The Western Wall should be a national site and not a synagogue, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said on Tuesday, in a revealing conversation in Tel Aviv about matters of religion and state with rabbis and leaders of the American and Israeli Conservative Movement.
Top American Conservative and Reform officials met this week with Meridor as well as with a number of other government ministers in separate and – according to the Reform Movement – uncoordinated meetings.
Whereas the visit of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Movement in North America, was planned months in advance, the Conservative delegation, which consisted of heads of congregations and rabbis from across the United States, emphasized that they had come for a brief visit to address what they perceived as a recent serious downturn in religion-state relations in Israel.
Meridor, who is secular but attends an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, told the Conservative rabbis that he “identifies with them” and is unsatisfied with the status quo.
He said he was upset by a recent incident at the Western Wall in which a woman was arrested for praying with a tallit and Torah scroll. He spoke about the incident with Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich but failed to change his mind.
“The truth is that there is no equality between religious streams in Israel,” Meridor said. “There is no free market.
“What happened at the Western Wall bothers me. It doesn’t have to be a synagogue. It is a national site. I would change the status quo if I could, but it cannot be done with the current coalition.”
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Regarding civil marriage, Meridor said it was “unacceptable” that Israeli couples who are unable or unwilling to marry in Israel via the rabbinate are forced to wed abroad.
“Who knows what would have happened had Ruth the Moabite tried to join the Jewish people now, with the way the rabbinate handles conversions?” he said.
The rabbis expressed their deep frustration and their feeling that the leaders of Israel do not understand their view that such high-profile incidents like the one at the Western Wall endanger the relationship between American Jews and Israel.
“Israel is dear to us,” said Bill Lipsey, a leader of the Agudath Israel Congregation in New Jersey, one of the largest congregations in North America and an active figure in the New Jersey Jewish Federation.
“We are Zionists, and longtime supporters of the governments of Israel and of Israel’s policies. But things have gone too far. It cannot be that our rabbis are not recognized here, that our conversions are not respected here, that the non-Orthodox streams in Israel and especially the Masorti movement, receives degrading and discriminatory treatment.
“If in any country in the world, a Jewish woman was arrested because she tried to carry out the commandments, we would all – all over the United States – protest outside of the embassy. We would not give them a moment’s rest.
“And now here, in the State of Israel, at one of the holiest sites in Israel, at the Western Wall, which is such an important symbol for us all, a Jewish woman was arrested by a Jewish police officer in the Jewish state, just because she tried to carry out the commandment of wrapping herself in a tallit.”
Yizhar Hess, the director of the Conservative Movement’s Israeli branch, the Masorti Movement of Israel, warned that “the Israeli political leadership is ignoring an earthquake that is shaking US-Israel relations. The continued, degrading, infuriating and sometimes even evil discrimination against non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel have brought us to a breaking point. Israel cannot continue to be the only Western state in which Jews do not have freedom of worship.”
Yoffie, however, played down the immediacy of his meetings, explaining that he usually conducted such talks twice every year.
“We’re always trying to push religion-state issues, but not more this time than before. In meetings with government leaders, our agenda is, on one hand, to speak about the political and security situations, and the second to discuss religion-state issues.”
Yoffie did agree that “the coalition is potentially worrisome because
of who sits around the government table. We understand the danger that
exists for legislation that will be troubling to us on a whole variety
He but added that “thus far, there hasn’t been any
great disaster that has transpired. There hasn’t been a law that
fundamentally alters the status quo, although the potential for such
legislation exists and we have some very specific proposals such as
questions on the core curriculum and the civil union law, that have
positive elements but also some negative ones.”
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