Cabinet Freezes Egalitarian Kosel Deal

In an earthshaking chareidi victory, the Israeli cabinet froze the Kosel Outline adopted in January 2016 which would have made the southern section of the Kosel an egalitarian area under partial Reform and Conservative control. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver of Yisrael Beiteinu and National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz of Likud voted against the decision.

The development represented a change of tone for Prime Minister Netanyahu, who stated at the 2015 United Nation General Assembly, “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews” and asked for time and patience to deal with chareidi intransigence.

The freeze was a compromise, as chareidi MKs initially wanted a complete abandonment of the plan. Their main objections were that according to the plan, the egalitarian area would be controlled by a panel that included two Reform and two Conservative leaders. The plan also called for building one main entrance leading to the Kosel’s Orthodox and egalitarian sections. Under pressure from American non-Orthodox leadership and chareidi politicians, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky had worked on the Kosel compromise since 2012.

For years, America’s Reform and Conservative Jewish movements have called for an egalitarian area south of the Kosel’s main area, which separates men and women in accordance with halachah. The pavilion, which was originally approved by the Israeli cabinet in 2016, was slated to be constructed at the site of a temporary mixed-gender prayer space established in 2013. The new construction would double the size of the present pavilion to 10,000 square feet, half the 21,500 square feet of the Orthodox Kosel.

The decision to freeze the Kosel Outline took place on the last day the State had to explain to the High Court why it was not honoring the Kosel Outline. Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox Jews had asked the court to demand that in the face of the government’s refusal to honor the Kosel Outline, the Orthodox Kosel should be split into three sections – one for men, one for women and one for egalitarian use.

The Kosel victory was followed by a second chareidi triumph as the Knesset Legislative Committee voted to advance a bill which would give the Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions in Israel. Both decisions infuriated non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and overseas who are conducting a desperate battle to have both decisions revoked.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver has submitted appeals against the Kosel and conversion decisions. The Opposition Zionist Union faction said that it would submit a no confidence motion to the government over the Kosel Outline and conversion decisions.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau congratulated the Kosel decision, saying, “The government’s decision that had divided the Kosel, the heart of the Jewish people, was fundamentally wrong, and it is good that it will not go ahead. The Kosel cannot be divided. Over the decades, the people of Israel have come there en masse from all over the world. The Kosel has been and will continue to be according to the minhag of the place and according to halachah and masores.”

GAFNI SPEAKS

Shas and UTJ opposed the planned pavilion since its inception and said in a joint statement that the government’s latest decision reflects “the will of most of the nation that seeks to safeguard the Kosel’s sanctity and status.”

“Yesterday, to our great joy, a very important decision and law were passed,” MK Gafni of UTJ said. “This was a great siyata diShmaya. The [decision to freeze the] Kosel Outline passed after we consulted with legal advisors over the past week. We decided to accept a formula stating that the Kosel agreement is frozen, meaning that if anyone wants to renew it the government will have to convene a new discussion and vote. In other words, legally speaking, the agreement is annulled.”

“This wording is important,” Gafni emphasized, “because in our assessment, the High Court cannot interfere in the Kosel agreement issue.”

“The same is true of the Conversion Law passed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation,” he added. “This law is incomplete, it has many problems and we will need to emend it. It was passed for a clear reason – if we had not passed it, the court would have decided and the court’s positions on religious matters are very clear. They have ruled against us in the past.”

Gafni went on to discuss the storm roiling among the non-Orthodox, which this report will discuss later. He explained that it had been necessary to take action in the Kosel and conversion issues due to interference in Israeli courts of the very people who were now raising a ruckus.

“To what can we compare the yelling of the Reforms? To someone who murdered his father and told a judge, ‘Have mercy on me as an orphan,’” Gafni said. “I declare in the name of the chareidi factions that we do not want legislation or government decisions, we do not want anything at all. Everything we do is because of their court petitions. They sit in the United States and interfere in what is done here. They do not even have enough votes for one mandate yet they tell us what to do. How do they do it? They go to the court and the court’s religious opinions are like that of the Reform and it helps them in every issue.”

Gafni explained that on similar lines, chareidi parties had needed to pass a new law in order to counteract a High Court ruling that forced religious councils to allow their mikvaos to be used for Reform conversions.

“By petitioning to the High Court of Justice, they managed to violate the status quo to our disadvantage,” Gafni summed up. “We will not allow this. It will not go on.”

Gafni said that the same principle applied to a High Court decision that allowed Tel Aviv supermarkets to operate on Shabbos. If the High Court refused to reconsider its verdict, the chareidim would have no choice other than to propose a law to circumvent the High Court ruling. In fact, Shas leader Aryeh Deri just submitted an opinion to the High Court to reconsider its decision to allow 160 Tel Aviv stores to remain open on Shabbos. Deri said that this was crucial due to the importance of Shabbos and due to the court decision’s crucial impact on the character of the state.

Gafni went on to say that Yisrael Beiteinu’s appeal against the freezing of the Kosel Outline was a violation of the coalition agreement made with the chareidim which guaranteed to maintain the status quo.

The same applied to the decision to restrict conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. If the government failed to vote in favor of this law, twenty-eight chareidi and Bayit Yehudi MKs would not feel bound to vote for any other laws the coalition proposed. In any case, he said, neither the Kosel Outline nor the conversion decisions would need to be legislated as law unless there was a threat of intervention from the High Court.

“In conclusion, we are not interested in legislation and government decisions,” he said. “We want to preserve the status quo on matters of religion and state. If anyone comes and complains that we are trying to ask for decisions or to pass decisions, it’s as I said, like someone who murdered his father and comes to court and asks for mercy because he’s an orphan.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri also emphasized that the fight was against the introduction of new, fake ideologies.

“We have nothing against Jews wherever they may be,” he said at a faction meeting.

“They are all our brothers. Our fight is against the approach, this ideology that is attempting to bring a new Judaism here, is trying to destroy everything that we built here over the years… We will not allow anyone from abroad to come here and try and manage us and divide and destroy everything we’ve built here for seventy years.”

NON-ORTHODOX COUNTER-ATTACK

Non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and overseas reviled the Kosel and conversion decisions and some threatened that it might detrimentally harm their link with the Jewish state.

The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors cancelled a dinner scheduled for Monday night with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Yerushalayim’s unification and the liberation of the Kosel. They convened an emergency meeting in Yerushalayim in response to the decisions. At the same time, Sharansky told reporters, “We won’t agree to anyone who wants to cancel his donation to Israel.” Sharansky emphasized that Netanyahu was in favor of the Kosel Outline freeze, quoting him as saying: “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.

The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Israeli cabinet to walk back its moves regarding the Kosel and conversion, marking the first time the Jewish Agency has called for the reversal of a government decision.

The resolution stated as follows:

“Whereas the proposed conversion bill that would cement the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion has the devastating potential to permanently exclude hundreds of thousands of Israelis from being a part of the Jewish people; and whereas we deplore yesterday’s decision by the Government of Israel which contradicts the agreement reached with the Jewish Agency and other parties to establish the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world, as stated [in the agreement]: ‘ONE WALL FOR ONE PEOPLE’; and Whereas the Government of Israel’s decisions have a deep potential to divide the Jewish people…

“Therefore, be it resolved that We call upon each Member of the Knesset and all elected public officials to take all necessary action to ensure that these dangerous and damaging steps are halted; and We will continue to build a broad coalition of Israelis, together with partners from around the world… and We call upon the Government of Israel to understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly.”

American Jewish leaders reacted with outrage following the Israeli government’s rescinding of a decision to create an egalitarian prayer pavilion at the Western Wall.

The Reform movement cancelled a Thursday meeting with Netanyahu.

“Just landed in Israel to news that Netanyahu has walked away from our Kotel agreement,” Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs tweeted. “We will see him in court.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to say ‘no’ to his previous ‘yes’ is an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry,” Jacobs said. “We are assessing all next steps. The Israeli Supreme Court will rule, but even in waiting for the court we will not be still or silent. The stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox parties have on Israel and the enfranchisement of the majority of Jews in Israel and the world must – and will – be ended.”

Hinting that the Kosel decision might hurt non-Orthodox support for Israel, Jacobs added, “There is a limit to how many times you can be delegitimized and insulted. This is the core mission of the Jewish state – to be a home for all Jews. It is unthinkable, but the unthinkable just happened.”

Jacobs told News 2, “The Reform movement alone has about two million people in North America, and together with the Conservative and other non-Orthodox streams, this is the majority of Jews in the United States and Canada. These decisions simply pushed Diaspora Jews out, delegitimizing those who stand up every day against the BDS, UNESCO resolutions and the delegitimization of Israel.”

He did not mention that only 20,000 Reform and Conservative Jews live in Israel.

Yet Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the decision would not affect her support for Israel.

“The people of Israel still need our support and our love, and the fact that an unbelievably, spectacularly shortsighted government cannot see its way to understand the critical importance of unity of world Jewry is something that is the fault of the politicians,” she said.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, declared of the freezing of the plan, “The Government’s decision to withdraw from the Kosel agreement is a shameful and wistful move of surrender to the pressure of chareidi parties and is a severe injury to the fundamental interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Binyamin Netanyahu and his partners have loosed an anti-Zionist process that hurts the links of the State of Israel with the Diaspora and weakens the connection of millions of Jews to Yerushalayim.”

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris called the move a “setback for Jewish unity.” Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the decision a “slap in the face” to Diaspora Jews. Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, said the Israeli cabinet’s action “will only deepen the already accelerating divided between Diaspora Jews and Israel.”

Representative Ted Deutch, a Democrat supporter of Israel from Florida, was the first congressman to publicly warn that American constituents were unhappy with Israel.

“These are members of the community who deeply love and support Israel,” he told Haaretz, “and they’re hurt and disappointed. I have to say I’m disappointed too. And I say that not just as a member of Congress, but also as an American Jew.”

“I have real concerns about the message this sends to Diaspora Jewry, including many in my area of south Florida, who have raised it with me,” Deutch said. “People understood that a compromise was reached and were happy about it, and they now see that the compromise is being tossed aside.”

He added that “community members and leaders in my own area who are just hurt by the decision, which seems to treat their connection to Israel – a deep and abiding connection – as somehow less important than it really is,” but qualified, “As frustrating as this decision is the connection doesn’t change, in my mind.”

Other Jewish congressmen mentioned similar sentiments in private.

Reform and Conservative leaders refused to meet Netanyahu. At a meeting with members of the Jewish Federations of North America on Monday night, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that any government would have had the same problem he did to balance the concerns of international Jewry with chareidi demands at home.

“Almost every government will have the chareidi parties as members,” he stated. “It is easy for the opposition to talk about how if they were in power they would have stood on principle against the chareidim. We know the truth is different.”

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told Times of Israel that it “was truly a meeting of listening. The prime minister was very interested in hearing and listening… He was incredibly respectful and open to hearing everyone’s response at the table — with no filters.”

He said that leaders were tentatively examining a two-pronged approach, to organize a campaign to apprise Israelis of the importance of the pavilion and independent conversion to Diaspora Jewry and to intensify lobbying pressure in the Knesset.

On Tuesday, the Knesset Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People held an emergency session with the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors where Sharansky warned that some American Jewish federations warned that the Kosel decision would trigger a dry up in funding for Israel. Bennett admitted that the relationship between Israel and American Jews was in “serious trouble.”

Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud told the American participants that Netanyahu was still committed to the “physical segment” of the Kosel agreement, building an egalitarian area even if non-Orthodox Jews would not have direct control over it. Regarding the conversion bill also, he said, “You have to go on fighting and not surrender and not give up hope and not give up optimism. The conversion bill is not final. There are issues to be discussed and you need to make sure that leaders of every faction in the government understand what this means for all of us.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid leapt at the opportunity to gain secular popularity and declared his intention to hold a press conference at the Kosel to blast the cabinet decision, which he canceled after chareidim said they would be sure to attend. At a Yesh Atid faction meeting attended by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Conservative movement, Lapid stated in English:

“Do not give up on us. We have no intention of giving up on you. We are one people. It might take time. It might take elections. But in a democracy the majority decides and the majority in Israel want us to be one nation. If you distance yourselves from us now, you reward those who are trying to divide the people of Israel.”

MK Eliezer Stern of his party asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate whether the “underhanded” freezing of the compromise followed the proper procedures.

CALMING TROUBLED WATERS

Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said that Israel’s decisions to freeze the construction of an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall and to bolster strict Jewish conversion laws were undermining relations between Israel and Diaspora Jews.

“Over the past twenty-four hours we have held a marathon of meetings with the heads of U.S. Jewish communities currently in Israel, and the picture is troubling,” Bennett said. “The representatives of U.S. Jewry feel they were slapped in the face by the Israeli government and that they are apparently no longer welcome here. Of course this isn’t true.”

Bennet admitted “mistakes were made” by the Israeli government, but said the controversy has largely resulted from a “campaign of misinformation claiming the [Kosel] is being closed to Diaspora Jews and that the status of conversions is being changed. This is false.”

The minister affirmed Israel’s efforts to “reach an understanding” with Diaspora Jews regarding these issues.

Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman issued a special clarification to explain that the cabinet freeze was not total.

“It is important to Prime Minister Netanyahu that every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall,” he announced. “Therefore, alongside yesterday’s decision he issued three directives that have gone unnoticed.

“First, the Prime Minister instructed that work to prepare the southern plaza be expedited so that Jews from all streams may pray at the Kosel. Second, that Jews from all streams be able to continue praying there – as they are able to do today. Third, the Prime Minister instructed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and me to continue dialogue in order to try and reach a solution. I recommend that those trying to exploit this issue be precise with the facts.”

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett who had absented himself from the vote for the Kosel Outline freeze and called it a mistake, clarified that the new decision knocked out two factors of the Kosel compromise but left one major factor unchanged.

“Exactly four years ago, as minister of Yerushalayim affairs, we spent a week building a beautiful pavilion called the Pavilion of Yisroel (Ezras Yisroel), a beautiful place located in an area full of antiquities. Men and women pray there today. This was called the first compromise and is still in use.”

“When I built the plaza, the State told the High Court that it was an interim solution as it was on a wooden platform,” Bennett added. “The main solution was Mandelblit’s plan to enlarge the pavilion, that its entrance should be from the main Kosel plaza, and that its administration should be with the inclusion of all streams and not only the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.”

The situation has now returned to the first solution and all Jews could come and pray in the Ezras Yisroel, Bennet said. This would be expanded and made more appropriate for its purpose. Bennett also noted that despite the freezing of the compromise, the matter would still be pursued by the High Court.

OPEN-ORTHODOX LEAP INTO THE FRAY

Forty-three members of Torat Chayim, an association of nearly a hundred Open-Orthodox rabbis who describe themselves as “committed to fostering a more pluralistic and progressive future,” threw in their lot with the Reforms and Conservatives leading people to wonder if there is a limit to their absurdity.

“As progressive, pluralistic orthodox rabbis associated with the rabbinic group Torat Chayim, we stand fully as allies with our sisters and brothers throughout the entire Jewish community in support of pluralism in America and Israel,” they said in an open letter. “We were disheartened to read that the Israeli government has rescinded its commitment to create a space for alternative and liberal groups to pray at the Kotel and is moving to delegitimize all conversions but those done by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

“Imposing one narrow version of Orthodox Judaism as the official standard for prayer and for conversion in Israel harms the unity of the Jewish people and it harms support for Israel in America. We encourage all Modern Orthodox Jews to publicly support freedom for multiple religious approaches to Jewish life. The Torah demands that we embrace humility in our dealings with fellow human beings. Pirkei Avot teaches: Do not demand to be the sole judge (of what is right or wrong in religious matters) for only G-d – and not humans representing G-d – has the capability of being the sole judge. This means that we should bring humility – not arrogance; and wonder – not certainty – to our relationships. The Sages teach that we are stronger when we disagree openly and respectfully while continuing to engage with one another and honor each other’s human dignity. We honor the different paths of our fellow Jews, even if we have our disagreements for the sake of heaven, and we yearn deeply to see a truly pluralistic Israel.”

It was noted during this current controversy that the secular Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, fought for a mechitzah at the Kosel, albeit due to political considerations. The day after Yom Kippur 1928, the Do’ar newspaper reported:

“Yesterday, at nine in the morning, a British officer accompanied by British and Arab police came to the Kosel and ordered the removal of the mechitzah in the Kosel court that divides between male and female worshippers.”

When the gabbai pointed out that the tzibbur was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, the police beat worshippers who refused to move and the mechitzah was smashed. Old people sitting on folding chairs were beaten and the chairs were removed. Bialik participated and spoke at emergency meetings held for this incident and regarding other limitations imposed at the Kosel.

(JNS.org material included)