JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett cited his American-born parents as the source for what he called his “special closeness” with American Jewry in an interview with the Jerusalem Post last week.
But some American Jews took a different message about their relationship with the prime minister from the interview.
In it, Bennett said his government would not implement the 2016 Western Wall agreement that he once championed, which would have set up a permanent space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
“The continued denial of religious freedom is directly contradictory to the Prime Minister’s and other Ministers’ stated desire to bridge the gap between Israel and world Jewry,” leaders of the Conservative movement said in a statement Sunday, Jan. 30.
The head of the Reform Movement in Israel released a similar statement on Jan. 28.
“It is both infuriating and upsetting when the Prime Minister of a ‘change government,’ wherein all heads of his coalition have committed to implementing the Western Wall Agreement, yields to extremist factions that object to the Agreement and its implementation, just as they did with the former Prime Minister,” the Reform Movement in Israel statement read.
“The eyes of Jews across Israel and the Diaspora look to the current government with the hopes of implementing a suitable compromise that responds to all of the Jewish people and does not capitulate shamefully to bullying and violence.”
Bennett’s comments and the reactions they elicited mark the latest flashpoint in a years-long conflict between the American Jewish community’s two l liberal movements and, on the other hand, Israel’s religious institutions, which are dominated by the Orthodox rabbinate, and their organized supporters in the US.
“One people,” a large advocacy effort for retaining the status quo at the Western Wall, was launched by Agudah Israel of America.
The 2016 agreement, mediated in part by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who then served as head of the Jewish Agency, was forged through meetings between American leaders and the Orthodox group that supervises the Western Wall plaza.
The main plaza is divided into separate men and women’s prayer spaces in accord with longstanding Jewish tradition. Women are not allowed to read from a Torah scroll.
The agreement would have seen a permanent and enlarged space for egalitarian prayer set up at an archaeological site south of the traditional prayer site at the Western Wall that is actually a continuation of the wall.
Signs leading to the main Western Wall plaza also would have directed visitors to the egalitarian site, which currently consists of a raised platform that does not allow visitors to approach the actual wall.
In 2017, facing lobbying from his Orthodox coalition partners who opposed the deal, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scuttled it.
When Bennett’s coalition came to power earlier this year, there was talk of reviving the deal. In spite of the absence of Orthodox parties in the current coalition, Bennett and Kahana decided not to change the status quo at the Western Wall.
According to a December report in Israeli news site Zman, Religious Affairs Minister Motti Kahana chalked the decision up to “incitement and hatred, especially by people from Likud, who are latching onto it.”
Kahana was referring to protests at the Western Wall last November on Rosh Chodesh, the start of the new month, when hundreds of mostly haredi Orthodox men protested and attempted to block activists with Women of the Wall from conducting services.
Calls to protest the group were shared by several right-wing Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu, currently the head of the opposition in the Israeli Knesset.
In the interview with the Jerusalem Post, Bennett said his government could not act on the compromise due to lack of consensus on the issue within the coalition.
“Not all of our dreams will come true in this government,” Bennett told the Jerusalem Post after listing the areas of agreement among members of the coalition and noting that the Western Wall agreement was not one of them.
Anna Kislanski, CEO of the Israel Reform Movement, seemed to question whether Bennett’s government was any different from the Netanyahu government that preceded it in a statement shared to Facebook last week.
The statement from the Conservative leaders, which included heads of essentially all of the Conservative Jewish organizations, said the Conservative organizations “feel betrayed.”
“It is unconscionable that Prime Minister Bennett has shelved these plans in light of the fact that alongside a majority of ministers and MKs in the present government who concur with the implementation, the majority of Israelis also believes that there should be free access for all Jews to pray according to their custom at the Western Wall.”