The storm that erupted between the government and the leadership of North American Jewry in June over the Western Wall and Jewish conversion has yet to abate.
Heads of the major Jewish denominations and organizations have in no way reconciled themselves to the indefinite suspension of the plan for a state-recognized egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
They reject the government’s efforts to placate them with physical improvements at the current site, and will forcefully fight any attempt to legislate a monopoly for the Chief Rabbinate over conversion which the haredi parties are aiming for.
As CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is the head of the Conservative movement in North America and was one of the key figures involved in the almost four years of negotiations for the Western Wall egalitarian section.
But despite the frustration, disappointment and sense of betrayal that emanated from the decision to freeze the agreement, Wernick insists that he does not regret having entered into dialogue with the government over the issue, and that it is still better that such a conversation was held, despite the outcome.
“Conversation and dialogue is always essential for sanity as well as making progress,” Wernick told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors’ autumn meetings which took place this week.
“The fact that we got as far as we did is excellent. It broke down because of the unfortunate reality of Israeli politics and the fact that the haredim have oversized influence over Israeli politics,” he said.
Shortly after the cabinet’s approval in January 2016 of a resolution to create a state-recognized egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall known as the Robinson’s Arch site, haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas suddenly got cold feet over the agreement.
Although they voted against the deal in the cabinet vote, they had participated fully in the negotiations and gave de facto consent to the agreement by not threatening to topple the government over the issue.
But the backlash from chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, as well as the online haredi media, against the deal forced UTJ and Shas to reenter the fray, since they appeared overly conciliatory to the progressive denominations, and they demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halt implementation of the agreement.
“The prime minister refused to call their bluff,” said Wernick, and pointed to the police investigations into Netanyahu and the pending indictment of his wife as having further weakened him in his ability to stand up to the demands of UTJ and Shas.
“The prime minister made promises to grant equal access to the Kotel, but then became impotent in terms of implementing it.”
Wernick said, however, that he does not think the Western Wall agreement and the goal of obtaining equal and fitting access to the site for non-Orthodox Jews is a lost cause.
“It’s inevitable,” he said. “I don’t believe extremism of any kind, including in Judaism, is long-term viable.” He conceded, however, that it will not happen during the life of the current government.
Contributing no less to the June crisis was controversial legislation advanced by the haredi parties to grant the Chief Rabbinate a legal monopoly over conversion.
The legislation was essentially an effort to preemptively circumvent a possible High Court of Justice ruling that might grant citizenship under the terms of the Law of Return to legal residents in Israel who converted through the Reform or Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel.
The legislation would also revoke the current ability of non-Orthodox converts to register as Jewish in the Interior Ministry, and would negatively affect the status of Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel outside of the Chief Rabbinate.
For the progressive Jewish movements, the proposal to deny all legal status to their converts is total anathema and would be viewed as another stinging rejection of non-Orthodox Jews in the Jewish state.
In order to reduce tensions and earn some time to address the issue, the haredi parties agreed to freeze their legislation for six months in return for the progressive Jewish movements requesting from the High Court that a ruling on their petition be delayed for at least six months as well, a request that was accepted.
The idea was to establish a joint committee with representatives from all sides to formulate a compromise, but, four months on, the committee has yet to convene.
Wernick said that there is “very little trust in the government’s credibility” by the Diaspora leadership, but said that the “foot-dragging” only adds to this lack of credibility, describing the situation as “dangerous.”
And Wernick argued further that the tensions between the government and Diaspora Jewry are not a result of the breakdown of the concerns alone, but are rather a symptom of the larger context, “which is that Israel, politically and religiously, supports status quo” and is moving toward the Right, and sees US Jewry as moving toward the Left.
“The gap between the Israel and US experience is the largest it has ever been, and it makes it harder to build bridges,” he asserted.
“Your average North American Jew, let’s call her Jane Cohen, is a liberal, progressive young adult. She had a bat mitzva, believes in human rights, and sees a stalled peace process, ongoing settlement activity, a government that suppresses female religious expression at the Western Wall, a place where she can’t celebrate or pray in the way she would want, and now you’re telling her it’s her homeland? Maybe historically it is, but where does it stand in her vision today?”
One of the biggest problems facing the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is that the issue of Jewish pluralism and equal rights for the progressive Jewish denominations seemingly comes very low on the list of priorities of the average Jewish Israeli citizen.
Ignoring such demands has no political consequences, and therefore the ability of the non-Orthodox denominations and their liberal allies to achieve their goals is extremely limited.
What is needed, said Wernick, is a sustained effort “to raise the priority level” of the value of Jewish pluralism in Israel.
“There needs to be a campaign aimed towards Israelis to change attitudes,” he continued, but argued that this would also be to the benefit of all Israelis, not just non-Orthodox ones and not just progressive Jews abroad.
“The ongoing haredi monopoly of Judaism in the Jewish state is not good for the Jews. This autocratic system for Jewish life has not succeeded in drawing people to religious life,” the rabbi argued.
In order to begin changing attitudes and raising the priority of Jewish pluralism in Israel, the Jewish Agency this week allocated $1 million to an educational campaign aimed at youth and young adults through various programs to increase their awareness of these issues, and to also raise their awareness as to the importance of understanding, and feeling responsibility for, Israel-Diaspora relations.
“Just like we want Diaspora Jews to support Israel, we want Israeli Jews to understand and support the Diaspora,” said Wernick.
As to the reaction in North America itself, Wernick said emphatically that neither he nor the Conservative movement would ever back boycotts or other punitive actions against Israel, in retaliation for the failure to uphold their rights.
“That’s why we work so hard on this, because Israel and the Diaspora have a symbiotic relationship. The thriving and strength of one community depends on the other, and we’re so concerned about this because we see a weakening of those bonds with which each can succeed and thrive.”
Despite that sentiment, Wernick pointed out that an organic reaction from individuals and the wider Jewish public cannot be ruled out.
“People are going to do what they’re going to do, based on their own sense of connection, commitment and affinities – and that’s the danger,” he said.
This could manifest itself in a change in political positioning, a decrease in investment and charitable giving, and the Jewish public at large being less willing to demonstratively support Israel and more willing to criticize it.
In particular he referenced a letter sent by seven Jewish senators to Netanyahu in September expressing their concern about the government’s actions regarding non-Orthodox Jews, and calling on him to implement the Western Wall deal.
Other Jewish congressmen weighed in on the controversy in June shortly after the crisis exploded.
“All politicians respond to public opinion, so if the Jewish public here [in the US] is more willing to criticize Israel on issues of religious equality, then that could spiral quickly to bad scenarios which could put Israel on the defensive.
“The US is still Israel’s most important strategic ally, and I don’t know if you can take the US for granted, and it may get harder to rely on that if you have a Jewish community in the US that’s feeling disenfranchised from Israel and doesn’t care. That’s the worst-case scenario, that’s the real earthquake, if people don’t care anymore.”
Ultimately, said Wernick, the power lies in Israel to seriously address the concerns of progressive Jews, who make up the large majority of Jews in North America, the largest Diaspora community in the world.
But he worries that too many more government actions that have an adverse effect on the rights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and, by extension, reflect a lack of respect for such Jews abroad could dramatically amplify the despondency and disenfranchisement already being felt.
“The danger is that you make such a rift that no one can control the outcome of. If the haredim pass legislation further delegitimizing North American Jews, then that would be bad, we might not be able to do much to hold that back, which is why Israelis and the Israeli leadership need to address this.
“If we [the Jewish Diaspora] are a strategic asset, then treat us as one.”
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