Response to Israeli Government Actions on Conversion and Western Wall

UPDATE on August 31st Israeli Supreme Court Decision

Following a hearing August 31st, Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the Government to explain its unilateral decision to freeze the Kotel agreement, which the Government itself had achieved through negotiations in good faith with all parties. The Government has two weeks to respond to the Court’s demand.

The Court focused extensively on the question of whether or not the Government has honored an earlier ruling handed down over ten years ago regarding the rights of the Women of the Wall to pray according to their beliefs at the Kotel. That ruling determined that they have a right to pray at the Western Wall according to their custom, but these rights would be realized at the Robinson’s Arch area (not at the traditional Kotel Plaza). This decision required the State to build a respectable and appropriate prayer site to the satisfaction of the parties within twelve months.

Predictably, there was no consensus among these parties regarding whether or not the Government actually satisfied the Court’s earlier ruling by building the prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, albeit following a major delay. At the hearing it appeared as if the Court was trying to gauge whether the petitioners currently have a right to pray at the traditional Northern Kotel Plaza, or if their rights apply only to the Robinson’s Arch site. The Court also raised the question as to whether there are legal grounds for enforcing the compromise reached by the Government and the petitioners, which was adopted as a government resolution in January 2016 (the Kotel agreement), and then suspended this past June.

In requiring the Government to explain its decision to freeze the Kotel agreement, the Court validated the tremendous investment that has been made in finding a thoughtful and negotiated resolution to the complex issues and competing worldviews regarding prayer at the Western Wall. It is critical that our community continues to speak out on the importance of ensuring a place for every Jew at the Kotel as the Government prepares its response and the Court deliberates further.

Given that there are four different petitions from parties with varying interests related to the Kotel, the Court has indicated that it may issue a series of decisions rather than a single overarching ruling.

7/21/2017 UPDATE

The response submitted by the Government of Israel (GOI) to the Supreme Court on the Kotel Resolution focuses on the implications of the June 25th decision to freeze the agreement and its intent to begin construction of a permanent prayer plaza at the egalitarian site.

The government is moving quickly to build the pluralistic prayer space in the Robinson’s Arch area and has allocated funding and resources to complete this work in about 10 months. In addition, funds have been set aside to maintain and manage the site once it is completed.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on July 30 to determine whether or not to require the Government to implement the resolution or parts of the resolution.

 One month ago, both the legislation – which would have granted a monopoly over conversion in Israel to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – and a related Supreme Court case which sought to extend State recognition for alternative conversions conducted in Israel to those undertaken by the Reform Movement were put on hold for six months. The Prime Minister Office’s was to appoint a committee to review and address the issue to determine if alternative solutions could be developed. That committee has yet to be established.

Since the suspension another issue arose when the media reported on a list of 160 rabbis – many American – who were allegedly “blacklisted” by the Rabbinate. The Rabbinate denies that the list was a “blacklist” stating that it reflected the unauthorized work of a low-level employee, rather than an official effort by the Rabbinate. Whatever the case, the existence of such a list speaks directly to our system’s concern about the Rabbinate’s increasing efforts to broaden its hegemony including over Jewish life/conversions which take place beyond Israel’s borders. JFNA is hopeful that the Government will move forward with appointment of the committee quickly.

Jewish Federations of North America’s Response
Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) is developing a set of short-and long-term approaches to address these two issues as well as the broader range of challenges around pluralism in Israel. The overall approach will be in a context of enhancing the relationship between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora.

JFNA is working in conjunction with the Jewish Agency so that our organizations’ action plans integrate or work in parallel where appropriate and re-enforce one another’s efforts throughout. A draft of JAFI’s plan will be discussed by JAFI’s Executive Committee on Monday.

JFNA is convening major Jewish organizations (e.g. AJC, ADL, JAFI, and the Conference of Presidents) and the religious stream to discuss how each is intending to respond to the issues and coordinate plans. JFNA expects to have an action plan in place within two to three weeks. In addition, JFNA is working on identifying a firm in Israel as a resource for implementing a grassroots strategy in Israel and a “grasstops” strategy, working with influencers in the United States.

6/30/2017 - UPDATE to Statement: We are hopeful that all involved parties will continue to work together to make progress on the Kotel resolution and conversions in Israel. Read more about Netanyahu's six-month delay of controversial conversion bill announcement.

Further reading:
An on-the-ground view of the week's negotiations over the Western Wall agreement and the conversion bill in Israel.
TC Jewfolk - Action against Western Wall decision 'inspiring'

The Israeli political background of this week's decisions on the Western Wall compromise and the conversion bill.
Forward (op-ed) - To fight the Kotel decision, U.S. Jews have to understand Israeli politics

To the Madison Jewish Community:

We are sure many of you have been following with concern the news out of Israel this week. On Sunday, Israel’s cabinet voted to freeze an agreement over the expansion of a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall and to advance a controversial conversion law.

Following three and a half years of negotiations, initiated by the Prime Minister himself, the historic “One Wall for One People” agreement was announced in January 2016 to make permanent a Western Wall pluralistic prayer pavilion. Sunday, the cabinet voted to suspend the agreement. In addition, the cabinet endorsed the conversion bill making its way through the Knesset, which would centralize all conversions with the chief rabbinate of Israel — an increasingly ultra-Orthodox institution.

In fact, the cabinet’s action is in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s recent statements on this issue: In a November 2015 address in Washington to the leadership of the Jewish community in North America, where of course millions identify with non-Orthodox Judaism, Netanyahu promised: “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews.” Specifically, he told the thousands at the Jewish Federations’ annual General Assembly, he hoped his government would soon reach the “long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] will be a source of unity for the Jewish people, not a point of division.”

We are very concerned about these developments, and Federations across the world have been galvanized by these issues playing out in Israel because they affect the relationship of many in the Diaspora to Israel and the whole concept of Jewish unity.

For the first time in its history the Jewish Agency, one of our core partners, has called on the Government of Israel to reverse a decision. Federations have been unanimous in speaking out against the cabinet’s action to freeze the Western Wall agreement, as well as in highlighting the importance of efforts to build bridges and enhance the mutual relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

We encourage you to read the update from Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

We will continue to monitor these situations, share our concerns, and update our community. We also plan to share our concerns with the Prime Minister and with Aviv Ezra, the Israeli Consul General of the Midwest, with whom we met recently.

Further background links on this issue can be found below. The next question which will likely come up is where we go from here. We will be sharing soon some action steps from our partners at the Jewish Agency and JFNA, who are in turn working in partnership with organizations and religious movements in Israel through the Federations' Israel Religious Expression Platform (IREP - see oped from Eric Goldstein below). Another partner is ITIM (article also linked below).

Please feel free to share any other feedback, questions, or suggestions with either of us.

Marc Shovers
​President, Jewish Federation of Madison

Deborah Minkoff
Interim Executive Director

Good background on the issues:

Reactions from a few years ago...and you can see how some positions have shifted:

The prompting for this issue was home-grown in Israel. Background on the group that triggered this issue...and which has partially split over the compromise (many wanted to reject the compromise and continue to fight):

IREP and the rationale:

Info in ITIM:

Other background:


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