One hundred forty-three days ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu betrayed his own principles – and the Jewish people – by freezing the Kotel Compromise ensuring egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall that Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky had negotiated – at Netanyahu’s own direction.
Violating his own beautifully articulated goal – One Wall for One People – Netanyahu has helped make the Western Wall a symbol of Jewish disunity and Israeli political dysfunctionality, leaving many Diaspora Jews feeling slighted by the same Jewish state that demands their solidarity. He must fix this mess, now.
Last week, I diagnosed this new BDS afflicting liberal Jews: Bibi Derangement Syndrome. I noted how many Reform and Conservative Rabbis experience KDS, Kotel Derangement Syndrome, with too many conversations about Israel bashing Netanyahu’s betrayal on this and other issues. But that fury’s intensity, and occasional irrationality, doesn’t excuse Netanyahu’s PC – Political Cowardice. Nor does it alleviate the anguish many American Jews feel, as they conclude that the government’s Kotel cowardice validates ultra-Orthodox contempt for liberal Judaism, telling them: “you’re not kosher Jews.”
Ultimately, the Western Wall is just a symbol. More disturbing, Netanyahu has coalition allies who describe Reform Jews so brutally we would call it antisemitic in other contexts. His government funds an anti-Zionist, bigoted, anachronistic religious infrastructure that disrespects leading Orthodox rabbis in North America as well as their Reform and Conservative colleagues.
And more fundamentally, even many religious Jews we know are refusing to get married through the medieval, corrupt rabbinate – preferring civil ceremonies in Cypress.
What’s the point of having a passionately nationalist, ardently Zionist government and prime minister if they violate the very basis of national unity and the basics of Zionism, which include cherishing all members of the Jewish people and welcoming us all to connect to the Jewish state? The Greeks teach that “the fish stinks from the head down.” The rot sure is contagious these days.
Looking right – politically – I’m disgusted by this failure to lead, this fear of losing power which blocks the intelligent use of power.
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Looking right religiously, I’m appalled that rabbis who supposedly pray “Shalom Rav al Yisrael Amcha” daily – for peace on Your people Israel – seem to be skipping this prayer.
“Peace” involves respecting fellow Jews, not just reconciling with enemies.
Alas, an Arabic expression kicks in – “sakin besakin”– knife sharpens knife. Looking left, I see a justifiable anger cascading into a blinding fury. Their version of “pluralism” doesn’t include respecting ultra-Orthodox prerogatives and the Jewish tradition of separating men and women during prayer. Comparing praying separately to being “in the back of the bus” is offensive: it confuses a minor theological dispute among free peoples with the systematic oppression African-Americans suffered in the Jim Crow South. Can you imagine the outrage if US President Donald Trump used that analogy? It’s frustrating because the solution is sitting there, shelved. I echo my cry from the start of Netanyahu’s re-election: lead, Netanyahu, lead. Stride into the next Cabinet session, tell the ministers serving this marvelous state that it’s time to lead the Jewish people into the twenty-first century. Muscle through the Kotel Compromise. Challenge Shas and the ultra-Orthodox factions. Tell them if they walk, the next two pieces of legislation you will push through will be the universal draft law you also abandoned and a thorough reform of today’s anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox religious system.
Then, give a televised speech asking the Israeli people if they are ready for majority rule: quote the polls showing that two-thirds of Israelis support the Kotel Compromise establishing the egalitarian prayer space near Robinson’s Arch – which exists– as well as more respect for Jewish pluralism.
Of course, do your homework before going public.
Woo the opposition leaders. See if you can all, finally, give the ultra-Orthodox parties the limited power they deserve – proportionate to their sliver of the population pie, not reflective of their clever playing of power politics.
In your speech, go far beyond politics. Tell a Zionist tale of unity and peoplehood. Remind your fellow Israelis – and Jews worldwide – how the Western Wall united us in despair for nearly 2,000 years. Remind us how the Western Wall united us in hope 50 years ago, when its liberation stirred this tremendous euphoria throughout the Jewish world, because Jerusalem of Gold was liberated and these stones somehow had eyes to witness our painful history, hearts to mourn our anguished exile, and now souls to celebrate our Zionist redemption.
Finally, reaching out to the religious community, quote from prayers like “Shalom Rav” and “Sim Shalom” consecrating peace and unity. End by recalling that in 1913 Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook visited settlements populated by supposedly “secular” chalutzim, pioneers, whom he respected for helping to fulfill the “biblical prophecy” of national redemption. After an evening of singing and dancing, Kook saw a Jewish watchman wearing a Beduin robe. “Let’s exchange,” the tall, distinguished rabbi said. “I’ll take your ‘rabbinical cloak,’ and you’ll take mine.”
“Oh, how our spirits soared!” one witness recounted, recalling Rabbi Kook’s wonderful, welcoming conclusion: “I wore your clothes, and you wore mine. So it should also be on the inside – together in our hearts!” I’m not naive. The day Prime Minister Netanyahu starts fulfilling this Zionist and Jewish notion of unity and leading us to get “together in our hearts,” his immediate political future may be threatened. But if he does it right, it will guarantee his place in history.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018.
He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.
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