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With Israeli decision on prayers at Western Wall, some see diminished clout of liberal U.S. Jews

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Jewish women pray at the men’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel is shelving a deal to allow men and women to pray together at the Western Wall.
(Thomas Coex / AFP/Getty Images)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to renege on a compromise plan for a plaza where women and men could pray together at the Western Wall, the decision was widely viewed as a move to placate ultra-religious parties in the ruling government coalition.

But analysts and former government officials say there’s another key factor at play: The rise of President Trump has reinforced the perception among some in Israel’s right-wing government that the clout of liberal non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. is diminishing.

“Because there is a Republican administration in Washington, considered by the prime minister to be more sympathetic to Israel than the Obama or the Clinton administrations, it gave the prime minister the confidence to go ahead,’’ said Gideon Meir, the former director of Israel-Diaspora relations at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

The government Sunday said it was freezing an 18-month-old agreement to expand an extra plaza along the wall in Jerusalem’s Old City for the egalitarian worship favored by Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as the Israeli feminist group Women of the Wall.

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In 2016, a member of the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall wears phylacteries and Tal
In 2016, a member of the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall wears phylacteries and Tallit, a traditional Jewish prayer shawls for men, as she holds a Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
(Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images)

Orthodox synagogues have separate areas for men and women, and only men may lead in prayer or chant passages from the Torah. Following Orthodox tradition, the current Western Wall plaza is divided into two sections for men and women to pray separately.

Reform and Conservative Jews want the government to upgrade a smaller prayer area at the southern end of the wall to allow for mixed worship in which women can lead services and read from the Torah.

The decision to abandon the agreement preserved an ultra-Orthodox monopoly on the holy site that was the retaining wall of the 2,000-year-old Jewish temple there and the most popular destination for Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem. It also came on the same day that an Israeli cabinet panel on legislation approved a bill to solidify an ultra-Orthodox monopoly over recognizing conversions to Judaism, another bone of contention with Diaspora Jews.

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The decisions triggered a tide of pushback from leaders of American Jews, 71% of whom voted against Trump, according to some polls. Donors are writing to Israeli officials vowing to end financial support of Israel, and leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, came to Israel and held an emergency meeting with Netanyahu.

Reform and Conservative Jews are planning a protest outside of Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on Saturday evening.

Reneging on the Western Wall compromise would have been harder with a Democrat in the White House, given liberal Jewish support for the Democratic Party, said Yoaz Hendel, a former advisor to Netanyahu. “It’s much easier to do it with a party in power whose political supporters are evangelicals and tea party members and Orthodox Jews,” he said.

At stake are Israel’s strategically important relations — and a sense of shared fate — with Diaspora Jews, especially the large and influential community in the U.S.

Though their political views don’t always mesh, liberal American Jewish leaders are frequently enlisted by Israel’s conservative government to come to Israel’s defense in Washington and, lately, on university campuses.

“People are feeling that the government of Israel is pushing North American Jews away, and saying, ‘Don’t be hurt by our de-legitimizing your Judaism. But, by the way, we need to you to go to Capitol Hill and college campuses’” to fight anti-Israel boycotts, said Richard Jacobs, the president of the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism.

“It’s clear that the current [Israeli] government feels that it has such a strong protector and defender in Washington in the Trump administration,” Jacobs added.

Although critics of the government’s decisions Sunday included some prominent Orthodox Jewish leaders, Jacobs said that, for progressive Jews, “it’s a difficult moment to not feel the distance” between Israel and the “core convictions” of liberal American Jews.

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On Friday, Netanyahu announced that the coalition had decided to postpone consideration of the conversion bill so a compromise could be found.

“Domestic peace among the Jewish people is important to me,’’ Netanyahu said, attempting to cool tensions with Diaspora Jews.

After Trump’s victory in November, ultra-religious leaders in Israel portrayed it it as a sort of divine intervention against liberal Jews in the U.S.

Jews who seek to impose “destructive reforms have suffered a blow,” said Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, with rabbis from his ultra-Orthodox Shas party flanking him after the election. “Their influence over us as the supporters of the administration in the U.S. has disappeared now, so we can go on strengthening the traditional Jewish religion,” Deri said.

Following Orthodox tradition, the current Western Wall plaza is divided into two sections for men an
Following Orthodox tradition, the current Western Wall plaza is divided into two sections for men and women to pray separately.
(Thomas Coex / AFP/Getty Images)

While Obama was inspired by liberal streams of American Judaism, Trump is seen by the Israeli establishment as more partial to Orthodox Jews, such as his son-in-law Jared Kushner and David Friedman, the new ambassador to Israel who once likened left-wing Jews to kapos, Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust who helped run concentration camps.

“Trump legitimizes the Israeli ‘me-first’ attitude toward American Jews,” said David Barak-Gorodetsky, a professor at the University of Haifa. “It says, ‘We had to take you into account for all these years and accommodate Jewish liberalism for the sake of the relationship, but now we have a new president who is more friendly to the Orthodox cause.’”

But Michael Oren, a deputy minister and a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., warned that the Western Wall move will sap financial support from Diaspora Jews.

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Oren also disagreed that the decision was linked to U.S. political trends, but instead reflected disputes over religion and state that have animated Israeli politics for decades.

But Meir, the former diplomat, argued that the decisions reflected a tendency by Netanyahu to focus on the Republican Party.

“Everyone left of center in Israel is like a traitor in his eyes,” he said. “The same goes for American Jews.”

Mitnick is a special correspondent.

@joshmitnick

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