ARZA Statement on the Kotel Crisis and Conversion Bill: Two Attempts to Disenfranchise Non-Orthodox Jews

On June 25, the Israeli cabinet capitulated to extremist pressure and froze its agreed-upon plan to develop an egalitarian worship space at the Western Wall (Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi). On the same day, it advanced a bill that would grant the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions in Israel. 
ARZA condemns both of these outrageous actions which, if allowed to stand, will cement the power of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel at the expense of Jewish unity and pluralism, undermine religious freedom in the State of Israel, and open a schism between Israel and world Jewry.
ARZA and the Reform Jewish movement celebrated the January 2016 agreement that promised investing in and constructing an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, just south of the existing Western Wall plaza, that would be equal in size and significance to the traditional Kotel prayer space. This was a milestone for compromise and unity; in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words, it endorsed “One Wall for One People.”
Unfortunately, the compromise (that included the ultra-Orthodox Administrator of the Western Wall Plaza) was rejected by other religious extremists, who opposed any proposal that legitimates non-Orthodox Judaism. In the days following the agreement, extremist officials and the publicly funded Office of the Chief Rabbinate littered Jerusalem with placards calling for the “liberation” of the Kotel from the “demonic” machinations of liberal Jews, and threatened a coalition crisis for the government.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ruling coalition government’s succumbing to ultra-Orthodox pressure by halting the implementation of the Western Wall compromise is a tragic selling-out and betrayal of non-Orthodox Jews for the sake of political expedience, as vocal critics on the right and left have maintained. Reneging on the Kotel compromise is an abandonment of the principle of klal yisrael (Jewish unity) and a denial of the legitimacy of the majority of American Jews’ religious expression.
It is also a rejection of Zionism itself, which is premised on the idea of collective Jewish peoplehood as expressed by the Jewish state. These two decisions give preference to one extremist interpretation of Judaism over that of the majority, exacerbating a disturbing antidemocratic movement in Israel where religious freedom is endangered.
Some commentators have called these bills the trigger for American Jewry to abandon Israel. As the voice of Reform Zionism in America, we refuse this option: In fact, the reason for our outrage is precisely because of our movement’s deep and unending commitment to Israel. We fear that the extremist ideology expressed in the government’s action against the Kotel compromise and the conversion bill will drive Jews—especially the younger generation—away from Israel. We will continue to express our Zionist love for Israel by working for an Israel that reflects the vibrant tapestry of Jewish expression, free from religious coercion.
We call upon the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume their commitment to establishing a Kotel for all, and to reject the conversion bill that would hand more unfettered powered to the ultra-Orthodox political parties and Chief Rabbinate. We call upon synagogues in every religious stream, Federations, and all Jews to demand that Israel enact measures to be open and inclusive to all forms of Jewish expression in the face of antidemocratic forces from within the government and society at large.
Israel must remain true to its founding Zionist vision expressed in its Declaration of Independence:  “[Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
It is a sad irony that in the 21st century, Israel remains one of the few remaining places where Jews cannot express their religious freedom. For the sake of Zion, we cannot remain silent; even in the face of this betrayal, we remain committed in love to building Israel based on our people’s ideals of freedom, inclusion, and democracy.                  
Rabbi John Rosove                                      Rabbi Josh Weinberg
ARZA Board Chair                                        ARZA President        

Statement by Jewish Agency Chairman Sharansky on the Suspension of the Western Wall Agreement

Note: Unfortunately, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has caved in to the Ultra-Religious Political parties that are part of his ruling government coalition. It is now up to world Jewry in support of Women of the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities, and the Jewish Federations of North America all of which were engaged in good faith with Natan Sharansky, a hero of the Jewish people, to find a way to unify the Jewish people at the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall (i.e. The Kotel). The Ultra-Orthodox parties wishes cannot stand.
The following is Natan Sharansky’s statement from Jerusalem this morning:
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky has released the following 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 intense 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.”

“From Australia’s Ambassadors to Israel to Ambassadors for Israel to the world” – Jerusalem Post

I love hearing people from outside the Jewish world affirm what I know to be true about the State of Israel. Just this past week, for example, Rachel Lord, the wife of the outgoing Australian Ambassador to Israel, wrote a farewell letter to Israel that appeared in the Jerusalem Post (June 14, 2017).

I learned about the letter while listening to “The Promised” podcast (TLV1) when Allison Kaplan Sommer, one of its regular commentators, read a portion of Ms. Lord’s words. Rachel Lord is a human rights lawyer.

We leave Israel very different people to those who arrived four years ago.

We arrived in Israel a little under four years ago, a newly minted family of five. We had never visited Israel before and had no idea what to expect. Israel as a posting option was not on our radar – or, more correctly, it was not on my radar. Although Dave’s official story is that he was asked to take the assignment, I suspect he may not have been so surprised by the request. With an impression of Israel based solely on news reporting, I wasn’t excited by the idea of bringing my family somewhere that seemed so unsafe. But as we celebrated my birthday on our second day in Israel, enjoying incredible food as the sun set over the sea, we felt confident we’d made the right decision.

Yet, even after four years here, Israel has proved an elusive friend. I still don’t feel like I completely understand her. The language is an obvious challenge. Our foreign ministry assured us we’d get by fine with English, which of course is true for my husband operating in a professional setting but made things a little challenging for me as I attempted to navigate daily life. We’ve eaten sour cream with our muesli, used buttermilk in our tea and I’ve had a few quiet sobs in the car when things just felt all a bit hard. Israeli culture is unique and a challenge for those of us from Britain’s former empire, where we like our queues and our order, public politeness and personal distance.

And of course, the roads are where I realize I just have no idea how this place works. You all know things would flow much better and you’d all be much happier if everyone stopped jostling for the best position, respected queues, stayed within those white lines on the road, held off the horn, and didn’t hassle the old person crossing the road with a walker, right? And why, in the country that invented Waze and where people are glued to their smartphones, do people always pull over and yell (and I do mean yell) at you for directions?

Despite these challenges, there’s something endearing about Israel. It drives you insane but you can’t help but love it. The goodness at the core is unquestionably the people, who proudly live up to their sabra reputation. No one ever says thanks if you hold a door open for them or offers to help you if you have your hands full with bags and a baby, but the warmth is almost overwhelming when someone opens their heart and their home to you. We’ve been blessed to share meals and traditions with people from all over Israel. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning about the different faiths that make this country so rich. The personal histories of the people that call Israel home have left us wide eyed. We’ve relished the centrality of family in Israeli society, where children are welcome everywhere and are valued and treasured.

We leave Israel very different people to those that arrived four years ago. We are richer people with a better understanding of this wonderful country, its people and the leading religions of the world. We know that Israel is a country beyond the conflict that can define it internationally and as a place that is more complex than most will appreciate.”

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