JERUSALEM – Two high-profile groups of Jewish leaders on Monday canceled meetings with 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 dramatic moves reflected the widening gulf that has opened between Israel and the Jewish diaspora over how Judaism can be practiced in Israel. Most American Jews belong to the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel's ultra-Orthodox authorities, which 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.
A delegation of Reform leaders from Israel and North America announced that it too had canceled a meeting with Netanyahu planned for Thursday.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America and a member of the Jewish Agency's board of governors, accused Netanyahu of "turning a cold shoulder" to the majority of world Jewry, as well as the Reform Movement in Israel. The Reform Movement is the largest stream of Judaism in North America, claiming over 1 million congregants.
"The decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal, and I see no point to a meeting at this time," Jacobs said.
Netanyahu's office tried to deflect the criticism, noting that there are already arrangements for egalitarian prayer and saying that construction to expand that area would continue. The Western Wall, or Kotel, is the holiest site where Jews can pray.
"It is important to Prime Minister Netanyahu that every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall," said Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman. He also said that dialogue would continue to reach a solution.
"I recommend that those trying to exploit this issue be precise with the facts," Braverman said.
Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett, who established the current egalitarian prayer area four years ago, called the government decision unfortunate, but not a major disaster.
He said the government this week allocated some $5 million to carry out the promised expansion of the prayer area in the coming months. It was only other aspects of the plan, including construction of a shared entrance to all prayer areas and joint management of the site, that were frozen.
"The main message for Jews around the world is 'you are wanted,'" Bennett told The Associated Press. "The Kotel is open for all Jews of the world and will remain open for all Jews of the world."
The government decision has set off a cascade of criticism both in Israel and abroad, where Jewish leaders warned that it could undermine their longstanding political, financial and emotional support for Israel.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who masterminded the plan to expand and normalize the egalitarian area, called on the government to reverse course, saying the move undermines Jewish unity.
"This gives a very strong message that you (the diaspora) are not important to us," he told Israel's Army Radio.
The dramatic about-face at Sunday's Cabinet meeting followed the initial approval of the plan in January 2016 to officially recognize the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall.
The compromise was reached after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American 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.
But the program was never implemented, as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu's coalition government raised objections.
Under ultra-Orthodox management, the main prayer section of the wall is currently separated between men's and women's prayer sections and those attempting to hold egalitarian services in the area are often heckled and harassed. The small egalitarian area is separated from the main prayer site.
Under the plan, the egalitarian area would be expanded and receive a more central entrance alongside entrances to the current male and female prayer sites.
Sunday's decision on the plaza, coupled with another government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions, sparked the ire of liberal Jews.
Highlighting its sensitivity, the issue was not listed on the Cabinet's agenda and no official statement on the decision was made. Netanyahu himself refrained from addressing it in a speech to young diaspora Jews visiting Israel.
Elazar Stern, a modern Orthodox lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party, asked the attorney general to review what he called a murky decision-making process.
"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.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces, burials and conversions.
The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation. It resists any inroads from liberals, who it often considers to be second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages.
The liberal streams have made some progress in recent years, but have encountered ultra-Orthodox resistance when it comes to breaking the monopoly on religious practices.
"We made a mistake. We believed the government, we believed the prime minister, we believed that we needed at last to end this squabbling among ourselves over the Western Wall, and we agreed to a compromise arrangement," Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative movement in Israel wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "But the Cabinet's decision last night — a cynical, even wicked decision — took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world."