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Alan Edelstein
Alan Edelstein

The Kotel: The deal that wouldn’t happen

Just after Prime Minister Bennett and other members of his government repeated what has become a mantra for them—how Israel is for all Jews, how they want all streams of Judaism to feel welcome, equal and appreciated, etc. etc.—and not long after pledging once again that they would pass the long-delayed Kotel agreement negotiated during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tenure, a deal Netanyahu reneged on under pressure, the Bennett government demonstrated  a similar modicum of backbone when it comes to keeping its pledges and backing up its lovely words about Israel’s approach to non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews:  It announced that it was breaking its pledge.

Bennett and several of his coalition partners, as well as President Herzog, have put relations with Diaspora Jewry, and particularly with American Jewry, at the top of their stated priority list.  If they do not already know, they will soon learn what anyone familiar with non-Orthodox American Jews knows:  that for a large majority of the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox, feeling that they are not treated as equals by Israel will forever be an obstacle to them identifying with and feeling as close as they might to Israel.

To a great majority of that majority, the Kotel represents a tangible and visible sign of the lack of equal treatment and equal status. While they may not visit Israel often, and while many never visit, for those that do come the Kotel is at the top of their list, and it is often among the most meaningful and emotional stops on their visit.

In case someone is tempted to disregard these Jews as alienated malcontent lefties marching with IfNotNow as they shout anti-Zionist slogans, I suggest counting the number of AIPAC conference attendees not wearing kippot.  On second thought, it will be easier to count those wearing kipot.

I’ve spent a decent number of hours explaining to Israelis why the Kotel, a wall seldom if ever visited by a great number of American Jews, located in a country seldom if ever visited by them, is such a lightening rod, such an important symbol of acceptance, equality, and appreciation to those Jews.

As mentioned above, the Kotel and, specifically, the Kotel deal, has become a symbol of how Israel looks upon and treats non-Orthodox Jews.  And, for those Jews who look further, the problems they see with the symbol reflect reality: Rabbis not recognized, marriages not recognized, funding not equal by a long shot. And the list goes on.

I’ve spent an equal number of hours explaining to American Jews why, despite the fact that there are so many non-Orthodox “secular” Israelis (a very misleading term—see Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuch’s “#IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution” for a picture of how Israelis do their Judaism), they are not demonstrating about and voting on this issue.

For most of these non-Orthodox Israelis, it is an occasional irritant:  weddings, divorces, and death.  Security, education, economics, transportation are the issues that stare them in the face daily.  Many of them seldom if ever visit the Kotel, viewing it as an Orthodox synagogue.

When the Orthodox hegemony does occasionally hit them in the face, they find they can accommodate or do a work-around without too much of a problem.

Some of the most meaningful weddings I have attended have been Israeli weddings where the couple, refusing to subject themselves to the Rabbinate’s process, have chosen a young friend to officiate.

The ability of many of these young people, often “secular” products of non-religious Israeli schools, to incorporate Judaism, attachment to the land and people of Israel, and spirituality into a service tailored to the personalities of the marrying couple is impressive.

Some of the couples make it legal, i.e. recognized by Israeli officialdom, by making the one-hour flight to Cyprus, getting married, and enjoying the weekend.  In Israel’s weird Kafkaesque world of marriage laws, non-Orthodox Jewish and civil weddings performed abroad are recognized, while non-Orthodox weddings done in Israel are not, and there is no such thing as a civil wedding.

For many non-Orthodox Israelis, the Orthodox synagogue is the synagogue they don’t go to.  They are not observant, but Orthodox Judaism is the Judaism they recognize.  It’s where they look to on those few occasions when they have a need for institutional religion. It’s what they know institutional Judaism to be.

Prime Minister Bennett and his Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana put the blame for their reversal on, per The Times of Israel, “the recent violent confrontations at the Western Wall between ultra-Orthodox protesters and would-be reformers, and efforts by the right wing to use the as-yet unimplemented deal to fuel incitement in Israeli society and against the government.”

While these threats are undoubtedly real and serious, it would be news to many that an Israeli government backs down in the face of threatened violence.  One would think that any Israeli government knows that caving into possible violence guarantees future threats and violence.  Bennett and Kahana know that and, under other circumstances, they undoubtedly pride themselves on standing up to threats.

The more likely reason for their backsliding on their pledge is the fact that Netanyahu’s Likud Party, as well as other opposition parties on the right, are using the government’s stated commitment to implement the deal as a rallying cry for the opposition.

Moreover, there are a decent number of the supporters of the right-leaning parties in the government, such as Bennett’s Yamina party and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, who are probably against or, at best, lukewarm, on the deal.  And there are probably a large number of Foreign Minister Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Defense Minister Gantz’ Blue and White Party for whom the issue is a low priority.

An unfortunate by-product of the failure to implement the deal is the impression left with many Diaspora Jews that there is no egalitarian space for prayer at the Kotel.  Such is not the case.  There is a part of the Wall called Robinson’s Arch where non-Orthodox Jews can pray together their way.

It has a somewhat inconvenient entrance.  Many do not think of it when they think of “the Kotel” because it is separated from the better-known and more frequently used section by an eye-sore of a bridge to the Temple Mount.

In fact, because the area is quieter and less developed, and because there are huge stones that the Romans threw down 2,000 years ago still strewn around, I actually find it has a more authentic and meaningful feel than the main, Orthodox-run area, an area that has been so polished and upgraded so as to feel like, well, a tourist attraction.

Now, with security and Covid-induced entrances and walkways and the like, my last visit to the main area reminded me a bit of waiting in line for an E-ticket ride at Disneyland.  (Ask anyone who lived in Southern California pre-1982.)

There are many things changing in the way the Orthodox Rabbinate controls, or doesn’t control, the lives of many Israelis.  Most of these changes are coming, at least initially, not by changes in the law, but by Israelis voting with their feet and their wallets.  Kashrut authorities and wedding practices are two of the highest profile areas where substantial and relatively quick changes are happening.

The same could happen with the Kotel.  If Diaspora Jews for whom this is a high priority issue moved here, used the Robinson’s Arch area frequently, and demanded change, it would happen. As former House Speaker Tip O’neill famously said, “All politics are local.”

With mass Aliyah by non-Orthodox Jews not about to happen anytime soon, there is a possiblity that change might occur if Diaspora Jews visited Israel frequently, and if they worshipped at the Robinson’s Arch area frequently and in great numbers.

Everyone loves the saying from Field of Dreams:  If you build it, they will come.  But, in this instance, as in most, the opposite is much more likely:  If you pack it, they might have to build it.

About the Author
Alan Edelstein made Aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. He was the founding partner of a well-respected California government affairs firm and was involved in California government and politics as a lobbyist and consultant for 30 years. He blogs at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com. He can be reached at ae@edelsteinstrategies.com
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