While there’s been no official announcement, the deal to expand the egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch under official Reform and Conservative control, in exchange for changing the status of the Western Wall from “national holy site,” to synagogue under official haredi (ultra-Orthodox) control is clearly dead.
It failed once the haredi establishment made implementing it politically impossible for Netanyahu. No surprise: in the choice between keeping his governing coalition and placating North American Jewry, Netanyahu chose the former. He is after all, a politician, not a visionary of world or Israeli Jewry. Many who seem not to have realized this got a rude awakening from a prime minister who all but proclaims “l’etat, c’est moi” in his determination, in his tenth year in office, to stay there. But one cannot imagine a different prime minister behaving differently in the current electoral system.
For those of us appalled by the deal, which would have bulldozed the already-recognized rights of Jewish women to full religious expression at the Western Wall, its demise is a relief. Steady in our founding goals, Original Women of the Wall pursue our Supreme Court case – just referred up to be heard on the merits – to require enforcement of those rights. We do so against the branch of the haredi establishment which administers the Wall and which announced that its first act following the site being made officially a haredi synagogue would be to banish women’s group prayer and criminalize Jewish women praying aloud, donning tallitot, laying tefillin or reading Torah there. The deal, peddled as a triumph for tolerance and pluralism, embodied religious coercion and misogyny at its core.
While immensely relieved the deal is dead, I feel concern as I ponder where we all stand now, given the shortsightedness, bad judgment and mistaken priorities manifested in the deal. The Reform and Conservative movements staked all on signage in a grand, new entry to the Western Wall plaza that would have carved out designated, denominational and openly competitive spaces there: haredi at the Wall, progressive at Robinson’s; architecture proclaiming the equality and equivalence of the options. In the movements’ telling, this political triumph would spark a revolution of religious consciousness and draw masses of Israeli Jews repelled by orthodoxy to enlightened redemption at Robinson’s. The spectacle of an even more reactionary scene at the Western Wall – a prospect actually welcomed by some who spoke for the deal – would serve progressive purposes.
“May the best plaza win,” a spokeswoman for the deal actually said, as if this were color war.
The delusion that a grand space near the Wall would trigger a religious awakening was a version of the misplaced priority on buildings that various critics of US Judaism, very much inside the movements, have long bewailed. “Edifice complex,” Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg called it; “big box Judaism,” in the words of the Havurah movement and its successors. The previous Lubavitcher rebbe grasped this already in the 1920s. Surveying the US Jewish scene during a visit from Europe he declared: “They will build temples, and they will be empty. We will build schools, and they will be full.”
Yet that lesson seems not to have been learned. Instead of heavily subsidized kindergarten-to-university school systems here, institutions which would draw Israelis disgusted with overcrowded classrooms and short school days, and which, in 15 years, would produce well-educated voters socialized to pluralist, sophisticated variants of Judaism, we got a promised showdown in the Western Wall plaza. Those priorities can and should change. Educate North American Jews to see that the best chance for mutual understanding and respect between Diaspora and Israeli Jews – not to mention the immense social good it would do here – is through massive investment in progressive Jewish school systems: take a leaf about this from the success of the haredi and national religious systems. Run gap-year programs in which your youth tutor in these schools. Have your rabbinical and cantorial students teach in them.
The progressive movements were prepared to cede the Western Wall, and large financial payoffs buried in the details of the deal, to the same establishment that anathematizes them not just in hate-filled pronouncements but in bigoted legislation to establish separate mikvaot. One hopes the movements have now relinquished definitively any openness to tradeoffs with the haredi establishment.
That establishment, in all its variants, represents a totalitarian worldview and promotes totalitarian practice, in and outside of its purview. It uses the institutions of democracy and modern technology to advance its goals without accepting the ideas or ideals of democracy, and while working feverishly to keep technology from its adherents, the better, cult-like, to control them completely. Any form of political Judaism is a fundamental threat to democracy. There are some deals, with some partners, which cannot be made, ever.
Reports of new machinations about Netanyahu’s coalition abound. But as long as inclusion of the haredi parties is essential to governing, any government will harbor in its midst a shackle to healthy democracy.
Since a fundamental overhaul of the electoral system is not in the offing, here is an alternative that could be implemented.
The Zionist Union and Yesh Atid need to stop running against one another, create a coalition-in-opposition and commit that, come the next election, they will form a government without the haredi parties. Tzipi Livni almost formed such a government on this principle a few years ago.
Netanyahu had such a coalition in his previous government but ditched it hopes of greater electoral gains and rule in perpetuity through a new election. He, clearly, doesn’t care that the haredi parties are a threat to democracy. To him (and in fairness, to most of his predecessors, and would-be successors), they are key to forming a government, for which he is willing to pay any price demanded: an end to the deal, of course; to enforcing universal army service or even minimal secular education in all state-funded schools; passage of the mikva bill.
Throw the Jewish Agency funds to build separate – by all means, equal! – facilities for those Other Jews. This is what our current system delivers.
Next time, there has to be a real alternative. That will happen only if these parties, yes, with all their leaders’ egos and ambitions, put Israel’s welfare first. By announcing this commitment now, these parties hasten the coming of the next try. Imagine the excitement of such an announcement – real, not recycled, political news; principle, not just realpolitik. Watch Kulanu, in the current coalition, take notice when these parties show serious prospects of winning a governing mandate because they will proceed together rather than follow the tired pattern in which no party wins enough seats to dispense with the haredi parties. Let the leaders of the parties demonstrate their worthiness to govern in their willingness to sacrifice personal ambition for the common good.
Now, post-deal, is the time for a decisive confrontation between an Israel which is an open marketplace of religious, political and cultural ideas, and political Judaism, whether haredi or any other style.
The time has come for the Center, Right and Left in Israel, and for would-be leaders of religious movements, to show real leadership and to offer vision, and hope.
The author is a Jewish historian and award-winning author who teaches at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University, and is a plaintiff on the Supreme Court case to enforce Jewish women’s right to Torah reading at the Western Wall.
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