Worshipers at the Western Wall to mark the start of Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016.
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
On a number of occasions in recent years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett have declared themselves defenders of religious freedom for all Jews, regardless of their affiliation.
At a meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America last November, Netanyahu supported the right of members of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to pray at the Western Wall.
“The Western Wall is a source of unity for our people, not a point of division...I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel.”
Last summer, Bennett strongly criticized Religious Services Minister David Azoulay, of Shas, for saying that Reform Jews are a disaster for the Jewish people.
“All Jews are Jews. Whether Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, haredi or secular. And Israel is their home. Period,” Bennett said.
In February, he said: “All Jews need to know that they have a share in the Kotel [Western Wall], whoever they are. We can be unified even though we disagree.”
Unfortunately, neither the prime minister nor the diaspora affairs minister have backed up their words with actions.
On January 31, the cabinet decided to allot a section of the Western Wall compound to non-Orthodox worshipers and the Women of the Wall, many of whom define themselves as Orthodox. However, the government has so far failed to move forward with implementation of the decision due to opposition from MKs and ministers in Shas and United Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. Earlier this year, for instance, Yariv Levin, tourism minister and cabinet liaison to the Knesset, called the Reform community “an existential threat to the Jewish people.”
This week, in another sign that the government is more interested in coalition stability than taking a principled stance on the State of Israel’s guiding role as a home for all Jews regardless of religious affiliation, a bill presented by UTJ and backed by the government sought to prevent Jews belonging to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to perform religious ceremonies such as conversions in state-funded mikvaot or ritual baths.
If passed, the bill would bypass a High Court decision from February that ruled it is illegal to ban the Reform and Conservative movements from using state-run mikvaot.
Even if there is an Orthodox establishment that controls religious services, this establishment cannot impose any policy that goes against the basic democratic values of the state of Israel, the justices said.
Alongside UTJ’s bill to bypass the court ruling, the government, in a callous attempt at compromise, has proposed that the Jewish Agency build up to four mikvaot for the use of the progressive movements in Israel.
The Jerusalem Post’s religious affairs reporter, Jeremy Sharon, has learned that it is likely the Jewish Agency will be asked to foot the bill for the construction and upkeep of the mikvaot with funds provided by Diaspora Jewry.
Is this what Netanyahu and Bennett meant when they said countless times that all Jews should feel at home in Israel? Why is it that religious services such as mikvaot are provided to all citizens of Israel except those who openly belong to a non-Orthodox stream of Judaism, who are required to fund their own mikvaot?
The battle over freedom of religious expression at the Western Wall and the battle over access to state-funded mikvaot are part of a larger culture war being fought in Israel. IDF rabbis and heads of pre-military yeshivot are attacking liberal democratic principles and have their own ideas about war ethics; in the Knesset, legislators pass laws that discriminate against Jews due to their religious affiliation; in the judiciary, attempts are being made to limit the influence of the Supreme Court, a bulwark against the tyranny of the majority.
The government has to decide what role it wants to play in this culture war. Will it remain faithful to the liberal values championed by Israel’s founding fathers or will it tap into populist, anti-liberal forces that seek to strengthen the Orthodox establishment that promotes bigotry against Jews whose beliefs and ways of worship are different? Netanyahu and Bennett have spoken publicly of making Israel a place where all Jews feel at home. They should back these words up with concrete actions.