We are deeply disappointed by two actions taken by the government of Israel that represent a severe threat to Jewish unity and Jewish peoplehood.
Unfortunately, the government voted to suspend the historic decision reached last year to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall) and to effectively end recognition of private conversions.
In 2013, following a decades-long advocacy campaign led by Women of the Wall and supported by the Conservative and Reform movements, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasked Jewish Agency for Israel Chair Natan Sharansky with developing a compromise that would enable respectful accommodation of all recognized Jewish practice at the Kotel.
After several years of intense negotiations, a seemingly historic compromise was reached. The Jewish Federations played a central role in that effort, working with Reform and Conservative movements, the ultra-religious parties in Israel, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Women of the Wall, the rabbi of the Western Wall, and the Israeli government to reach an agreement.
As a result of the agreement, the Israeli Cabinet approved the proposal in January 2016 in a legally binding government resolution. Among other provisions, the Cabinet agreed to create a formal egalitarian prayer space as part of the overall Kotel area.
Beyond the success of the plan itself, many hoped that the groundbreaking agreement would have set a precedent, showing that compromise can be reached. The fact that so many disparate groups were able to reach an understanding was seen as a very positive sign. Nonetheless, the optimism proved to be short-lived, as implementation of the plan was halted due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox politicians and groups.
A number of petitions were filed in the Supreme Court on the issue. In September 2016, the Court strongly reprimanded the government for not implementing the deal. With a Court-established deadline of June 26, 2017, ultra-Orthodox groups intensified their efforts to block the deal. At the urging of ultra-Orthodox coalition partners threatening to withdraw from Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the government voted on June 25, 2017, to formally freeze the Kotel Resolution.
Almost simultaneously to the Kotel vote, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill submitted by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, that would require the State to recognize only conversions to Judaism implemented under the supervision of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The full cabinet must now vote to approve or reject the bill before it is submitted for consideration in the Knesset.
The bill aims to circumvent a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that permitted those who underwent private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return. The bill would grant the Chief Rabbinate direct supervision over conversion, an authority that it does not hold today.
The bill creates uncertainty regarding the future recognition of both Orthodox and non-
Orthodox conversions to Judaism that were conducted outside Israel. The law may open the way for the State to recognize only conversions carried out abroad that are approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The Haredi conversion bill would grant the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly over conversion in Israel, and would annul all legal standing currently granted to Orthodox conversions performed in independent Orthodox rabbinical courts as well as for Reform and Conservative conversions. Jews who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return and received their conversion status for naturalization purposes stand to have their conversions annulled or denied in the future.
The Conservative and Reform movements are vehemently opposed to the bill, and the TZOHAR Rabbinic Association, a national movement of 1,000 Religious Zionist rabbis in Israel, including noted Orthodox rabbis such as Shlomo Riskin, have expressed their opposition.
Let us be clear. While our support for and commitment to Israel remain steadfast, we nonetheless take serious issue with these actions by the government. These actions will only deepen the already accelerating divide between Diaspora Jews and Israel, precisely at a time when Jewish unity has never been more important.
We call on the government of Israel to immediately restore and move ahead with the Kotel agreement -- a rare, unified compromise between all denominations that would be a landmark achievement for all Jews.
We also call on the government of Israel to promptly reverse its position on the conversion bill, which does such enormous damage to the hope and promise of Israel as a Jewish state for all of the Jewish people.
Federation and Jewish Agency leaders are already meeting with Israeli government officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, to express the concerns of Diaspora Jews. Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, and other top Jewish community leaders, including those of the Conservative and Reform movements, were in Israel at the time of the announcements for a Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting.
Despite our disappointment, we want to reiterate that the love and care that we feel for Israel and its people will not change. Still, we join the chorus of Jewish Federations and other U.S. Jewish organizations at expressing our extreme disdain at the government of Israel’s abandonment of its agreement to bring about respectful accommodation for all Jews to express their Judaism at the Kotel. We adamantly urge the Israeli government to consider the impact of these decisions on all Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora. It is incumbent on the Israeli government to reverse its recent actions.