When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze plans to recognize the authority of an interdenominational committee over a prayer area near the Western Wall, Diaspora Jewish leaders raised an outcry.
Political analysts have explained, at length, that the core issue is not the actual expansion of the pluralistic prayer space, but the de jure recognition of the liberal movements of Judaism.
No less disdainful were the comments of United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who took the lead in bashing the Reform movement. Most recently, Gafni publicly declared that he is ready to meet representatives of any political and religious movements except Reform Jewish leaders. “The cries of the Reform are similar to someone who murdered their father and then asked the court for mercy because they are an orphan,” he said in a June 29 press conference.
While haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political rhetoric is generally several octaves louder than the already quite loud and at times uncivil Israeli political dialogue, the vehement hate speeches against the Reform movement stand apart in today’s Israeli haredi political polemic.
To some extent, for Israeli haredim, the Reform movement has replaced the secular Zionists as public enemy number one, despite the fact that 95% of haredim have never interacted with a Reform Jew, and certainly not a Reform rabbi.
It might not be obvious on first sight, but it is important to understand the imminent changes in haredi society.
Israeli haredi society stands at a crossroads today. For most of the state of Israel’s existence, the haredim refrained from forming a theology regarding the state, instead taking a pragmatic approach, securing their religious and cultural autonomy. The community’s lack of a clear theological position on the Jewish state led to a vacuum, which allowed the existence of two conflicting ideologies in the background, one pro- and one anti-Zionist, neither of which were allowed to impact the day-to-day life of haredi society, which was tightly controlled by its leaders.
However, with the onset of the Internet and the challenges posed by the “start-up” state, juxtaposing an affluent “Silicon Valley” culture versus the poverty-stricken haredi sector, ultra-Orthodox society has been forced to change, start to adapt to some extent its educational system and to integrate its working youth into the army.
But a minority did not accept the need for change and has moved politically to the rejectionist Satmar Hassidic group, which employs virulent anti-Zionism in its public discourse.
The sad fact is that mainstream haredi political parties cannot survive without identifying a public enemy which seeks to destroy them.
Without an enemy, the current haredi political bloc is threatened with losing its votes to Zionist parties. It would create an analogous situation to the national-religious camp, which comprises around a third of Israel’s Jewish citizens, its constituency voting for almost all Zionist parties, with only a minority voting for the Bayit Yehudi Party.
Conveniently, the Reform movement offered its services as the enemy for haredi politicians. It was not to hard to accomplish, after all. It was only necessary to dust off some of the vicious polemics between the Orthodox and Neologs in Hungary from the 19th century and apply them to today’s politics. Never mind that the Reform movement has neither the ambition nor the spiritual capability to convert the Orthodox to its liberal-secular interpretation of Judaism. Whoever looks at today’s political discourse in Israel would see to what extent the Reform movement is vilified in the Orthodox press, while the secular state is de facto totally accepted. The reality is just the opposite. The probability that a haredi Jew will choose a secular lifestyle is hundreds of percent higher than the probability of becoming a Reform Jew.
The Reform movement responded according to script.
In their speeches, during the last board of governors meeting of the Jewish Agency, the leaders of the liberal movements attacked exclusively the haredim for holding the Israeli government and the whole Jewish People hostage. Sharansky voiced his frustration with the Israeli government over the freezing of the Western Wall compromise, and of the new legislation, which will give the Israeli chief rabbinate a monopoly over conversions in Israel.
As populism and hate politics go, the reality is quite different. When speaking of the Wall, the Americans speak of “one people, one Wall,” and when they speak about conversions, it comes down to “one people – multiple conversion tracks.” The painting of the Haredim as the arch-enemy of Diaspora Jewry is also factually wrong; haredi Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman abstained during the government vote to freeze the Western Wall compromise. Meanwhile, the religious-nationalist rabbinical group “Liba” is leading the fight to stop the recognition of liberal streams of Judaism at the Temple Mount, while the head of the Betar youth movement has proposed that the liberal streams of Judaism should be given a site on the other side of the Wall – on the Temple Mount.
One of the most ironic moments of this whole controversy was when the chairman of the Jewish Agency board of governors announced that the food prepared for the canceled dinner in the Knesset with Netanyahu was donated to “Ezer Mitzion,” to the sound of thunderous applause. Nobody told the very respected elderly representatives of American Jewry that “Ezer Mitzion” is a haredi-run organization, showing to what extent the Americans are bereft of basic information on the complexities of Israeli civil society.
The issues at stake are also totally misrepresented in the media. It is not the procurement and even expansion of the pluralistic prayer plaza next to the Western Wall which is being debated. Rather, liberal Judaism is seeking the official recognition of the State of Israel.
As an Orthodox Jew, I often wonder what Reform Jews have lost at the Wall. The very learned leaders of the liberal movements use the cliche of “the holiest place to Judaism,” though that is incorrect. The Wall is essentially a waiting room for the third Temple. Judaism’s holiest place is the Temple Mount, which is occupied by the Muslim Wakf. Let us not forget that the Reform movement doctored out of the daily prayer the prayer of “retze,” of the return of the Temple and its service. Let us also note that Reform synagogues are called “temples” because they were intended to replace the Temple in Jerusalem, and are deliberately not built in the direction of Jerusalem. To have an official Reform prayer space next to the Wall is like building a Protestant chapel in the Vatican, or having a kiddush club in a mosque. Both have the right of existence – but the location is questionable.
My challenge to my Reform brothers is the following: If you want an official place in the anteroom of the Temple, than why don’t you first put the prayer “Return us to to your service in the Temple” back into your liturgy, just as you re-instated the prayer of “Let our eyes see your return to Zion and Jerusalem” into your prayer book after history persuaded you that Berlin and Vienna will never replace Zion and Jerusalem. The dissonances between your politics and your theology are stark and contradictory.
Your threat to withdraw from Israel is mainly going to hurt your own movement and drive your youth to total assimilation. The dependence of Israel on American Jewry is also exaggerated. The whole yearly budget of the Jewish Agency is around $360 million, of which $170m. are being provided by the Israeli government. So considering the donations of Jews from Europe and other countries, Reform movement adherents are maybe responsible for $120m. to $135m. of donations to the Agency per year. Now look at today’s Israel. The $15 billion sale of just one start-up, “Mobile Eye,” this year provided more than 10 times this amount to the Israeli budget via taxes.
As to the political aspect of your struggle: are threats of the Reform movement going to realistically influence Netanyahu? Netanyahu knows that there is no love lost between him and liberal Jews. Netanyahu was not afraid to start a fight with a sitting liberal US president, defying him on his home turf, speaking to a joint session of the US Congress without his invitation. Will Netanyahu be cowed by the threats of liberal American Jews? If we look at recent history of Netanyahu’s policies, I wouldn’t count on it.
Like so many complicated issues within the Jewish state (for example, the absence of a constitution), it would be wise for all to seek understandings and practical solutions for problems and not get stuck in the mud of theological political warfare.
In the meantime, I wish my Reform brothers meaningful and successful prayers at your Western Wall prayer site, and ask them please to not shy away the Orthodox “Women of the Wall,” since it is thanks to them you got this place to begin with. And last but not least, I hope to see you and the million-and-a-half Jews you represent at the day the new Temple in Jerusalem will be inaugurated.The author is the chief rabbi of Moscow and the chairman of the Conference of European Rabbis.