Sherwin Pomerantz
Sherwin Pomerantz

Retrospective on the Wall and Conversions

Now that 10 days have passed since the decision of the Israeli cabinet to suspend the earlier agreement on the reorientation of the Western Wall area and the parallel decision to consider limiting conversions in Israel to those performed by the Chief Rabbinate, perhaps it’s time  to reflect on the lessons learned.

Lesson 1 – Transparency in Leadership is Everything

In retrospect the Prime Minister could have avoided a nasty fallout with diaspora Jewry had he done one simple thing.  Given that the overseas members of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Directors were in Israel on June 24th, smart thinking would have made him realize that a potential firestorm was imminent given the topics under discussion at Sunday’s cabinet meeting.  So his best move would have been to bring the Agency’s leadership to an emergency meeting after Shabbat and counsel with them about what was about to occur.  To be sure they still would have been unhappy.  But they would not have been surprised, they would have felt included and their positions would have been validated by no less than the Prime Minister himself.  He might even have picked up some worthwhile suggestions as to how to handle the Sunday meeting.

Bureaucracies hate surprises even more than they hate “noise.”  A high level meeting the night before the cabinet decision would have gone a long way to eliminate the noise and the surprise.

Lesson 2 – The Core Issue Was and Is the Inability to Trust the Word of the Government

While it is nice to lament the decisions that were made and their implications very few people are talking about the core issue.  The message projected by the cabinet decision is that the word of the government and its religious party partners cannot be trusted.  And this is not the first time that message has come through.

In 1998 the Ne’eman Commission on Conversions which was authorized by the government and composed of representatives of all the religious streams within Judaism in Israel, issued a unanimous report with recommendations for handling the conversion of non-Jews to Judaism.  But even with unanimity of opinion, once the report was issued the Chief Rabbinate (which refused to endorse or participate in the work of the Commission or even meet with its members) rejected the Committee’s idea of non-Orthodox rabbis teaching conversion classes  (n.b. the Chief Rabbinate does not refer to such people as rabbis but rather as non-Orthodox clergy) and, as such, basically sunk the entire initiative.

Now comes the Kotel resolution which, early in 2016 emanated from five years’ of work, once again by representatives of all streams of Judaism, and which was signed on to by no less a figure than the rabbi of the Western Wall himself and which laid out a plan for access to the Kotel by any Jewish group that wanted to pray there.  And once again, even after it was approved by all concerned, the rumbles from the Chief Rabbinate began and the support of the Orthodox dissipated resulting in the recent cabinet decision to suspend some of the provisions of the plan.

In both cases the credibility of the government which had previously validated both understandings was put in question when the understanding themselves proved to be just so much paper.

Lesson 3 – The Objectors Do Not Understand the Security Threat Posed to Israel by their Obstinacy

From the Chief Rabbinate all one hears is how the Reform and Conservative Jews in America are contributing to the demise of Judaism, how their children are marrying “out” and the threat they pose to Jewish unity if they are given a seat at the table.  During a meeting of the Shas Knesset Faction on Monday, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri insinuated that the Reform and Conservative movements would convert massive numbers of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.  Really?

Frankly, this is all bluster to cover up their amazing lack of knowledge about the potential security risk to Israel posed by our alienating American Jewry.  The United States is our principle ally in the world.  The United States remains our largest source of foreign direct investment.  The United States is our single largest export market with close to 40% of our exports sent there.  The United States is our largest supplier of military equipment.  Israel receives more foreign aid from the U.S. than any other country in the world.

Do we want to jeopardize even one small part of that?  Isn’t anyone in the Orthodox leadership in Israel concerned that a backlash among American Jewry just might impact the support of the U.S. and, therefore, imperil our security?  Doesn’t anyone realize that the overwhelming financial support for AIPAC and its activities comes from Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated American Jews?  Is anyone even thinking about this?

Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he opined “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”  What we have learned from this experience, perhaps more than any other single thing is that we need leaders in every place where Jews live that are committed to creative altruism rather than destructive selfishness.  Hopefully we have learned at least that lesson.  Lord help us if that is not the case.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 29 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Immediate Past Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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