Netanyahu takes over Diaspora Ministry, his fourth portfolio

After firing Bennett in June, PM assumes new position as Jewish Agency board convenes in Jerusalem and tensions linger over pluralistic prayer at Western Wall

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of Likud party members at the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of Likud party members at the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to assume a fourth ministerial position on Monday, formally taking the helm of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

The portfolio had been vacant since early June, when Netanyahu fired the incumbent, Naftali Bennett, from the caretaker government after the April elections.

On Monday, as the 22nd Knesset resumes regular activities after a break for the Jewish holidays, Netanyahu will formally be declared Diaspora minister. Besides being prime minister, he also currently serves as defense minister, health minister (the office is run in practice by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, whose ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism is opposed to holding full ministerial posts) and acting minister of labor, social affairs and social services (a post he assumed in August, after the incumbent Haim Katz quit due to corruption allegations).

One of Netanyahu’s first acts as freshly appointed Diaspora minister will be to address the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, which is currently meeting in Jerusalem.

The venerable, quasi-governmental organization this week announced a plan to reorient its focus on prioritizing connections between Israel and world Jewry.

Many Diaspora Jews are critical of Netanyahu and his coalition for the refusal to better accommodate non-Orthodox Jews. They are particularly angry at him for indefinitely suspending a government decision to upgrade a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall.

The plan, approved by the cabinet in January 2016, would have seen the establishment of a properly prepared pavilion for pluralistic prayer — as opposed to current temporary arrangements — under joint oversight involving all major streams of Judaism.

Many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America, bitterly denounced the government’s backtracking, threatening to protest until it was reversed.

Netanyahu, however, has consistently rebutted calls to unfreeze the 2016 agreement, citing his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners’ staunch opposition to any move that could be seen as legitimizing pluralistic Judaism.

Jewish girls at the pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, January 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is not new to the Diaspora portfolio. He served as minister of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs for a month and a half in 2013, before Bennett took over the ministry.

According to its website, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry is “entrusted with fostering the connection between world Jewry and the State of Israel, through joint activities and ongoing dialogue, since the Israeli government sees itself as being responsible for all Jews worldwide, whether they live in Israel or the Diaspora.”

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