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Liberal Jewish movements ‘feel betrayed’ by Israel’s freezing of Western Wall plan

As Bennett says no consensus on issue in his coalition, US Conservative Movement warns decision harms Israel-Diaspora ties; Reform Movement calls it ‘infuriating and upsetting’

Members of Women of the Wall gather around a Torah scroll the group smuggled in for their Rosh Hodesh prayers marking the new month at the Western Wall, where women are forbidden from reading from the Torah, December 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Members of Women of the Wall gather around a Torah scroll the group smuggled in for their Rosh Hodesh prayers marking the new month at the Western Wall, where women are forbidden from reading from the Torah, December 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

American Jews have reacted angrily to the decision of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government not to implement the 2016 Western Wall agreement, which would have set up a permanent space for egalitarian prayer at the holy site.

“The continued denial of religious freedom is directly contradictory to the prime minister’s and other ministers’ stated desire to bridge the gap between Israel and world Jewry,” leaders of the Conservative Movement said in a statement Sunday. The head of the Reform Movement in Israel released a similar statement Friday.

The decision to shelve the plan was reported in December by The Times of Israel and confirmed by Bennett in an interview with the Jerusalem Post last week.

Coupled with the reactions from the two largest liberal movements in the American Jewish community, it marked the latest flashpoint in a years-long conflict over the place of American Jewry and its more liberal leanings in a Jewish state whose religious life is dominated by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and whose government is still dominated by the political right wing.

The agreement was forged in 2016 through meetings between American leaders of the liberal Jewish movements and the Orthodox group that controls the Western Wall plaza and mediated in part by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who then served as head of the Jewish Agency. The main Western Wall plaza, which is controlled by an Orthodox foundation, is divided into separate men and women’s prayer spaces where women are not allowed to read from a Torah scroll, in line with traditional Orthodox practice.

The agreement would have seen a permanent and enlarged space for egalitarian prayer set up at an archaeological site south of the traditional prayer site that is actually a continuation of the wall. Signs leading to the main Western Wall plaza also would have directed visitors to the egalitarian site, which currently consists of a raised platform that only allow visitors to approach a tiny section of the actual wall.

But in 2017, facing pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners who opposed the deal, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu scuttled the deal. When Bennett’s coalition came to power earlier this year, the deal was expected to be revived. But in spite of the absence of ultra-Orthodox parties in the current coalition, Bennett and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana decided not to implement the Western Wall compromise.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett delivers a statement at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on December 25, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90, file)

In the interview with The Jerusalem Post, Bennett said his government could not act on the compromise due to a lack of consensus on the issue within the coalition.

“Not all of our dreams will come true in this government,” Bennett said.

Anna Kislanski, CEO of the Israel Reform Movement, seemed to question whether Bennett’s government was any different from the Netanyahu government that had preceded it, in a statement shared to Facebook Friday.

“It is both infuriating and upsetting when the prime minister of a ‘change government,’ wherein all heads of his coalition have committed to implementing the Western Wall Agreement, yields to extremist factions that object to the Agreement and its implementation, just as they did with the former prime minister,” Kislanski said.

Anna Kislanski (Courtesy)

The statement from the Conservative leaders, which included heads of essentially all of the Conservative Jewish organizations, said they “feel betrayed.”

“It is unconscionable that Prime Minister Bennett has shelved these plans in light of the fact that alongside a majority of ministers and MKs in the present government who concur with the implementation, the majority of Israelis also believes that there should be free access for all Jews to pray according to their custom at the Western Wall. It is inconceivable that the government of Israel should continue to prevent freedom of prayer and equal rights to all Jews,” they said.

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