The recent cancelation of the Kotel (Western Wall) Agreement, which was supposed to constitute a major step towards egalitarian prayer in the Kotel Plaza and government recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, enraged the Jewish world. “The Israeli government has betrayed Diaspora Jews”, “The rift between world Jewry and Israel deepens”, “Grave doubts whether American Jews will continue supporting Israel”, are some of the strong (and just) reactions.
But over-focusing on the anger of Diaspora Jews who feel that Israel, under the Netanyahu government, is moving away from them, and that Israel expects to receive but not to give, creates a misleading illusion. An illusion in which Jews in general care very much about Israel, its policies, and the attitude of its government towards them. An illusion in which every Jewish face turns towards Zion. An illusion in which ALL Jews in the Diaspora are fighting for their standing as proud egalitarian Jews, even while their Judaism is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Why an illusion? Because a growing majority of those Jews care less and less about Judaism – and less and less about Israel, its troubles, dilemmas, and wars. They are not interested in what the Israeli government decides on the issues of “Who is a Jew” or whether women may pray as a group at the Kotel.
The days are passed when Jews could not be members of local country clubs, when there was a quota of Jews at elite universities, when Jews were not employed at regular hospitals so they had to found their own. Today Jews are found everywhere, in positions of influence, in leadership and top management roles, with no regard to their religious affiliation.
So the issue of Jewish identity and connection to Israel is changing – unfortunately, for the worse. A clear-eyed view of the supposed emotional distress caused by cancellation of the Kotel Arrangement shows: Israel’s biggest problem is not with those who are angry – but with those who just don’t care!
In contrast, consider the Maccabiah games – a celebration of Jewish partnership at its best. Thousands of Jewish athletes from scores of countries gathered in Israel in early July to celebrate sport and Jewish togetherness.
Larry Smith, my friend from Boston, participated in the Maccabiah tennis competition during the week he turned 75. He practiced for months, physically and mentally, and ended up winning a bronze medal despite the high temperatures during the competition.
When Larry and his wife Elaine came to visit me, Larry shared his enthusiasm for the Maccabiah. “A celebration of sport, of Jewish strength, of a coming-together of thousands of Jewish athletes from around the world, of new friendships… of different opinions and viewpoints, of arguments that ended with handshakes and hugs…” Larry’s enthusiasm was contagious and I was (almost) convinced to participate in the next Maccabiah myself.
I heard a similar story from my friend Jeremy Freedman from Toronto, co-captain of the Canadian golf team and a gold medalist. “Jews gathering together in Israel, competing, enjoying themselves, making friends… what could be better than that?!”
And back to the Kotel Agreement. Conversing with several Jewish friends from the USA and Canada, I heard and empathized with their frustration and anger at the excessive government influence wielded by the ultra-Orthodox, epitomized by the cancellation of the Kotel Agreement.
At the end of the conversation I suggested: “Let’s remember we’re still in the midst of a struggle over the character of Israel. Israel isn’t even 70 yet. In many areas such as LGBT rights, women in key positions, and equal opportunities for minorities, it has made giant steps towards liberalism, equality, and openness. Let’s be grateful that we live in a time that allows Jews to struggle and influence the character of Israel. Instead of complaining, let’s struggle to influence, each according to our own beliefs and viewpoints!”
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, President of the Harvard Club of Israel and author of “Fundraising”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.