Israel's shelving of a deal to allow men and women to pray together at the Western Wall echoed far beyond religion Monday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused of abandoning reform efforts for political gain.
Netanyahu's cabinet voted Sunday to back out of the hard-won deal, provoking a flood of criticism and warnings it could damage Israel's relationship with the United States' influential Jewish community. That followed pressure from ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties who are part of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition and follow a strict interpretation of religious rules.
Two high-profile groups of Jewish leaders canceled meetings with PM 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 later 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 prime minister made this decision without even a discussion with key leaders of the North American Jewish communities," Jacobs said. "The decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal, and I see no point to a meeting at this time."
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.
Women and men currently pray in separate areas at the site in Jerusalem's Old City, where religious affairs are overseen by Israel's ultra-Orthodox establishment. 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 to the decision they had initially endorsed.
Compiled from wires