JERUSALEM – A bill that would enshrine ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Jewish conversions in Israel will hopefully be postponed to allow time for the thorny issue to be resolved, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday in an apparent attempt to calm tensions with U.S. Jewish groups.
The bill, along with a decision to scrap plans for a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem's Western Wall this week, has angered liberal American Jewish groups, which have hinted the issues could undermine their longstanding political, financial and emotional support for Israel.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis rigorously govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces, burials and conversions. Their strict interpretation of religious law often puts them at odds with liberal Jews practicing their faith in Israel. Most American Jews belong to the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel's ultra-Orthodox authorities, who frown on many of their rituals.
"Domestic peace among the Jewish People is important to me. It is important to me both as Prime Minister of Israel and as a son of the Jewish People," Netanyahu said after a meeting with the heads of the coalition parties over the crisis.
Netanyahu said it was decided legislation, as well as an appeal over the issue, will be "frozen" while a team works for about six months "on finding solutions for an agreed-upon arrangement." He said the government together with the appellants will on Sunday ask the High Court of Justice for a stay on its decision.
"I very much hope that the High Court of Justice will accede to this joint request because it will calm things down and also open a door to hope for an agreed-upon arrangement among our people," Netanyahu said.
The bill could be revived if the court turns down the request.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel's Reform Jewish movement issued a statement together with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America, saying they hope the delay "marks a return to a process of dialogue." He stressed that they "we will not hesitate to go back to the courtroom" if necessary.
The rabbis wrote the delay is "an important rebuke to the aggressive behavior of the ultra-Orthodox toward diaspora Jewry and the non-Orthodox streams."
They also expect Netanyahu to act on the "despicable decision" made regarding the mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall, according to the statement.
"We will not allow the unity of the Jewish people to be placed in the hands of parties and politicians who have hardened their hearts to compromise, mutual respect, and dialogue. As long as this one-sided government decision is not overturned, the crisis in the Jewish world will continue," they said.
The plan to officially recognize the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, was reached in January 2016, after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and Israeli authorities. Under ultra-Orthodox management, the wall is currently separated between men's and women's prayer sections. This week Netanyahu's government scrapped the plan.
Israeli media reported that ultra-Orthodox politicians stormed out of Friday's emergency meeting.
The meeting came after Netanyahu met with a senior delegation from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC Thursday night.
This week's conversion bill and Western Wall decision touched a raw nerve and sparked a rare display of public anger from American Jewish groups.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders in Israel in turn ramped up their criticism and said diaspora Jews would have no say in how religion was conducted in Israel.
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 official state recognition and having a say in religious practices.