Lev Stesin
Lev Stesin

The Warning Wall

The decision by the government of Israel to indefinitely suspend the plan for Egalitarian Section at Western Wall has, on surface, created much commotion and steered heated emotions both in Israel and the Diaspora. The tumult around this tiny prayer area is a pronounced symptom of a grim state of affairs between the two halves of the Jewish world. The reasons for the decision are as political as they are cultural. It may have created vigorous protestations and an appearance of a sudden crisis, but, and more worrisomely, it is a loud and terrifying warning to all concerned parties about strong destructive currents splitting the People of Israel.

The political aspect of the decision is self evident. The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties are part of the a very narrow coalition headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud Party. They make or break the current government. The Reform and other Liberal streams of American Judaism have no political representation within the government. Moreover, the number of their adherents in Israel is negligible to say the least. However, listening to representatives of the American Jewish community has never been an Israeli political act. This conversation (beyond its cultural nature) has always been focusing on the community’s influence on American politics and the financial donations collected by various Jewish communal and religious organizations. It seems highly imprudent for the Prime Minister to put them at risk. Actually, despite much ado, neither one of them is being compromised.

Netanyahu knows the US and American Jewry very well. It has undergone a dramatic change in the past thirty years. The support for Israel has plummeted. 2013 Pew Center study found only 40 percent of American Jews aged 65 or older feel “very attached” to Israel with only 25 percent of 18-29 year-olds. When asked about the pressing issues, most American Jews put the concern for Israel at the very bottom of the list. An American Jewish Committee study conducted in 2015 put Israel next to last in the roster of major concerns with a mere 7%. High rate of intermarriage (71% among non orthodox sector) has produced a peculiar side effect: a sizable part of the synagogue members are recent converts. They converted to the religion represented by the Liberal streams of American Judaism. It is a Western form of Buddhism with World Peace as the deity devouring anyone advocating self-defense or lacking in self loathing. Suddenly, they are asked to become part of the national struggle taking place in a land far far away. They rightfully believe this conflict is an absolute aberration of the religion of which they are now part. The Reform and other Liberal streams of Judaism have been steadily shedding away all national and ethnic aspects of Jewishness leaving Tikkun Olam as the only true Judaism devoid of any tribal aspirations. When visiting a liberal synagogue, one may be hard pressed not to find a rabbi exposing anti-Israel views bordering on anti-Semitism. Most public displays of affection for Israel have been curtailed.

As an example, take the city of San Francisco (no longer on the fringes of American Jewish life). For many years in spring the Jewish Community Federation had been organizing big public events celebrating the birth of the Jewish State. Then the venue moved the local zoo (probably the organizers thought of the caged animals as the only ones capable of providing “safe space” for Jews in the city). The last few years no large central community celebration has been organized. Sadly, it is hard to blame the Federation for this decision. The vast majority of the participants of the last decade were elderly American Jews, former Soviets, local Israelis and religious crowd. Clearly missing were the plain American Jews whoever they are. Almost half of them never visit Israel in their lifetime (59% according to the 2005 American Jewish Committee survey). The vast majority of the participants cared more about mushrooms in the a Russian forest than about Egalitarian Section of the Wall.

The threats of financial repercussions run hollow as well. More and more the donations pool depends on a few dedicated generous individuals. They are the people who have been donating for decades and who sadly are nearing the end of their lives. These people (with a few exceptions) are not going to stop supporting Israel because of this or that government decision. And if the organizations representing the US Jews were to stop sending donations to Israel, these people will find other means of delivering their gifts. Also, the new cohort of the Jewish rich are not inclined to either donate or be directly associated with helping the Jewish State. Otherwise, the high tech boom of the past decades would produce a dramatic spike in the philanthropy to the Jewish State. It did not. For them the entire brouhaha around the Wall is non-event.

Finally, the real influence of the American Jewish vote has left the voting booth. As few recent US elections vividly show, Israel is no longer a concern to the broad Jewish public. A few states where the Jewish vote used to play a pivotal role are undergoing dramatic demographic changes rendering this block inconsequential. The real power and influence has moved to the lobbying nationwide organizations such as AIPAC and Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Unlike the Jewish establishment, represented by Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and The Jewish Federations of North America, the fossilized remnants of the past century unlikely representing real Jews or Jewish concerns and slowly being taken over by the “progressive” Judaism and its agenda, both AIPAC and ZOA have money, will and dedicated support base to express their interests.

Nevertheless, the current crisis should never have occurred. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government are to blame for breaking the agreement and mishandling the resulting situation. However, one must consider what would took place had the Egalitarian Section been actually opened. The infighting and crazy, circus-like gallop across “progressive” agenda and away from the common sense likely to be displayed at the site by various streams of the Liberal American Judaism would probably drive the Israeli public (which is in dire need of real alternatives to the Orthodox monopoly) forever away from what the American Jewry has to offer. After all there is a good reason why one must not mix meat with milk.

About the Author
The author lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.
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