On the evening of July 4, a verbal exchange took place in the Knesset plenum between MK Yisrael Eichler and National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz. The exchange was around the prime minister’s intention (is it also the government’s policy?) to prepare an area along the southern section of the wall that used to surround the Holy Temple 2,000 years ago, for non-Orthodox forms of Jewish prayer.
Steinitz (Likud) was appointed last week by Netanyahu to head the committee responsible for implementing the project, after Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev (Likud) resigned from the position and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) refused to replace her (more about that below).
“There was never anyone who disputed the Western Wall and the manner of prayer there,” Eichler (United Torah Judaism) said last Wednesday in the plenum, “until a gang of wheeler-dealers, who allegedly speak in the name of millions of Jews in America – which is a crude lie – arrived.
“It is true that money is raised among innocent people. They are being cheated and are told: ‘You should know that the Orthodox don’t want your children as Jews. They are not allowed to be Jews. [The Orthodox] don’t want to let them come to the Western Wall,’ where most of those praying, including the haredim, don’t know what the term ‘Orthodox’ means, while the Conservatives have long forgotten what conservatism means, and the masses of Reform Jews are assimilating....
“Incidentally, they are fighting on all fronts. People do not know that all the petitions to the High Court of Justice, or the wars on religion and state in the last 50 years, are being led by a small gang of people who make a living off the Reform federations in the United States, including taking over the ‘Reform’ Agency, which didn’t want to elect Steinitz last week....
“The war [about] the Western Wall is designed to maintain a small gang that spreads venom against the people of Israel, against the State of Israel, throughout the world and presents Israel as an Iran....”
If Eichler didn’t enjoy substantive immunity as a Knesset member, he could be sued for libel, misrepresentation of facts and outright lies for his outrageous rampage.
“I totally agree with MK Eichler’s comment that the Western Wall is the heart and soul of all members of the Jewish people”, Steinitz replied, “and it must be a place of prayer, faith and unity – not of war. In order to avoid wars, and there was violence even in the compound of the Western Wall itself, an area was set aside outside the Western Wall, in a corner that one cannot even see from the Western Wall. The length of the Western Wall, which is one of the four walls surrounding the Holy Temple, is 520 meters long. The length of the Southern Wall is 300 meters. The section of the Wall where people pray, which is considered to have the holiness of a synagogue... including the tunnel that is used for prayer, is around 150 meters long.
“The area where archaeological tours take place, both of Jewish and non-Jewish groups from the whole world... has been chosen to serve as the place where the Reform and Conservative [Jews] – who do not want to uphold the Orthodox code of dress or prayer, including the separation of women and men – can pray.
“It is also intended to give them a feeling that they, too, have a place... and it is designed to prevent violence, riots and disturbance to the Orthodox prayer.”
Steinitz was undoubtedly trying to be gentle with Eichler, and the haredim in general, and to present the issue on its most banal and practical level.
However, I am sure that he, as well as the prime minister, understand that since Zionism intended to create a homeland for the whole of the Jewish people – not only its Orthodox members – Israel cannot exclude any part of the Jewish people from practicing its religious beliefs (or absence thereof) freely, even if the majority of the religious Jews living in Israel are Orthodox.
They must also know that the ultra-Orthodox do not only object to allowing non-Orthodox Jews to pray publicly in a manner other than the Orthodox one, but object to the State of Israel granting formal recognition to the non-Orthodox Jewish streams. Preparing a formal area along the Wall, where they can pray as they may see fit, is viewed by the ultra-Orthodox as official state recognition, which they totally reject.
BUT THE problem does not begin and end with the ultra-Orthodox.
The fact that both Regev and Shaked – neither fully religious – refused last week to cooperate with the project is even more worrying than Eichler’s infamous comments.
There is no doubt that both Regev and Shaked adopted their positions on this issue against the background of primaries in which both will soon have to contend toward the election to the 21st Knesset.
Both, incidentally, supported the original outline for resolving the problem of non-Orthodox prayers in the Western Wall in June 2017, before the spiritual leadership of the haredi parties created the uproar against it (apparently against the better judgment of the haredi politicians).
However, while Shaked – who is known to have been pressured by the more extreme rabbis in the National Religious movement not to cooperate with Netanyahu’s new plan, which is designed to accommodate a High Court of Justice ruling on the issue – has avoided any superfluous statements, Regev has been willing to pour out statements to anyone sticking a microphone before her mouth, and what she says is no less detestable than what Eichler said last Wednesday in the Knesset plenum.
Regev, totally ignoring the fact that she supported the outline last year, is now arguing that as a traditional Jew she cannot stand the thought of women wearing skullcaps, wrapping themselves in prayer shawls and carrying Torah scrolls, adding that Reform Jews can practice their religion as they please abroad, but in Israel must act according to the practices of the place – i.e., the Orthodox practices.
In other words, contrary to the intention of the founders of the State of Israel that the state should be the state of all Jews, irrespective of how they practice their Judaism, according to Regev, Israel is the state of the Orthodox Jews, where Jews who are not Orthodox or are secular are at best tolerated.
One might add that Regev has proven her lack of tolerance for Israeli left-wingers and liberals – especially if they happen to be Ashkenazim. Since the vast majority of American Jews are liberal Ashkenazim (a handful, like Bernie Sanders, are even socialists) who are affiliated with Reform and Conservative communities, she has, in fact, also declared war against American Jewry, which, unlike what Eichler seems to believe, is not make up of innocent dupes, who are deliberately being misled by “a gang” to believe that they are being spat at, while it is really raining.
Yes, MK Eichler, the current Israeli government, with your active participation, has been spitting at non-Orthodox Jews in general, and American Jewry in particular. What is now expected of Steinitz is not to convince them that it is raining (it isn’t – it is summer), but to simply put an end to the spitting.