Menu JTA Search

Netanyahu urges Jewish unity, but his words get mixed reviews

INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 17 (JTA) – Delegates to the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations delivered a tepid welcome to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week as he sought to soothe an angry North American Jewry. In his only public appearance during a carefully crafted nine-hour visit on Sunday, Netanyahu attempted to quell the crisis over religious pluralism in Israel. At the same time, the premier softened his rhetoric toward the Palestinians, hinting at a possible acceptance of a limited Palestinian state. “I want to state at the outset as emphatically as I can: No one, nobody, can deprive a Jew of his Jewishness,” Netanyahu said. “The membership in our faith and people is not the exclusive domain of anyone,” he said. Netanyahu encouraged the more than 3,500 delegates to support the efforts of a commission trying to find a solution in the religious pluralism debate. That committee, headed by Israeli Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, almost broke down last month when Reform and Conservative Jews threatened to press their cases in court and the Orthodox political parties threatened to revive legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions in Israel and local religious councils. All sides stepped back from the brink, extending the deadline of the committee until Jan 31. That extension averted an explosion of the issue at the gathering – one of the largest annual Jewish gatherings – here this week. Underscoring the urgency of the issue, Dr. Conrad Giles, president of CJF, said preserving Jewish unity “has occupied the central-most focus of our activities in the past year.” While some people walked away convinced that Netanyahu was doing the best he could given political pressures, others believed his remarks did not break new ground on the issue that has caused a rift between Israel and many American Jews. “He knew what his mission was,” said Sidney Miller, a federation board member from Dayton, Ohio. “He said all the right words, but I don’t know if he can deliver.” But others were dismayed by the premier’s remarks. “The issue of pluralism is being talked about, but it’s not being addressed,” said Kathy Williams of San Francisco. “I walked away feeling that I listened to a lot of hot air.” Others balked at the premier’s claim that American Jewry does not understand the conversion controversy. In his speech, Netanyahu had said that while he understood a feeling of “alienation,“ he believes that 99 percent of North American Jews do not know that the problem is confined to Israel and that the status of non-Orthodox conversions outside of Israel are not at risk. In what appeared to be a veiled criticism of the American Reform and Conservative movements, Netanyahu said, “Let us stop looking at each other as enemies. Let those who would divide us go elsewhere.” “It was disappointing. It was nothing but slogans,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Reform movement’s Zionist arm, said after the speech. At an earlier private dinner with the United Jewish Appeal’s top donors, sources said Netanyahu had pounded the podium and accused “elements” here of “trying to disrupt the process” of the Ne’eman Committee. Amid rumors of progress in peace talks that may culminate in a meeting with Jordan’s King Hussein later this week, the premier appeared to reach out to the Palestinians. Netanyahu, who sources said may soon unveil his vision of a final- status settlement with the Palestinians, spoke of his desire to let the Palestinians “lead a national life in dignity and honor.” Netanyahu’s 45-minute speech capped off a night emphasizing unity and reconciliation that extended as far as the Russian space station Mir, from which Indianapolis native and U.S. astronaut David Wolfe delivered taped greetings. But Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, stole the show when she said, in Hebrew and English, “Greetings of peace and welcome to Indianapolis.” While there were no fireworks at the event, a protest by five Jewish leaders sparked attention when they urged delegates to give Netanyahu a cool reception. More than 2,000 flyers were distributed by Gerald Bubis, Henry and Edith Everett, Lynn Lyss and Leonard Fein. “Respect for the prime minister does not require more than applause at the beginning and end of his remarks,” the flyer said. “If you share our distress regarding his policies on religious pluralism and/or the peace process, please do not respond in a manner than might confuse respect for the office with endorsement of the policies.” The five activists abandoned plans to carry large replicas of the flyers into the hall after G.A. and security officials threatened to have them evicted.