Michael Boyden
Michael Boyden

It’s not just about the Kotel

So here we are in the 21st century squabbling over rights to the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount built by King Herod two thousand years ago!

On the face of it, this is a struggle for religious pluralism in which those whose practices differ from those of the charedim and the Israeli orthodox religious establishment are fighting for their share of the turf.

Whereas the media has tended to portray this as a campaign launched by the Reform and Conservative movements demanding an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, it is worth remembering that the Women of the Wall was founded as a multi-denominational group of women and was an initiative that came out of the first International Jewish Feminist Conference held in Jerusalem in 1988.

One can understand and sympathize with the disappointment and disgust being expressed by those who are rightly appalled by the fact that Israel’s prime minister chose to backtrack on the agreement reached with Diaspora leaders some 17 months ago to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. However, having to choose between them and the charedim, Bibi was more interested in keeping his coalition together
In some ways this is one of the ultimate battles between Israel and the Diaspora and will sadly serve to drive a further wedge between our respective communities. As I write these words, it is reported that concerned AIPAC leaders, responsible for the Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, are on their way to Jerusalem.

Some American Jewish leaders are already beginning to ask themselves whether they should continue supporting their local community fund campaign which gives significant support to Israel, or whether they should direct their resources elsewhere.

It is worth noting in passing that this was a conflict in which most Israelis were not involved. Indeed, they remained silent. By and large, they don’t visit the Kotel, which has been turned into a charedi synagogue, and the struggle for religious pluralism is low on their agenda. Therefore, in a sense, all of this fuss was irrelevant to them.

The fact that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was interviewed in English on Israel’s current affairs programmes only served to give the false impression that this was simply a struggle between American Reform Jews and Israel. Nasty talkback comments such as “Make Aliyah and then you can have a say about what is happening here” or “Build a kotel in Manhattan” may have been untypical but give expression to the gulf that separates some Israelis from liberal Jews in North America.

The battle over the Kotel is symbolic. To whom does Israel belong? Who has the right to determine how Judaism should be practised in the Jewish State, and should Diaspora Jews be heard and respected? Anyone looking at what happened this past week will be wondering what the answers to these questions may be.

About the Author
Rabbi Boyden was educated and received his rabbinical ordination in London, England. Having served as the rabbi of Cheshire Reform Congregation for thirteen years, he made aliyah with his family in 1985. He has established Reform congregations in Ra'anana and Hod Hasharon and previously served as director of the Israel Reform Movement's Beit Din.
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