Israel's government on Sunday nixed an ambitious plan approved previous year to allow mixed-gender religious services at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, angering many American Jews, who said they felt insulted and abandoned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is under fire from liberal Jews and some of his own ministers after reneging on an agreement to allow men and women to pray together in front of the Western Wall.
"I must express my deep disappointment at today's decision by the Government of Israel", Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said. 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.
On Sunday, the government suspended an agreement to allow a mixed prayer area following calls by Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the plan.
Women of the Wall, an organization that advocates for freedom of prayer at the Western Wall, promised to keep "praying according to our conscience". Many saw the move as a result of pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received from ultra-Orthodox members of the government.
We have shouted in outrage at Arab statements and United Nations agency resolutions denying the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem and its holy sites - a connection demonstrated by the Western Wall itself, a Jewish construction erected more than 2,000 years ago to support an expansion of the Temple Mount.
Jewish men of the Cohanim Priestly caste participate in a blessing during the holiday of Sukkot, in front of the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's Old City, in October 2016.
"This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world".
Realizing the plan was being stalled by the government, the Reform and Conservative movements, along with the Jewish feminist group Women of the Wall, petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to act. A small prayer area near that site, known as Robinson's Arch, has been in use since 2000. The about face, coupled with another government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions, provoked the ire of liberal Jews.
The head of the Conservative movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily that trusting the government was a "mistake". "We are happy about this, and thank the holy one, blessed is he, on this great success, " he told reporters after the decision.
The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation, and it resists any inroads from liberals who support ordaining women and gays, for instance, or are inclusive towards converts and interfaith marriages.
The New York-based American Jewish Committee said it is "deeply disappointed" in the government's decision and its CEO, David Harris, lashed out at Orthodox leaders who have held a grip on Wall operations. "We need to avoid controversy over things that do harm to the fabric (of relations) between American Jewry and Israel whenever that is possible". Dery is the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in Israel. Last week, the two parties proposed rescinding the 2016 decision.