Israeli leaders of progressive streams of Judaism reacted with skepticism and even hostility to a promise by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his government would make good on providing non-Orthodox worshippers a place to pray at the Western Wall.
Netanyahu on Wednesday told the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America that a new “refurbished” platform at an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall would soon be completed.
Netanyahu has blamed his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners for his decision to freeze a deal that would have expanded the site, known as Robinson’s Arch and place it on the same level as the Orthodox prayer plaza.
The prime minister also declared Israel is welcoming to Jews of all denominations. Many non-Orthodox Jews have had a fraught relationship with Israel on matters of religion in light of the Orthodox monopoly on aspects of Judaism such as conversion.
“We have a long and complicated history with Netanyahu’s promises in his speeches at GA conferences over the years,” Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Conservative Judaism movement in Israel, said in a statement.
“It seems that in front of an audience comprised mainly of North American Jewish representatives, the prime minister feels comfortable promising that very soon Israel will become paradise for Conservative and Reform Jews. In the meantime, we haven’t seen the promises being translated into reality,” Hess said, adding that he is nonetheless “optimistic” about the completion of the Western Wall egalitarian section.
The head of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, slammed the speech as “scandalous” and accused Netanyahu of failing to acknowledge his part in creating the crisis with Diaspora Jewry.
“As of now, all of his promises to promote respectful treatment of all Jewish sects have remained on paper, while ministers and coalition members, also from his party, continue to coarsely disparage Reform Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora,” Kariv said in a statement.
“If the prime minister continues to ignore the significant damage caused in recent years to the fabric of relations with world Jewry, he is betraying his national responsibility,” he added.
Richard Sandler, the outgoing JFNA chair, sounded a much more optimistic note.
“It was important to end our intense three days together with a frank and direct conversation with the Prime Minister about Israeli-Jewish Diaspora relations. We are confident that this is just the beginning and that we all continue to keep these discussions going,” he said in a statement.
Sandler also said he agreed with Netanyahu’s assessment that the “key issue” facing Diaspora Jewry is maintaining Jewish identity.
Netanyahu largely dismissed concerns over the Western Wall prayer area and other contentious matters, such as conversion, as issues that can easily be “overcome,” saying the biggest problem facing world Jewry today was the loss of Jewish identity, and that the development of Jewish consciousness and pride in the minds of young Jews was the Diaspora’s most important mission.
He blamed his government’s nixing of a plan to create a third prayer area for the pluralistic stream in the main Western Wall plaza on the “ultra-Orthodox street,” which objected to the state legitimizing non-Orthodox Judaism.
“They basically said, you know, ‘Choose: You have a government, no government,’” he said.
Rather than canceling the agreement, he merely suspended it, Netanyahu said. “Keep it there. Don’t cancel it. But move with what the agreement actually says you do, which is refurbish the plaza.”
Netanyahu noted that work started on Tuesday to put back the boulder that fell out of the wall on to the egalitarian platform in July.