oren, who would later that year be appointed as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of public diplomacy, seen here on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Diaspora Jews as well as Israelis need to stand up and say enough is enough, we cannot tolerate this type of action,” Fisher told Channel 2.

When asked about remarks made by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin who said that US Jewry should have no role in internal Israeli affairs, Fisher hit back, saying Israel was meant to be a home for all Jews, not just religiously observant ones.

“This cabinet minister has no understanding of historical Zionism. Zionism brought about a Jewish state for the larger Jewish people,” he said. “The government represents more than just Israelis, especially in matters like this.”

Fisher clarified that he was not canceling any of his major investments in Israel, but was “suspending” them, to mirror the language used by Netanyahu’s cabinet when backtracking on the Western Wall agreement.

“It’s treating with disdain women who love Torah, it’s treating with disdain the overwhelming number of religious leaders in Israel and throughout the world and trying to raise up a small number of extremists, the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox],” Fisher said.

“I’m not walking away from Israel, or canceling my participation, I’m just using language that politicians understand,” he said.

“My heart will always be with [the Jewish people] and I will not cut myself off from that, but I know I represent so many Americans who identify with and feel close to the Jewish state — and so many Israelis — who just want to say dai kvar [enough already], this is a Jewish state, not a Jewish theocracy,” Fisher added.

Oren, a former ambassador to the US, said Fisher’s punitive measures shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“A member of the central board of AIPAC is a person who works two days a week for Israel, and Ike does much more than that,” Oren told Yedioth. “He is also a great philanthropist who brings many other wealthy Jews to contribute to projects in the country.

“Fisher didn’t accept the compromise that is being put forward in the framework of which there will be a delay of half a year in the discussion on the conversion law,” Oren added. “He, and most of the Jews in America, see conversion and the Western Wall as the same issue and feel that we betrayed them. This is no less dangerous than a real threat to the Israeli economy and the security of the country.”

A delegation from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC on Thursday held emergency talks with Netanyahu on the crisis. The three-member AIPAC delegation — outgoing president Lillian Pinkus, incoming president Mort Fridman and Vice CEO Richard Fishman — headed back to the US late Thursday immediately after the meeting.

A Channel 2 TV report said that AIPAC was concerned that the disputes were undermining activists’ “incentive to work for Israel” and had prompted a “crisis of faith.” The prime minister heard that senior officials, activists and donors were threatening to leave the lobby, the TV report said.

A source familiar with the matter insisted later Thursday, however, that the TV report was “categorically false.” The source said, “There was no discussion at the meeting about the impact of the decision on AIPAC internally, nor was there any suggestion that there was a crisis of faith, nor was there any suggestion that there was a lack of incentive to support the pro-Israel position in this country.”

In an ad in Hebrew and English in several Hebrew newspapers Friday, 65 prominent figures signed their names to a message to the Israeli government and people saying they were “deeply disappointed and disheartened by the decisions.”

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