The big story in the Jewish world of the past few days has been the decision by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to cancel the plan to build an egalitarian entrance and guaranteed access to the Kotel (Western Wall) for all Jews who wish to pray there according to their customs. After lengthy negotiations, a plan was approved nearly 18 months ago that would have seen the construction of a new entrance and the allocation of space for non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Kotel in egalitarian minyanim, something now prohibited by the Chief Rabbinate and the official Rabbi of the Western Wall. Caving into pressure from Haredi Jews, who hold political power and form a part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Prime Minister shelved the deal and created another commission to study the problem (a pointless task). All of this infuriated the people who negotiated the deal on behalf of Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel and around the world, causing some to respond with harsh statements against Israel, and Natan Sharansky, an icon of modern Jewish history and current head of the Jewish Agency, to wonder openly if trust between Israel and non-Orthodox diaspora Jewry can ever be rebuilt.
To untangle this issue, we ought to focus on three elements: 1) To whom does the Wall belong, 2) What insights can be gained from the behavior of Haredi (ultra-Orthdox) Jews? and 3) How should Diaspora Jews respond to the situation?
Undoubtedly, the Kotel or Western Wall is among the most recognized symbols of the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel. Built by Herod (73-4 BCE), Jewish ruler of Judea during the time of the Roman occupation, the Wall was reclaimed by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Since then, it has become a popular place to pray, stuff notes between the crevices of its massive stones and visit to appreciate the power of Jewish history in the land of Israel. The Kotel is also an official synagogue under the supervision of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, an arm of the government. Is the Wall the possession of the State of Israel, so that the way it is accessed and used is the sole determination of Israel’s government? Or is it the possession of worldwide Jewry, meaning that every Jew, regardless of denomination or the way we choose to practice Judaism, has a share in its ownership and thus a voice and vote in how it is managed?
That is certainly not a simple question to answer. We who live here in America do not serve in the IDF, nor do we pay taxes in Israel. What right do we have to determine the policies of Israel’s government? On the other hand,Israel is not only home to Israelis, but also the spiritual home of worldwide Jewry. Our relationship to Israel is different from our relationship to any other foreign country. Our relationship to Israel ought to be an aspect of our Jewish identity. There is a sense of belonging and connection to Israel that many Diaspora Jews feel. We need to nurture that relationship, especially among Millennials, many of whom are increasingly alienated from Israel because of the unsolved dispute with the Palestinians, an issue that is far more important to them than whether or not Conservative Jews have equal access to the Kotel.
The question of “who owns the Wall” is also symbolic of a larger issue—are the views and needs of non-Orthodox Jews, in Israel and here in America, taken seriously by the Israeli government? Or are we dismissed, primarily by the Haredim, as illegitimate clowns who pose a threat to the Jewish way of life by the way we practice Judaism? That is certainly how the Haredim see us, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s acquiescence to their demands was seen as an endorsement of their views, nothing less than an insulting slap in the face to the millions of Conservative and Reform Jews here and in Israel.
What insights can we gain from the behavior of Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews? These are people who claim to have exclusive understanding of God’s will and to have a monopoly on the truth. Such a viewpoint is simply antithetical to the fundamental values of Judaism. They exude intolerance and arrogance. What they have not been able to achieve through education and gentle persuasion they try to achieve through coercion and even violence. In the face of such obnoxious and offensive behavior, we must retain our dignity and our principles. We must be unwavering in our assertion that all Jews matter, and unflinching in our upholding of the idea that no one has as a right to claim that they know and understand God’s will and thus have a right to impose their views on others. Nothing good in human history has ever come from one group forcing another to submit to its will.
How should Diaspora Jews respond to this situation? I do not believe that we should attack the Israeli government, threaten to withhold financial resources from the State of Israel, or make bold statements about how Israel is no longer a home for the entire Jewish people. Rather, we must see the bigger picture. Yes, egalitarian access to the Kotel would be a meaningful expression of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry in Israel and around the world. But we ought not view this as a single-issue situation. At the core of the problem is that Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Jews in Israel are perceived as too small and weak to matter. Those who care about pluralism in Israel should invest resources in growing and strengthening the Masorti Movement. Learn about the work of the movement and support it with your charitable dollars. There is power and influence in numbers, and we must seek to gain influence by becoming bigger and stronger.
I welcome your comments on this powerful issue and look forward to a robust debate.