‘It’s obvious that the Kotel decision has been a terrible insult to American Jewry,” an Israeli friend wrote to me last week. He was referring to the Netanyahu government’s decision to freeze its commitment to create a section at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer. “Well, I am an Israeli Jew who goes to synagogue with some regularity,” he continued, “and I’m also insulted.”
His thoughts echoed those of other Israelis I have heard from. If many of us in the United States are outraged that Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a deal that had been made with the liberal religious streams and the Women of the Wall, many Israelis are outraged by the disproportionate power the ultra-Orthodox religious groups have amassed in Israel. The Kotel debacle demonstrates that, and so does the fallout from another bill sent to the Knesset by the Israeli cabinet, this one giving the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over conversions. If passed, Reform and Conservative conversions as well as private ones by Orthodox rabbis will not be recognized.
The reason the extremists have been able to gain such power stems from the nature of Israel’s parliamentary system. Because no single party is large enough to establish a government by itself, ruling parties have had to form coalitions with smaller ones. Historically, those smaller ones have often been religious parties, and government leaders have had to compromise with them on religious matters. But the current coalition includes the most right-wing parties, the most closed off from mainstream Israeli life.
There is so much fury within that right wing against the religiously liberal and so much rage in return that my mind slips back to an earlier period in Jewish history. It was a terrible time, in the first decades of the Common Era when Rome ruled Judea. Extremist Zealots were so intent on rebelling against Rome that they turned against their own countrymen who took a more measured stance. A civil war gripped the land, with the extremists killing some of the nation’s key moderate leaders. As we know, the extremism ended in the disastrous fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from their land. It was because of the dreadful divide in the nation that the rabbis spoke of sinat hinam, wanton hatred, as causing the destruction of the Second Temple.
Israel is certainly nowhere near that now, but when the ultra-Orthodox spew out venom, calling Reform and Conservative Jews “swine” and “gangsters,” one has to wonder what such wanton hatred will breed among the larger Israeli public, already feeling oppressed by religious fundamentalism.
Caught up in the broken promise of the Wall are the Women of the Wall, who were to share in the new egalitarian space. As the first woman to carry a Torah to the Wall in 1988 when the group began, I had mixed feelings about the compromise the women had made. I wanted to hold out, as a group calling itself the “original Women of the Wall” has been doing, until the original aim is realized and the women are allowed to pray together at the Kotel itself and not only in a new space. Nevertheless, I welcomed the government’s willingness to recognize the women’s cause. Now the Women of the Wall have been pushed aside yet again.
And here in America, members of the liberal denominations gnash their teeth at the denigration and delegitimization that the cancellation of the agreement represents. Israeli leaders have consistently presented their country as the national home of the Jewish people, meaning all the Jewish people. If American Jews haven’t made aliyah in the numbers those leaders had hoped for, we have backed Israel with all our heart, both financially and emotionally. We have sent our children and grandchildren there to study, and urged them to stand strong against the anti-Israel attacks roiling our campuses. So, yes, we feel betrayed and hurt and angered.
Back in 1950, Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee, worried — as the still-insecure Jewish community did at that time — that American Jewish commitment to Israel would lead to accusations of dual loyalty. He initiated an agreement with David Ben-Gurion that emphasized American Jewry’s independence from Israel and its political attachment only to the United States. All the prime ministers of that era signed the agreement: Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir. And all disregarded it. They affirmed instead that Jews everywhere needed to view Israel as the center of Jewish life and Israel, in turn, needed to feel responsible for the lives of Jews everywhere.
Is that mutual love and support vanishing now? Will American Jews, feeling rejected, pull into themselves further away from Israel? Will Jacob Blaustein’s attitude of denying the centrality of Israel win out after all? That would be a tragedy all around.
Francine Klagsbrun’s biography of Golda Meir, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” will be published in October.