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Netanyahu: Western Wall must unify, not divide, Jews

In Washington, PM vows to tackle egalitarian prayer at Judaism’s holiest site, lend stronger support for non-Orthodox in Israel

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Illustrative photo of women dancing with a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, April 20, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of women dancing with a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, April 20, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — The Netanyahu government has taken “significant” steps to further religious pluralism in Israel, including the establishment of a government roundtable to address the concerns of all streams of Judaism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told an enthusiastic audience at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly during its final plenary session on Tuesday.

“As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews,” promised Netanyahu in a speech that touched upon a wide array of topics from the Iran nuclear deal to Israeli innovations and growth in the tech sector.

Netanyahu highlighted the establishment of a government roundtable to address concerns of all streams. “That’s considerable, a significant decision,” he asserted. The roundtable, he said, provides a forum within the government “in which the streams discuss problems and more importantly solutions.”

He also received warm applause when he said that his government was working to strengthen “Reform and Conservative communities within Israel.” Soon, he asserted, he hoped his government would reach the “long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] will be a source of unity for the Jewish people, not a point of division.”

“The unity of the Jewish people is important at all times, but especially in these times,” he added.

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Jewish Federations of North America's 2015 General Assembly November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (AFP/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)
Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2015 General Assembly November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (AFP/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)

Despite the inclusion in his coalition of parties that traditionally battle non-Orthodox streams of Judaism on the floor of the Knesset, Netanyahu has stressed in recent weeks his commitment to pluralism. At the center of the prime minister’s arguments is the claim that a commitment to pluralism will strengthen the unity of the Jewish people – a nod to the fact that the majority of North American Jews do not identify as Orthodox.

After a minister in his government publicly said in July that he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement clarifying that the “hurtful remarks” do not reflect the position of the government.

“I have spoken with Minister [for Religious Affairs David] Azoulay to remind him that Israel is a home for all Jews and that as minister of religious affairs, he serves all of Israel’s citizens,” the statement read.

Later, in a September letter to the American Jewish Committee, Netanyahu spoke out even more strongly, telling the American Jewish organization that he “share[s] your feelings regarding the hateful remarks made by the minister for religious affairs,” Netanyahu wrote in the letter.

“The government of Israel which I head remains committed to strengthening the unity of the Jewish people, and will unequivocally reject any attempt to divide us or to delegitimize any Jewish community – Reform, Conservative or Orthodox,” he continued, but while he said that steps will be taken toward increasing religious pluralism, he did not detail which steps should be anticipated.

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