Sharansky warns of new flare-up in Israel-Diaspora crisis

In the Knesset, Jewish Agency leader tells lawmakers that two months from now, ‘ceasefire’ will expire if the government fails to act

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

Jewish Agency chairman, Natan Sharansky attends the lobby for strengthening ties with the Jewish world at the Knesset, June 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Agency chairman, Natan Sharansky attends the lobby for strengthening ties with the Jewish world at the Knesset, June 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky warned Israeli lawmakers on Tuesday that another major flare-up between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is brewing on the horizon, and will hit if the government fails to take action on the Western Wall and conversion.

“I have to warn you that the crisis continues. And in two months we might have a new crisis,” Sharansky said at the beginning of a special session of the Knesset’s Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People.

Addressing a room packed with Jewish leaders from across the word and Israeli MKs from various political parties, Sharansky thanked the government for its willingness to discuss the matters, but lamented that no progress has been made since June, when the cabinet surprisingly canceled an agreement it had reached with non-Orthodox streams and Jewish organizations.

“We agreed to a six-month ceasefire, in which there would be no moves in the Knesset and no moves in the Supreme Court,” he said. “But four months have passed and nothing happened. If in two months I will be asked again to organize a ceasefire, I won’t be able to.”

Sharansky went on to urge the gathered legislators to “take very seriously” the controversy over pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and proposed legislation on conversion to Judaism. “This is not about coalition or opposition. It’s about acting on behalf of the unity of the Jewish people.”

View of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, June 23, 2017 (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

In June, the cabinet suspended the January 2016 agreement, reached after four years of negotiations, that promised significant upgrades to the pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall. It also froze a decision to advance a controversial bill that would deny state recognition to conversions conducted in Israel by rabbis — including Orthodox rabbis — not approved for the task by the state rabbinate.

After vociferous and across-the-board protests from the Jewish world, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed Moshe Nissim, 82, a former justice and finance minister to find a solution to the conversion controversy. He also tapped Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to sort out a compromise at the Western Wall.

On Tuesday, Hanegbi told the delegates of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors that Israel plans to go ahead and renovate the pluralistic prayer platform at the Wall. But Hanegbi made plain the government will not fully implement the January 2016 deal, which provided for joint oversight — including representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism — of a permanent pavilion. Most notably, he insisted that Israel will not build a common entrance to all three prayer areas — the Orthodox men’s and women’s section and the so-called “Ezrat Yisrael” plaza, where men and women can worship together.

During Tuesday’s hour-and-a-half-long session in the Knesset, countless lawmakers — from the opposition and the coalition — took the mic to express their appreciation for Diaspora Jewry and their concern over the current crisis, but did not offer any concrete proposals to solve it.

“I want to tell you that the relation [between Israel and] American Jewry is very, very important to us. It’s true that it doesn’t always look that way. But it’s very important,” said coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud), who also co-chairs the Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People.

“We’re aware of your needs and the influence you have in America and in Israel, but we also have internal problems,” he added, likely alluding to constraints stemming from his party’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. “So we always try to navigate between all different existing problems. But things will eventually find a solution and they will work. Like everything in Israel, things take time,” he said.

Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren (Kulanu) was one of few coalition members to explicitly call on the government to implement the original Western Wall agreement. In the interim, however, he recommended insisting on improvements to the physical appearance of the pluralistic platform.

MK Yehudah Glick (Likud) went even further, accusing the government of betraying Diaspora Jewry.

Likud MK Yehudah Glick in the Knesset on December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“In basic human relationships, a deal is a deal. We can’t break a deal. Here I believe the Israeli government has turned its back [on Diaspora Jewry], and the responsibility to solve this issue is on the Israeli government,” the US-born freshman lawmaker said, lest parts of the Jewish people become alienated from the Jewish state.

Wrapping up the session, Jewish Agency boss Sharansky once again reminded the Israeli politicians that time is running low for a solution, as in just a few weeks the “ceasefire” agreed upon in June will expire.

“We deeply appreciate the strong sentiments expressed by all of the Knesset members who spoke on the importance of resolving the issues before us,” David Breakstone, the Jewish Agency’s number two, told The Times of Israel after the debate. “What is important for us to hear now is what practical steps are being made in order to advance these issues.”

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