The furor over the Western Wall agreement boils down to a refusal by Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities to grant any recognition to Reform and Conservative Judaism. The main prayer space at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, has separate men’s and women’s sections, in the Orthodox tradition, and is run like an Orthodox synagogue.
The response to the government’s moves has been disappointment and rage, particularly among Jews in North America.
Charles Bronfman, the Canadian-American billionaire and a major Jewish philanthropist, sent a letter to the Israeli prime minister taking him to task and noting that “to my knowledge, no other country in the world denies any Jew based on denomination.”
And the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body that works to connect Israel with Jews around the world and that is led by the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, flatly canceled a gala dinner with Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Netanyahu has tried to mitigate the backlash, freezing the conversion bill for six months in return for a withdrawal of a recent court petition from the Reform and Conservative movements to have their conversions performed in Israel recognized. But the anger has not abated.
“Prime Minister, you must know that the wholeness of the people is more important than the wholeness of the coalition,” said Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a former chairman of the Jewish Agency, referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to preserve his political alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Addressing about a thousand demonstrators from the Reform and Conservative movements and the feminist Women of the Wall group outside Mr. Netanyahu’s residence on Saturday night, Mr. Meridor said the increasing power of the ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as Haredim, or those fearing God, was making him “a fearful Jew.”
Noam Tibon, a retired Israeli general, told the crowd that Mr. Netanyahu had “caused strategic damage to the state of Israel.”
The president of the United States-based Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, was grim. “This horse trading is going to affect the well-being, unity and diversity of the Jewish people,” he said in an interview.
Rabbi Jacobs said he was particularly concerned about the effects on American Jews and their fight against the campaign for a boycott and sanctions against Israel because of its policies toward the Palestinians.
“This is about those who stand up and fight against Israel’s delegitimization on university campuses and at Capitol Hill,” he said. “You cannot delegitimize the majority of American Jews, then say, ‘Can you help us out here?’”
Describing the clash as “a moment of truth, a fork in the road,” Rabbi Jacobs likened Mr. Netanyahu’s political maneuvering to selling world Jewry’s “birthright for a bowl of lentil soup,” an allusion to the biblical deal Jacob made with Esau.
The dispute is a symbolic one, over identity and belonging. It transcends politically divisive issues like Israel’s occupation of the territories Palestinians claim for a state. And it has prompted protests from Jewish groups not ordinarily critical of the Israeli government, like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, fund-raising federations and the multidenominational Canadian Rabbinic Caucus.
While Aipac has been criticized for lock-step backing of Israel, more than 80 percent of its supporters belong to non-Orthodox Reform or Conservative branches of Judaism, experts say, making the group sensitive to questions about Orthodox control of religious issues.
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, the leader of the Conservative Movement in North America, said that he thought his community would remain supportive of Israel, if not the current government, but that there was “a sense of betrayal.”
Many secular Israeli Jews, who usually care little about what goes on at the Kotel, chafe at the disproportionate power the ultra-Orthodox parties hold because of Israel’s system of coalition politics and the strictly Orthodox control over many aspects of life here, including marriage and divorce.
A poll commissioned by Hiddush, an advocacy group for religious freedom and equality, indicated that two-thirds of Jews in Israel opposed the suspension of the Western Wall plan and the conversion bill.
The legislation would complicate the conversion process, including private Orthodox conversions, for hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, mostly from the former Soviet Union, who are not considered fully Jewish under religious law. The bill would also block any future recognition of conversions performed in Israel by the non-Orthodox streams.
At the demonstration on Saturday night, people held placards saying “Bibi, do not divide the Jewish people,” referring to the prime minister by his nickname. Among them, Rabbi Naamah Kelman-Ezrachi, who in the early 1990s became the Reform Movement’s first female rabbi ordained in Israel and who is a descendant of 10 generations of rabbis, said, “American Jewry has finally woken up to fight for pluralism in Israel.”
Ofra Daus Kreisel, a third-generation Israeli who sent her children to the pluralistic TALI school system in Jerusalem, said: “I want the American Jews to flex their muscles and set an ultimatum. There is a feeling that we are only going backward in this country.”
The timing of the government decisions, while the Jewish Agency’s international Board of Governors was meeting in Jerusalem, amplified the sense of insult.
Minutes before the votes on the conversion bill and the suspension of the Kotel plan, Mr. Sharansky had accompanied Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the Israeli president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, and its American chairmen, Dennis B. Ross and Stuart E. Eizenstat, as they presented the research group’s annual assessment to Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet. One of their main recommendations was “to encourage pluralism in every venue possible and fight trends that distance the diaspora.”
By Monday, nearly 200 emissaries of the Jewish Agency had signed an online letter warning of “irrefutable damage to our collective future.”
The ultra-Orthodox politicians’ response to the outcry has been dismissive. Yaakov Litzman, the health minister and a member of the United Torah Judaism party, said the politicians were merely upholding a status quo that has existed since the foundation of Israel. An editorial published by an ultra-Orthodox news site described Reform Judaism as “perhaps a kind of religion, but a foreign religion like Christianity and Islam.”
Yariv Levin, the tourism minister, from Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party, told a religious radio station that threats to cut contributions to Israel showed “a large degree of chutzpah.”
“Those donors will not determine how the state looks,” Mr. Levin was quoted as saying. “If they want to cancel their donations, let them cancel them!”
But experts say the potential harm to Israel of a breach with American Jews, in particular, is not so much the loss of philanthropic funds, which amount to tens of millions of dollars a year. Rather, they say, it is the connection with Jews abroad that counts, especially those whose efforts help secure Israel billions of dollars in American military assistance.
“If you harm that asset, there will be very severe implications for Israel,” Mr. Bar-Yosef said in an interview. “Not because of the money, but because of the influence.”