PROTESTERS GATHER in Jerusalem next to the Prime Minister’s Residence to protest the Kotel crisis..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘From today, the Kotel [Western Wall] is open to all Jews.” So said Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett in January 2016 when a deal was agreed to enable men and women to pray together at the Western Wall in a designated zone. Well, following the government’s decision to “freeze” the “Kotel Deal,” now apparently the Wall is not for all Jews. This a slap in the face to millions of Jews all over the world who believe in religious freedom and pluralism. It also makes it much harder to defend and advocate for Israel in the US and the international arena.
Like many others, I welcomed the January 2016 compromise, seeing in it not just a deal to enable egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall but a reaffirmation of the liberal democratic principles on which the State of Israel was established.
After this volte-face I feel disappointed and fearful for the future complexion of Israel.
Religious freedom has been a problematic issue ever since the establishment of the state. At the beginning there was the status-quo agreement struck between David Ben-Gurion and the religious parties, which effectively gave the Orthodox establishment a stranglehold on religious matters. To this day the Chief Rabbinate has authority over kashrut, shabbat, Jewish burial and personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce and conversion. Secular and non-Orthodox Israelis and Diaspora Jews still smart under the impact of that agreement.
In the “Kotel deal” at long last sought to address one of the injustices of the Orthodox religious monopoly. Not only did the deal provide a practical solution for those non-Orthodox Jews who wanted to express their faith according to their traditions at Judaism’s most holy place, but it also offered the hope that creative solutions could be found to address the legitimate concerns and aspirations of non-Orthodox Jews.
I agree with the assessment of Natan Sharansky that “[The] decision... will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.” For those of us at the coal face, defending Israel from criticism and vitriol, this decision is a significant obstacle. I and many others like me have not fought all these years for a haredi- dominated religious state. Here in the US, the American Jewish Congress has been a leading voice in advocating for hundreds of civil rights and religious freedoms cases.
Americans and especially American Jews cherish their religious freedom, and this decision in Israel portrays the country in a negative light. In one fell swoop it has the potential to alienate our youth and undermine the impressive success of the Birthright program in cementing the connection between young American Jews and Israel. Many more Jews will be turned off Israel now than were won over to Israel through Birthright. The support of the American Jewish community is crucial to the US-Israel relationship and there can be no doubt that this decision will be demotivating for a very large proportion of that community. Unsurprisingly a high-level delegation from AIPAC has been hurriedly organized to discuss the impact on support for Israel in Congress.
The government’s action is deeply damaging and plays into the hands of Israel’s critics, especially the growing number of progressives in the US. They will all now be emboldened in their view that the State of Israel has strayed from the high-minded principles embodied in its Declaration of Independence. This decision therefore has strategic implications.
It undermines the democratic pluralistic essence of Israel and Israel’s relationship both with American Jewry and the broader Diaspora.
Though he points to the wrong culprits, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau is absolutely right to remind everyone that the reason given for the destruction of the Temple, from which the Western Wall derives its holiness, was “sinat hinam” (baseless hatred) between Jews.
United we stand, divided we fall.
The negotiations announced by the Prime Minister’s Office last Sunday must begin soon. We hope the government can respond to rectify quickly this disappointment and repair some of the damage.
This was clearly a political maneuver, but the Western Wall should be out of bounds for politics.The author is president of the American Jewish Congress.