Women of the Wall at the Kotel.
(photo credit: screenshot)
The Orthodox establishment is at war with Reform and Conservative Jewry again and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is caught in the middle.
Because Israel lacks a constitution that dictates clear principles of religious freedom (among other basic freedoms), Netanyahu is left to fend for himself.
Will Netanyahu cave in to the demands of his ultra-Orthodox coalition members and renege on a deal granting non-Orthodox streams of Judaism state-recognized rights at the Western Wall, or will he seek to avoid a confrontation with American Jewry? On January 31, the cabinet agreed to radically overhaul the current prayer platform at the Robinson’s Arch area and create a committee composed of members of the Reform and Conservative movements, along with members of Women of the Wall (WoW), an organization representing women from all streams of Judaism that supports gender egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.
Since that cabinet decision, however, Netanyahu has been under pressure from his Orthodox government coalition partners – Shas, United Torah Judaism and Bayit Yehudi – to backtrack.
On Monday night, UTJ ’s MKs sent a letter to coalition chairman Tzahi Hanegbi detailing four issues that must be dealt with. No. 1 on the list was “the Reform problem.”
The MKs warned that if no headway is made on these issues by the end of the Knesset winter session, “we will see it as a breach of the coalition agreement and we will no longer support the government.”
UTJ ’s threat is particularly potent, because the present government coalition is narrow and rests on a slim majority of a single vote. Any of the coalition partners has the power to topple the government.
Now the prime minister is torn between standing behind January’s cabinet decision and thus avoiding a direct confrontation with American Jewry’s biggest and most influential denominations, or reneging on the cabinet decision and thus sidestepping the risk that UTJ and perhaps Shas will topple his government.
Netanyahu must be experiencing deja vu. In 1998, during his first stint as prime minister, the “Who is a Jew” controversy broke out. Religious parties strove to institutionalize the Orthodox monopoly on conversions.
That infuriated many American Jews, who threatened to reduce aid and support for the Jewish state. To defuse the confrontation, Netanyahu attempted to reach a compromise through the Neeman Committee.
Now, nearly two decades later, Netanyahu faces a similar dilemma. Ensuring that all Jews – including the millions of American Jews who belong to non-Orthodox denominations – are able to pray as they wish at a site considered to be the holiest place on Earth for Jews sends out an important message of Jewish unity: The Jewish State welcomes all Jews at the Kotel, regardless of the way they choose to worship God. Netanyahu undoubtedly identifies with this message and recognizes the importance of US Jewry to Israel’s future well-being.
At the same time, Netanyahu is an astute politician who is acutely aware that the stability of his government depends on haredi support. That’s why he is attempting to stall for time until he can figure out a way out of the conundrum. He has asked Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef along with the administrator of the Western Wall and the Holy Places, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, if they would like to see to the plan for creating a pluralist prayer space at the Kotel.
If Israel had a constitution that clearly defined religious freedom, such as the rights of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism at the Kotel, as well a clear delineation of the powers of the Orthodox establishment, Netanyahu would not be stuck in the middle of an irresolvable conflict.
Time and again these issues are solved via political bartering.
Israelis society’s failure to agree on basic principles with regard to religious expression and the limits of rabbinic powers (among other issues) will remain a source of conflict and political clashes for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, we are no closer to agreeing on these fundamental principles today than we were nearly two decades ago when Netanyahu served as prime minister for the first time.