Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky accused the Israeli government of “weakening relations” Monday morning following a decision the previous day to freeze progress on plans to construct an egalitarian section at the Western Wall to cater for the holy site’s more liberal visitors.
The decision came on the heels of pressure exerted by Haredi parties opposed to the move.
“We are not prepared to accept that the Israeli government takes steps that weaken the relations between the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” Sharansky said during an interview with Ynet, adding that the agency was taken by “complete surprise” by the turnaround.
“There was a simple meeting,” Sharansky fumed. “We gathered from all over the world to celebrate 50 years since the liberation of Jerusalem and the Kotel and 120 years since the (creation of) the Zionist movement. Suddenly we are encountering a complete surprise in the government’s decision that goes against Herzl’s (the founder of the Zionist movement) vision, against David Ben-Gurion’s and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s, according to whom the State of Israel is the home for all Jews.”
Sharansky asked rhetorically whether the symbol that unites Jews should also be the thing that divides them. “We won’t agree or allow this to happen. We will go to every politician in Israel and explain to him the severity of the decision.”
Asked whether he was disappointed in Netanyahu’s conduct personally, Sharansky replied: “This isn’t a matter of anger or a personal issue. I have been a friend of the prime minister for more than 30 years and that is manifested in cooperation on matters that are extremely important to the Jewish people.”
Nevertheless, Sharansky did not hold back when it came to revealing that he was personally angry.
“These were promises, commitments, and agreements that have existed between us for years,” he added. “It was an initiative of the prime minister that the Kotel would be for one people. To cancel it like this in a single moment? There is no doubt that it infuriates me but it isn’t a personal matter.”
In a statement issued on Monday, the Jewish Agency implored “each Member of the Knesset and all elected public officials to take all necessary action to ensure that these dangerous and damaging steps are halted.”
The statement also vowed to “continue to build a broad coalition of Israelis, together with partners from around the world, who care passionately about keeping our people united and who are committed to the unity of the Jewish people.”
Earlier in the morning, the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency announced that it would be canceling a dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was scheduled to take place Monday evening, in light of the decision. The decision was condemned by the board as a “slap in the face” and a breach of an agreement sanctioned by the government.
In addition, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, said a planned meeting with Netanyahu could not go on “as if nothing happened.”
He said that canceling the plan to construct an egalitarian section at the Western Wall and cabinet ministers’ approval of the Conversion Bill were the culmination of a serious crisis between the Israeli government and the Diaspora Jewry. He added that Jewish leaders felt they had nothing to talk about with the prime minister.
UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric S. Goldstein expressed the community outrage:
“We are outraged at two Israeli government actions yesterday that would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home.
The decision is a rejection of the practice and traditions of millions of Jews around the world. The Kotel agreement would have protected worship for Jews of every denomination. Instead, a single group will continue to control prayer at the Kotel restricting the rights of millions of Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
We are equally outraged by the government’s decision to move ahead with legislation that would recognize only those conversions performed by the Israeli Rabbinate. Were this to become law, the Rabbinate would have absolute control over conversion in Israel, potentially excluding conversions of thousands of people already converted outside the Israeli Rabbinate, and excluding such conversions going forward.
Those 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 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 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.”
By Attila Somfalvi, Alexandra Lukash, Kobi Nachshoni and Moran Azulay, Ynet news