A deep schism has opened between Israel and American Jewish groups following a controversial Israeli government decision regarding an egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel or Western Wallal-Buraq in Jerusalem and another on conversion to Judaism.
The conversion bill, which was subsequently shelved for six months, would have made Israel’s Chief Rabbinate the only body authorized to convert people to Judaism. A good portion of conversions are performed by Reform rabbis in the United States. However, the rabbinate in Israel does not recognize them. This leaves many people who emigrate to Israel unable to gain citizenship under the Law of Return.
The Western Wallal-Buraq is the holiest place that Jews can pray. “When Jews say ‘next year in Jerusalem’, they have the Kotel in mind. Indeed, some worship it because it was a part of the Second Temple, while others, like me, tend to regard it as an important magnet for Jewish identity,” explained Uri Dromi, director of the Jerusalem Press Club.
At present, prayer areas at the wall are separated. On 25 June 2017, the government suspended an agreement made almost 18 months earlier to create a third section for men and women to pray together. The agreement followed three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities and was seen as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel.
In freezing the deal, Netanyahu caved to pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition government and the religious authorities that manage the wall. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, ultra-Orthodox authorities have governed almost every facet of Jewish life, much to the chagrin of secularists.
This is not the first time the two communities have clashed. In the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion, then prime minister, claimed that Israel was de facto the centre of the Jewish world. This upset the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, who argued that no single person can be the spokesperson for the global Jewry.
A decade later, when Israel abducted, tried and executed the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, prominent Jewish leaders were enraged that Israel, which had not been founded at the time of his crimes, had assumed jurisdiction of the case, as if it was the global address of the Jews.
Following the most recent rift, American Jews have expressed their anger by suspending crucial financial support until the conversion and Western Wallal-Buraq crises are resolved.
For example, Isaac Fisher, a real estate magnate and a board member of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbying group, has asked for the return of the $1 million he invested in Israeli bonds, cancelled his donations to Tel Aviv University and announced he will step down from his role as campaign chair of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation , a fundraising body. ‘Enough is enough,’ he wrote in a letter to senior Israeli officials. ‘The time has come for the Israeli government to understand that its public includes all the people of Israel.’
Many in Israel fear that this precedent will inspire others supporters to reduce their financial donations. Michael Oren, a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, said that the dispute could pose a serious threat to Israel’s economy and security.
In an attempt to minimize the damage, Tzachi Hanegbi, a member of the ruling Likud party and chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, said that “since 80 per cent, 85 per cent, 90 per cent of the Jewish community in the United States is non-Orthodox, the overwhelming majority being secular, Reform or Conservative, this is something we mustn’t ignore, my dear friends from the coalition. We have to get down to the root of the matter and see if we can find a way to heal this scar.”
Uri Dromi, who served as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s spokesperson in 1990s, had a practical recommendation for American Jews. In an opinion piece in the Jewish Journal, he wrote, ‘The best thing that could happen would be an aliyah of 1 million American Jews – Conservative, Reform, Modern Orthodox – who would change the political scene here … Assuming that this option is not so viable, then second best for American Jews would be not to wash their hands of Israel, but to ally with individuals, movements, organizations and parties in Israel that believe in and promote equality for all Jews, regardless of how they choose to exercise their religion.’