Israeli diplomatic missions in the United States are bracing for a campaign of protests by Conservative and Reform Jews ahead of the High Holy Days, over the non-implementation of a government decision to allocate space for pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall.
The cabinet decision, passed in January, has not been implemented due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox factions in the Knesset. Another contentious issue involves a law passed in July making it possible to bar Reform and Conservative Jews from using public ritual immersion baths for conversion.
The Foreign Ministry is very concerned that increasing protests by the liberal Jewish community, the branch of Judaism with which most North American Jews identify, over issues of religious pluralism, particularly egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, will hurt Israel’s standing in the United States. Senior Foreign Ministry officials and Jewish American leaders said that as part of the campaign, Jewish American leaders have warned Israeli consuls throughout the United States that the government’s conduct over these issues could make it difficult to encourage liberal Jews in the United States to be active on behalf of Israel.
In late January the cabinet approved the establishment of an area for mixed gender prayer at the Southern Wall, as an alternative to the Western Wall, to be used by Reform and Conservative worshippers. Ultra-Orthodox cabinet members voted against the decision but refrained from turning it into a coalition crisis at that point. Only after they were harshly criticized by the ultra-Orthodox media did the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, state that if the plan was implemented, they would leave the coalition, at which point implementation of the plan was halted.
Reform and Conservative Jews in United States and Israel regard the freezing of the plan as a sign the government is backtracking on agreements with them.

The liberal American Jewish community was further angered by the passing of the law on ritual immersion baths, promoted by United Torah Judaism. The law could make the use of public ritual baths or mikvehs off limits to Reform and Conservative conversion candidates as well as those who have undergone Orthodox conversion through a body not approved by the state conversion system. Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States regard this law as another blow to religious pluralism in Israel.

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Two weeks ago, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem instructed the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. and seven consulates in the United States to brace themselves for the protest campaign. Akiva Tor, director of the ministry’s Department for Jewish Communities, sent a confidential cable to the missions, entitled “Growing criticism of Israel among Liberal Judaism in North America.”
In the cable, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, Tor wrote that according to information received by the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, the Reform and Conservative leadership in North America is planning a major campaign during the upcoming holidays “in protest against what they call discrimination by Israel toward the liberal Jewish public.”
Tor said the campaign would include the lodging of official protests at Israel’s missions in the United States. He said the campaign will be spearheaded by the Jewish Federations of North America, the largest Jewish organization in North America. Tor said there would also be protests directed at the Prime Minister’s Bureau in Jerusalem, statements to the media and High Holy Day sermons on the issue.
There have already been some meetings between Federation leaders and some Israeli consuls in the United States and more meetings are planned before Yom Kippur. An American Jewish leader who participated in one of these meetings said that the message conveyed to the consul, and at other meetings with Israeli representatives, is that the government’s position on the Western Wall plan and other religious issues would make it difficult for liberal Jews to assist Israel.
“We emphasized the risk of alienating liberal Jews and especially the young generations from Israel. It might have negative effects vis-à-vis our ability to mobilize people for advocacy as well as economic and political support for Israel,” the American Jewish leader said.
Most American Jews identify as either Reform of Conservative. According to the most recent poll by the Pew Research Center, a few days ago, 18 percent of American Jews identify as Conservative and another 35 percent as Reform. According to various estimates, the number of Jews defining themselves as Reform or Conservative is close to 3 million, while only about 10 percent, that is, around 600,000 Jews, identify as Orthodox.
Tor reported to the consuls on a meeting between senior Foreign Ministry representatives and the director of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv. The Foreign Ministry officials told Kariv that criticism by the Reform and Conservative leadership, without an accompanying positive agenda, would magnify the distance between Israel and liberal Jews in the United States. Kariv said at the meeting that the leaders of the Reform movement in Israel and the United States considered themselves Zionist and committed to strengthening ties between Israel and the Diaspora, but were having growing difficulty curbing criticism of Israel within the North American Jewish community.
Tor asked the Israeli diplomats to increase their visibility in liberal congregations during the High Holy Days. “We assume that most of you make such visits a regular practice, but sensitivity under the current circumstances requires more attention and preparation for this.” Tor asked the consuls to stress in all their meetings with member of the liberal Jewish community that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the entire government is still committed to resolving the issue of prayer at the Western Wall in keeping with the cabinet decision, and that more time was needed “in light of the political difficulties that have been created.”
Tor asked the consuls to send greetings to all the congregations in their area emphasizing what there is in common “without ignoring the controversies” and that the Israeli government believes strongly that “every Jew should regard Israel as their home and feel comfortable here as a Jew according to their own way.” The importance of visits to Israel, especially by young people, should be stressed, Tor told the diplomats.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said that more Jewish organizations were joining the growing protest. In July, the American Jewish Committee instructed its representatives throughout the United States to register protests at Israeli consulates. “They tell us that backtracking on agreements makes it difficult for Jewish organizations to lobby for Israel on other issues, particularly among young people,” the senior official said. “The consuls are sending worrisome reports and some say they have no answers,” the official said.
One of the Israeli consuls general in the United States, who asked to remain anonymous, told Haaretz that the issue of religious pluralism in Israel and especially prayer at the Western Wall, had become a key issue among all the American Jewish organizations. “This bothers them more than anything else. They take the delayed implementation of the Western Wall plan, the conversion and ritual baths issue and the general attitude toward Reform and Conservative Jews as a personal insult.”
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