Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared via satellite at the JFNA General Assembly. Courtesy of JFNA/Jeffrey Lamont Brown.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Western Wall, Iran and more

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin discussed the controversial decision of the Israeli government to freeze the implementation of the Western Wall agreement; President Donald Trump’s decision to decertify the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israel was opposed to when it was authorized during the Obama administration; Israel’s improved relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors and more during the final day of the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2017 General Assembly.

JFNA Chair Richard Sandler conducted the interview with Netanyahu, who appeared from Israel via satellite, on Nov. 14. The GA was held at the JW Marriott hotel at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.

More than 3,000 people attended.

Here is a transcript of the interview, or you can watch the interview here. The section with Netanyahu begins at the 1:17:47 mark.

Richard Sandler (RS):  Mr. Prime Minister, in January of 2016 much of our audience here today celebrated the resolution the government passed regarding the pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel. And then as we know last June the government froze the implementation. Yesterday at the GA we passed a resolution requesting the Kotel resolution be implemented. So can you please share with us the present status of the resolution and what do we tell those in our community who feel that as Reform or Conservative Jews they may not be fully welcome in Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu (BN): First of all, you are fully welcome. Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so. I took on the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall because I strongly believe all Jews, without exception, should feel at home in Israel.

Now, Richard, you know very well I didn’t have to deal with this; I could have left it to the courts, to the Knesset, but it is vitally important to me, personally. What the government froze in June are only the most ideologically-charged elements of the Western Wall plan. They were holding up the practical elements hostage.

So as many of you know there has been a pluralistic prayer space in the Western Wall, in the Kotel, for almost 20 years. The 2016 decision wasn’t to create prayer space; it was to improve the existing space. We are moving forward with construction to do just that, and I hope, and I am working to make sure that this happens, that you will see the improved prayer space before the next GA [in Tel-Aviv in 2018]. I am working to move forward on solutions for other issues as well.

Here is the thing that guides me—this is true from the time of Ben-Gurion, who as Israel’s first prime minster was faced with this dilemma, how to deal with the conflicting views of religion and the state, and what he articulated then is something that basically all prime ministers have done and I have done as well—you remember also with the issue of conversion, this is this principal: religious status quo issues have always been resolved as the result of evolution, and not revolution.

So, despite the disagreements, despite I have to say a lot of distortions and despite the at-times disparaging remarks about me and my government, I remain committed to moving forward. I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer in the Kotel.

RS: Now that President Trump has decertified the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] what is in Israel’s best interest and what would we like to see happen next?

BN: Well, for me the bottom line hasn’t changed, Richard. We must ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, doesn’t achieve that. On the contrary after about a decade it will leave Iran able to produce hundreds of nuclear weapons in a very short time because the deal rescinds all limitations on Iran’s enrichment capacity. They can have hundreds of thousands of centrifuges, and they plan to.

I want to thank President Trump and his administration for the current American Iran policy. I also want to thank Ambassador Haley for the strong support given for Israel at the U.N.

What President Trump has done is create an opportunity to address the deal’s flaws and in my view I don’t particularly care about the deal. I don’t care if you keep it or you remove it. But you have to correct it either by fixing it or nixing it.

I’ve been speaking to world leaders around the world actually, and I’ve encouraged them to take advantage of this opportunity. Now the question is why is Iran so dangerous? It’s dangerous because of its fanatical ideology of global conquest, its growing power, its unflagging commitment to destroy Israel, its unvarnished aggression.

Iran has already spread bloody conflict across the Middle East – in Yemen; Iraq; in Syria; in Lebanon – and we are far from alone in recognizing the Iranian threat to the Middle East. I believe that the leading Arab countries—Saudi Arabia; the Emirates; many of our Arab neighbors—see things exactly as we do, and I think they’re right.

Now Iran is scheming to entrench itself military in Syria. They want to create a permanent air, land and sea military presence with a declared intent of using Syria as a base from which to destroy Israel. We’re not going to agree to that. I’ve said very clearly: Israel will work to stop this, and we must all work together to stop Iran’s aggression, its worldwide campaign of terror and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

I think if we stand together we are going to achieve it, but I’ve always said if we have to we will stand alone. Iran will not get nuclear weapons. It will not turn Syria into a military base against us.

RS: I read recently in U.S. News and World Report where Israel was ranked the eighth most powerful country in the world. And thinking about the 70 years of all the pressures and all the distractions Israel has been put under, how do you do it?

BN: It begins with a simple reality that we understand. In our area, and it’s a very, very tough neighborhood, the weak don’t survive. The strong survive. We look around us and see entire nations being wiped out. People massacred tragically. So you have to be strong, and there are basically three powers that we are all the time nurturing. The first power, you would be surprised, you’d think it is military power and it is, but it is very expensive. We nurture the Israeli army, we’re very grateful for the support, the continued support of the United States, and I am very happy I signed with President Obama the MOU for 10-year support for Israel, $38 billion, it helps, but believe me 85-percent of our budget, our military budget, has to come from Israel. And where do you get that? Well you get it from a strong economy, that’s the other power we’re developing.

And, you know, there is a great genius in our people but for too long it was shackled, it was really not allowed to burst out because we had a very controlled economy. So I’ve been working very hard over the past 20 years to liberate, liberalize our economy and it has produce a tremendous economic success.

Now you take our military and intelligence prowess, which all nations need. Our intelligence, because Israel has stopped dozens and dozens of terrorist attacks, in dozens and dozens of countries. We share that intelligence with our friends and with many countries that are not our friends but we want to stop attacks like Barcelona or Paris or the other horrors that you see, and we have. So nations want to partner with us, for intelligence or for technology. They want more milk for the cows; guess which country has the most milk per cow? It’s an Israeli cow, you know that.

Or they want solar energy. Or they want clean water.  Or they want cherry tomatoes — it’s ours too. Anything you can imagine. Autonomous vehicles. Israel has this dual prowess of technology and security and we combine that to get an unprecedented diplomatic flourish. We now have diplomatic power because many countries, many, many countries around the world, are coming to Israel, in fact some of them are standing in line – I was in Africa, twice in a year, I was in Latin America. It’s unbelievable. Can you imagine? I am the first Israeli Prime Minister to have visited a country south of the United States in the western hemisphere in 70 years. It is a tremendous change. And by the way, Mexico should be congratulated. Mexico has just decided to vote against 10 anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N., and I think they deserve your applause.

So these three powers – our economic power, our military power, our diplomatic power – give Israel great presence and great capacity to defend ourselves but they all rest on one other power – our spiritual power. Our strength as a fighter of democracy, as a society anchored in our heritage but always seeking the future, our strength is what creates greatest chances for peace, because you don’t make peace with the weak; you make peace with the strong and the threat of Iran has done one good thing: It’s brought us closer than ever to our neighbors, creating new opportunities for peace and I think you will be hearing more about that in the future.

RS: That’s a perfect segue to my last question. As you think about Israel today, what makes you the most proud?

BN: I’m most proud of the rebirth of the Jewish people through the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. Remember that for thousands of years Jews wandered around the globe. We were homeless, we were voiceless, we were defenseless, and today the Jewish people have returned to our ancestral homeland, and today Israel is capable of defending itself, by itself, against any threat. Today we have a voice and we need to raise that voice,

I’m also proud Israel is an open society, a free society, an island of liberal democracy in a sea of terror. We have free speech, a free press, minority LGBT rights, everything, we have an Arab Supreme Court Justice, a Druze minister who I appointed in my government; female generals; gay members of Knesset. This is what a vibrant and diverse society looks like. I’m proud we have created an open economy that as I told you before has unleashed the ingenuity of our people, our capacity for innovation; I’m proud that Israel has helped thousands of Syrian civilians injured in the war.

Now I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq following this week’s earthquake. I saw these heartbreaking images of men, women and children buried under the rubble. I’m proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster. Now you heard me right. We have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our quarrel is only with the tyrannical regime that holds them hostage and threatens our destruction. But our humanity is greater than their hatred. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations. This is what I am proud of, and all of you can be proud of, of Israel’s morals and Israel’s might.

Jewish worshippers prepare for a 13-year-old boy's bar mitzvah at Jerusalem's Western Wall. The cultural and traditional coming of age ceremony took place at Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City, on Aug. 22, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Is it good that the court pushes for implementing the Kotel compromise?

The Supreme Court Aug. 31 discussion on the Western Wall came at a bad time. Three days ago, the court made a decision inhibiting the state’s ability to deport illegal immigrants, and raised the ire of activists and politicians. The debate over the role of the court, and its ideology, once again became a center of attention.

Two days ago, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked vehemently attacked the court, and declared that  “Zionism will no longer bow its head to the system of individual rights that are universally interpreted in a way that cuts it off from the history of the Knesset and from the history of legislation that we all know.”

The court, argues Shaked, ignores the interests of Zionist Israel in favor of universal values detached from both the reality and the values of Israel. This morning, a gold statue of Supreme Court President Miriam Naor was erected outside the courthouse in Jerusalem, another demonstration of rightwing groups raising their level of criticism of the court’s ideology. The statue, said a member of the organization that built it, is a protest against Supreme Court “dictatorship.”

So, for the court to ignore these voices and enforce a solution for the Kotel with which the government does not agree will not be easy.

In a paper published by the Jewish People Policy Institute a few days ago, my colleague Dan Feferman and I argued that progressive Jews in Israel, lacking in political power, used to rely on two main pillars of support as they strived to advance their goals: “Battles in courts provided the movements with public funding for rabbis, access to the education system, some budget allocations (although these pale in comparison to what the Orthodox are granted) and more. Support from their American counterparts provides the other pillar for Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements. While not possessing much local power, in the U.S. Reform and Conservative Jews comprise a full half of the six million strong community and are a source of significant activity, philanthropy and pro-Israel political influence”.

However, we argued, “things are changing with these two levers of influence.” Both seem to be weakening.

Why the court is weakened is a long and complicated story. But one of the reasons for the battle against it is its tendency (welcomed by some, rejected by more) to rule on matters of government policy. For example: on questions pertaining the proper arrangement near the Western Wall.

There is great irony here: Progressive Jews, disillusioned about their ability to get the support of the government, rely on the power of the court. The more they appeal, the more the court rule in their favor, the more the court becomes exposed to criticism and thus to attempts by politicians to erode the court’s power. In other words: the institution most important to these Jews is the institution they hurt by constantly forcing on it their grievances.

This of course doesn’t mean to imply that these Jewish movements should not seek the support of the court when they feel that the law is on their side. Israel’s court is such pillar of excellence because of its ability to withstand the winds of political turmoil and rule as it sees fit. But it does mean to imply that relying on one main pillar of power is problematic because it makes the pillar a target of condemnation and its power a target of attacks. It is as problematic as any reliance on one source of supply and support because if the source dries, the whole enterprise it endangered.

The court’s discussion on the Wall reflected its ambivalence as it strives to balance its role and the one of the government. Supreme Court Justice Naor said, on the one hand, that the court cannot be the one managing the Kotel: “We do not have the power to craft a new Kotel compromise.” But she criticized the government for changing course at the last minute, and reneged on a compromise that the court considered worthy. In a way, the court handed Prime Minister Netanyahu a tool to tell his coalition partners that they either let him go back to the compromise, or risk a ruling could be even harsher from their viewpoint.

The movements are understandably pleased with the discussion that took place. The court seems to be sympathetic to their arguments and unsympathetic to the government’s last minute flip flop.

But maybe a grain of more ambivalence should also characterize the movements as they seek to advance their goals in Israel. One the one hand, the court is a comfortable venue for getting relatively quick results. On the other hand, the more they go to court, the more they rely in it, the less creative they become is searching for other venues.

Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall.

Reform leaders call on Netanyahu to denounce Western Wall body searches of female rabbinical students

Leaders of the Reform movement in the United States called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “issue a swift and clear denunciation” of the demeaning body searches of four female rabbinic students at the Western Wall.

The students from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, including two Americans, on Wednesday were asked to lift their shirts and skirts for security before being allowed to enter the Western Wall plaza, where an egalitarian prayer service was being held. The four said they were questioned and pulled aside into a private room.

“These bold young leaders were treated in the most degrading way imaginable,” said the Reform letter to Netanyahu dated Aug. 24. “They were pulled out of line among hundreds of men and women and were subject to a completely unnecessary search. The actions of the Western Wall Heritage Fund go beyond the disagreement we have about the implementation of a compromise at the Kotel. This was an unacceptable and shameful attempt to hurt and humiliate our leaders, and we are deeply outraged.”

The letter was signed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Western Wall security did not say what they were looking for, according to the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, or IRAC. Western Wall officials in the past have detained women and searched for Torah scrolls and other religious items they consider inappropriate for women to bring to the wall.

In January, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that women are not to be subjected to intense body searches when entering the Western Wall.

“Our goal with our young leadership is to cultivate a love and a commitment to Israel,” the letter also said. “We will continue to struggle for justice and work to create an Israel we can be proud of. The actions of the personnel at the Kotel yesterday morning only continue to make our work extremely difficult.

“Please issue a swift and clear denunciation of the events that took place yesterday,” it concluded.

Members of the activist group "Women of the Wall" pray with a Torah scroll during a monthly prayer near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City July 24, 2017. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS.

Western Wall heckling worse than ever for monthly service, Women of the Wall says

More than 100 women who assembled for the Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the Western Wall faced more intense heckling than ever, the group said.

The women, who smuggled in a small Torah scroll for the service, were attacked verbally and physically, the group said in a statement issued Monday, hours after the service in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza.

Young girls and women with their faces covered whistled, shouted, spit at and cursed the worshippers in an effort to shut down the service, which was held behind police barriers at the back of the women’ section. Men also chanted, jeered and yelled vulgarities to drown out the women’s prayers, shouting invective such as “Reform are worse than ISIS,” and “Reform go home,” according to the Women of the Wall. Some women also said they were shoved by security guards and had to dodge water bottles thrown at them.

The group also said that prayers from the men’s side were broadcast by a loudspeaker that is usually used only for special services such as the priestly blessing or on Tisha B’Av, and that the loudspeakers were purposely aimed at the women’s section.

“It seems like the State prefers cursing, jeering and whistling over women’s prayer,” said Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman. “There’s no way to explain the helplessness of security opposite a hostile and misguided minority armed with whistles and plastic trumpets, including little girls who screamed at the top of their lungs, to silence the WOW worshipers. The month of Av is traditionally an opportunity to remember that Jerusalem fell not for the might of the oppressors, but for the weakness of the people of Jerusalem, who were distracted by internal struggles.”

The group has held its monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer for the new Hebrew month in the women’s section for more than 25 years.

In January, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of women being allowed to read from the Torah in the women’s section at the Western Wall, and put a halt to security searches of the women for items such as Torah scrolls, tallitot and tefillin. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation had prevented women from bringing Torah scrolls and religious items into the women’s section.

Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall on Nov. 2, 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Undermining unity at the Kotel won’t make Reform great again

Chabad lore tells a story of one of the rebbes playing with his brother as a child. Though the brother was older, he was also shorter.  Wanting to look his age, the older boy told  the younger one to dig a hole in the ground and step inside. The boys’ father saw this from the window and reprimanded his son. “If you want to be taller,” he said, “make yourself a mound and get up on it. But don’t drive your brother into a hole.”

In the past days, as the sanctity of the Kotel is being torn apart I am reminded of this story.

In the same breath that Netanyahu scrapped the Kotel deal, he also revealed plans to expand and enhance the Southern section, which is the deal’s centerpiece. In fact, this section of the Kotel has been available for  prayer by any denomination for over twenty years.

So if anybody can continue to pray at this part of the Kotel any way they like, what’s all the fuss over the dead compromise? Why are American Jewish leaders talking about “rethinking” their connection with Israel and stopping to fly El Al? What’s the battlecry all about?

Anyone thinking it’s all about prayer and freedom of religion should think again. As Lesley Sachs, the CEO of Women of the Wall, has so aptly put it, it’s all about power. Here’s why.

Since the alternative prayer area has been around for years, the Kotel compromise introduced two changes, creating equal joint entry and establishing an official governing body for is plaza, made up of Reform and Conservative representatives.

The deal is crucial for the liberal movements as the last chance to save themselves. With membership in the US in free fall, both Reform and Conservative leaders are looking for new “markets”. Both movements combined represent only 25% of American Jewry. The situation is so dire, that the Reform movement was forced to sell half of its offices in NY to fund programming, and liberal synagogues across the US are downsizing or closing down for lack of worshippers, making premises available for nearby booming Orthodox communities.

Enter the Kotel deal. The new section would have signaled official recognition of the liberal movements by the State of Israel and paved the way for attracting new recruits.

Creating an official non-Orthodox prayer plaza at the Kotel would have enable the liberal movements to re-educate both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry about what Judaism looks like.

Outside of North America, in Israel, Europe, Russia, and Australia, when Jews want to pray they go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if they are not observant in their private life. Reform and Conservative movements are negligible there.

This is the main reason the Kotel is run like an Orthodox synagogue. For the overwhelming majority of Jews worldwide, this is the face of Jewish holy places.

By creating an alternative at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest place, the liberal movements had hoped to create legitimacy  in the eyes of Israeli and visiting Jews. For if you can pray this way at the Kotel, why not look up (or establish) a liberal community back home.

While I disagree with the Reform and Conservative rejection of the Torah, attracting new membership is certainly their prerogative. But tearing the holiest Jewish site apart is not the way to do it. Questioning the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry only hurts all of us. Bashing the Israeli Orthodox community isn’t what’s going to make the liberal movements great again.

If Reform and Conservative leaders want to swell their ranks, perhaps they should rethink what can and should be done to inspire more Jews to experience and commitment to Judaism. Maybe they should consider what makes traditional Jewish practice attractive to young Jews and do more of that.

Instead they have set to drum up membership by turning the Orthodox and Israel into an enemy and inciting divisiveness.

Two hundred years ago, the Rebbe  had a better idea. Find higher ground. Become a beacon. And maybe they will come.

Don’t drive us all into the ground.

Leah Aharoni is the co-founder of Women For the Wall, a grassroots organization devoted to preserving the sanctity of the Kotel in the spirit of Jewish unity.

Hebrew Word of the Week: Kotel



PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall (Photo: Reuters)

Charles Bronfman to Prime Minister Netanyahu: “Do What’s Right”

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Like many in the Diaspora I have been dismayed, then shocked, then angry, then sorrowful, concerning the events of this past week.

Both the delay of the agreement concerning  non-Orthodox praying at the Western Wall, and the confirmation, if it passes, enabling only the Chief Rabbi and those designated by him, to rule in conversions, are, as you know by now, anathema to Diaspora Jewry.

Prime Minister, as Israel is the spiritual and emotional home of the Jewish People, these two insults confirm that only a certain denomination or Jew is welcome. To my knowledge, no other country in the world denies any Jew based on denomination.

We who love Israel and the Jewish People are left to ponder our relationship with Israel – and particularly with the coalition you lead. Significant damage has been done to our relationship in the last years because of reasons to which I need not allude. These two new issues will ensure that our youth will be more and more estranged from the great Nation that we adore..

Yes, a Birthright trip, which your Government generously funds, helps. But I foresee a decline in registration that will affect the future of our younger Jews. And polls among our youth who have. It experience Birthright demonstrate forcibly that their majority now feel estranged from Israel. What a shame!

And what a shame for all those fighting BDS throughout the world!

Prime Minister, I believe that it is your duty to do what’s right, rather than what’s politically expedient.

Please immediately instigate the Agreement spearheaded by Natan Sharansky. And please withdraw your support of the Conversion Bill.


Charles Bronfman

Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall on Nov. 2, 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Divided at the Wall

In January 2016 the Israeli government, and the Rabbi of the Western Wall, agreed to legally cordon off a section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer services — a sort of miniature Kotel that would entail official government management and funding. Last week Netanyahu’s cabinet passed a motion formally freezing all plans for the site until further notice.

Before we explore the reaction to this move a few critical facts should be established. Firstly, women as individuals can pray as they wish at the regular section of the Western Wall. If they prefer to wear a prayer shawl and tefillin, noone prevents them. All they are not allowed to do is read from the Torah scroll. Secondly, they can read from the Torah scroll by the Southern side of the Western Wall, where any and all prayer services have been permitted for nearly twenty years. All the cabinet freeze means for egalitarian Jews is that for the time being the Southern Wall won’t be officially cordoned off for their exclusive use.

There were certainly some Israelis who shunned the move, but not all that many. Protests in the wake of the decision drew only a few hundred participants. In Israel, a country that has more politically-driven demonstrations than any other on earth,[1] that isn’t much. To put it into perspective, two thousand Israelis recently protested the kidnapping of Yemeni Children nearly seventy years ago, with another 7,000 Israelis taking to a Tel Aviv square in 2015 to protest a gas deal. A year before that, over 300,000 protesters gathered to the streets in Israel to decry Israel’s planned draft plan, and three years before that 450,000 took to the streets to push for improvements in social justice. So, a few hundred people holding placards outside the Prime Minister’s home doesn’t indicate any exceptional outrage. At least, not in Israel.

And, it’s also fairly easy to understand why. Israelis have proven remarkably indifferent to the Reform and Conservative movements, with less than 3% and 2% of Israelis identifying themselves with each of those movements, respectively. Moreover, the Chairman of the Union of Synagogues and Communities in Israel, Eliezer Sheffer, has reported that there are over 10,500 synagogues in the State of Israel. Of that number, only about forty identify with Reform Judaism — less than 0.4%.

Thus, it was largely the American Jewish community that would form the brunt of the backlash, with leading Jewish-American organizations swiftly condemning the move.

In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times, Lesley Sachs, the Executive Director of Women of the Wall, took a harsher approach. Resorting to unfortunate orthodox-bashing tropes, Sachs described efforts of the Western Wall Foundation to provide shawls to immodestly dressed women as “medieval.” Guards, she went on to claim, forced women to pray silently lest they send the men into a “sexual frenzy.”

Most surprising, however, was the decision by real estate tycoon Isaac Fisher, himself a leading fundraiser in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and member of the board of AIPAC, to freeze his philanthropic activities for the Jewish state unless the government reversed its decisions.

But Israel is a sovereign democracy and its decisions must reflect the will of its citizens rather than that of foreign Jewish donors. As for Lesley Sachs’ claims of the “medieval” practice of “enforcing” modest-dress, women are offered scarves at the Kotel but cannot be forced to take them. If the mere suggestion seems intrusive, one should consider that there are plenty of memorials throughout the United States that enforce a dress code, such as wearing shoes. They do so not to oppress but to accord respect to hallowed ground. If that level of respect can be demanded at a memorial going back just a hundred years, the holiest site of the Jewish Nation should be granted similar latitude.

With regard to Sachs’ claims that female singing is not allowed, any visit to the Western Wall on any Friday night this summer will bear witness to hundreds of Jewish women singing and dancing to their heart’s content. 

When my son and I visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we had to take off our shoes and rinse our hands regardless of what our own religious beliefs were because that was the custom the local orthodoxy upheld. No modernist interpretations of Islam, however popular, would expect to exert its customs in the mosque either. The same can be said of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — protestant services cannot be held there, though it is considered a holy site to Protestants as well. The Western Wall should not be faulted, in a similar vein, for preserving the customs of those who administer it — namely, Israel’s orthodox Rabbinate.

I have seen some ultra-orthodox Jews behave disgracefully at the Kotel, including toward my own family this past Shavuot when I was teaching a Torah class in middle of the night to approximately 60 young men and women gathered in a circle. My children were pushed by extremists who were offended by even the idea of men and women merely sitting together in the very back of the Kotel plaza. These fundamentalists disgraced themselves. But they are no more representative of Judaism than Sachs’ tirade against the State of Israel is representative of egalitarian Jews.

The lesson, as always in the Middle East, is that the real danger to peace is not from people of good will but from extremists and fundamentalists who only know how to disagree with their opponents by demonizing them.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

 [1] Alan Dowty, in Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, 2nd ed., edited by Michael Penner Angrist, (Boulder, CO: Rienner Publishers, 2017), p. 309. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on June 25. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Netanyahu defends suspending the Western Wall agreement. Here’s how.

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 Charedi 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.

Israeli lawmaker Nachman Shai, left, and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky at a meeting in the Knesset on June 27, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90


The official told JTA that the suspension of the deal is itself a compromise: the Charedi 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.”

Worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Jan. 17. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

L.A. clergy respond to the Kotel controversy

We have seen the selling out of the Jewish people for crass political power.  However, it isn’t usually done by a prime minister of Israel to Jews around the world. Benjamin Netanyahu’s crass political move to renege on the compromise reached with the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall on appropriate egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel is alarming and shameful.

The plan to build egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall was negotiated by the prime minister’s own representatives. His representatives Natan Sharansky and now-attorney general Avichai Mendelbilt were the ones who spoke for the Israeli government. It was hailed as an historic agreement by the prime minister’s own office. Netanyahu came to the U.S. and himself addressed American Jewry about the importance of this.

I sat across from the prime minister a year ago February in his office when he assured me and rabbinic leaders of the Reform Movement, “It will happen.”  Following the meeting at the annual convention of the Reform rabbinate in 2016, we held the first services in what was to eventually become the new space. It was a spiritually uplifting and moving experience to pray with my fellow rabbis next to the ancient and historical symbol of our people’s continuity, men and women together as is our authentic Jewish experience.

The prime minister, who claims to speak for all Jews, has betrayed a significant portion of the Jewish people by giving in to Charedi demands.  He is not a man of his word or a man of honor and he is leading the government of Israel to act immorally.

The sacrifices of the ancient Temple were designed to restore wholeness and holiness to individuals who have sinned and to the Jewish people. Prime Minister Netanyahu instead has sacrificed the majority of American Jews on the altar of his political expediency, reinforcing the very sin that destroyed the ancient Temple: sinat chinam, the hatred of Jew against Jew. This is the sin our Talmudic Sages teach destroyed the Temple. Netanyahu’s actions further alienate American Jews from finding a place and connection to the Jewish homeland. As a Reform rabbi I try to build up that connection and help Jews find their way home. The prime minister has increased the distance and removed the welcome mat from the doorway.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami

I am saddened, of course, that things had to come to this point, and that no effective compromise was brokered that could avoid the considerable pain experienced on both sides of the divide. I cannot say that I understand what happened.

I am saddened by the hype and the untruths that are being spread. While I can understand some of the feelings of let-down in the non-Orthodox world, I cannot understand charges that this move is a repudiation of their Jewishness. It is rather, for better or worse, nothing but the affirmation and continuation of a long-standing policy recognizing the holiness of the Wall as defined by halachah. No one — no one — is barred from participating in prayer there. The leaders of the movement to carve up the Kotel were not motivated by lack of a place where they could pray according to their fashion. Robinson’s Arch would have been more than adequate. The word that they have used has been “visibility,” i.e. they wished to make a statement about the legitimacy of their beliefs in high profile. Let’s at least be honest that this is not about equal access. It is about marketing.

Mostly I am saddened that the rift between Jewish brothers and sisters has become so cavernous that people speak of “rethinking” their commitment to the State of Israel. Do we support it because of what it can do for us, or because of its centrality in Jewish thought? Could it be that lots of non-Orthodox folks in Israel sense this wavering commitment, and are therefore prepared to listen to the Orthodox position, recognizing that only a halachic tradition will be a guarantor for the Jewish future?  I suspect that the heterodox movements have lost far more through this than a place at the Southern Wall.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Co-founder of Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought

This is a triumph of expediency and fear over principle and unity. We all understand the political calculation involved, and the need for the prime minister to keep his coalition happy. But as Harry Truman memorably said, sometimes you have to put your principles aside and do what’s right. This betrayal tastes bitter in the mouths of those who love our people and our land.

Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple

This move by the government of Israel reneging on the Kotel agreement and promoting the conversion bill that would disenfranchise 500,000 people in Israel and around the world is a violation of the trust of the Jewish people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has allowed a small group of religious extremist fanatics to separate the Jewish people from the State of Israel so that he can remain Prime Minister regardless of the importance of maintaining the unity of the Jewish people.

Jews everywhere should insist that the Prime Minister withdraw the conversion bill from consideration in the Knesset and reverse his government’s decision to ignore the Kotel agreement. The Prime Minister should also apologize to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who at the Prime Minister’s request five years to find a compromise agreement on the Kotel that unifies the Jewish people, did so and then Netanyahu dismissed the compromise agreement without even informing Sharansky in advance. Netanyahu’s decision humiliated one of the great heroes of the Jewish people.

Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood

In December 1988, I was a first-year rabbinic student living in Jerusalem when the first group of women naively took a Torah scroll to the women’s side of the Kotel and held a prayer service. Their heartfelt offering did not sit well with many who witnessed it. I was not among that original group, though several of them came to our living room later that afternoon to debrief and cry.

That year brought new meaning for me to the terms “hard rock” and “heavy metal,” for in the months afterwards I served the newly forming women’s group as a shomeret (a guard). The guards formed a ring around those praying, and faced the angry ones so the others could turn inward, trying to worship.

We tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to protect those praying from the vitriol, spittle, tear gas canister (thrown at us by one of the Orthodox men who picked it up after the police threw it at them), and one heavy metal chair that suddenly came flying through the air in our direction, injuring one of the women as she prayed.  It was the first year of the first Intifada, but the rocks coming over the Kotel from above made more sense to me, and were in some ways less frightening, than the weapons and words thrown by Jews at Jews.

The soldiers who protect the Jews at the Kotel were as taken aback as we were.  On a later visit a woman carried a Torah scroll on loan from the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in a baby blanket through the ever-tightening security: “Oh,” laughed the guard as he peeled back the blanket, and waved us through, “beautiful baby.”

No one is laughing now.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

We Jews must surely be the laughing stock of the world! Even as the United Nations actively delegitimizes our connection to the Temple Mount and ancient holy sites in Jerusalem and Israel, we are busy fighting with each other as to who can pray where and how, as if any of this really matters.

Both sides in this dispute ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Do any of the protagonists really think that they are making God happy by fighting with each other? The Talmud tells us that the Temple was destroyed and the exile was decreed by God as a result of the endless pointless squabbling between Jews. And yet, almost 2,000 years later, we are still squabbling! How pathetic.

Instead of fighting each other, we need to be joining forces and together fighting our real enemies — those who wish to deny the Jewish connection to our holiest site — not the Kotel, but the Temple Mount, where our Temple once stood, and will stand again, but only if we can focus our energy on making it happen, instead of wasting energy point-scoring against each other, pointing fingers, and creating ill-feeling.

In this fight, no matter who prevails there are no winners. Instead of this nonsense, our goal must be to protect Israel from its enemies, and to create a thriving center for Jewish revival and triumph in our ancestral homeland.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, Beverly Hills Synagogue

That the Israeli governing coalition reneged on its own agreement to provide a separate, cordoned off area, discretely to the side and far from the postcard courtyard that we all think of as the Kotel can’t really be a complete surprise. Politics is politics, and all politics is local. Most Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and nondenominational voices will decry this short-sighted and discriminatory decision (as do I); most Orthodox, Charedi, and Chasidic voices will support and celebrate the power to impose their monopoly. Obviously, this has a lot to do with pluralism (which some see as a threat), and with women acting with authority in public (which even more people see as threatening).

Personally, I feel the need remind us of three simple truths: First, an Israel that circles the wagons and enacts religious policies that sound like they could have been proposed in Teheran or by the Westboro Baptist Church reveals itself to be motivated by fear and considerations of power, more than by faith and wisdom. That’s not good for Israel in the long run.

Second, if we are going to make the Wall into a locus of Jewish faith, then there has to be room for us all, each in our own way, or the imposed exclusion will itself become a justification for those marginalized and slighted to walk away from Judaism and from Israel, and that’s not good for Israel in the long run.

Third, nowhere in the Torah does it suggest that God is accessible at that Wall more than anywhere else. The portability of Torah, the insight that holiness is to be found in acts of tzedek (justice), shalom (peace) and chesed (lovingkindness) remains Judaism’s greatest insight and core conviction. So, by all means, let’s fight for our space at the Wall, but let’s remember that we show real love for God and Torah, and real solidarity with Israel, when we work for a Jewish community — here and there — that observes mitzvot, loves the stranger, learns Torah, and pursues peace.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University

I can pray at the Kotel, but my wife cannot. I can hear the Torah read at the Kotel, but she cannot. If she dons a tallit for private prayer at the Kotel, she will be arrested. If she prays aloud, she will be shouted down or escorted away.  Her spirituality, her voice, is deemed an affront to the Kotel. The great symbol of our collective destiny has become a political token, a tool of division. And sinat hinam, unbounded rivalry, our inability to embrace one another, the very reason we lost the city twice before, burns once more.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

I have been spat and yelled at (and worse) while davening at the Kotel.  I stand behind the efforts to bring egalitarian services there.  I am a supporter of Women of the Wall.  And I am pained (but somehow not surprised) by the recent reversal by the government, which does feel like a betrayal, and which stymies admirable efforts to open the Kotel to the full array of Jewish religious expression.  And at the same time, I choose not to wring my hands or wallow today.  I choose to celebrate, and thus identify with Rabbi Akiva in the famous story from the Talmud in which his rabbinic peers tore their garments upon seeing the ruins of Jerusalem.  They see the moment frozen in time, a destruction prophesied by a particular Biblical verse. Rabbi Akiva smiles, however, reminding them that the end of that very verse also prophesies redemption.  Now that the nadir envisioned by the verse has come to pass, the eventual ascension/aliyah is also inevitable. 
So why do I celebrate today?  Because even though the Charedi hold on Israeli politics is at times painful and corrupt, as the Kotel fiasco attests to, for me redemption is not tied to a particular wall. I am sometimes bemused by the fact that so much focus is put on prayer at the ruin of the Temple by the very Jews who least ache for that spot to re-emerge as the center of Jewish spirituality.  For the progressive-traditional Jew, who sees rebirth of meaningful and resonant Judaism within Israel as one of Zionism’s greatest contributions and challenges, what transpires at the Kotel may be symbolically important, but pales in comparison to the evolutions transpiring throughout the land—the mash-up of secular seekers and traditional liturgy at various Kabbalat Shabbat phenomena that are growing; the strength and vitality of Masorti and Progressive synagogues and communities despite the infrastructural challenges which inhibit them; the will exhibited by myriad Israelis to reject the authority and monopoly of the rabbanut by making decisions (which, yes, they ought not have to make) to marry creatively rather than under near-theocratic conditions.  Last summer I attended a cousin’s wedding on an Orthodox kibbutz, where the officiant was female, and at which the hordes of sweaty, tzitzit-flying, tichel-wearing celebrants saw no conflict between traditional Jewish rituals and practice on the one hand, and female religious leadership and party-style mixed-dancing on the other.  This same cousin, who helped found yet another Orthodox/egalitarian minyan in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, recently posted on Facebook wishing a mazal tov on the recent wedding…of Moshe and Eran, two of his closest male friends and fellow B’nai Akiva alumni. 
I’d tear a tiny thread in my clothes, as I really do wish that on my next visit to the Kotel I, and my daughters, can pray in the manner we find sacred.  But this symbolic setback is dwarfed by the extraordinary successes we see playing out in spots that are, indeed, more important to the Jewish future even than those venerable stones.  I honor the leaders of WOW and wish them strength.  And yet I know we will not win every engagement.  And the perfect is the enemy of the good.  And Robinson’s Arch is a beautiful place to hold egalitarian prayer (and a bit shadier, too!).  And if we scope out beyond those square meters, and if we are witness to (and financially contribute to) the efforts to egalitarian-ize and modernize and evolution-ize the many Judaisms of modern Israel, then we can stand with Rabbi Akiva, and celebrate the burgeoning redemptions.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am

I stood at the Wall in 1967, having returned “home” on Aliyah with my husband, an Israeli officer. My eyes filled with tears as I approached the Wall which I could only see from the top of the Mt. Zion hotel when I was a young student in Jerusalem in 1960. I prayed and cried tears of gratitude at the open Wall.

I returned to the Wall for the Bar Mitzvah of my son in 1986. There was a mechitzah, but it was low, and no one seemed to mind when I held on to his tallit and prayed out loud, as I draped myself over the barrier from the woman’s side.

A decade later, things had changed. The mechitzah was now a wall itself and the woman’s section became smaller each year. The “Fashion Police” at the entrance to the woman’s section were more insistant, and I was chastized when I gathered my congregants near me in prayer as we visited the holy site.

By the year 2000, the Kotel area had become a war zone, not only for the intifada, but the epicenter of Jew against Jew. Rocks were thrown directly at me. On Rosh Chodesh, the catcalls and whistles grew louder and louder until the level became deafening. The Schechinah decamped elsewhere.

Robinson’s Arch was to be a worthy compromise that honored the unity of the Jewish people. I was lucky enough to lead a Shabbat servce for my congregation in the proposed Plaza area, and it was one of the holiest moments of all of our lives. Swallows flitted in and out of the crevases, the sound of the Arab call to prayer intertwined with our “mixed” daavening as the holy silence of Shabbat decended on Jerusalem.

Today, there is no holy silence. There are only tears for the pain of the Jewish people, and the opportunities we have lost.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue

Israeli media is full of news, debates and analysis regarding the recent religion/state battles. While many of you may think that what Israelis are focusing on are the security threats from the outside and terror with Israel, you would be wrong. The war over religious freedom and equality is clearly a key component in shaping Israel’s path.

One cannot over exaggerate the serious nature of the current conflict, by just noting the fact that the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors, convening in Jerusalem, decided to cancel a festive dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset and to replace its normal schedule with deliberations regarding the recent government decisions. It never happened before!

Understandably, the non-Orthodox movements (along with the Women of the Wall) put the emphasis on the collapse of the Kotel compromise and its underlying reason: the triumphalist threats by the Charedi parties and the Chief Rabbinate, delegitimizing Diaspora’s major Jewish streams. However, this would be both a narrow focus and a misunderstanding of the larger picture that Israel is facing as it is attempting to forge its Jewish and democratic identity. The three current battles, regarding the Kotel, conversion and Shabbat, are interrelated.

The first of these targets non-Orthodox Jews, the second widens its scope to include Modern Orthodox Judaism, and the third hits the broadest swath of Israeli society — in Tel Aviv and beyond, aimed at blocking municipal ordinances that allow for opening of convenience stores, and preventing public transportation on Shabbat. It should behoove Diaspora Jewish leadership and the streams to focus solely on the affront done to them and lose sight of the larger battle over Israel’s character.

All three initiatives are in direct opposition to the will of the overwhelming majority of Israelis, as repeatedly demonstrated in public opinion polls, such as Hiddush’s own systematic polling.

The recent actions of the government cause severe damage to Jewish unity and the fundamental values of Judaism and democracy. It is time to move beyond niceties, resolutions and verbal expressions of dismay. The time has come for American Jewish leadership to state publicly, loudly and clearly, that all Israeli politicians who vote for these reprehensible laws and policy decisions, are not welcome to your communities so long as they undermine the Jewish People and erode Jewish unity.

Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall in 2015. Photo by Marc Sellem/Reuters

Bibi hits a wall

When push came to shove, when he had to pick between politics and principle, between personal power and Jewish unity, between his position and his people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved. He picked his position. He showed us his ultimate priority.

Surrendering to ultra-Orthodox pressure, Bibi reneged on a January 2016 agreement to ensure an official egalitarian presence at the Western Wall and, as if that weren’t enough, he supported an initiative to give total monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. The timing couldn’t have been worse — it happened right when the Jewish Agency was having its annual conference in Jerusalem, with global representatives of the Diaspora looking on.

The moves were so insulting that the Jewish Agency did something unprecedented — it cancelled its dinner invitation to the prime minister. Meanwhile, the moves were condemned virtually across the board. You know you’ve gone too far when a beloved hero like Natan Sharansky goes against you.

Sensing that he may have overplayed his hand, Bibi has tried to do some damage control, but it’s not helping much. I think there are two main reasons for that.

First, Bibi clearly reneged on an agreement. His calls for renegotiation now ring hollow. It took years of hard negotiating, under the leadership of Sharansky, to come up with the compromise that recognized a non-Orthodox presence at Judaism’s holiest site.

As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The Times of Israel, “It was a noble compromise: The liberal denominations accepted with humility a secondary place at the Wall, but that at least recognized their right to be part of Israel’s public space; while the Orthodox seemed to accept an organized non-Orthodox presence at the Wall for the sake of Jewish unity.”

For those who fought so hard to obtain that agreement, the thought of going back to the drawing board must be demoralizing. As the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said, “To spend four more years negotiating and then not have that implemented, either, is not credible.”

The second reason Bibi will have trouble spinning away from this crisis is that he’s associating himself with an institution with little credibility — the Chief Rabbinate. In the past year alone, two former chief rabbis, Yonah Metzger and Eliyahu Bashki Doron, have been convicted of felonies. And who is the politician leading the charge on these latest moves of intolerance? None other than Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who spent three years in jail for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Add it all up and there’s not much wiggle room for Bibi to repair the harm done to Israel-Diaspora relations. Until Bibi stands up to ultra-Orthodox forces for the sake of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish unity, they will continue to pressure him for their own divisive agenda, which puts a strict interpretation of halachah above all else.

The tragedy is that Bibi knows better. He’s a cosmopolitan Jew who understands the Diaspora and the importance of tolerance, pluralism and Jewish peoplehood. As the leader of the Jewish state, he knows he has a responsibility to make Israel a unifying force for all the Jews of the world. Once Israel becomes a divisive force that offends the majority of American Jews, what’s left? Startup Nation?

“I’m a Jew first and an Israeli second,” I remember him saying once at a Manhattan synagogue. Will he be able to say that next year at AIPAC, or at an American synagogue? Will anyone believe him? What American Jews are hearing today is that Bibi is an Israeli politician first and a Jew second. That is the price he is paying for appeasing intolerance.

What I find especially sad about this affair is that Bibi knows how to build bridges — with non-Jews. For the past few years, he has done a remarkable job opening up Israel to other countries hungry for Israeli expertise. He has traveled the world and received delegations from places like China, India, Africa and Eastern Europe in an effort to build economic and cultural bridges.

But while he built those bridges, he allowed another bridge to fray—the bridge between his government and the Jews of the world. So many of these Diaspora Jews are deeply in love with Israel and deeply attached to the Zionist miracle. I hate to think that they will now need some kind of financial “leverage” in order to be heard by the country they so love.

If the cause of Jewish unity is not enough leverage, what is?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Democrats and Republicans flip on Western Wall

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to answer whether Jerusalem’s Western Wall or Kotel is part of Israel when asked by Pool reporters on Monday morning before arriving in Tel Aviv for his first ever visit. The top US diplomat followed the same approach to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster who also declined to clarify if he believes that the holy Jewish site is under legal Israeli sovereignty when pressed by White House reporters. On Capitol Hill, Members of Congress switched their traditional roles on this sensitive issue when responding to the Trump administration’s policies as the city of Jerusalem continued to play a key role during President Donald Trump visit to Israel.

[This story originally appeared on]

“I think they’re being sensitive. Much like, what I would be sensitive. They are in the midst of some very interesting times and are being wise with what they want to weigh in and how they want to handle things,” Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN) told Jewish Insider on Monday evening. “I wouldn’t begin to second guess what they are doing because I don’t know the pressures that they are under.”

However,  Democrats critiqued the administration for this policy decision. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) emphasized that she “very much” believed that the Kotel is part of Israel. “It’s a lack of understanding of the holiness of the site i.e. understanding the faith and the history that’s attached to it.” On a similar note, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) said, “I recognize that the Western Wall is part of Israel. I think most members of the House do.”

While Republicans were frequently quick to condemn the Obama administration for criticism of the Netanyahu government, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) refused to criticize senior Trump administration officials: Tillerson and McMaster regarding the Western Wall.  “I don’t know their reasons for not being able to answer, so I can’t comment on that,” Carter noted.

Assessing Trump’s first overseas visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Carter lavished praise upon the President. “I think he’s done a great job. It’s certainly a better situation for America. Instead of our chief elected official, going over and apologizing for everything we’ve done, we finally have someone who is going over there and asserting themselves and American interests. I’m proud of that.”

But, Crowley offered a more restrained assessment. “So far, the world hasn’t fallen apart so I give him credit for that. I would have liked him to say something about the inequities and the human rights violations that take place in Saudi Arabia.”

At the same time, Rep. Mark Pocan focused on the President’s potential impact on the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen when visiting Riyadh on Sunday. “I’m more concerned about what he’s (Trump) doing in Saudi Arabia with whatever deals he made regarding the arms sales in Yemen because if the major port in Yemen is bombed, we are told a half a million people will go in famine. We are trying to keep laser focused on the Yemen issue. It’s a big armed sales with no preconditions whatsoever,” he explained.

Woman at The Wall

Erev Shabbat brings a beautiful chaos to the Kotel, a swaying sea of souls, singing, screaming, offering up their spirits, just to be a speck beneath a tower of history.

I had never visited the Kotel on Shabbat before, but last week I found myself eagerly entreating the tznius lady policing modest dress near the back of the plaza to loan me a sheath so I could enter the sacred space in Jerusalem that has also been the center of so much strife for modern Jewish women. 

Next to me was a raven-haired Israeli editor from The Jerusalem Post, who had been trailing the group I was traveling with — 47 or so “storytellers,” mostly from the U.S., ranging from Michelle Obama’s speechwriter to a screenwriter for Seth Rogen. We were touring Israel as part of a leadership development program sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. 

A bit defiantly, the Post editor tried to persuade me not to wear the sheath, which, for her, symbolizes secular acquiescence to the religious right. But my dress really was too short, and I wanted to focus on the Wall, not disapproving stares.  

So I pulled the coverup around my waist and headed for the entrance with the Post editor at my side, until I took a wrong turn and wound up at a blocked partition. I swung around and gave my Wall companion a puzzled look.

“Shows how many times I’ve been here,” she muttered with a bit of disdain. 

Suddenly it occurred to me that this Israeli Jew had no clue how to enter the women’s section. She lives and works in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew, the ancient language of her people, but she was a total stranger — an alien even — at Judaism’s holiest site. A shade of sadness softened my Sabbath joy.

“This place belongs to you as much as any other Jew,” I told her. 

“I know,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a place that makes me so uncomfortable.”

As the central gathering site of Jewish religious life, we have seen how constantly the Wall is the vortex for opposing visions as to how it should function: Who should pray there, how they should pray, where they should pray, what they should wear while they pray and so on. Even though it exists as the spiritual center for all Jews, it is in reality largely dominated by the Orthodox and falls under the jurisdiction not of the democratic Israeli government, but of Israel’s religious establishment. 

Women in particular — represented by the Women of the Wall movement — have for years protested the traditional limits on their participation dictated by the chief rabbinate, which forbids women to read Torah at the Wall and a variety of other rites available to men. The Wall does not function as an exemplar of democracy and liberalism; it is a place of tradition, a physical vestige of the past where modern ways and ideas are absent, even irrelevant. 

But being at the Wall last Shabbat convinced me that from afar people have a rigid imagination of what really goes on there. We’ve heard about the struggles of the Women of the Wall and how they’ve been excoriated and spat at and even physically assaulted. We’ve heard about some very bad behavior that expresses the opposite of what is holy, and desecrates the sanctity of a place where God is thought to dwell. 

We hear much less about the ways the culture of the Wall has already shifted in the direction of progress.

I admit I was a little bit shocked (and delighted) when the first thing I heard upon entering the women’s section was the Arabic word Salaam. A group of young women on a Birthright trip were singing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” a popular song in Hebrew and Arabic that has become a clarion call for peace — and a plea to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Farther up, I passed a group of young Modern Orthodox Americans who were davening Kabbalat Shabbat so loudly they put a new spin on Kol Isha, “a woman’s voice,” which in religious circles prohibits men from hearing one. As I moved closer to the Wall itself, I encountered women of every stripe, sect and color – young and old; religious and secular; Israeli, American, Yemenite, Moroccan, French and Spanish; many dressed in their finery, some not; Sabbath brides sparkling like the jewels that adorned their hands and necks; women rocking their new babies in strollers; heads of hair wrapped in patterned cloth, other hair flowing freely. Here was a world of women trembling together in prayer. 

When I finished my own prayer, I decided to move toward the mechitzah for a moment and spy on the men. Instead of an impossible barricade, there was a platform running the length of the divide, which women could step upon to peer into the men’s section. I literally ducked for fear of a man seeing my face until I realized the woman next to me was having an entire conversation over the mechitzah with someone on the other side. I had never seen such a thing! I thought women were supposed to be invisible! And yet, here they were, leaning across, waving and staring and talking to men as if they were at the back of an L.A. synagogue during the Amidah.

That’s when it dawned on me exactly what the Kotel is: one big crazy synagogue where every Jew from everywhere is an automatic member, where everyone talks to everyone, where there really is no decorum, where Jews gather from all corners of the world, break the rules, talk to each other, talk to God — and it’s a beautiful thing.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Women of the Wall eschew priestly blessing at Western Wall holiday services

The Women of the Wall group held Passover holiday prayers at the Western Wall, but did not hold a priestly blessing ceremony, after being banned by Israel’s attorney general.

Some 200 women arrived at the Western Wall on buses from throughout the country to hold the Shacharit, or morning, prayers, and Mussaf, or additional, prayers for Passover on Sunday morning, the first day of the intermediate days of the holiday in Israel. During the consecutive services held in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza, the women read the priestly blessing, but did not raise their hands and make the traditional symbol nor cover their heads with their talitot.

On Thursday, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ruled that holding a female version of the priestly blessing ceremony violated a law enforcing “local customs” at religious sites in Israel.

His decision followed a meeting with police, prosecutors, the legal adviser of the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

In announcing the ceremony, to be held at the Western Wall’s women’s section, Women of the Wall had declared it “the first of its kind.” Tens of thousands of Jews flock to the Western Wall to receive the blessing from kohanim, or descendants of ancient Israel’s priestly caste, during the intermediate days of Passover.

Transportation for Women of the Wall participants to and from cities throughout Israel was provided by a grant from the Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy Estate, according to the Women of the Wall. Participants also received a Priestly Blessing pin commemorating the prayer. The pin was derived from the hand symbol employed in Star Trek by Mr. Spock, a role played by Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy made the blessing, “Live long and prosper,” using the hand motion of the kohanim, an international symbol.

The women who participated in the service Sunday morning were required to stand in a specially cordoned-off area of the women’s section, under heavy police guard. They were not allowed to read from a Torah scroll during the service. The group also charged in a statement that a police officer videotaped the service to make sure no women raised their hands in the air to perform the priestly blessing.

“Women of the Wall believe that even though the Priestly Blessing is an unusual custom at the Wall, in due time, it will become local custom. We believe that the nature of local custom changes as time passes- in the past, wearing a tallit, blowing a shofar, and lighting a Chanukah candle were all considered contrary to local custom, and it is through our persistence that these are now local custom,” the group said in a statement issued Sunday following the service.

In a statement release Sunday, the office of the rabbi of the Western Wall called the women’s service a “provocation,” and “expressed regret” that the group gathered for a service despite the attorney general’s ruling.

“This act proves that they cannot be trusted on any agreement reached with them,” the statement said, referring to the recent agreement to build an egalitarian prayer section of the Western Wall.

The statement called on the public to attend the planned public mass priestly blessing ceremony on Monday morning.

Israel’s attorney general bars women from reciting priestly blessing at Kotel

Israel’s attorney general banned Women of the Wall from holding a priestly blessing ceremony at the Western Wall.

The group, which advocates for women’s right to perform rituals that the Western Wall’s Orthodox authorities maintain are reserved for men, had planned to hold a ceremony featuring the traditional prayer Sunday, April 24.

On Thursday, however, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ruled that holding a female version of the priestly blessing ceremony violated a law enforcing “local customs” at religious sites in Israel, according to reports.

His decision followed a meeting with police, prosecutors, the legal adviser of the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, Haaretz reported.

The Religious Services Ministry and Rabinowitz opposed the ceremony.

In announcing the ceremony, to be held at the Western Wall’s women’s section, Women of the Wall had declared it “the first of its kind.” Tens of thousands of Jews flock to the Western Wall to receive the blessing from kohanim, or descendants of ancient Israel’s priestly caste, during the intermediate days of Passover, which begins Friday.

The Reform movement in Israel was among those to express disappointment with Mendelblit’s decision.

“The attorney general’s decision is a prize for extremists,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of Israel’s Reform Movement. “It maintains the status of the Western Wall as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.”

An NGO called B’Tzedek, whose petition to block the ceremony was rejected by Israel’s High Court of Justice on Wednesday, and Ateret Cohanim, a group that seeks to expand the Jewish presence in Jerusalem’s Old City, also protested the decision.

“This is the nation’s central synagogue, and people must act with respect for religious values there,” Mati Dan, Ateret Cohanim’s founder, told Haaretz. “This ceremony is meant to degrade and provoke.”

Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, had written a “Prayer for the Safety” of women taking party in the priestly blessing ceremony. She rejected Dan’s notion that the Western Wall is Israel’s “central synagogue.”

“It is not the nation’s central synagogue. It is a public space that belongs to all Jews, and there is more than one way to be a Jew,” Geller told JTA in an interview from Los Angeles.

Geller said the decision also violates the spirt of a compromise, announced in February, that would create an egalitarian prayer plaza in addition to the men’s and women’s sections that currently fall under Orthodox authority.

A 2013 Supreme Court ruling acknowledged the women’s right to pray at the Western Wall according to their beliefs, claiming it does not violate what has come to be known as “local custom.”

Mendelblit’s ruling suggested he did not view the unprecedented priestly blessing as “local custom.”

The Women of the Wall said they would file an appeal with Israel’s Supreme Court as early as Thursday.

“This is an unhappy decision that submits to political pressure of an extremist minority group whose sole aim is to sabotage gender equality at the Western Wall and prevent women from having the right of prayer and worship. It is surprising that at this time, when there is such a need of prayer and blessing for people of Israel, the General Attorney supports delegitimization of women’s prayer, whose only wish is to bless and be blessed,” Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman said in a statement.

She said the group would hold a prayer service for the holiday in the women’s section of the Western Wall on Sunday, the first day of Chol Hamoed, as originally planned.

Israeli gov’t gets another 3 months to come up with Western Wall egalitarian plan

The Supreme Court of Israel gave the government an extra three months to present a plan for egalitarian Jewish prayer at the Western Wall.

Sunday’s ruling also declined to issue a temporary order allowing women to use the site’s Torah scrolls in the women’s section in contravention of the orders of the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, Walla reported.

In an interview published Monday in Haaretz, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, a key figure in the negotiations leading to the agreement, said the decision to reopen discussions on the egalitarian prayer section at the Western wall could torpedo the plan. Every word of the agreement was carefully negotiated, he noted, and making major changes could also “undermine the level of trust that has been established between the prime minister and the leaders of world Jewry.”

Late last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed his bureau chief, David Sharan, to work out what he called in a statement “several difficulties” with the plan. The statement said Sharan would “coordinate discussions on this issue with the various elements” and present recommendations within 60 days to resolve the difficulties.

The deal announced at the end of January expands the Western Wall’s existing non-Orthodox prayer section and creates a shared entrance with the Orthodox main section to its north. Women of the Wall, which holds women’s services in the Orthodox section, eventually is to move to the non-Orthodox section as part of the deal — which originally  was backed by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Israeli government and the wall’s haredi management.

Last month, Rabinowitz, withdrew his support for the plan and called on haredi Orthodox party leaders to introduce legislation to cancel the deal, as well as cancel a 2013 district court ruling allowing the Women of the Wall group to pray in the main Orthodox section of the wall.

Several haredi Orthodox leaders and the Chief Rabbinate have publicly opposed the plan.

Knesset ethics panel reprimands haredi lawmaker who slammed Women of the Wall

The Knesset Ethics Committee reprimanded a United Torah Judaism lawmaker for saying that members of a group that holds women’s prayer services at the Western Wall should be “thrown to the dogs.”

Meir Porush, the deputy education minister and a member of the haredi Orthodox party, was reprimanded Tuesday for the remark, which he made during a Knesset speech in February, The Jerusalem Post reported.

During the speech, Porush also expressed satisfaction that the new egalitarian worship section at the Western Wall will be in an “out-of-the-way corner.” He also said, according to the Times of Israel, “The Reform are responsible for the terrible intermarriage that we’ve been witnessing in the United States.”

In its decision, the committee wrote that Porush’s remarks “deviated radically and blatantly from the accepted way to express oneself in the Knesset or what is appropriate for an MK.”

Demonstrating opposition to the Women of the Wall is acceptable, the committee said, according to The Jerusalem Post, but Porush used an inappropriate expression that “denigrates and humiliates a group of women with different customs.”

Letters to the editor: Donald Trump, Women of the Wall and more

Israel Has Always Bled Red

Shmuel Rosner, who I greatly admire, apparently tried to excuse Israeli support for Donald Trump by writing that “Israel tilts rightward when it considers American politics” (“Like It or Not, Israelis Think Trump is Better for Them Than Clinton,” March 7.) One is tempted to say, um, but, friend, Israel just as much tilts rightward when it considers its own politics. For about 32 of the past 40 years, it has had Likud or Likud-sprung prime ministers. The same public has also voted in Benjamin Netanyahu as its second-longest serving prime minister — longest since its first one. The public obviously supports the settler movement and occupation, or it would not continue to vote in governments that do. Now Rosner has merely told us that, just as Israel wants Netanyahu for its own country, it wants Trump for ours. I’m reminded what liberal Israeli journalist Larry Derfner once said: “Israel is the reddest state in the United States.”

James Adler, Cambridge, Mass.

Christians and Israelis Unite

On March 4, Cnaan Liphshiz wrote an article in the Jewish Journal titled “In Face of Labeling Push, Dutch Christians Market Israeli Settlement Goods.” From the time Karel van Oordt started the international advocacy group, he didn’t only give Israel his support, but the support of the group Christians for Israel. When people come and buy food or drinks from Israel, they realize that Israel is another important country just like the United States. It produces food and resources and also has an organized government. I think that the readers of this article will also be inspired thanks to the hard work and effort of Karel van Oordt and his sons.

Daniel Sadeghi, Beverly Hills

Youth of the Nation

David Suissa’s column in the March 4 edition of the Jewish Journal, “Tikkun Olam Nation Is a Deeper Israel,” hits on a very important point. After reading the column, I found myself wondering why we don’t talk about Israel’s social justice culture more often. Similar to Suissa, I think the best way we can combat anti-Israel propaganda is by showing the rest of the world our better side. At a certain point, we have to recognize our audience. Nowadays, that audience consists primarily of the young people in increasingly liberal college campuses across the U.S. If our goal is to show this audience the quilt of vibrancy and diversity that is Israeli society, we cannot afford to focus solely on one aspect of Israel’s economy and culture (I’m talking to you, Startup Nation). Israel’s social activists, who work tirelessly to make the country a better place, are just as integral to Israeli society as the startups that power the economy, and more indicative of Israel’s moral and ethical principles.  

Eytan Merkin, Los Angeles

If it Talks Like a Demagogue…

In Ben Shapiro’s article regarding “The Donald Trump Phenomenon,” I completely agree with his direction (“Why the Republican Party Is Dying,” March 4). Trump simply does not have the maturity and patience to handle delicate situations like the one we face in the Middle East.  We need someone who can handle the more than complicated situation with Israel with finesse, not just immediately decide to bomb ISIS, whether or not that may be the right decision. Mr. Shapiro pierces Trump’s overwhelming facade, portraying him as the demagogue he is.

Jack Mackler, Los Angeles

Divided in Compromise 

Judaism is a religion of tradition. One aspect of this tradition is that men, and only men, don phylacteries and tallitot and pray at the Kotel. Very recently, a group of women called Women of the Wall have requested to be able to pray at the Kotel while practicing their “custom” (“When Is a Compromise Not a Compromise?” March 4). Due to the democratic and understanding nature of Israel, they were given an area to the side of the Kotel to pray as they chose. But this isn’t enough for them. They are now requesting more space and a more central location. One must take into account that it is permissible by their religious laws to pray in a service led by the Orthodox, but it is not permissible for the Orthodox to Daven in a service led by these women. I disagree with the idea that the compromise made was in anyway unfair.

Benjamin Tarko, Los Angeles

Regarding “When Is a Compromise Not a Compromise?” by Cheryl Birkner Mack, I agree with her up until a point. I agree that the Kotel should be for all and that Women of the Wall should have an area where the women are not ridiculed or harassed, but that is as far as it goes. I also find this sad that even some groups of Jewish people can’t get along at one of the holiest sights for us Jewish people. I believe the only thing standing between the Women of the Wall and the Kotel is tradition. The Charedi, Ashkenazim, Sefardim and Chabad are all about tradition and the Women of the Wall are not very traditional. Many religious Jews laugh at the Reform movement and Women of the Wall. So why would you want to be around people who think you are crazy and disrespecting their tradition by putting on tefillin and reading the Torah?

Daniel Jackson , Los Angeles

Why liberal Jews aren’t worried that the Western Wall rabbi denounced the egalitarian prayer deal

The Western Wall rabbi just denounced the Western Wall deal. Its supporters aren’t worried.

In January, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz reached a compromise with non-Orthodox leaders over the future of the holy site. On Monday, he denounced the deal.

In two strongly worded letters to haredi ministers, Rabinowitz lambasted non-Orthodox Judaism, criticized the compromise he agreed to less than two months ago and asked the Knesset’s haredi parties to pass a law repealing it.

“I call on you to act with similar determination to stop the desecration at the Western Wall, whose spiritual damage is inestimable,” Rabinowitz wrote Monday to the heads of the haredi United Torah Judaism and Shas parties. “For years, I have stood up alone against the determined struggle of the ‘new’ [Jewish] streams and the tip of their spear, Women of the Wall,” a group that conducts monthly prayer services in the wall’s women’s section.

This may seem like a bad omen, but non-Orthodox activists remain unconcerned about the compromise falling apart. After three years of negotiations with Rabinowitz, they believe he’s still committed to the deal. The letters, they said, are mere rhetoric meant to placate hardline haredim.

“I think that this new crisis is mainly because of internal disputes between haredi leaders,” said Conservative Movement in Israel CEO Yizhar Hess, who was party to the negotiations over the deal. “I think there’s an interest on both sides to keep this deal.”

Rabinowitz’s office could not confirm whether he had withdrawn from the agreement and did not make him available for comment.

His letters come after a string of haredi leaders have criticized the deal and insulted Reform Jews. The day the Israeli government approved the deal, on Jan. 31, UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni called Reform Jews “clowns.” In late February, Israel’s chief rabbis asked the government to freeze the agreement. On Monday, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said his Shas party would leave a government that recognized Reform Judaism.

The deal would expand the wall’s non-Orthodox section and construct a shared entrance for both sides. Women of the Wall have agreed to move their service to the non-Orthodox section once the deal is implemented.

Deri and his colleagues, said Hess, “threw Rabbi Rabinowitz under the wheels of the bus.” Hess told JTA that Rabinowitz received the haredi parties’ approval before signing off on the agreement. Now, those same parties won’t stop bashing it.

With the letters, Hess said, Rabinowitz places the burden of stopping the agreement on haredi politicians — absolving himself. If Shas and UTJ don’t like the agreement, they  — not he — need to pass a law overriding it. Otherwise, he’ll remain committed to the deal he signed.

“The letter yesterday was a message to the leaders of the haredi parties: ‘Guys, its your responsibility. Go with your own strength, and do what you can,” Hess said.

If haredi politicians propose such a law, said Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, it probably won’t go anywhere. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed the agreement and has since trumpeted it as proof of Israel’s commitment to respecting non-Orthodox Judaism. Hoffman doubts he’ll back a law canceling that achievement.

“We knew this would come,” she told JTA. “I don’t think it’s a real capitulation, but it’s a disturbing letter. I’m giving the prime minister the benefit of the doubt. The three-year process is not going to be tossed into the wastebasket just like that.”

When is a compromise not a compromise?

A month ago, the board of Women of the Wall, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in North America and Israel announced that they had reached an agreement with the Israeli government that would, for the first time, give official recognition of these non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. What a victory! What a cause for celebration!

That is, until you learn the price of this accomplishment — the rights of women to pray at the Kotel, according to their custom.

The right of all Jewish women to pray at the Kotel “according to their custom” was recognized in an Israeli Supreme Court decision in 2003 and reaffirmed in an appellate court in 2013. This recognition was granted as a result of Women of the Wall’s consistent and regular prayer at the Kotel since 1988. This means that women who choose to pray  at the Kotel as a group, who choose to wrap themselves in a tallit, choose to wear tefillin and choose to read Torah may do so; just as any Jewish man has been allowed to do. 

Somehow, after 25 years of insisting that only the Kotel would suffice for their monthly Rosh Chodesh prayers, Women of the Wall have all of sudden said, “We all need to compromise.” 

Perhaps they were confused in their translation and actually meant “capitulate.” They have agreed to move their prayers to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site adjacent to the Western Wall once referred to as “the back of the bus,” while ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose independent women’s prayer at the Kotel (and anywhere else), along with the Israeli government, have given up nothing!

These bullies are celebrating that they are rid of “these women.” They won’t have to see, hear or deal with them anymore.

A friend of mine, a Conservative rabbi in the U.S., wrote to me explaining why he supports the deal even while recognizing the injustice of it. He wrote: “I certainly understand your concerns that the agreement essentially cedes control of the main part of the Kotel to the ultra-Orthodox, that women’s prayer groups are now effectively banned, and that women’s prayer groups may be uncomfortable in an egalitarian prayer space. This deal is not what you, or any of us, really wanted. As a person of principle, it’s no surprise that you are upset and disappointed.”

As a matter of principle, every Jew should have equal access to the Western Wall. Every Jew should be able to pray there in his or her own way. The Western Wall belongs to all of us. We should be able to find a way to share the space that is respectful for everyone. 

Why should those of us who believe in egalitarian prayer or in women’s prayer groups be shunted off to the side? Giving up access to the main area of the Kotel in exchange for the promise of a smaller area on the side that has yet to be built, will not be fully funded by the Israeli government and may even get blocked in the Knesset, is, from the standpoint of justice, a really bad deal. So, we are not giving up!

I believe in the principle that women should be allowed to pray as a group at the Western Wall, reading from the Torah and wearing tallit and tefillin, if they so choose. Giving up our principled stand is a huge loss and something that does not have to happen.  So, we are not giving up! 

It may be that, due to the power of the ultra-Orthodox in the coalition, there is almost no chance that things will change at the Western Wall any time soon. It may be that 50 years from now, our granddaughters and great-granddaughters will still be going to the Kotel every Rosh Chodesh and fighting harassment and arrest to exercise their rights. We are not giving up!

Our granddaughters will be grateful that we didn’t!

Cheryl Birkner Mack, formerly a board member of Women of the Wall, resigned her post after the decision was made to begin negotiations with the government of Israel to move to Robinson’s Arch. She has joined with founders and other longtime supporters to create Original Women of the Wall. She is an educator living in Jerusalem.

“Separate, But Equal?” What does pluralism at the Western Wall mean?

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Don’t silence the voices of Orthodox women

“There is more than one way to be a Jew,” wrote Rabbi Laura Geller in the February 4th issue of The Jewish Journal.

I cannot agree more. And that's why I need to speak up about a very anti-feminist trend in Kotel discourse.

Phyllis Chesler is a long-time critic of male privilege, and has championed the Women of the Wall (WOW) for years. Last week, Chesler, denigrated the Kotel compromise, by which women and men may now pray together in egalitarian services, but women behind the mechitza may not wear tallis and tefillin or lead Torah services. Writing in Tablet, she said, “…they are forgetting about our Orthodox sisters, perhaps because they are so angry at the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate and at their subordinated female loyalists.”

The problem with Chesler’s sketch is that it ignores the opinions of most of her “Orthodox sisters,” who by and large do not accept that women should – at least in public – wear tallis or tefillin or lead a Torah service.

WOW's own mission statements says, “Every time we meet to pray, we empower and encourage Jewish women to embrace religion freely, in their own way.” Yet, frequently, WOW supporters have worked to silence those women who disagree with them.

When observant women organized to combat WOW activities two and a half years ago, Chesler complained in The Times of Israel, “Instead of admitting that their rabbis sent thousands of girls to spit, curse, jeer, and blow whistles—the media describe these hooligans-upon-demand as pious girls and women, superior Jews, because they presumably mouth the psalms silently and obey their male rabbis.”

Who is trying to silence whom? These supposed “hooligans-upon-demand” – thousands of them – had come to the Kotel freely when asked to by the organization Women for the Wall (W4W). As members of National Religious and Haredi communities, Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni organized W4W to promote their own feminist views. They only consulted with rabbinic leadership after they decided to act and had begun to form a plan. And several observers – Levi Margolin, Daniel Levy, and Jonathan Rosenblum – noted that the heckling at those rosh chodesh events came from men, not W4W members.

I am an Orthodox woman. I couldn't care less whether women wear tallisim and tefillin or read Torah on the women's side of the Kotel plaza, assuming they don't make a big, noisy disturbance. Frankly, I find it illogical that individuals who ignore rabbis' opinions on tallis and tefillin listen to rabbinic sources about the need for a mechitza during prayer. If you deny the normative Orthodox practice in the first case, why insist on it in the second?

“Anyone with a modicum of learning in Jewish texts knows that halacha does not prohibit women doing these things (wearing tallis and tefillin),” wrote Shulamit Magnus – another WOW champion – in The Times of Israel in April 2013.

Some Modern Orthodox rabbis share this opinion, but the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis do not, nor do most Orthodox women. “That [H]aredi women…do not know this, speaks volumes about the subjugated place of women in that society,” Magnus says.

Does Magnus think that a talmida chachama like Rebbitzen Tzipporah Heller, who teaches thousands of students, has failed to learn halachah accurately? Or every other female teaching or studying in a day school, seminary, or on their own? The supposed “fact” – that Jewish law says women can wear tallis and tefillin in public and read from the Torah – is actually a minority opinion.

In her February 4th article, Rabbi Geller described why this issue is personal for her, a woman living in Los Angeles. I will do the same.

Last year, over what was supposed to be a festive meal, two relatives “informed” me that the Orthodox rabbinate subjugates women. On Facebook, men have told me point blank that I cannot be a woman because of the Centrist/Hareidi Orthodox views I articulate. In the comments sections of articles, I've been told I only hold my opinions because I'm uneducated and know no other way of life.

Frequently, the words thrown in my face echo catch-phrases used by Chesler, Magnus, and other WOW supporters. By promoting stereotypes, denying us agency in our own lives, and labeling women who disagree with them as “subordinated,” “silenced,” and “subjugated,” it is they who oppress women.

Many Orthodox women have friends, relatives, and colleagues who disagree with our interpretations of halachah, but given our mutual respect, we can dispute issues and yet remain friends. While women's use of tallis and tefillin and public reading of Torah is a hotly debated matter of Oral Law, the use of hurtful words (onaas hadevarim) and slander (hotzaat shem ra) are unequivocally forbidden by both Written and Oral Law. Further, they prevent unity and peace.

Yes, there are many different kinds of Jews. We should listen to the opinions of all of them – from the totally secular to the entirely Haredi.

That will truly empower women and bring real unity.

Ex-Shas chief on Western Wall agreement: A ‘horrible disaster’

A former head of the Shas Sephardic Orthodox party slammed the Israeli Cabinet’s approval to expand the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, joining several politicians who have ridiculed the deal and liberal movements of Judaism.

“This is a horrible disaster and an attack on the Holy of Holies,” Eli Yishai said in an interview Thursday with Army Radio. “The next thing we’ll see is Reform Jews putting tefillin on dogs and calling them up to the Torah.”

Yishai is currently not serving in the Knesset. The party he formed more than a year ago, Yachad, failed to reach the electoral threshold in the 2015 elections.

His condemnation is the latest in a series of attacks against the agreement and the liberal movements.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, or URJ, criticized the attacks in a statement issued Wednesday.

“Legitimate differences of opinion, practice, and belief are longstanding dimensions of authentic Jewish life. But these recent outbursts of prejudice expose an ugliness that has no place within our noble Jewish tradition or within the government of the Jewish state,” Jacobs said in the statement. “We hope and pray for a day when Israel will truly be a state where Jews and non-Jews of all beliefs and practices live side-by-side in harmony and with respect.”

Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush of the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, and a secular lawmaker, Yariv Levin of Likud, are among those who have condemned the agreement and the liberal streams. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned those attacks.

“We commend the prime minister for speaking out against, and disassociating himself from, these most recent disparaging and divisive statements,” Jacobs said. “But it can no longer be enough to make public statements after each of these reprehensible occurrences, which are increasing in their frequency. We should be able to expect more civility and respect from every person, and especially so from those in positions of power.”

Moshe Gafni, a haredi Orthodox lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, said he would not recognize the decision and called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

After Kotel compromise, dramatic changes still needed

There is much to rejoice over when considering the details of the Kotel compromise agreement. For the first time, there is going to be a section of this ancient site open to egalitarian and non-Orthodox worship alternatives, as well as partnership and women’s minyanim. It’s the first time that non-Orthodox representatives will be appointed as part of a governmental authority overseeing such an important site. It presents an option for the general public other than the Charedi-controlled Kotel area.

With all of this significant progress in mind, we should also recognize that, until it reaches full implementation, there will be obstacles and much time elapsing. Moreover, the painful sacrifice involved is mostly on the part of Women of the Wall (WOW) and the non-Orthodox movements that are now removed from the historic Kotel site — a move WOW leadership has fiercely criticized in the past, and which some of its members, as well as many Modern Orthodox women who are not part of WOW, resent because it denies them their free religious expression without their consent and without consulting them. Furthermore, the compromise cements the ultra-Orthodox control over the historic Kotel section while giving their challengers a section behind a tall partition, which was never under Orthodox authority. 

The key concern, though, is over the larger challenge of religious freedom and equality in Israel. The celebratory messages expressed by the parties to the agreement will undoubtedly be used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a demonstration and actualization of his promise “to ensure that every Jew will feel at home in Israel,” while in truth it avoids addressing the real issues that impact the lives and dignity of so many Israeli and Diaspora Jews. So, as welcomed as the Kotel compromise is, it must not distract world Jewry from the need for dramatic changes in Israel in such critical arenas as freedom of marriage and divorce, who qualifies as a Jew, and state-sanctioned, religiously based gender discrimination.

Stanley P. Gold, chairman of Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel, pointed to an important lesson to be drawn from this change in Israeli governmental policy. Namely, that Diaspora — and especially Jewish-American — pressure is an effective vehicle when applied in partnership with Israeli activists and organizations to bring about changes to the problematic alliance of religion, state and politics. 

“It should encourage us,” Gold said, “not to treat Israel as if it were some delicate china doll, too sensitive to touch, let alone criticize.

“On the contrary,” Gold continued, “the progress made over the Kotel should convince our fellow communal leaders that we need to further engage in the religion-state clash, and that Israelis need our support and partnership in advancing the Jewish state’s own core founding principles of religious freedom and equality for all.”

Rabbi Uri Regev is president of Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel, an organization fighting for religious freedom in Israel.

At the Kotel, at last

I’m one of those fortunate people who gets to be in Israel for 10 days each year. I meet with the Ziegler rabbinical students studying there during their third year of our program, teach at various yeshivot, interview prospective students and meet with Masorti (Conservative) leaders and rabbis. I get to visit family and friends and stroll the streets of Jerusalem.

Walking Jerusalem is something my great grandparents could only dream about, but for me it is an annual privilege. And I meander widely. But the one spot I never visit is the Kotel. That Wall leaves me sad and angry — an imposed monopoly of Orthodox domination and political capitulation to religious coercion. I can’t stand at the Kotel without feeling invisible, disdained, cheapened. My presence would betray my colleagues and students, the female rabbis whose talent and wisdom have already so enriched contemporary Jewish life. 

The decision by the Israeli government to create an honorable space for egalitarian worship makes it possible to return to this sacred space, allows the space — once again — to unite the Jewish people across our diversity, rather than smothering Jewish vitality with state-sponsored uniformity.

There are still issues in Israel’s struggling democracy that demand our attention — broader issues of religious pluralism for all streams of Judaism, the status of mizrachi and Ethiopian Jews, equal social services and opportunity for Israel’s Arabs, affordable housing, ending the occupation in a way that gives Israelis and Palestinians real security and political self-determination — to name a few. 

But this gesture of inclusion at the Kotel is more than just a nod. It is a visible acknowledgment that we are all recognized components of the Jewish people, that our ways of loving God and Torah can stand in the sun and add to the light.

This is good.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is vice president.

The Kotel decision: A Sephardic Jew responds

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Kotel had no barrier separating the sexes. It was an open place of prayer, spirituality and meditation for all Jews. Those were the days when Jews were not branded by denominations. Somehow, this ancient, sacred space was transformed into a shtetl-style ultra-Orthodox synagogue, a commercialized bar mitzvah factory and a focal point of tension, violence and divisiveness among Jews of various modern-day denominations. 

Hardly a sacred space anymore, the Kotel has now become known for its turf wars among Jews. We once believed that the everlasting presence of the Shekhina reigns over the Kotel. This long-lost spiritual tradition has been replaced by political debates over which denomination “has control” over this so-called “holy site.” The Kotel is not a synagogue, and it doesn’t belong to any denomination. There should be no minyanim, no bar mitzvahs … and no barriers separating people at the Kotel. The “landmark decision” should have been to restore the Kotel to what it once was: an open place for all Jews to come pray and meditate as individuals. Instead, with this decision, the Kotel will eternally represent the divisiveness and politics of Judaism’s modern-day denominations. 

How sad to see an ancient, sacred space in Middle Eastern Jerusalem now being defined by a Eurocentric denominational system that has largely failed in the United States, and to which the majority of the residents of Israel have no relationship. Rather than being a place whose purpose, character and spirit represents Jewish unity, the Kotel has now been further cheapened and reduced to just another set of “Orthodox, Conservative and Reform” synagogues in Jerusalem. 

This permanent physical division between Jews in the heart of Judaism’s holiest space brings to mind the words from the Book of Lamentations recited on Tisha b’Av: Al Eleh Ani Bokhiya — “For these matters, I weep.” This divisive and politically motivated decision has given me something new to mourn on Tisha b’Av.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

Mixed emotions about the Kotel compromise

What’s the definition of mixed emotions, asks the old gag line: Finding out that your business competitor and rival has just driven off a cliff — in your new Lamborghini. 

The Orthodox community has to greet news of the Kotel agreement similarly. We can hope that it will bring relief from the ugliness of acrimonious battles between brothers and sisters, all under the critical gaze of the non-Jewish world wondering whatever happened to the much-vaunted Jewish unity. 

But what a horrible price to pay for a cease-fire! The resistance of the heterodox movements to the mechitzah in the Kotel plaza means that they have erected an even larger, more ominous one between millions of Jews. With all our differences, all of us directed our hearts for centuries to that remnant of the outer wall of the two Temples. Having miraculously gained physical control of it in 1967, fulfilling what had long been only a dream, we find ourselves unable to maintain enough unity to preserve a single place in the entire world where we can come together and express our Jewishness in prayer. It is a tragedy that we will live with, but a tragedy nonetheless.

As an Orthodox Jew, I cannot help but wonder whether this agreement is not a tactical blunder on the part of the non-Orthodox denominations. 

Visitors to the Kotel/Kotels will look out at two areas. The Orthodox area, the traditional Western Wall, will be alive with activity 24/7, with tens of thousands of people at certain times of the year. The non-Orthodox Southern Wall will not be able to assemble large numbers on a regular basis. Likely, more cameras will be on hand than prayer books. The heterodox area will not display a fraction of the fervor and passion found on the traditional side. The contrast will speak loudly to the legions of Israelis struggling to find a religious identity.

I cannot forget my first visits to the Kotel decades ago, and the spirit of togetherness of our people, albeit from disparate backgrounds. This will now disappear. So when I will look out at the two areas and the successes and failures they bespeak, I will mourn, not gloat.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is a co-founder of and contributor to Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought.

The Kotel compromise: Recognizing there is more than one way to be a Jew

Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In the case of the recently announced historic victory regarding egalitarian prayer at the Kotel (the Western Wall), it was not just citizens. It was Jews from around the world who believe that there is more than one way to be a Jew. It was a small group of brave women — Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, native Israelis and immigrants, and the men who support them — who have been going to the Kotel for the past 27 years, early on the morning of Rosh Chodesh (the new moon), to pray together as a group. 

For all those years, there has been abuse and sometimes violence from those opposed to women praying together in public. I have been a part of Women of the Wall over these years, whenever my travel in Israel coincided with Rosh Chodesh. Once, I had my tallit confiscated; once, my husband was the man who smuggled the siddurim past security; once, I stood on a chair holding an empty Torah mantle to protest the prohibition imposed by the Western Heritage Foundation against women reading from a Torah scroll. For 27 years, many Israeli and North American friends told me not to waste my time on this issue. After all, who really cares about the Kotel? They challenged me by arguing that worship at the Kotel is just a kind of idol worship and that there are more important issues of separation of religion and state, such as civil marriage, divorce and burial. 

But … I really care. This is very personal. I care about the invisibility of women. I care about the access of all Jews and Israelis to public space. I care that women’s voices have been silenced when public celebrations and commemorations have taken place on the upper plaza just beyond the prayer sections of the Kotel. I care because these concerns, while just the tip of the iceberg, force people to pay attention to the crucial struggle for the separation of synagogue and state. I care because many of the next generation of American Jews will not be eligible to marry in Israel, because they would not be considered Jewish according to the ultra-Orthodox understanding of Jewish law now accepted in Israel. I care because people whom I have accompanied through conversion have been denied their right to make aliyah

I care because I believe with all my heart that there is more than one way to be a Jew, and Israel, of all the places in the world, must be a beacon of religious freedom. That is what this struggle is ultimately about. That is why this issue has been so important to me over these past 27 years. 

And it is personal … because Anat Hoffman, founder of Women of the Wall, who has led the fight within Israel, is my friend. I have had the great privilege of bringing her to speak at Temple Emanuel over the past 20 years. The last time was a little more than a year ago, at Purim. She began her remarks by telling us all the ways she was different from Queen Esther. She didn’t say, but could have, that she was closer to Queen Vashti, who stood up against patriarchal authority. But there is one important way in which Hoffman is exactly like Queen Esther: A woman who changed history because, when push came to shove, she wasn’t afraid to do what was necessary.

Two years ago, when I was in Israel celebrating the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall, our delegation met with Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He told us that Hoffman was a hero for two reasons: First, that during 25 years of serious abuse and threat, she and her colleagues never gave up. And second, that even at that moment of greatest political power, because the whole Jewish world was watching, she was willing to accept a compromise that recognized the voices of others who understand Judaism in a different way from how she does. 

This week, the Israeli government agreed. The compromise proposal is the result of years of negotiating involving the Israeli and North American Reform and Conservative movements, The Jewish Federations of North America and Women of the Wall, along with Sharansky, Israeli Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. Among the decisions reached are: There will be one main transformed entrance for three sections — men, women and egalitarian; the plaza above the Kotel where national commemoration and celebration can take place will be free of gender-based discrimination; the new egalitarian section will not be under the control of the Western Heritage Foundation, but rather a council of representatives from Women of the Wall, The Jewish Federations, and the Reform and Conservative movements. 

This level of recognition for non-Orthodox denominations is historic. Women’s prayer groups will have full access to Torah scrolls. The office of the administrator of the Western Wall formally recognizes other Jewish denominations, and there can no longer be criminal sanctions for not obeying “local custom” defined by the ultra-Orthodox. After its construction is complete, the new section will host visiting groups, including Birthright, dignitaries and private and public ceremonies. 

The last time I prayed with Women of the Wall was Rosh Chodesh Av this past summer. Then, as at other times, the most moving part of the service for me came right after Hallel, as we read the prayer for Women of the Wall: 

“May it be Your will, our God and God of our mothers and fathers, to bless this prayer group and all who pray within it: them, their families and all that is theirs, together with all the women and girls of your people Israel. Strengthen us and direct our hearts to serve You in truth, reverence and love. … And for our sisters, all the women and girls of your people Israel: let us merit to see their joy and hear their voices raised before You in song and praise. May no woman or girl be silenced ever again among Your people Israel or in all the world. God of justice, let us merit to see justice and salvation soon, for the sanctification of Your name and the repair of Your world, as it is written: Zion will hear and be glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, over Your judgments, O God. And it is written: For Zion’s sake I will not be still, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent, until her righteousness shines forth like a great light and her salvation like a flaming torch. For Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem. Amen, selah.”

For Zion’s sake I will not be still, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent until her righteousness shines forth like a great light, and her salvation like a flaming torch. (Isaiah 62:1)

For Anat Hoffman and that small group of committed people who were not silent and would not rest over all these years, I am deeply grateful. They have changed the world. 

There is more than one way to be a Jew… even in Israel.

Rabbi Laura Geller is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; she was the first Reform female rabbi to be selected as the senior rabbi of a major metropolitan congregation, and in 1994 was honored with the California State Legislature’s Women of the Year Award. 

Kotel compromise shows Israelis know they need American Jews

The relationship between Israel and American Jews is a complicated mix of good news and bad news, and this week’s government compromise on the Western Wall, or Kotel, is a case in point: It’s a step forward in providing access for non-Orthodox Jews, but may also reinforce the reality that the main plaza doesn’t welcome Reform or Conservative Jews, who comprise the majority of affiliated American Jews.

The main Kotel plaza may never accommodate non-Orthodox prayer, but a new poll by the Ruderman Family Foundation provides some hope and direction for more positive developments on other fronts. (The poll, conducted by the Dialog research firm, surveyed 500 Israeli adults; the margin of error is 4 percent.)

The good news:

Behind some dismissive statements and controversial actions by members of Israel’s government, average Israelis genuinely value the involvement of American Jews. In our poll, 82 percent of Israelis agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent pledge that “every Jew should feel that the Western Wall belongs to him and every Jew should feel welcome in Israel.” Two-thirds agree that the relationship between Israel and American Jews directly impacts Israel-U.S. relations, and 88 percent think their leaders should work to strengthen that relationship.

The bad news:        

Despite the generally warm feelings and intentions of so many Israelis — plus Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own formative experience among American Jews — many Israeli decision-makers and religious leaders still fail to see the value proposition. First, for Israel to be secure, it still needs a strong and vibrant alliance with the United States in which American Jews play an obvious and integral role. Second, if Israel wants to remainthe Jewish state, it must find ways to recognize and accommodate, rather than alienate, the bulk of America’s committed Jews.

American Jews seem to be a target of choice for Israeli politicians seeking to score cheap points with their supporters. Religious Services Minister David Azoulay sparked controversy last July by saying that Reform Jews aren’t real Jews. Just last December, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau condemned Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to a Conservative Jewish school in New York. Even more perplexing, Rabbi Lau himself had previously made a similar visit.

It is easy to assume wrongly that American Jews either don’t matter or they will continue supporting Israel because they have no other Jewish homeland. In the United States, Reform and Conservative Jews remain very supportive of Israel, and both movements have a strong showing in programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel and longer summer and yearlong programs. So yes, despite being treated occasionally as second-class citizens, American Jews still identify with Israel. In the long run, however, enough insults and humiliations leave a bitter taste, and it becomes more challenging to see Israel as a pathway to Jewish meaning for all.

Even though Israelis are favorable toward American Jews and the more liberal streams, they still underestimate their numbers. While in our poll, Israeli respondents see affiliated American Jews as 32 percent Reform, 12 percent Conservative and 17 percent Orthodox, the 2013 Pew study found 40 percent Reform, 22 percent Conservative and only 12 percent Orthodox.

Should skeptics be proved right about the eventual demise of progressive Judaism in America, the movements are still likely to dominate among American Jewry for the next several generations. And even this modern Orthodox American-Israeli sees no cause to celebrate a theory of diminishing Jewish returns.

The hope:

Clearly, Israelis — including at least some Orthodox Jews — overwhelmingly value American Jews and their connection to Israel. Beyond the Ruderman Foundation’s own efforts to concretize this commitment among Knesset members and within the next generation of government and business leaders, there is a growing awareness among Israel’s elite that Israel needs American Jews at least as much as we need Israel — and this necessarily includes Reform and Conservative Jews.

With this new poll, we see that most Israelis don’t just need American Jews on board, they also want American Jews as part of Israel’s Jewish family. Any Israeli who says there’s no place for non-Orthodox Jews or American Jews in Israel can no longer claim to be speaking for more than a sliver of Israelis.

No matter how many delegations and conferences we organize, it’s ultimately up to Israelis at all levels of society to hold their leaders — political, religious, cultural — accountable. This isn’t just because American Jews expect it, but because Israelis do.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @JayRuderman.

Three maps that explain the Western Wall compromise

The Western Wall compromise passed Sunday by Israel’s Cabinet represents a landmark interdemoninational consensus at what many consider to be Judaism’s holiest site.  But describing the deal can be confusing: One worship area will expand, the others will remain untouched and the site’s entrance will change.

So here are three maps, appended to the deal and obtained by JTA, that show what will be built, what will stay the same and how it all fits together.

The non-Orthodox section expands

Kotel non-Ortho

The deal’s core provision is a dramatic expansion of the Western Wall’s non-Orthodox section, modeled here. The non-Orthodox section lies immediately to the south of the main Orthodox plaza, next to an archaeological park called Robinson’s Arch.

Because of the park’s Second Temple-era remains (the pile of stones near the top-left corner of the picture), it’s difficult to build a symmetrical prayer space there. At present, the section contains a 4,800-square-foot platform that is removed from the wall and a small, freestanding area adjacent to the wall.

The plan approved Sunday, as seen here, would create a unified, 9,700-square-foot prayer space that touches the wall at a narrow point in the southwest corner and broadens as it extends backward. The prayer space would touch a 31-foot segment of the wall.

This picture also shows what the section’s entrance will look like: a wide staircase and flat walkway leading to the prayer space. At present, worshippers need to traverse a narrow, uneven walkway to the site.

Bigger than before, still smaller than the Orthodox area

Kotel plan

The non-Orthodox section, on the right here and roughly shaded in blue, will double in size to nearly 10,000 square feet. But it will still be much smaller than the Orthodox section, shaded in purple to its left. The Orthodox section takes up some 21,500 square feet.

Unlike the non-Orthodox section, which will host mixed-gender prayer, the Orthodox section will continue to be segregated by gender. Men will worship in the large section to the left, while women will pray in the narrower section to the right.

The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies like the swearing-in of new soldiers. Under the provisions of the deal, haredi Orthodox Jewish law will not apply there, meaning that women will be able to sing publicly and the ceremonies do not need to be gender-segregated. But the rear plaza will remain under haredi Orthodox management.

One entrance for Orthodox and non-Orthodox

Kotel entranceAt present, to reach the non-Orthodox section, worshippers need to walk to a corner of the Western Wall plaza and through a narrow gate. The compromise would create a unified entrance for the Orthodox men’s, Orthodox women’s and non-Orthodox sections, pictured here and labeled in Hebrew. The goal behind the unified entrance is to increase the non-Orthodox section’s visibility and accessibility.

All visitors to the site will walk through an entrance at the Jerusalem Old City’s Dung Gate, then separate into three corridors, shaded here in pink. Visitors to the Orthodox men’s section will go to the left. Visitors to the Orthodox women’s section will walk down the middle. Visitors to the non-Orthodox section will go to the left. The yellow corridor is an exit.