(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
One doesn’t need to be privy to all the minutiae of the long and drawn-out Western Wall prayer saga to understand the bottom line: the Western Wall is not accessible to Conservative and Reform Jews who want to come pray according to their beliefs.
This is a sad status for the decades-long struggle, which may never end. Apparently we’re losing the battle. What the Israeli political leadership doesn’t understand is that this is an important test for Israeli- Diaspora relations, as the deep divisions between the two largest Jewish communities in the world are expanding.
As the chairman of the Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People, I led a delegation of five Knesset members on a tour of four Jewish communities in North America two weeks ago.
Likud MK David Bitan and I established this caucus in conjunction with the Jewish Agency during the 18th Knesset, and it has grown and developed tremendously these last few years. This was the second time this year the Jewish Federations of North America hosted our caucus, whose purpose is to introduce Knesset members to the world of our fellow Jews in the Diaspora. For most MKs, these tours are an intense, eye-opening experience in which they learn about the complexity of American-Jewish communities.
At every single federation we visited, our hosts wanted to discuss the Kotel saga. Rabbis from across the spectrum – including Orthodox – as well as laypeople wanted to know what progress was being made. This topic has become the litmus test of Israel’s relationship with the American-Jewish community.
“You call upon us to help you continuously – sometimes financially, and sometimes politically,” the Americans say to us. “We are the ‘go to’ people in times of emergency – and that’s the way it should be.
“Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh
– Jews have always taken care of each other. This is a long-standing Jewish tradition and we share a real kinship. We love you and enjoy jumping into action whenever the need arises. We help you and you help us.
“It’s just that we’ve rarely ever asked for help over the years, and now that we do have a request – access to the Western Wall – we’re pretty disappointed. We are not bothered about the imbalance of help, but it’s not acceptable that when we do have a request we are ignored.”
This makes a lot of sense. When the Iran deal was being debated, the American-Jewish community stood strong alongside Israel. And they have our backs 100% on BDS. Financial support is as forthcoming as ever, through hundreds of different channels.
The American-Jewish community also functions as a conduit for Israel to reach the wider American community and we receive tremendous support from our non-Jewish friends in the US. Israelis take this support for granted and this is a big mistake.
And what does Israel say in response to the Americans? We tell them we’re a state, not a community. That it’s nothing personal, just politics. We must make compromises, since we don’t think we can survive without the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties in our coalition. We’d love to have all Jews come pray at the Western Wall, sorry about that, but our hands are tied.
Netanyahu, who on two separate occasions told the American-Jewish community not to worry, that he would be personally responsible for assuring free access to the Western Wall, has once again gone back on his word.
Years of negotiations led by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit down the drain. Just moments before reaching the light at the end of the tunnel – and some people had already begun celebrating – the haredi parties succeeded in torpedoing the agreement.
The MKs who accompanied me on this past trip were shocked to their core when they heard how disappointed the American-Jewish leaders were with the way Israel was dealing with the Kotel saga.
To most Israelis, this is a very marginal issue. They realize the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has absolute control over religious affairs and have given up hope that it could be any other way. They don’t realize that by doing so, they are alienating the majority of world Jewry.
Excluding Israel, assimilation among non-Orthodox Jewish communities worldwide has sky rocketed to a whopping 70% and statements made by Israeli politicians have not been encouraging.
Unbelievably enough, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin recently made a disparaging comment about the Reform community, and the ultra-Orthodox doesn’t even consider them Jewish. Even though legislation was passed by the previous government, the current government has overturned almost every single resolution following pressure from haredi parties.
Even Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who played a major role in these changes, has recently been photographed schmoozing with haredim at the Western Wall.
We are now being put to a test. This is a classic example of Israel-Diaspora conflict resolution and we must be very careful and thoughtful about the choices we make. If we make the wrong decision, it could poison our relationship with American Jewry for good.
Netanyahu needs to show us what his word is worth and that he can keep his promises. This shouldn’t be another case of politics – where you say one thing but do another.
The reputation of the State of Israel is at stake here.
There’s no better time for Netanyahu to do some soul-searching, now that the High Holy Days are upon us. He must ask forgiveness from the Reform and Conservative communities, and offer them, literally, a little piece of heaven here on earth.The writer is a member of Knesset from the Zionist Union, chairman of the Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People and has a doctorate in political science and communications.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.