As you have heard, while last week's Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors meeting was underway, the Government of Israel voted to suspend the long-fought-for resolution that would create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel.
On the same day, the Government of Israel's Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a draft of a bill that would change the status quo on conversions in Israel by providing total control to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and blocking access to the courts.
These actions prompted The Jewish Agency to suspend its regular business, including canceling a dinner at which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to speak.
On the airplane on my way home from the meeting, I decided to share with you some reflections and thoughts. At the end of this message is a more detailed explanation of the issues.
Overall, there was a sense of frustration. As the media later reported, Jewish leaders from around the world felt betrayed, and they wanted to make their views known.
Quickly, The Jewish Agency and JFNA set up meetings with high-level officials — including Defense Minister Lieberman; Minister of Diaspora Affairs Bennett; Justice Minister Shaked; Minister Hanegbi, responsible for overseeing the Kotel resolution; and Minister of Housing Galant — to discuss the rift. A small group of us also held a very open and candid meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And approximately 25 members of Knesset spoke in solidarity with world Jewry in a session with more than 100 members of The Jewish Agency Board of Governors.
I compliment The Jewish Agency and our JFNA staff in Israel for the extraordinary effort they put forth. With just hours’ notice, they brought in experts on the conversion process in Israel and arranged meetings with top Israeli officials. Natan Sharansky and Josh Schwarcz at The Jewish Agency, as well as outgoing and incoming Chairmen of the Board Chuck Ratner and Michael Siegal and their staff, demonstrated a high level of skill and expertise in navigating this complicated situation. The Jewish Agency team worked in sync with their JFNA counterparts Jerry Silverman, Becky Caspi, Mark Gurvis, and dozens of others. It was outstanding to witness this efficient and effective machine operating expertly on behalf of Diaspora Jewry — especially considering their lack of sleep.
Thanks to this effort in Israel and to our Federation communities' outpouring of disappointment and frustration, the Government of Israel heard our message loud and clear.
It is critically important that we continue to voice our unwavering commitment to the Jewish State while we continue to communicate our critically important concerns about the government decisions. Our relationship with the people of Israel is unwavering. Our community must remember to exemplify resilience and solidarity alongside frustration, but not anger. We are One People with a strong value system, and those Jewish values that have allowed us to survive thousands of years must continue to guide our relationship with each other. And we need to be aware that these two issues are of much greater concern to us than they are to our Israeli brothers and sisters, especially with respect to the Kotel. Still, the Government of Israel appears to have taken our concerns very seriously.
Understandably, Jews worldwide continue to be deeply disturbed by this situation. Among Jewish Federations, some donors are talking about ending their financial support for Israel as a way to communicate their frustration.
To those donors: I urge you not to pull away from Israel or our fellow Jews at this time. There is no doubt that we are playing a crucial role at this historic moment that can solidify the quest for unity. We must focus on demonstrating that people come first, and that we will not abandon our principles because of these actions. We are stronger when we act together according to our tradition.
Israel is a centerpiece of our Jewish communal aspirations, and Israel belongs to all Jewish People. We will not abandon our indestructible ties with Israel and our inherent right as a people to be a vibrant part of its destiny.
Our mission as a Federation Movement is to assist our people wherever they find themselves in the world, and to strengthen the communal ties that allow us to be a beacon for those in need. We will not abandon this sacred mission in Israel, at home, or anywhere in the world our people find themselves.
I understand that a natural inclination might be to make a statement by withdrawing support. But this action only hurts our most vulnerable populations and deprives them of services that are desperately needed — services that are the hallmark of our cause as Federations. We cannot stop our efforts to connect our young people to their tradition and values or punish those who depend on us.
Join us in our challenge, make your voice heard, and we will succeed — both in ensuring that Israel belongs to ALL Jewish People, and in fulfilling the sacred mission of our Federation Movement to care for all Jews, everywhere, and connect them to the State of Israel. Let’s not forget that even with its faults, Israel is a remarkable young country that was the dream of our ancestors for over 2,000 years. At the end of this process, there will be no winners and losers. Either we all win or all lose. Let’s never forget who we are or where we come from.
Richard Sandler is chair of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America
THE KOTEL DECISION
The negotiations that resulted in the January 2016 resolution dealt with three issues: providing an appropriate prayer space at the Wall, creating a joint entrance, and designing a system of governance for managing the egalitarian area.
As various Haredi parties in Israel began to focus on the resolution, objections started to be heard and reached the religious parties in the present government coalition. This contributed to the delay in implementing the resolution. A petition was then filed with the Israeli Supreme Court to implement the resolution, to which the government needed to respond by June 26 — explaining the timing of the action last Sunday. When the religious parties insisted that the resolution be formally withdrawn, Prime Minister Netanyahu refused. He agreed instead to have it suspended or frozen, though he announced his intention to proceed with construction of the prayer space.
THE CONVERSION BILL
As presently drafted, the bill provides for all conversions in Israel to solely be under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate. Key to this issue is the fact that under the Law of Return, any person of Jewish ancestry is entitled to be a citizen of Israel, even if they are not halachically Jewish. There are over 300,000 citizens of Israel who are not considered halachically Jewish, most of whom came from the former Soviet Union.
From 1948 until last year, all conversions of such persons in Israel were de facto under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate. Certain Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to recognize conversions not under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate but still approved by rabbinic courts. In 2016, the Supreme Court approved the validity of such conversions, and several hundred have since taken place. The Reform movement has a pending petition before the Supreme Court to approve conversions by Reform rabbis in Israel.
The new legislation on conversion is sponsored by the Shas party. If the bill is passed, it would legalize the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on conversions, determining the fate of over 50,000 people from Africa currently living in Israel with temporary tourist or work permits, as well as many others.
The Chief Rabbinate has never had legal authority by statute to have a monopoly over conversions. The Shas-supported bill, as it is now written, would even overturn the authority given by the Supreme Court last year to certain Orthodox rabbinic courts and retroactively nullify past conversions. It could also have a cascading effect over time that might affect conversions performed outside of Israel.
The Government of Israel has announced a six-month freeze regarding the proposed conversion legislation. This negotiated arrangement included an agreement with the Shas party not to advance discussion, and with the Reform movement to request that the Supreme Court suspend further action regarding a related case in which judgment is pending. The prime minister announced plans to appoint a task force to develop a permanent solution.