I returned from Israel on Thursday having participated in the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) Board of Governors (BOG) meetings. JAFI is our overseas partner and essentially the arm of Federation in Israel. These meetings made the international media because on Sunday, the Government of Israel made two very important and divisive decisions:
- The Government of Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation gave approval for a draft bill that would for the first time ever give the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversion in Israel. (See the attachment from the Jewish Federations of North America with background)
- Press reports announced that the Government had reached a decision to suspend or freeze the Kotel resolution. In follow-up communication, the PM’s Office clarified their position. The agreement contains three major components: management of the site, renovations of the physical space, and construction of a new joint entrance to the entire Kotel site. The government will move forward immediately with enhancing the physical space while suspending the other two elements of the agreement. (See the attachment from the Jewish Federations of North America with background)
The Jewish Agency responded strongly to both decisions (the Jewish Agency Board comprises 30% representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, 20% representatives from Keren Hayesod and 50% from the World Zionist Organization. It is very representative of worldwide Jewry.) Natan Sharansky said it best in his communication on Sunday:
As Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, and on behalf of our partners, I must express my deep disappointment at today’s decision by the Government of Israel to suspend the implementation of its own decision to establish a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
Five years ago, the Prime Minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, ‘one wall for one people.’
After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities.
Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.
The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people.
On Monday, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors met and unanimously adopted a resolution that you can read here: http://www.timesofisrael.com/full-text-of-jewish-agency-resolution-on-western-wall-decision/. The decision was also made to cancel a planned dinner for the BOG that evening with the Prime Minister at the Knesset. The following day, JAFI placed Hebrew and English language ads in five of the major Israeli papers detailing their disapproval (see English version attached).
Federation leadership led the coalition to reach the original agreement and was deeply involved in this response and continues to participate as new developments occur.
Similar events have unfolded in recent history. Many will remember the “Who is a Jew?” issue that also caused a rift between the Government of Israel and Diaspora Jewry until it was resolved. Each time, we have raised our voices. Along with the Jewish Federations, the Conservative and Reform Movements, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the AJC and so many other organizations have made statements opposing these actions by the Israeli government. Media reported that AIPAC sent a delegation that met with the Prime Minister yesterday over these issues.
Cindy Shapira and I have already sent our Israeli Consul General a letter expressing our disappointment on behalf of our Federation. What can you do? You can write letters and emails. You can speak to your friends in Israel and explain to them the importance of these issues to Jews in North America. Educating the Israeli public is critical. As we have more suggestions, we will pass them along.
While I am personally upset with these decisions by the Government, I remain steadfast in my love and support of Israel, the ONLY Jewish homeland. While in Israel, I visited a program that we help to fund that helps Israeli victims of terror to recover; I also visited with the 32 Onward Israel participants from Pittsburgh. Those on Onward Israel said that they have grown closer to Israel and understand Israel much better. I can tell they feel much more connected to the Jewish people.
I am so proud of the work of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel, one of our key overseas partners, in their leadership on these issues. It visibly demonstrates the power of our collective voice.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.
P.S. Since I drafted the above, there are some updates we received just now from the Jewish Federations of North America:
The Government of Israel has agreed not to move the controversial conversion legislation forward for six months. The Reform movement has agreed to freeze their Supreme Court petition on the matter for six months (assuming the court will agree), and the prime minister will set up a committee with all parties, to be charged with discussing the issues and challenges and delivering a resolution.
We still have a lot of work to do. There are still differences. But we are hopeful that we will be able to come to a solution so that we do not have to face this again. You can read more about it in the Times of Israel.
Unfortunately, last Sunday the Government of Israel’s Cabinet decision to freeze the January 2016 agreement to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel remains in place. However, our efforts — together with The Jewish Agency, the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, and Women of the Wall — will remain bold and strong.
The Government of Israel has clearly communicated its intention to immediately move forward with building the prayer plaza; however, the site governance and entry area parts of the agreement remain on hold. Looking ahead, our efforts will be focused on supporting all three areas of work and, hopefully, bringing all parties to the table to move forward together.