Youth hold their prayer shawls as they stand in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayers site in Jerusalem's Old City May 17, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
This week the High Court is scheduled to hear the latest petition against the government’s failure to carry out its historic decision some 18 months ago establishing a section for egalitarian worship at the Kotel.
Whatever the court decides – there is a possibility the case will be delayed – about the constitutionality of religious pluralism, the government’s true effectiveness is stymied by two coalition partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism, whose ministers refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the majority of Jews to whom the Kotel deal applies.
All the fulsome blather about the unity of the Jewish people cannot change the attitude of fundamentalist ministers toward the evolution of Judaism in the modern world.
They can never accept the reformation of shtetl Judaism into anything other than stringent Orthodoxy.
There can be no change as long as there are ministers who deem Conservative and Reform Judaism illegitimate movements, who insult their adherents publicly, and who are capable of blackmailing the government by threatening to bring it down should it give them official recognition.
All Jews have equal rights in Israel’s so-called democracy, but it seems that for some politicians, there are some Jews who are more equal than others. The underlying cause of today’s turmoil is the fear of those who have acquired their undeserved monopoly on official religion.
As Prof. Gil Troy noted in these pages recently, “A healthy democracy has majority rule while respecting minority rights; [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] democracy has marginal minority rulers violating majority rights.” In Israeli democracy, the haredi tail wags the secular dog.
Israel brands itself as the only democracy in the Mideast, but in what other democracy are non-Orthodox rabbis not allowed to officiate at weddings or funerals, and Reform Jews reviled by government ministers with impunity? Israel clearly has a long way to go achieve the goal of freedom of worship that is proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence. It will never get closer to this ideal until there occurs a fundamental change in attitudes as well, it appears, in our government system.
Similarly, nothing much will change until the great mass of secular Israelis is educated to the values of religious freedom that can only be expressed when politics is separated from religion. Nothing can change unless and until the average Israeli citizen understands that religious freedom is no less fundamental a value than freedom of speech.
The average Israeli doesn’t care about the strictures of religious law, but could be brought to understand the importance of mutual respect and tolerance of religious beliefs.
This requires sufficient motivation by a leader who cannot be held hostage by 13 ultra-Orthodox MKs who profess love for Jewish unity while doing everything to alienate more than half of the Jewish people.
The Western Wall compromise of 18 months ago was an important act of Zionist statesmanship that could have sealed Netanyahu’s historical reputation as an Israeli leader.
Much has been made of how Netanyahu’s teenage years in Philadelphia gave him an intimate understanding of American Jewry and by extension the entire Diaspora.
It might be wishful thinking that an Israeli teenager’s US high school career gave him insight that, some 50 years later, enables him to know how Reform and Conservative Jews can continue to be exploited by Israeli politicians.
In the absence of such leadership, the Western Wall situation continues to fester as an open wound. There are no easy solutions. Hundreds of thousands of Reform and Conservative Zionists are not going to make aliya, although such a miracle is humanly possible and could result in a government coalition worthy of the Jewish people.
It is not up to Diaspora Jewry to fix our malfunctioning electoral system. Non-Orthodox Jews abroad who rightfully complain about being taxed for their Zionist commitment without representation in the Knesset can correct this injustice by joining the Zionist experience.
The problem is that small parties – like those led by the haredim – control the majority. They have the ability to blackmail the prime minister and millions of Israelis who deserve the freedom to express their Judaism as they believe it to be. Whatever their fears, it is not the purview of haredi MKs to decide who is a Jew.
What happened last week is proof of the need to change our electoral system. Governments need to be able to govern and the majority deserves to have its policies enacted.
Minorities deserve representation but what is happening in Israel is taking that to an extreme.