Who does Netanyahu blame for the failure of the Kotel agreement?

What they say about non-Orthodox Jews

Netanyahu told reporters in New York that the Reform and Conservative movements wanted to get recognition “via the backdoor, secretly, under the pretext of a technical clause of joint administration of the Western Wall.”

Prime Minister NetanyahuPrime Minister Netanyahu

Hiddush's focus is on fully realizing Israel's promise of religious freedom and equality, but all too often we cannot separate this mission from the all-too-vile rhetoric that characterizes pronouncements from a number of key Israeli political and rabbinic officials.

For some time now, we have been applauding Prime Minister Netanyahu's welcome, repeated public statement regarding his commitment to ensuring that all Jews feel at home in Israel, whether Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. Still, Netanyahu's policies since the last elections have repeatedly indicated that this commitment, as sincere as we should assume that it was, is subject to political convenience. This was patently evident in the last few months when he caved to ultra-Orthodox pressure on both the Kotel agreement and the conversion bill.

What is saddest, though, is his departure into highly offensive and baseless rhetoric against non-Orthodox Judaism. This was evidenced last month when he briefed media reps during his visit to NYC for the UN Assembly. As was reported by an Israeli journalist who attended the briefing, he stated (in an attempt to justify his retreat from the Kotel agreement) that: the Reform and Conservative movements wanted to get recognition “via the backdoor, secretly, under the pretext of a technical clause of joint administration of the Western Wall.” (see the JTA article here)

Uninformed journalists and others with whom the Prime Minister has probably shared this reprehensible account may not know better. However, those who have been following the 3+ years of protracted negotiations, led by the former Secretary of the Israeli Cabinet and the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, know that there is no shred of truth to this claim. There was no attempt to slip anything in via the back door. The torturous negotiations were all above board and carefully examined and re-examined. Finally, the compromise was agreed to by all parties, only after disclosure was made to the political leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Netanyahu, in our view, wanted the agreement carried out in full. Neither he nor the ultra-Orthodox political leaders who gave their tacit consent fully anticipated the backlash within the ultra-Orthodox community, perpetrated by disgruntled rabbinic leaders in both the Sephardi and Ashekanazi communities and by the young turks of the ultra-Orthodox online media. Rather than confront his ultra-Orthodox political partners and tell them that neither he nor they could go back on the explicit agreement, he bowed to their reversal and is now trying to shift the blame onto the non-Orthodox negotiation partners. This is neither honorable, nor does it demonstrate any integrity on his part.

It serves as a reminder of the need to move beyond specific, limited policy changes (such as prayer arrangements at the Kotel) and to look at the holistic, encompassing transformation necessary. An example of such a principled and inclusive approach can be found in the recently launched Vision Statement regarding Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. If you have not yet signed up to express your support, please do so!

With PM Netanyahu resorting to such rhetoric, there is little surprise that others whom the Prime Minister feebly reprimanded and from whose statements he had dissociated himself in the past, now feel unencumbered.

With PM Netanyahu resorting to such rhetoric, there is little surprise that others whom the Prime Minister once feebly reprimanded and from whose statements he once dissociated himself, now feel unencumbered. Two recent examples illustrate this ugly rearing of this poisonous anti-Reform & anti-Conservative sentiment from senior rabbinic and political functionaries whom we have noted in the past:

In a recent lecture, Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar spoke about the Kotel agreement and "Reform Jews," saying: "They don’t have Yom Kippur or Shabbat, but they want to pray [at the Western Wall]... But no one should think that they want to pray, they want to desecrate the holy. They are trying to deceive and say that extremist haredim invented" separate prayer at the Western Wall. "It’s like Holocaust deniers, it’s the same thing... In all of the Mishna and Gemara there was a women’s section and a section for men in the Temple."

To put his view of Reform Judaism (a term that he uses generically) in context, we should remind ourselves that Rabbi Amar has described Knesset laws as gentile laws and Israel's civil judiciary as gentile courts. He has said that Jews may not come to judgment before the civil courts, and stated that Israel should be governed by Torah law; so long as it isn't, it's as if "they embrace Satan". He even added a liturgical touch in espousing these views: he cast all of this in the context of the High Holy Day prayers we just chanted in our respective synagogues - may all evil be consumed by smoke, and may this evil government disappear from the face of the earth.

What's interesting, though, about this particular pronouncement of his is that in addition to the anti-Reform sentiments, he also demonstrates his anti-historical Jewish perspective. What to him is in the realm of the "unheard of" and fabricated is actually what leading archaeological and historic scholars are in agreement on. Indeed, neither in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (with the exception of Simkhat Beit haShoevah), nor in ancient synagogues, were women segregated from men in public worship!

Similarly, in an interview, MK David Amsalem, Chair of the Knesset Committee on Internal Affairs invoked his historical and religious expertise in stating that "Men never prayed with women, neither in the Talmudic period, nor in the Biblical period, nor in the times of the Kings." Regarding 'Reform Judaism' (clearly also using the term generically), he said: "The Jewish people is of interest to. My late grandfather's Judaism is of interest to me, but that does not mean lawlessness. I want an accepting Judaism. The Reform want to change the faith." He further said about Reform: "If we are going to be Reform in the Land of Israel, our children are not going to remain here. We are destroying Judaism, and this cannot be disregarded. The first Reformer was Jesus - he was Jewish, and, by the way, a Talmid Chacham; and Christianity developed from him. We have a tradition of 3,500 years. This is how we conducted ourselves until 100 years ago. This is what Jews walked into the furnace for. What kept us is keeping the rules."

Lastly, his negative view extends to the future of Diaspora Judaism altogether, when he stated that he hopes to ensure that there will be Israeli governmental funding made available for Jewish education in the United State and the Diaspora: "They will not be there in 20-30 years." (It seems he's alluding to government initiatives to allocate tens of millions of dollars for keeping the next generation of Diaspora Jewry "Jewish" by funding primarily programs of Chabad and Aish HaTorah.)

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