(JTA) — American Jewish leaders are calling it a betrayal.
They say that 17 months after achieving a historic agreement to provide a non-Orthodox space at Judaism’s holiest prayer site, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged in a Cabinet vote Sunday, effectively canceling the deal and caving to the interests of his haredi Orthodox coalition partners.
Netanyahu disagrees. Far from killing the compromise, he believes the vote has given it new life. And far from betraying Diaspora Jewry, he says the vote shows his concern for Jews around the world.
In a lengthy conversation Monday with a senior Israeli official, JTA was given some insight into Netanyahu’s defense of the vote freezing the 2016 Western Wall agreement: why he did it, what the vote leaves in place and what it means moving forward.
The agreement, which was passed by the Cabinet in January 2016, has three components. First is a physical expansion and upgrade of the non-Orthodox prayer section south of the familiar Western Wall plaza. Second is the construction of a shared entrance to the Orthodox and non-Orthodox sections. Third is the creation of a government-appointed, interdenominational Jewish committee to govern the non-Orthodox section.
Sunday’s decision, the senior official said, leaves in place the physical expansion of the prayer site while suspending the creation of the interdenominational committee. Netanyahu’s haredi partners, the official said, objected to the idea that the committee amounted to state recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism.
With the controversy over the committee frozen, the official said, actual building at the site can start unhindered and will be expedited.
“The symbolic piece was holding the practical piece hostage,” the official, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, told JTA. “What was frozen yesterday was the symbolic part. The practical part of advancing the prayer arrangements, that can now move forward. Regrettably, there are those on both sides who are spinning this as cancellation.”
However, several aspects of the project as it stands are murky. It isn’t clear whether the expansion of the site will proceed according to the dimensions outlined in the 2016 agreement. Nor is it clear whether construction will begin on the shared entrance to the site or whether the non-Orthodox space will have a staff, accessible prayer books and Torah scrolls, as promised in the agreement.
The official told JTA that the suspension of the deal is itself a compromise: the haredi parties wanted to cancel the deal altogether, a step he said that Netanyahu was unwilling to take. Freezing the agreement, the official said, allows for continued negotiations to rework it. It also may provide an acceptable answer to the Supreme Court, which is considering a petition to force the government to provide an “appropriate space” for non-Orthodox prayer at the wall.
The official added that “The prime minister takes Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry very seriously.”
But non-Orthodox leaders were not placated by these assurances.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, called Sunday’s vote “sleight of hand.” He is treating it as a cancellation of the agreement, given that the agreement had not been implemented nearly a year and a half after being passed.
“It’s not really a freeze, it’s a kill,” he said. “It’s already been frozen. It hasn’t been moving for 18 months. We were waiting, and assured by the prime minister that entire time that negotiations were happening and they would get back to us. That hasn’t happened.”
Jewish leaders also called the expansion of the prayer space insufficient. They noted that the shared entrance would grant the non-Orthodox space equal standing with the Orthodox section, but the current plan for expanding the space is unknown.
“The physical portion of this agreement was far more extensive, including opening the site to the main plaza, making it visible and accessible,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA. “What the government is currently planning to do in no way meets the promises and the details of this agreement.”
Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall prayer group, whose activism led to negotiations over the wall, also said that any physical expansion of one of the most sensitive sites in the world would take years. Given the delays that have already plagued the process, Hoffman said she is hesitant to trust assurances from Netanyahu.
“We sat for three years in good faith, our group split over this, we paid such a price, how could I possibly believe you?” she recalls telling Tzachi Hanegbi, a government minister and Netanyahu ally, on Tuesday. “And now you’re going to compromise over the compromise?”
On Tuesday, at the conclusion of its board of governors’ meetings in Jerusalem, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky urged 200 employees who represent the agency abroad to prepare for criticism of the government’s suspension in the Diaspora. The night before, the Jewish Agency canceled its scheduled gala dinner with Netanyahu over the Cabinet vote.
According to a statement, Sharansky urged the emissaries to “listen to expressions of anger and criticism that are being heard in many Jewish communities and bring them to the attention of public figures and politicians in Israel.”
After meeting with the prime minister on Monday, Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told The Times of Israel that American Jewish groups plan to lobby Israelis to support their concerns about religious pluralism. American Jewish leaders, he said, will also invest more in lobbying Israeli lawmakers.
But the Israeli official told JTA that trying to force change in Israeli religious policy is what leads to acrimony over these issues. Better, he said, to let the laws change gradually and quietly.
“So what you have is, you have the status quo: a set of slowly evolving, informal rules,” the official said. “Often you get into trouble when one of the sides tries to formalize something by going to court or by legislation.”