Monday, June 26, 2017


We find ourselves in the midst of a Diaspora-Government of Israel controversy; one that appears to be growing in intensity. Our organizational leadership, you will not be surprised, in reaction to the news that GOI was about to breach its agreement to provide egalitarian prayer space adjacent to the Kotel, sent a letter, not any letter mind you but "an urgent letter" to the Prime Minister referring not to the breach of an agreement negotiated over years and approved by the Government, but asking for continued support of "the concept." Just pathetic...

Anyway, here is how JFNA notified the system of the events:
"Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to you from the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meetings in Jerusalem about a two very significant and deeply troubling developments that have just occurred at the Israeli government’s weekly Cabinet meeting.

Early this morning, before that Cabinet meeting, Jerry Silverman and I, sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu urging him to continue to support the concept of “one Wall for one people,” but regrettably, the government voted to suspend its previous resolution approving the Kotel compromise.  The government decision did not rescind the original cabinet resolution, but suspended it.

As you know, in January 2016 the Israeli Cabinet voted to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The decision envisaged an upgraded and permanent prayer area for non-Orthodox services at Robinson’s Arch at the southern end of the Western Wall, along with a redesign of the approach to both this area and the traditional Kotel Plaza and prayer space.

Led by Natan Sharansky, Jewish Federations worked with the religious streams, the Israeli government, Women of the Wall and the Jewish Agency to help reach the agreement.  Implementation of the plan was halted due to political pressures.  Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky issued a statement which appears in full below.  We echo his sentiments.

In addition, a new conversion bill sponsored by the Shas party was approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation earlier today and has been sent to the Knesset for consideration.  This bill changes the status quo of conversion in Israel and would block access to Israel’s courts.  

We urge all Execs to communicate with their local Israel Consul General and share with them the community’s disappointment on the government decision to suspend the Kotel resolution.  At the same time, you should urge the Consuls General to communicate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and let them know how disastrous this new conversion legislation would be for global Jewry.


Richard Sandler
Chair, Board of Trustees, JFNA"

And Natan Sharansky, who negotiated the Hotel Agreement and works indefatigably in effort to implement it issued a Statement:


“As Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, and on behalf of our partners, I must express my deep disappointment at today's decision by the Government of Israel to suspend the implementation of its own decision to establish a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, ‘one wall for one people.’

“After four years of intensive negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world's Jewish communities.

“Today's decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.

“The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people.”

Only Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz voted against the resolution to suspend the 2016 Kotel agreement.

The Prime Minister’s Office announced that the Prime Minister has asked Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to lead efforts to come up with a new plan.

We continue to monitor the situation and discuss next steps, and will of course update you with any news of significance."
So we have a JFNA letter that pleads rather than demands; but, in addition to a promise from the leader of the Jewish Agency of "monitoring the situation" JAFI has cancelled its Board Dinner with Netanyahu at the Knesset tonight and promised to reorient its Board meetings this week to deal with the "ramifications" of the Government's breach. Friends, we are either approaching or are already in an existential crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations precipitated by the Prime Minister's coalition politics. Hard to believe? Not so much.

Perhaps some thought was given to enlisting a group of Diaspora leaders who are in Jerusalem to immediately and respectfully demand a meeting with the Prime Minister to explain the impacts both the Cabinet decision to breach its Kotel Agreement and the Knesset legislation that would impact on conversions in Israel. Yet, if anyone, certainly this Prime Minister understands the implications but the impact of a face-to-face meeting with a group led by Michael Siegal, now the JAFI Board Chair and a friend of Bibi's of long-standing, and Sharansky, with a major contingent of federation executives representing cities of all sizes, would underscore the potential for and the implications of a major schism between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

Friends, this is not the time for weak letters but for strong actions. The Jewish Agency is showing the way and JFNA is doing its part. Here is the full statement of the Jewish Agency in response to the Government's action as reprinted in The Times of Israel::
The Jewish Agency for Israel
The Board of Governors

June 2017 
Jerusalem Tamuz 5777Resolution
Whereas the Jewish Agency for Israel, representing world Jewry through its constituent members, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod, is gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, the liberation of the Western Wall and the founding of the Zionist movement in Basel 120 years ago; and
Whereas the Jewish Agency for Israel throughout its history has been the organization responsible for bringing olim to the State of Israel and connecting Israel and world Jewry; and
Whereas the proposed conversion bill that would cement the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion has the devastating potential to permanently exclude hundreds of thousands of Israelis from being a part of the Jewish people; and
Whereas we deplore yesterday’s decision by Government of Israel which contradicts the agreement reached with the Jewish Agency and other parties to establish the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world, as stated: ‘ONE WALL FOR ONE PEOPLE’; and
Whereas the Government of Israel’s decisions have a deep potential to divide the Jewish people and to undermine the Zionist vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and Jabotinsky to establish Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people; and
Whereas we declare that we cannot and must not allow this to happen and we are committed to mobilizing our constituencies for their continued support of the people and state of Israel;
Therefore, be it resolved that 
• We call upon each Member of the Knesset and all elected public officials to take all necessary action to ensure that these dangerous and damaging steps are halted; and
• We will continue to build a broad coalition of Israelis, together with partners from around the world, who care passionately about keeping our people united and who are committed to the unity of the Jewish people; and
• We call upon the Government of Israel to understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly."
And no one should be allowed to suggest that somehow this is but a "suspension" (whatever that means) of the Agreement -- as members of the Government reported: (1) to hide the intent, the  Prime Minister did not include the egalitarian prayer space on the Government agenda; and (2) the Prime Minister made clear to his Government that this was a vote on the "cancellation" of the Agreement. In America and in Israel this was a breach of an Agreement negotiated by Natan Sharansky an adopted by the Religious Movements, JAFI and the Government.



Anonymous said...

Perhaps if JFNA had REAL leadership - lay and professional - we would get real action and not another letter.

Alas, it's only a dream.

Anonymous said...

They did meet with the Prime Minister.
From: Desk of Jerry Silverman []
Sent: Monday, June 26, 2017 11:44 AM
Subject: Update from Israel: Jewish Federations are deeply disappointed by Government of Israel actions

Dear Colleagues,

This afternoon we met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express our communities’ deep disappointment with two actions taken by the Government of Israel
that threaten to undermine the special relationship between the State of Israel and world Jewry:

• The Government’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a proposed law that threatens the status quo on conversion to Judaism and dramatically expands the authority of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

• The Government suspended its January 2016 historic decision to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall).

The Jewish Federations stand in full partnership with Keren HaYesod and the World Zionist Organization in support of the unanimous resolution approved by the Jewish Agency for Israel this morning. We strongly believe yesterday’s actions by the Government of Israel, suspending the Kotel resolution and introducing new conversion legislation, represent a severe threat to Jewish unity.

Jewish Federations have played a central role in combating previous efforts to pass harmful conversion legislation that would disenfranchise significant groups in Jewish communities around the world and in Israel. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky to negotiate a compromise on the Kotel, Jewish Federations were crucial partners in keeping all parties at the table through long years of negotiation.

Jewish Federations, together with our partners — The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren HaYesod, and the World Zionist Organization — have denounced these harmful actions. They threaten decades of work by our Federations to build and nurture the Jewish State, to settle millions of immigrants and refugees, and to inspire generations of youth to connect with Israel and the Jewish People.

At a time when the State of Israel looks to our communities as strategic partners in combating the delegitimization of the Jewish State, these Israeli Government actions complicate this task.

Below are additional informational resources:

• The resolution on the Kotel approved unanimously this morning by The Jewish Agency Board of Governors
• JFNA background on the Government of Israel decision regarding the Kotel
• JFNA background on the conversion law

We will continue to keep you updated. We urge you to take the following immediate steps:

1) Start educating your community, and particularly key stakeholders in your synagogue community, about these unfolding issues.
2) Contact your Israeli consul general to express your deep disappointment in these two government actions.

Jerry Silverman
President and CEO
The Jewish Federations of North America

Articles and op-eds:

Anonymous said...

Bibi did the math and realized that JFNA was toothless, the movements don’t vote, and power is all that matters. Natan et al won’t know how to ratchet up the cost of a bad decision which is one of the many reasons he failed as a minister. For example, Natan needs to demonstrate leadership by an asymmetrical defense of world Jewry. Alan Hoffman is clueless and probably in his heart supports Bibi.

Anonymous said...

Boy am I glad Silverman is being assertive in asking what's next! The only Shanda bigger than that of the Netanyahu government is JFNA's stance.

“It’s deeply troubling and very disappointing that they would suspend the implementation of this resolution,” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA Sunday. “We are going to be assertive in asking what’s next.”

“The conversion bill that was approved by the ministerial committee and Knesset is one that definitively changes the status quo in conversions,” Silverman said. “This is something that almost every 10 years comes up, and would have a dramatic effect on who is a Jew, which obviously has a significant impact.”

Bob Hyfler said...

Neeman Commission redux...we have been played for the second time at least by
the same Prime Minister.

Gambling in Casablanca? I'm Shocked!

Bob Hyfler said...

A cynical comment on such an important matter should be followed by something hopeful.

Thankfully President Reuven Rivlin has (as I outlined in this 2015 article) created a unifying vision for Israeli society behind which many can rally. That the President's thoughtful prescriptions has been dutifully ignored on both sides of the pond is sad indeed.

Anonymous said...

any word on Bibi's response at the meeting? I would imagine he didn't sit silently.

RWEX said...

Haaretz is reporting that the Prime Minister told the JAFI/JFNA Contingent, which included Michael Siegal and at least 3 Large City CEOs, that they are just lucky to have him as Prime Minister, because he didn't fold like a piece of cheap paper and that another leader would have canceled the Kotel deal whereas he just "suspended" it. N.B. every indication, before Bibi's rationalization here, stated that the deal, heretofore agreed to by his government, and in place, unimplemented for almost 2 years, was "canceled."

Anonymous said...

That's right - he's not a piece of cheap paper. He likes expensive cigars and custom made suits!

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just a facade?

RWEX said...

To Anon @ 5:38: we're not going to take this discussion in the direction you were going.

A good question though.