There’s a family feud between liberal or progressive, mostly Democratic party-voting American Jews and the Israeli government. The Americans are feeling unloved and unappreciated by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. There are certainly numerous reasons for this, but perhaps most predominant – or loudest – is the brouhaha over the current government’s cancellation of legislation which relaxed conditions for egalitarian worship at the Western Wall. This was only exasperated by Deputy Foreign Minister Hotovely’s recent misunderstood comments on American Jewry compared to Israeli Jews (jpost.com 11/23).
I feel that the Kotel (known internationally as the Western Wall Plaza) issue is overblown and being used to divide us. So, please imagine, for a moment, that the Kotel has traditionally been a liberal, egalitarian area where Jews of mixed genders gather daily, pray and sing together while parading around together with Torahs on appropriate holidays. Then, imagine that Orthodox and Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) – very vocal but not numerous – came once a month to the Kotel and demanded that the sexes be divided, that women not be permitted to sing, and that Torahs were to be held only by men.
Wouldn’t the liberal Jews be outraged that a relatively small group invaded their customary and traditional space, especially on the first day of the new month, and insulted the liberals’ concept of Judaism?
Well, that’s how the observant Jews who regularly pray at the Kotel feel about the Women of the Wall, their supporters, and their allies, who often are infrequent synagogues-goers who have never been to Israel. The more radical Haredim show their displeasure by insulting, shouting, and shoving the ones whom they feel disparage “Orthodox” Judaism. (In Israel, Orthodox means the standard, observant practice of Judaism.)
The average North American Jew fits in the liberal category and they are becoming increasingly alienated from Israel for many reasons. However, I believe some of their discontents is for reasons which are far from important to their lives in the Diaspora, albeit quite important for the few making aliyah. Adding to the widening chasm is the misinformation about actual accessibility to the Kotel for all persons, regardless of their religious beliefs.
First, a reminder: Israel is not a two-party democracy; it is a multi-party democracy which has always had coalition governments. This means that disparate political parties join together to run the country, almost always with Haredi parties included. There is always a political price paid to every political party to entice it to join the major party forming the government. The Haredi parties are no exception to this and they have obtained power in nearly every Israeli government.
This means that “Religion is political” in Israel, with the religious parties holding sway over many areas, including the Kotel. As I tried to point out in my opening allegory, it’s the omnipresent religious worshippers at the Kotel who are affronted by those Jews who rarely show up there, but when they do, insult the observant Jews there on a regular basis.
Not only that: the majority of Jewish citizens of Israel, even if they are not regular synagogue-goers, do not frequent the ubiquitous, publicly supported (read: Orthodox) synagogues. Attending services in the relatively few Reform or Conservative synagogues is not on their radar. To paraphrase a Jewish joke, two shipwrecked Jews on a desert island built three synagogues: one Sephardi, one Ashkenazi, and one neither would set foot in. Reform or Conservative synagogues would be in the latter category.
Let’s discuss the issue that’s most important. In my opinion, it’s a fact that Reform/Conservative movements are not well-accepted here. From my own experience, I can relate that the younger generation of native (sabra) English speaking Israelis almost uniformly don’t join the synagogue that they attended as children. The synagogue we joined in Kfar Sava, which is Masorti (Conservative), has congregants who average about 70 years of age. There are very few young members.
At the Kotel, Jews and others from all religions and nations have access to the Western Wall. There is a large men’s section at the left in front of the Wall, an adjacent, smaller women’s section, and an egalitarian section a bit further down to the right, beyond the Mugrabi Bridge. There is also another egalitarian section a short distance around the corner at the Southern Wall.
If one looks at the Kotel from afar (see picture below), it’s obvious that the Mugrabi Gate is an immovable object that separates the men’s and women’s section from the egalitarian section. The Mugrabi Gate is the entrance for Jews and others to the Temple Mount above. (Muslims enter freely from Muslim Quarter entrances.) The Bridge cannot be moved, at least for now, because the Muslims riot every time the subject is even brought up, due to religious proclamations that the Jews are undermining Al Aksa Mosque!
In conclusion, there already is one egalitarian section at the Kotel and one just around the corner. Most of what is in the “historic decision” that has been canceled or perhaps merely postponed are window dressing because only a small number of people take advantage of these existing areas for egalitarian worship. Therefore, politically motivated rules about weddings, citizenship, and conversions are almost totally irrelevant for non-Israeli Jews.
The problem in a nutshell: Factions within Judaism, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, fail to see the ties that bind us all. Instead, they make capital of the differences between us. Such attitudes bode ill for the future of Jewry. What is needed is a pragmatic viewpoint from both sides, live and let live, which will ensure our joint, continued future.