For the first time in six years, the prime minister of Israel met Monday with the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements, in what participants said was a warm and positive discussion during which the premier promised to improve the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
The meeting was attended by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and members of his staff and the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements of North America and Israel, as well as Knesset members Alon Tal and Gilad Kariv, the latter of whom is a Reform rabbi.
Tal described the meeting as something of a breakthrough in an impasse that has lasted years between Israel and progressive streams of Judaism.
Tal told The Times of Israel he had come to the meeting prepared with a scathing presentation on the ways in which the government had failed Reform and Conservative Jews, but was so impressed by the level of understanding exhibited by Bennett that he “scrapped it.”
“I felt like Bilam,” Tal said, referring to a biblical figure who was hired to curse the Israelites but ended up blessing them.
The relationship between the government and progressive streams of Judaism has been particularly strained since then-premier Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out of an agreement on the Western Wall that would, among other things, have allowed the building of a permanent egalitarian prayer space on the southern portion of the holy site. In the wake of that pullout, Netanyahu refused to meet with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements.
“Six years! Six years that the government has turned its back on Reform and Conservative Judaism, which makes up the majority of Jews in the United States,” said Tal, who serves as a sexton in a synagogue affiliated with the Masorti movement, the Israeli version of Conservative Judaism.
Yizhar Hess, the former CEO of the Masorti movement and current vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization, told The Times of Israel that he too was optimistic coming out of the 90-minute meeting.
“For one, I’m optimistic because this was the first meeting in years. Two, we also spoke about concrete issues. And three, with [Netanyahu], he said lots of things and didn’t do anything. Here we felt there is real intention,” Hess said.
“He was humorous, he was confident, he wasn’t an empty suit,” Hess said of the premier during the meeting.
According to Tal, one of the most significant moments of the meeting came when Union for Reform Judaism President Rick Jacobs said during his remarks to the prime minister that — despite the tensions between progressive streams of Judaism and the government — the connection between the movements and the State of Israel is “not conditional.” Jacobs noted that both his movement and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism vocally came out against a recent report by the Amnesty International human rights group accusing Israel of apartheid.
“Our movements expressed our unconditional support for the State of Israel and our expectation that the PM take steps that prove his commitment that the State of Israel is the home for all Jews in Israel and around the world,” the Reform Movement in Israel said in a statement.
Hess said that during the meeting Bennett “spoke with appreciation” for progressive Jewry.
Despite the change in government and promises from several members of the coalition, the Western Wall Compromise, as the deal is known, remains frozen. Though no specific guarantees were made about implementing the deal, Tal said the prime minister did promise to improve the conditions at the Robinson’s Arch, an area of the Western Wall that is already designated for egalitarian prayer. This was confirmed by an Israeli official familiar with the matter.
The area has been riddled with debris, including stones that have fallen off the Western Wall, and has been in a generally poor state for years, which Bennett said he would address. In addition, the prime minister said he would improve security at the site, in light of multiple cases of extremists harassing worshipers there, most notably and violently this summer during Tisha B’av, a day of mourning that marks, in part, rifts within the Jewish people.
“Bennett committed to the need to ensure our right to pray according to our custom at the Western Wall free from violence and interruption,” the Reform Movement in Israel said.
Jacobs told The Times of Israel that despite Bennett not making any specific promises regarding the Western Wall Compromise, he made it clear to the progressive Jewish leaders that reports that he personally was not invested in its implementation were incorrect.
Jacobs added that while the Western Wall issue was important and symbolic, it was only one instance among many in which American progressive Jews have for years felt they “didn’t matter” to the government. Jacobs said he was optimistic that the current Israeli government and Bennett would be able to address some of those issues.
Hess said that despite the lack of concrete progress on the Western Wall issue, he felt the progressive Jewish leaders “justifiably left with an optimistic feeling.”
Bennett was quickly criticized for sitting down with Reform and Conservative Jews by Haredi Knesset member Moshe Gafni, who quoted a passage from the Talmud roughly meaning, “Birds of a feather flock together.”