Yedidia Stern

Are the ultra-Orthodox turning Israel into Chelm or Sodom?

This past Sunday, two extremely important groups of Jewish leaders convened in Jerusalem: the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. On the surface, the two groups – one of Israelis, and the other of Diaspora Jews – have similar goals and are natural partners. The Israelis perceive Diaspora Jewry as sisters and brothers, as well a strategic bulwark. Meanwhile, Diaspora Jews view Israel as a second home, a source of identity and pride. But, against all logic, Israeli leaders decided to stick their thumbs in the eyes of Diaspora Jewry’s leaders, by “freezing” the arrangement for a non-Orthodox prayer site at the Western Wall.

For many years, Israel’s official representatives have been giving the cold shoulder to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, to which most affiliated Jews outside Israel belong. The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize their rabbis’ legal rulings; the government does not provide parity budgets to their institutions in Israel; the former president of Israel refused to address the head of the Reform Movement as “rabbi;” and the shameful list goes on and on.

One controversial issue relates to finding a way for the pluralistic streams to pray at the Western Wall in accordance with their own customs. After years of arguments and humiliation, then Secretary of State Avichai Mandelblit, managed to get the two sides to agree on a reasonable solution, whereby the southern section of the Western Wall, which is not part of the current plaza, would be set aside for the non-Orthodox to pray as they wish. In this way, there would be no change in the form of prayers at the Western Wall Plaza, with separation between men and women. At the same time, non-Orthodox Jews would receive what they wanted – a suitable place, of equal importance, where they could satisfy their religious desires.

Even though this seems to be an arrangement in which one party benefits and the other does not suffer (if we overlook the frustration of liberal Orthodox women who would like to conduct gender-segregated services, according to their customs, but are excluded both from the current plaza and from the proposed new plaza), the ultra-Orthodox refused to go along. For them, the very recognition of the Reform Movement by official Israeli institutions is sacrilegious. They did not rest until they had twisted the prime minister’s arm and forced him to backtrack and announce that the agreement approved by the previous government had been frozen.

It turns out, and not for the first time, that government decisions are made of rubber and can be bent and twisted into a new shape at the whim of some party in the coalition. Placing the arrangement on hold – forcing the prime minister to bow like a reed in the wind – makes it clear that the Israeli government has not internalized the role conveyed by its name: to govern.

The old and disgraceful cacophony is being played again: the elected representative leadership of Israeli citizens is unable to make decisions about key issues that stir up controversy, and passes off the hot potato to the courts. This is something new and unprecedented the world over: instead of the branches of government vying for the authority to decide and lead, in Israel they compete over not deciding. The government’s fecklessness then “forces” the judicial branch to enter and act bravely where no one else will. Of course, the court ruling, when it is issued, will generate a torrent of withering criticism by the party that comes out with the short end of the stick.

Worst of all, the State of Israel is undermining the religious freedom of Jews by not allowing them to pray as they wish. It is hard to understand how the ministers representing the Likud and the Jewish Home parties, who want to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount in the sacred name of religious freedom, have the audacity to prevent other Jews from praying as they wish only a few dozen meters away.

For both the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry, Jewish unity is the most important asset of all. The ultra-Orthodox coercion threatens to shatter this unity, against the clear wishes of an overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens and Diaspora Jews. The failure by the prime minister and the rest of the government to act as they should, both as a matter of basic fairness and out of national interests, reveals that in fact they come from Chelm, a feature of Jewish folklore (to be kind to them), if not from Sodom.

Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a professor of law (emeritus) at Bar-Ilan University.
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