Canadian Jews across the denominational spectrum reacted with anger and frustration to two decisions by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that will give the ultra-Orthodox more power over the Western Wall and conversions.
On June 25, Netanyahu’s cabinet announced that it was cancelling an agreement over creating a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, a deal that had been negotiated by the Jewish Agency for Israel, non-Orthodox leaders, the Israeli government and the ultra-Orthodox administrators of the Kotel. The agreement to expand the prayer area and appoint a pluralistic group to oversee it was approved in 2016.
The government also announced it was advancing a bill that would remove the authority that local rabbinic courts have over conversions, and instead delegate control to the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
The decisions were seen by many as proof that Netanyahu caved to the haredi factions in the government to maintain his coalition, despite the outrage espoused by Diaspora communities that have a deeply vested interest in both issues.
The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), led by Natan Sharansky, for the first time in its history defied a government and asked it to reverse the decisions.
The conversion bill “has the devastating potential to permanently exclude hundreds of thousands of Israelis from being a part of the Jewish People,” JAFI’s board wrote.
JAFI’s board also proposed a resolution stating that “we deplore” the government’s decision to contradict the agreement “to establish the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world.”
The Israeli Consul General Galit Baram in Toronto and Western Canada warned in a diplomatic cable sent to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem that the decisions will further weaken ties between Diaspora Jews and Israel, Ha’aretz reported.
“We are receiving repeated warnings that these decisions will worsen the existing trend of growing and deepening alienation toward Israel among the younger generation,” Baram reportedly wrote.
The Israeli Embassy said in a statement that it and the consulates in Montreal and Toronto are “engaged with the Jewish community” on the issues.
“It is our priority that the concerns of the community are heard by the Israeli government and that the government’s position is understood by the community. It is our hope that there is a resolution that everyone can be happy with.”
Zionist organizations echoed JAFI’s stance and confirmed Baram’s dire concerns.
“Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA … stands together with the Jewish People worldwide in expressing our deep concern about two decisions that were reached in Israel in the last 24 hours,” the agency wrote in a press release.
Linda Kislowicz, president of the Jewish Federations of Canada, was in Israel last week for a series of meetings with Israeli officials and, along with other Diaspora officials, began lobbying Knesset members. The Kotel decision has the potential to harm Diaspora-Israel relations, she told CBC News.
“The damage is deep, but I hope temporary. I think that we shouldn’t underestimate the fragmentation, the fracture, the disappointment, the anger even,” Kislowicz told the CBC.
The Canadian Zionist Federation also supported JAFI’s position, posting on Facebook: “A clear message was sent that the majority of Jews in the Diaspora are not welcome in Israel and their views should not be taken into consideration. His (Netanyahu’s) slogan ‘One wall for one people’ really was not what he had in mind.”
Religious groups also responded quickly, and with dismay, to the two decisions.
In an open letter to Netanyahu, the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, an affiliate of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, called on the prime minister to reverse the decisions on the Kotel agreement and conversions saying they “unnecessarily foment division within amcha.”
The letter, signed by 63 rabbis from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations across Canada, called the conversion bill “a significant setback for Jewish religious pluralism in the world’s only Jewish homeland.”
The decision to revoke the agreement on the Kotel also left the rabbis “disappointed.”
“Just as every Jew should feel they have a physical home in Israel if they need or desire it, every Jew should feel they have a spiritual home in our ancestral and holy land – and the opportunity to connect with the sites that have inspired Jews for time immemorial,” the letter stated.
Rabbi Jennifer Gorman, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism, also expressed concerns about the decision, saying that, “This is important because the Kotel is becoming a symbol of the rabbinate’s stranglehold on Judaism in Israel and what will become the Jewish nature of Israel.”
“The issue is pluralism – is Israel a Jewish state or is Israel a theocracy, specifically a religious state, and there is one way of doing that religion,” Rabbi Gorman said in an interview.
The Reform movement concurred. “We’re very disappointed. We were expecting to see an egalitarian space at the Wall. It’s extremely frustrating and disappointing,” said Paul Leszner, past president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, cancelled a meeting that had been scheduled with Netanyahu last week, in the wake of the Kotel decision.
Modern Orthodox leaders were also concerned by the two decisions.
Rabbi Michael Whitman, spiritual leader at The Adath in Montreal, is currently in Israel. In an email to The CJN, he wrote that he was not responding as a rabbi involved in the city’s conversion program, but as “an observer.”
“Coercive religious legislation is wrong and harmful,” he wrote. “Two particularly sad results of these decisions: it is clear, by their most recent statements, haredim want everything and only on their own terms, rejecting the rights of anyone else. Plus, the government’s decisions are the most cynical pandering to an extremist base simply to stay in power.”
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, spiritual head of Toronto’s modern Orthodox Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue, said that allowing the rabbinate to control conversions is “an ongoing issue of concern in my community for sure.”
The debate over conversions poses logistical and psychological concerns for converts who make aliyah, Rabbi Strauchler said.
“Someone’s always looking over their shoulder … saying the life they live is somewhat problematic. This ongoing feeling of delegitimization they feel constantly is of great concern.”
Support for Israel in the Diaspora is “unwavering,” he said, but that doesn’t mean that Diaspora Jews are not upset and that the debate doesn’t exact a price.
For Norma Joseph of Montreal, a founder of the Women of the Wall, which has fought for women’s right to pray with a Torah on the women’s side, the newest debate over the Kotel is emblematic of its own ongoing struggles with the Israeli government and religious authorities.
The 2016 agreement split the Women of the Wall group, with the majority opting for the promise of an enlarged egalitarian section. Joseph, however, remains a supporter of prayer on the women’s side of the Wall. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that permitted women to pray with a Torah, the group has been thwarted by the Wall’s administrators, who refuse to allow them to use the site’s Torahs.
Efforts to take the matter to court have been deferred by the government several times, Joseph said, adding that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
The Kotel decision was not only a rebuke of Diaspora Jews, but is also an issue for Israelis, she said, because it represents the growing influence of the haredi community. Where once only marriage and divorce was under the mandate of the rabbinate, its influence is now felt over many areas of life, she said.
“There’s more concern because of what it symbolizes: the control of the ultra-Orthodox, the absence of a democracy, the overreach of the ultra-Orthodox, (all while) Israeli citizens are accepting more and more of pluralism.”