The latest crisis began when the government backtracked on its decision to create a state-recognized pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall. In addition it approved legislation denying citizenship rights to converts who converted through private Orthodox or any non-Orthodox conversions.
To be honest, I’m having a very hard time understanding what exactly happened, and what are the implications. I’m not going to venture an opinion here (contrary to my blog name!) and leave you to draw your own conclusions from the following links:
[The government’s announcement] drew a slew of angry statements from politicians, Jewish groups and religious leaders on Sunday.
The recurring pronouncement in these statements was that with this decision, the government had delivered a decisive blow to the crucial relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, particularly US Jewry.
The government dealt a double whammy to liberal Jews on Sunday, with its ministerial committee approving explosive legislation that revokes the state’s recognition of citizenship rights for private Orthodox conversions, as well as the rights of Reform and Conservative converts to be registered as Jewish in the Interior Ministry.
These issues of religious pluralism are pushing away Jews who want a connection to Israel at the same as the Jewish state is fighting to keep world Jewry on its side when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and trying to draw the unaffiliated closer to their Jewish identity.
Researchers warned last week that Israel is losing the younger generation of American Jews, as a study released by the Brand Israel Group found that support for Israel has dropped 27 percentage points among Jewish college students in the US since 2010, with many taking issue with Israel’s record on human rights, tolerance and diversity.
The Reut Institute warned in March that ties between US Jews and Israel could reach a “breaking point in 2017,” accusing the government of a “blind spot” when it comes to the Diaspora.
Natan Sharansky, famed former Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union and now Chairman of the Jewish Agency, cancelled his meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu in protest at the Kotel decision. Today he writes in the Times of Israel that “We may solve the Kotel crisis but I’m not sure we may be able to rebuild trust”:
In an interview with The Times of Israel, he said the legislation on conversion approved by ministers on Sunday — which would cement an ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel — would likely not go through in its current format. From his contacts with ministers and Knesset members, he said, he does not believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can muster a majority to pass the legislation in its current form.
As for Netanyahu’s shock decision to freeze implementation of a painstakingly negotiated agreement to give non-Orthodox streams of Judaism a recognized, formal role in the oversight of a permanent, pluralistic prayer area slightly to the south of the main Western Wall prayer area, Sharansky said he believed a “formula” would be found to enable the agreement to go ahead.
“You don’t have to call it ‘recognition,’” he posited. “But you do have to allow representatives of the Reform and Conservative to run the place where they pray. That’s the minimum condition from which all the negotiations started.” Sharansky said he couldn’t say what precise “formula” would be found, but “I believe that very quickly” it can be resolved.
At the same time, he expressed deep disappointment in Netanyahu’s handling of the affair — saying the prime minister had put narrow coalition interests above the wider needs of the Jewish people. He noted, incidentally, that he did not believe the government would have fallen if Netanyahu had resisted ultra-Orthodox pressure on the issues.
And he said that the precious trust that had been established between Israeli and Diaspora leaders, as the Western Wall compromise took shape in recent years, may have been damaged irrevocably.
He also highlighted staggering ignorance among Israeli government ministers about Reform and Conservative Judaism — streams of Judaism with which the majority of American Jews are affiliated. “When I said to the government a year or two ago, Do you know that 85% of AIPAC supporters are Reform and Conservative Jews, half of the government were shocked. They really thought they were supporters of boycotts of Israel, all these crazies from J Street, Breaking the Silence. That’s all.”
I have a great deal of respect for Sharansky so his words are worth listening to.
Amanda Borschel-Dan details the arrangements at the current mixed prayer section, and reminds us that there already is pluralistic prayer at the Kotel, and that is not going to be taken away:
The historic compromise was multifaceted in its impact: The egalitarian prayer would continue in the southern area of the Western Wall, but there would be one entrance for all to the Western Wall plaza, which would lead to the different pluralistic, men’s and women’s pavilions.
There was to be a joint committee of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox women representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman and six government officials overseeing the southern area. The existing Orthodox prayer pavilion would be administered by [Rabbi of the Kotel] Rabinovitch. Additionally, the temporary prayer platforms would double in size and be more connected — giving much more access to the Western Wall for prayer in the Davidson archaeological park and room for up to 1,200.
For some, this 2016 compromise was not a victory, but a defeat: Senior archaeologists decried the decision to repurpose a park devoted to millennia of national heritage. Additionally, many members of the Women of the Wall splintered off into another group, which calls itself the Original Women of the Wall, and is determined to continue prayer in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza, not in the egalitarian section.
However, the main WOW group termed the compromise a feminist victory. “In approving this plan, the state acknowledges women’s full equality at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel. The creation of a third section of the Kotel sets a strong precedent in women’s status in Israel: women as administrators of a holy site, women as leaders, women as influential force not to be ignore or silenced,” wrote the Women of the Wall in a statement.
Whether it was the triumphalist statements broadcast by world Jewry, or a delayed regret, within days of the government decision ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset decried the deal — even after having accepted it and voted for it — and vowed to derail its implementation.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and former Religious Affairs Minister, explains how the Kotel compromise was going to work:
And one more person that is simply a must-read in my opinion is Vic Rosenthal, aka Abu Yehuda, who is worth reading on every subject he touches, but certainly on this one. He explains what’s Behind the struggle for the Kotel“. First he provides a historical overview of the situation at the Kotel and how the religious struggle began, complete with a map of the area:
In 1988, the Women of the Wall (WoW) organization was founded in order to obtain the right for women to pray at the Kotel with Torah scrolls and wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). They did not ask for mixed prayer with men, just a relaxation of the rules concerning how they could pray with other women in the women’s section of the Kotel. This would not violate Orthodox halacha (religious law), but is in opposition to the rules established by the Rabbi of the Kotel and the customs of strictly observant Jews (among others, the prohibition against women chanting out loud in the presence of men).
The women held regular monthly prayer sessions and were faced with opposition from the Kotel management and sometimes verbal or physical assaults by Haredim. The group began a legal struggle to force the Kotel authorities to permit them to pray as they wished, in the existing women’s section. They continued to pray there regularly, and numerous members were arrested for creating disturbances and disobeying police.
Then the Reform movement entered the picture and shuffled all the cards – to the detriment of the WoW:
What had been a movement to permit women to pray with Torah scrolls in the women’s section of the Kotel became a movement to permit mixed-gender prayers, according to Reform and Conservative practice.
For four years, representatives of the government and the other involved parties engaged in negotiations under Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to find an acceptable compromise. Finally, in January of 2016, a deal was made. An area that is currently occupied by an archaeological park at the south end of the Kotel next to Robinson’s arch (see photo above) would be permanently allocated to mixed-gender and other non-Orthodox worship, renovated and made accessible by a single entrance leading to both the new area and the original Kotel plaza. A committee consisting of representatives of the government and “non-Orthodox leaders” would manage the area, which would be outside of the jurisdiction of the Rabbi of the Kotel.
Hoffman, who had previously vehemently opposed the idea of a prayer area at Robinson’s Arch (she had called it “the back of the bus”) suddenly supported it. The Board of Directors of the Women of the Wall voted to move their services to this area when work would be completed, to the unhappiness of some of its more conservative members who felt that the original goals of the movement had been “betrayed.” The URJ put its full weight behind the compromise, because it represents an implicit recognition of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism by the state of Israel.
And here is the crux of the matter. The whole deal fell apart precisely because the Reform Movement were aiming for political legitimacy in Israel as opposed to a simple arrangement of prayer schedules at the Kotel and its environs:
So the demands of a few women for a small change in the rules concerning their Orthodox worship morphed into a challenge by the URJ, the standard-bearer of non-Orthodox Judaism, to the religious establishment and the government of Israel, to accept it as a legitimate partner. And this will never be acceptable to the Haredi parties.
URJ leadership in the US is furious, but it’s reasonable to ask them “what did you expect?” The overwhelming opinion of Jewish Israelis – not just Haredi, or even religious ones – is that Reform Judaism is not Judaism. And they are asking the Haredim to sit down with them as equals! They would as soon drive to the beach on Shabbat to barbecue pork cheeseburgers.
What will happen next? The Supreme Court will weigh in, and probably a new compromise will be worked out. The Haredi parties will not give in to anything that they see as legitimizing Reform Judaism, but mixed-gender prayer will probably continue to take place at the Robinson’s arch location. The original WoW who want to pray in the women’s section with Torah scrolls and tallesim will probably be out of luck. Rick Jacobs will continue to blame Netanyahu for everything, and continue to do his best to undermine Israel’s democratically elected government (because he understands democracy better than we do).
Who has lost out here are the women who had a reasonable demand, one that many Orthodox rabbis agree does not violate halacha. They might have gotten what they wanted if they had not chosen to ally themselves with an 800-pound left-wing gorilla with ulterior motives, the URJ.
It is all exceedingly sad that the Kotel, the last remnant of our Holy Temple, is being turned into a pawn for political gain by all sides.
And none of this is to address the haredi control of the conversion issue in Israel, with which I have serious issues.
Israel has enough on her plate to contend with (e.g. missiles from Syria and Gaza) without having to tear itself up over internal issues.
Once again we have to keep in mind that the Second Temple was destroyed through baseless hatred.