It’s not the first rift between North American Jewry and the Israeli government. But the decision last weekend by the Israeli Cabinet to suspend the “Kotel deal,” a 2016 agreement to expand egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, was an especially egregious slap in the face.
It says to diaspora Jews from the liberal denominations, in no uncertain terms, that their religious practice is not welcome in the Jewish state, and — if they persist in such practices — neither are they.
The reaction from American Jewish leaders was swift and harsh. The Reform movement canceled a June 29 meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the heads of both the Reform and Conservative movements issued strong condemnations of the Cabinet decision. Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the decision threatened the very fabric of the Israel-diaspora relationship.
Local Jewish leaders have also come out against the suspension of the Kotel agreement. Danny Grossman, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, said he was “deeply troubled” and “very disappointed” in the move by the Israeli government, saying it weakens both American Jewry and Israel.
Even the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body, offered unprecedented criticism. Saying it “deplores” the decision, which it claims threatens the unity of the Jewish people, the agency’s board canceled a gala dinner with Netanyahu planned for this week, while agency chairman Natan Sharansky, one of the architects of the 2016 Kotel deal, warned that the rift between Israel and the diaspora would be hard to heal.
So how could the Cabinet so blithely sweep away this arduously negotiated agreement? Because, we are told, the issue is not important to the vast majority of Israelis. Because either they are secular, so they don’t care about prayer at the Kotel, or they’re observant, and happy to pray in single-sex spaces. Israelis have more important things to worry about, we are told.
We submit that Israelis and their leaders ought to be very concerned about American Jewish feelings on this issue. The Kotel is arguably the central unifying symbol of diaspora Jewry, and has been since the Six-Day War. It’s a required stop on organized missions and youth trips to the Jewish state, symbolic of so much that draws American Jews close to Israel and to their Jewish identity.
If Israelis don’t care about the Kotel, we do. So give it to us — the Western Wall belongs to world Jewry, not to the Israeli government, and certainly not to a handful of dictatorial ultra-Orthodox political parties.