The day after the Israeli Cabinet decision to suspend the Kosel egalitarian prayer plan, the backlash was still at full blast despite efforts by the Netanyahu government to explain the situation and quell the uproar.
Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman issued a succinct, three-point plea for fact-mindedness during a time of seething emotions:
“It is important to Prime Minister Netanyahu that every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall. Therefore, alongside yesterday’s decision he issued three directives that have gone unnoticed:
That work to prepare the southern plaza be expedited so that Jews from all streams may pray at the Western Wall.
Second, that Jews from all streams be able to continue praying there – as they are able to do today.
Third, the Prime Minister instructed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and me to continue dialogue in order to try and reach a solution.
I recommend that those trying to exploit this issue be precise with the facts.”
Braverman left it to readers of the statement to figure out whom he had in mind—almost anyone in the Opposition or the Reform and Conservative movements with access to a microphone or a news column. It was not immediately clear what, if any, impact Braverman’s statement had.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett released a video on Monday that also sought to put matters into perspective. Bennett pointed out that there is already a section at the Kosel where people can pray in non-Orthodox modes. In fact, he was largely responsible for making that possible.
“Four years ago, in my capacity as Minister of Yerushalayim Affairs…at night, I quietly had a nice deck built, called Israel plaza,” Bennett said. The brouhaha over the plan shelved by the Cabinet on Sunday has no bearing on that existing arrangement, he said.
“As of this moment, every Jew in the world…can arrive, men and women, and pray freely here.”
PM Netanyahu himself invited the heads of the Jewish Federations of North America and the directors of the Jewish federations of New York, Chicago and Cleveland to his office on Monday to discuss the controversy which has suddenly enveloped his government and the entire Jewish world.
However, he did not invite Reform or Conservative leaders, nor Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency.
Given their reactions to his decision, it was probably assumed that they would refuse to speak to him. In fact, in an unprecedented snub, the Agency canceled a special dinner with Netanyahu that was scheduled to be held in the Knesset on Monday. Reform leaders from the U.S. and Israel disinvited themselves from a scheduled meeting with Netanyahu.
The Agency also convened an emergency session which produced a board of governors resolution calling on the Israeli cabinet to rescind the decisions on the Kosel.
Sharansky, who was instrumental in fashioning the controversial plan, told Army Radio that “This gives a very strong message that you (the diaspora) are not important to us.”
Opposition MKs were eager to pummel Netanyahu on Monday.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, a leading contender for the premiership, returned to the chareidi-bashing rhetoric which first carried him into the Knesset. He told his faction that Netanyahu was no longer prime minister of Israel but rather a “puppet prime minister” of the chareidim.
Like many others, Lapid warned of a split with the Diaspora. He said the Jews who would be alienated by the Cabinet decision included “senators, Congressmen, the majority of the pro-Israel lobby, major donors, the people we turn to when we need help ensuring that Israel will get advanced weapons, that the military assistance will increase, that there will be sanctions on Iran.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog is set to meet Tuesday with the Jewish Agency Board of Governors to plan strategy for fighting the government.
Tzipi Livni charged that “Netanyahu stabbed them in the back, promised and zigzagged. He talks big about what is best for the Jewish people and then does what’s best for him politically.”
Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern fired off a letter to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit Monday, demanding that he open an investigation into how the Kosel decision was passed. He said that ministers told him the issue was not on the cabinet’s agenda and took them by surprise.
“Cancelling the Western Wall agreement causes a severe crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora and when such a decision is taken secretly, away from the eyes of the public and without ministers having a chance to prepare for it adequately, a large shadow is cast upon it,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau rejected the divisiveness of the government’s critics.
“Unfortunately, there are marginal elements who are trying to [cause a fight] around the only remnant of the Beis Hamikdash, which was destroyed as a result of baseless hatred,” Rabbi Lau said.
“The Kosel belongs to all of us, everyone can come, all are invited to come and feel a connection to it, to come and pray here. Jews and non-Jews can come, Jews can come from different places and backgrounds, and everyone can come, because this house is the house where all can stand and pray [as the prophets said]..
“This is not the time to waste energy on disputes, quarrels, and certainly not around a place of holiness. Let us pray in a way that is respectful of one another. We will stand and pray together, for we are one people.”
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) said: “I am pleased that the government approved the decision that reinstates the longstanding situation at the Western Wall. We have succeeded in preventing unnecessary division of the Jewish people and harming the social and religious fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish people,” Ariel said.
He promised, “We will continue to defend and strengthen the status quo and Jewish identity for the benefit of the state of Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora.”
“Moreover, there is now a separate expansion [at the Kosel], and the Reform can go and pray there. But what the Reform Movement wants is the state of Israel’s recognition of the Reform movement as equal in status to the Orthodox, and we did not agree to that.”
“Because in the State of Israel, rulings on matters of religion and state – for all denominations and for all the communities – is the purview of the Chief Rabbinate in the Land of Israel. That’s how it always was, and that’s how it will be.”