Sharansky warns some Diaspora Jews are rethinking Israel ties over Western Wall crisis
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'Passions are high, and will go even higher'

Sharansky warns some Diaspora Jews are rethinking Israel ties over Western Wall crisis

Jewish Agency chairman says Netanyahu supports other streams of Judaism, but is weak in resisting pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties

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

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The current crisis between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry surrounding the Western Wall has led some Jewish communities and individuals to reconsider traveling or donating to Israel, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said Monday.

Sharansky also said that he believed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does care about streams of Judaism other than the Orthodox; however, he was weak in standing up to coalition pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Sharansky said he would do his best to convince those infuriated by the decision not to cease their involvement with Israel.

“We won’t agree to anyone who wants to cancel his donation to Israel,” Sharansky said, speaking in English to reporters outside a Jewish Agency board of governors meeting in Jerusalem.

“Several American [Jewish] Federations have said that members of delegations no longer want to come… I am against that. On the contrary, we need more delegations,” he said.

The cabinet’s decision Sunday to suspend an agreement reached a year and a half ago that would create a new permanent platform at the Western Wall for the benefit of non-Orthodox worshipers triggered an unprecedented crisis between world Jewry and the government in Jerusalem. Diaspora groups and Israeli politicians, including some from within the coalition, harshly condemned the move.

Illustrative: Conservative Jews pray at the temporary egalitarian Robinson's Arch prayer pavilion at the southern end of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on July 30, 2014. (Robert Swift/Flash90)
Illustrative: Conservative Jews pray at the temporary egalitarian Robinson’s Arch prayer pavilion at the southern end of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 30, 2014. (Robert Swift/Flash90)

Sharansky acknowledged that “almost every government decision taken in Jerusalem leads to someone in the Diaspora who cancels his donation, and someone who adds a contribution. So that’s nothing special.”

However, this week’s crisis put Jewish leaders in a peculiar situation, he said. “On the one hand, we’re fighting for the unity of the people. On the other hand, we’re fighting all efforts to weaken the Israel-Diaspora relations based on anger over this decision to backtrack on the Western Wall agreement… Passions are high, and will go even higher.”

The government’s general disregard for non-Orthodox streams will dominate the discussions in synagogues across North America, Sharansky predicted. “A rabbi is interested in getting his or her community to grow closer to Judaism. Whether he’s Orthodox or Reform, he knows he has only two ways to do that: faith and Zionism. To talk about tradition and the weekly portion, and to talk about the State of Israel,” he said.

While in recent years, more and more rabbis opted to avoid mentioning the State of Israel in their sermons because it was a controversial topic, they’d be unable to continue this avoidance because “if the entire week his congregants are discussing the matter, whether they should still donate to Israel or whether they should cancel their Israel trip — how can the rabbi not talk about it?”

Sharansky added that he would like to tell those rabbis that most of world Jewry and even a majority of Israelis reject the government’s decision.

Earlier on Monday, the Jewish Agency canceled a planned gala event at the Knesset to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited. The agency’s board also passed an unprecedented resolution calling on the government to reinstate its previous commitment to create a permanent Western Wall prayer platform for non-Orthodox Jews.

Sharansky, a former government minister, said the prime minister had been very dedicated to reaching a compromise that would satisfy all religious streams, but that coalition requirements led him to backtrack on the January 2016 agreement.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter's Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter’s Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)

Sharansky has not spoken to Netanyahu, his friend of 30 years, since Sunday’s cabinet meeting, he told The Times of Israel. He said someone from the prime minister’s office tried to call him but he had not yet had time to call back.

“I said that Netanyahu is a leader who knows better than all of us what’s good for Israel’s economy, how not to make unilateral concessions in the international arena, and that he understands the needs of world Jewry better than previous prime ministers. All of that is still true,” Sharansky said. “But I never said that he knows better than all of us how to stand up to coalition pressures. That I did not say.”

To Netanyahu’s credit, Sharansky said, the prime minister did not try to hide his true feelings on the matter. “He said he is in favor [of the 2016 agreement]. He said, ‘I still want it, but what can I do, I have in my coalition people who demand I cancel it. I can’t implement it, so I freeze it.’ Fine, that’s a play on words: freezing effectively means he canceled it,” Sharansky said.

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