At the Emergency Knesset Meeting Over Netanyahu’s Kotel Decision

Talya Wintman
on June 30, 2017

As a J Street U leader spending the summer interning with J Street’s Israel Program, I got an inside look this week at the latest crisis rocking the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community.

It started last week when the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended a plan to establish a permanent egalitarian prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, reneging on a landmark agreement reached last year with representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements. On the same day, a committee of government ministers passed a bill that would bar government agencies from recognizing conversions to Judaism performed in Israel outside the Orthodox-controlled state system.

These decisions are a major blow to the rights of all Jewish people of different practices to be able to worship freely in Israel, and to be treated equally and respectfully in the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.

American Jewish leaders are justifiably furious and deeply concerned about what these actions could mean for the future of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

I, along with a few of my fellow J Street U leaders in Israel, was given the opportunity to attend an emergency session of a Knesset committee convened to discuss the crisis. At the meeting, I watched Jewish leaders I admire, like the Reform Movement’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs, insist that it was unacceptable for Israel to create “a second-class place for second-class Jews in the Jewish state.”

And I was somewhat amazed to hear Members of Knesset, including center-right members of the governing coalition, passionately implore American Jews to fight these government decisions with all our energy.

Traditional pro-Israel Jewish institutions are leading the charge, calling on American Jews to challenge Israeli policies they disagree with. A number of Jewish Federations have even announced that they intend to take unprecedented actions to protest these policies, including refusing to host Members of the Knesset who vote for the conversion bill and halting donations to Israel altogether.

We share the hurt and anger over Israeli policies that delegitimize our practices, beliefs and fundamental relationship to Jewish peoplehood. We echo the need to take action to frontally challenge this outrageous decision and stand unreservedly with them. Moreover, we support American Jewish leaders in advocating for the values of democracy and pluralism that we all hold so dear.

We also can’t help but wonder: What would the impact be if many of the same leaders and institutions that are speaking out in protest on these problematic Israeli policies did the same against harmful Israeli policies supporting the settlement enterprise and the occupation? What would it look like if they spoke out in defense of the two-state solution with same level of agency, passion and commitment they bring to issues of religious pluralism?

This is an issue of critical importance to Israel and our community. In addition to the existential necessity of a two-state solution, the Israeli government’s drift to the far right has taken a toll on young American Jews’ attachment to Israel, as a recent survey confirmed.

This isn’t just true for students. The majority of American Jews support a two-state solution and US leadership to achieve it, and they oppose the settlements. When the Israeli government makes decisions — about peace or pluralism — that ignore the concerns and values of liberal Jews, it has a devastating impact on the vital relationship between our communities.

Imagine what the American Jewish community could do for Israel’s future and for the future of the US-Israel relationship if we stood together in defense of all of the values we hold dear — not just religious pluralism, but on other issues as well.

Over the course of this summer, I’ve been meeting with many young American Jews traveling and studying in Israel. I’ve heard how passionate they are about this place. But I’ve also heard how concerned they are by the ongoing occupation and the rising influence of the far right. I’ve heard how worried they are about what Israel’s future will look like — and whether it will be a future that has any place for them.

That’s why I’m so proud of the work of J Street U and J Street. We know that we can never stay silent when the future of Israel is at stake.

We stand with the leaders of our community in the fight for Jewish pluralism. And we hope they’ll stand with us in the fight to reach a two-state solution, end the occupation and secure Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.

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