Does Kotel fiasco mark 'breaking point' between Israel and Diaspora?

With the wide range of streams of Judaism in the US and the emphasis placed on freedom of identity and religion, a growing number of Jews are feeling alienated from Israel.

June 26, 2017 00:50
2 minute read.
The Western Wall winter

The Western Wall on a rare snowy day in 2013. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)


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The announcement that the government had backtracked on its decision to create a state-recognized pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall 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.

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Israel freezes plan for mixed-sex Jewish prayer site at Western Wall (credit: REUTERS)

The deal, which was spearheaded by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, had already been a matter of increasing frustration and concern for liberal Diaspora Jews with each day it was stalled. When it was approved in January 2016, the liberal streams hailed the deal as an “historic” achievement, but as the months passed, its lack of implementation raised doubts over whether they had truly achieved any breakthrough against the “haredi monopoly” in Israel.

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.

As noted on Sunday by American Jewish Committee of Jerusalem director Avital Leibovich, the Jewish population of the US is roughly the same as the Israeli one, numbering six million – but only 15% of them are Orthodox.

With the wide range of streams of Judaism in the US and the emphasis placed on freedom of identity and religion, a growing number of Jews are feeling alienated from Israel, struggling to see a place for themselves under the tight grip of the Chief Rabbinate.

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.

Responding to Sunday’s decision, the institute slammed the cancellation of the Western Wall deal as a contradiction of the Zionist vision of Israel as the nationstate of the entire Jewish people. It charged that “the cancellation of the Kotel compromise weakens Israel’s claim to legitimacy. In light of international boycott campaigns and other efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel, the cancellation of the Kotel compromise undermines efforts to strengthen Israel’s legitimacy.”

The Israeli government often speaks of the importance of strengthening the connection between Diaspora Jewry and Israel. But actions speak louder than words. If the State of Israel continues on the same trajectory and ignores even the loudest of voices emanating from Jewish communities overseas, it is at risk of losing its standing as the nation-state of the Jewish people - the very premise upon which it was founded.

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