The Rabbis described the Jewish people standing ready to receive the Torah at Sinai as “one people with one heart.” That view of the Jewish people has persisted from the rabbinic period into modernity, though sometimes more in the breach than in reality. We are a fractious bunch, but not usually when our security as a communal entity is at stake.
The recent decision by the Israeli cabinet — to renege on its promise to create a suitable, permanent, and aesthetic place for American and Israeli non-Orthodox Jews to express their religious or spiritual commitments in their own way at the Kotel — has shown that “one people” is a myth.
And that has broken our “one heart.”
The Kotel is not just a religious symbol. The now-famous picture of the awed soldiers who were among those who recaptured “the Wall” in 1967 was not a photo of Orthodox Jews. It was a picture of young men, mostly secular Israelis, who were in awe of the locus that embodied the centuries-old yearning of Jews, among history’s greatest victims, for a place that would allow them the dignity that comes with being able to decide your own fate and defend yourself when it is necessary.
That symbol, once meaningful to secular and religious Israelis and Jews around the world, has lost much of its hold on the imaginations of the 85 to 90 percent of non-Orthodox or non-observant Israelis since it has been reshaped by Israel’s religious establishment. That establishment changed the Kotel from a place that expressed two forms of sanctity, one historical and the other religious, into an Orthodox synagogue belonging to only 10 to 15 percent of world Jewry. And that synagogue too often has been a scene of extreme violence by those who think they are appointed by God to wreak vengeance on others, who do not conform to what they consider proper Kotel etiquette.
Under pressure from groups like the Orthodox Women of the Wall organization and the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel and abroad, Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the refusenik hero now serving as head of the Jewish Agency, if he would try to work out a plan that would provide worship space for non-traditional Orthodox and non-Orthodox religious expression at the Kotel. Work on a plan started in 2013. When it was finalized three years later, it was presented to all factions in the cabinet, which included ultra-Orthodox representatives.
As if the messianic age had arrived, all the parties signed on to an agreement that would allow a section of the Kotel at Robinson’s Arch as an area for religious expression at the Kotel that did not follow the pattern established by Israel’s Orthodox establishment.
Now, push has come to shove, and the ultra-Orthodox representative who had to sign off on the agreement refused to do so. Finally, the Netanyahu cabinet simply reversed itself, setting off the present conflagration between Israel and American Jewry.
The American Jewish reaction has run the gamut of strategies in the face of this breach of faith. Some seek to reverse the decision by threatening to cancel trips to Israel and withholding funds they normally give to Israel or its institutions. AIPAC has sent a delegation to the prime minister, expressing its opinion about how this will affect present and future Israel advocacy. Major Jewish business figures who support Israel to the tune of millions of dollars, as well as the heads of every major American Jewish organization, have penned public expressions of disappointment and outrage. Some actually have withdrawn their financial support of the projects they usually fund in Israel, most of which are neither responsible for or sympathetic to this decision.
While I understand the anger that leads to a financial boycott of Israel, I find that reaction tragic. It too easily plays into the hands of those whose boycott efforts are more about delegitimatizing Israel than getting it to be the state it should be. While I am sure that delegations of powerful Jewish organizations that advocate for Israel cannot hurt, I don’t believe they can sway a prime minister who responds only to those who can keep him in power or deprive him of it. And those people are Knesset members, not American Jewish leaders. As for angry letters, unfortunately they are easily consigned to the “circular file.”
I have more confidence in actions like that of the Chicago federation, the Jewish United Fund, which declared any government supporter of the Kotel catastrophe to be persona non grata in Jewish Chicago, and it would be helpful if Jerry Silverman, the president of the Jewish Federations of North America, would recommend the same policy to all the federations that make up his organization. That is an action of protest that could be taken without causing good, deserving, and innocent Israeli institutions that receive federation funds to lose them.
But if federations and American Jewry want to win this battle, the banishing of complicit Knesset members, who generally will not show up in the States anyway, is not enough. Rather, federations and major Jewish organizations must recognize that this is the moment to fight together the second battle for the Kotel, the symbolic place that is the “one heart” of the Jewish people.
World Jewry should be equally cognizant that there is looming legislation that will make the no-longer-Zionist chief rabbinate of Israel the sole arbiter of what constitutes a legitimate conversion. It is telling that in the face of the present maelstrom of American Jewish anger, the bill has been shelved for six months. But it will rear its head again if the charedi parties can claim victory in the Kotel controversy.
Can American Jewry of all stripes rise up against this proposed law, which jeopardizes the standing of all conversions, even those done under Orthodox auspices, if the chief rabbinate does not like a rabbi’s or beit din’s halachic standards or religious ideology? Prestigious American Orthodox rabbis’ conversions already have been rejected by the chief rabbinate in the recent past. True, the chief rabbinate backed down under pressure then. But when it is empowered by Israeli law, will it be cowed in the same way again?
We must unite in refusing to allow one body dominated by ultra-Orthodox figures to determine whose conversion to Judaism, in the recent past and present, is sufficient for them to be members of klal Yisrael. If we can unite, then some precedents for getting causes acted on in Israel might be instructive.
What brought the last Knesset to power? Tent camps that existed for months all over Israel with their inhabitants demanding more concern for the needs of the middle class and those on or below the poverty line.
What produced the charedi conscription legislation that required every Israeli citizen to carry the weight of the security of the state equally, including ultra-Orthodox men who were generally exempted from army service because they were all (!) yeshiva students? Refusal of rank and file national Orthodox and non-Orthodox Israelis to have their sons’ and daughters’ lives put in jeopardy for people who generally held the state in disdain. (This law since has been undone by the present Knesset at the behest of the charedi political parties, who threatened to bring down the government if it was not repealed.)
What brought Gilad Shalit, who was held captive by Hamas for five years in Gaza, home? His father’s organization of a “Free Gilad pilgrimage” of thousands of Israelis, plus other massive demonstrations worldwide, ultimately led Netanyahu to trade 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad, over the opposition of army and security personnel.
If these represent any models for result producing action, then only demonstrating and continued protesting by hundreds and thousands of American Jews and their Israeli friends and family will change the Israeli government’s perception of what it can get away with in relation to the world Jewish community, and especially its American branch.
So, don’t cancel trips to Israel or withhold funds. Treat Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and hold it accountable to all of us by arranging massive trips that include demonstrations at the Knesset and the prime minister’s office and residence. Better, let the best organized sectors of the American Jewish community, the federations, rabbinic organizations, and Israel advocacy groups, arrange such trips for their constituencies, together or separately, but in significant numbers. Missions and delegations won’t do it.
Israel’s present prime minister, who has the audacity to come to the JFNA’s General Assembly and publicly proclaim his love for Reform and Conservative Jews and then stab them in the back, has only one real agenda: staying in power. I believe that massive American Jewish protest on the soil of Israel and at Israeli consulates in the diaspora can show the prime minister, his cabinet, and the average Israeli how they have jeopardized the security of the State of Israel by letting two charedi parties rule highhandedly over 85 percent of world Jewry. This may finally end Knesset legislation against the interests of world Jewry and Israel itself will stop.
If we as a community can pull this off — and this is no easy task organizationally or financially — we not only will have strengthened ourselves, but we will have found the way to deal with Israeli political parties and figures that care more about themselves than their people at home or abroad.