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The religious wars continue: Two days after the controversial government decisions to suspend the Kotel agreement and promote a new conversion bill, the issue is still high on the agenda. PM Netanyahu made multiple attempt yesterday to douse the flames, meeting with Jewish Federation leaders and conducting a phone call with the Jewish Agency chairman, Natan Sharansky. But according to well-informed sources, none of these encounters went very well. “Netanyahu tried to convince Sharansky and the Federation leaders that he did not succumb to the Haredi pressure and that the suspension of the Kotel agreement is actually progress – because it will enable practical steps to develop the area easier, but they clarified that this is a crisis that is not going to go away so fast.” Meanwhile, early this morning, Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett woke up and realized there are some political points to be made in this debacle. Bennett immediately embarked on a vocal campaign, warning of a serious crisis with US Jewry, who, according to Bennett “received a slap in the face from the Israeli government and feel unwanted. Of course it is not true. The Jews of the United States are welcome and beloved, they are our brothers. But mistakes were made in timing and in the form of things,” he said in a Tweet storm. Bennett followed these statements with a press briefing and an on-camera statement. Bennett and his fellow party member, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, then invited Jewish Agency trustees, Federation leaders and Reform and Conservative representatives for a special meeting to discuss ideas to move beyond the crisis. Today, Bennett is trying to play the “responsible adult,” but on Sunday he did nothing to stop the decisions made by the government, even though the new conversion bill hurts parts of his own religious-Zionist constituency.
Meanwhile, in the Knesset, a special emergency meeting of the Jewish People Lobby convened with Jewish Agency trustees headlining the event. The hall was packed with MKs from all of the Zionist parties, including coalition parties Israel Beiteinu and Kulanu. Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai, who chairs the lobby, convened the meeting by stating that “this meeting is not in favor of the government or against it. This is a meeting against the government’s blatant decisions, which harm deeply the unity of the Jewish people and equality between Jews and Jews. We call on the government to cancel these decisions and erase this evil chapter.” Then Sharansky opened the meeting with a bombshell, stating that Federations are starting to convey messages that the government’s recent decisions could lead them to stop visits and donations to Israel. Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog said that the government’s decision to freeze the Western Wall agreement and pass the conversion law was “disgraceful.” “We must do everything in our power to prevent the danger and tragedy in that Diaspora Jews, especially American Jews and the younger generation, feel excluded and feel that they are not part of us,” Herzog said. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who has been all over Israeli media this week, called on Knesset members to “do what is right” and said that “The last word will come from the Supreme Court, which in a Jewish and democratic state is not just another institution.” It was a warm venue, and got even warmer when Yesh Atid’s Aliza Lavi, suggested to sing together “Hineh Ma Tov Uma Naim,” praising Jewish unity, but we will probably need more than a round of Kumbaya to solve this one.
Back in the USSR: Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a former refusenik who spent several years in the gulag, is in Moscow this week on a historic visit. Tomorrow, he will become the first Israeli to address the upper house of the Russian Parliament. In his speech to the Federation Council, Edelstein will talk about his “crime” of teaching Hebrew as a struggle for liberation, and the growing and improving ties between Israel and Russia today. After that, Edelstein will visit sites from his earlier life in Moscow – the home in which he was arrested, the prison he was sent to before the gulag, and the court in which he was sentenced on trumped-up drug charges.