The Kotel compromise

We’re willing to approach the same Jewish communities and ask them for help with one hand, while at the same time the other hand is conniving to hurt these same people.

January 12, 2017 22:19
Women of the Wall

Members of Women of the Wall at a prayer service at the Kotel in 2013. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Compromise is painful. And when we are forced to make compromises regarding the heart of the Jewish people – the Kotel – it can be absolutely agonizing.

Without a doubt, both sides have made strides to reach this compromise. But I will come right out and say from the start that the Conservative and Reform communities have made considerably greater compromises than have the haredi (ultra-Orthodox)-controlled state authorities. The former have given up the possibility of praying in the Kotel Plaza according to their beliefs, and have agreed instead to congregate in a side area that has never been used before by haredi or Orthodox Jews as a prayer site.

The haredim have allegedly agreed to acknowledge that Conservative and Reform have the right to pray how they so desire, but they’ve also achieved great success in preventing any non-Orthodox activity from taking place anywhere near the Kotel. In essence, they’ve prevented any changes to the status quo being made, and this will most greatly affect Orthodox women’s Rosh Hodesh prayer groups that meet monthly at the Kotel.

The Israeli government officially accepted this compromise following three years of negotiations led by then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. Both of these individuals belong to or identify closely with the Orthodox stream of Judaism, as well as being strongly committed to the preservation of the unity of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.

Interestingly enough, the side that was the most flexible and willing to make concessions is the also the side that is now pushing to have the compromise implemented, while the other side is refusing to implement the agreement.

This situation unfortunately shows great similarities to the saga that ensued with the Neeman Committee, which was created to deal with conversion issues. Although the subject matter was different, the players and their behavior are remarkably similar.

In the case of the Neeman Committee too, the mediator and driving force behind the campaign was an Orthodox scholar who I dare say dedicated more time to Torah study than any other MK in the Knesset – and more than many rabbis who live in Israel. Yaakov Neeman, who passed away two weeks ago, was the architect of the conversion compromise, according to which the conversion process will remain under the control of the Orthodox authorities, and the non-Orthodox streams must adapt themselves to these restrictions.

In the conversion case as well, the bulk of the concessions were made by the non-Orthodox streams, which was the side more interested in implementing the agreement. The Chief Rabbinate, which made almost no concessions whatsoever, has made every effort to avoid implementing the conversion agreement, which as a result has led to an increase in the number of Israelis who have been prevented from joining the Jewish people. The State of Israel was established as the national home for the entire Jewish People. It was not created for only religious Jews, and it was certainly not established solely for Orthodox Jews.

From discussions I have held with fellow soldiers who participated in the freeing of the Kotel in 1967, it appears that all of them remember being motivated for nationalistic, not religious reasons. The Kotel is no longer just a synagogue. It is an important symbol for the Jewish people, and the place that connects Jews with the Temple and personifies our longing for Zion that has endured for thousands of years.

We don’t just celebrate religious events at the Kotel, but national holidays, such as Remembrance Day. The Kotel is the place where Israel’s official ceremonies are held to commemorate the return of the Jewish people to our homeland. We all know that the Kotel plaza was never part of the Temple Mount, and that it was built in modern times as a place to memorialize our history and heritage connected with the Temple and Jewish history.

I will add that in the last few hundred years, the area where the plaza sits today was never used for prayer. So why must it follow guidelines as if it were an Orthodox synagogue? This question is even more relevant regarding the area adjacent to the Southern Wall on the other side of the Mugrabi Bridge. Thousands of Jews – including yours truly – will continue to gather in the plaza when visiting the Kotel. The truth is that we don’t even notice when non-Orthodox groups gather for prayer along the Southern Wall (and I hope that many such gatherings will continue to take place), since this location is by most accounts considered an archeological rather than religious site.

Two weeks ago, the Knesset’s Lobby of Religion and State, which I head, met to discuss the attitude of the religious establishment toward Diaspora Jewry. Among the multiple guests who arrived from overseas to participate in the meeting was Rabbi Dr. Elliot Cosgrove, senior rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, which has 1,700 member families. The following are comments he made during the session:

“Far too often, for far too many American Jews, we are left to wonder whether Israel loves us as much as we love Israel. We see an Israel that does not recognize the Judaism we practice; an Israel that does not acknowledge the marriages or conversions of American rabbis; an Israel that has allowed the symbol of Jewish unity – the Kotel – to become ground zero for fanaticism and intolerance.

“It would be a mistake to attribute the news of last week’s UN resolution solely to the behavior of an outgoing American president – to differences of policy or personality between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. When future historians look back on this moment, the gap they will discuss will not just be the one between America and Israel, but between American Jewry and Israel.”

The Israeli government is reneging on its responsibility toward world Jewry, which encompasses so much more than just making the Kotel accessible to Jews of all denominations. The State of Israel is not just our physical anchor, but also the key to preserving us as a people. The State of Israel serves as an educational instrument for Jews in Diaspora communities, as the means to keeping them connected to the Jewish people. The policies of the current government are alienating Jews around the world by making it extremely difficult for them to identify with Israel and help us fight in the war against BDS, not to mention that it undermines our ability to slow down the rate of assimilation.

In every meeting that I have with Reform and Conservative leaders, they tell me that over the years they’ve received countless assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that all of these issues will be dealt with. And each time I urge them to set preconditions for any visit or collaboration they have with Knesset ministers. I tell them they must insist that these issues be dealt with immediately. And until that happens, I say to them, “You need to stop inviting them as guests of honor to AIPAC, AIC and Jewish Federation conferences. Even if you really need them – and I know you need them – hold back for just two years. It won’t take longer than that for them to see that they need you even more than you need them.”

When I recently heard that Israel has gone on a fund-raising mission to raise NIS 70 million from Jewish communities overseas, I chuckled. But then I got really sad. This is especially ironic, because the government allocated an even larger amount to Israeli organizations that are fighting against granting the Reform or Conservative movements official recognition in Israel. It would have been simpler to just deduct this amount from the funds that have been channeled to these groups that are fighting against recognition, and then use the rest of the money for Independence Day celebrations. Not only are we not ashamed to beg for charity so that we can celebrate our independence, but we’re willing to approach the same Jewish communities and ask them for help with one hand, while at the same time the other hand is conniving to hurt these same people.

We may have lost their respect, but we must not renege on our responsibility to keep the Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora alive and well.

The author is an MK with Yesh Atid and a former IDF major general.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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