A high-profile group of Jewish leaders yesterday canceled a gala event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest his government’s decision to scrap plans for a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
The stunning move reflects an unprecedented gulf that has erupted between Israel and the Jewish diaspora over how Judaism can be practiced in Israel.
Most US Jews belong to its more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel’s Orthodox authorities that question their faith and practices.
The board of governors of The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit that works closely with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities worldwide, said it was calling off its dinner with Netanyahu and altering the agenda of its annual meetings to address the crisis.
The government decision has set off a cascade of criticism both in Israel and abroad, where Jewish leaders warned that it could undermine their long-standing political, financial and emotional support for Israel.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky was just one of the senior officials to condemn the move for unminding Jewish unity.
Dennis Ross, a former top US peace negotiator and chair of the Jewish People Policy Institute, said he was afraid that US Jews would no longer see Israel as a home.
“We’re a small people. We are, in a sense, in one house and there shouldn’t be any exclusion and there shouldn’t be those who define for others whether or not they’re Jewish,” Ross told Israel’s Army Radio. “It is dangerous if there are steps taken here that would alienate the vast majority of American Jews.”
The dramatic about-face at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting followed the initial approval of the plan in January last year to officially recognize the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall — the holiest site where Jews can pray.
The compromise was reached after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and US Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities and was seen at the time as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.
However, the program was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu’s coalition government raised objections to the decision they had initially endorsed.
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