Analysis: A wall between Israel and Diaspora

The meaning of the Western Wall deal stretches far further than the section at the southern end of the holy site that it addresses.

Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“It was one of the most beautiful moments for us, that the government and chief rabbi listened to what everyone said,” Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said on Tuesday, referring to the Israeli cabinet’s January approval of an egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
But what was a historic moment for Diaspora (particularly North American) Jewry has become a crushing disappointment, in light of the government’s failure to implement the deal. That poignant sentiment was visible at a meeting with co-chairman of the Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) and several members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.
“It was a moment we celebrated at the last Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting,” Adler recalled, “when streams could agree and feel respected... [and] everyone felt they had a voice and were respected rather than vilified.”
Adler’s choice of words drove home the extent non-Orthodox Jews can feel isolated by Israel.
Almost a year later, Jews in Israel and around the world are still waiting for that agreement to come into effect, and the sheer disappointment expressed time and time again by US Jewry stands in stark contrast to the elation that followed the cabinet’s approval of the deal.
“It was more than a slap in the face, and many Jews are struggling with this and are aligning how they feel about the entire state of Israel with [the government’s inaction],” Adler said.
The meaning of the Western Wall deal stretches far further than the section at the southern end of the holy site that it addresses. To Diaspora Jews it symbolizes peoplehood, the conversation between Israel and the Diaspora, and how seriously the former takes the latter.
“It’s about how they treat Jewish denominations in the US... not just about the Kotel,” said Shai. “We celebrated the agreement, 400 rabbis were singing and at this time in small rooms people said they weren’t going to vote for it. They have very strong political power.”
“It’s identity,” adds Adler, who says that many Diaspora Jews who love Israel “understand the realities to a certain extent, but say Israel is a modern Jewish state and should act accordingly.”
Carole Solomon, chairwoman of the Jewish Agency’s North American Council, also raised potential ramifications for Israel, mentioning AIPAC and other “unaffiliated people worldwide who really can affect Israel’s self-interest.”
Solomon flagged the issue of conversion which has been another source of contention for Diaspora Jewry, particularly when the Supreme Rabbinical Court cast doubt on conversions made by US Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. “This is a shanda [disgrace in Yiddish] that has been going on a long time, and it’s a lose-lose,” said Solomon.
Solomon also asserted that if the premise of “one Jewish state and one Jewish people” is accepted, then those who don’t live in Israel shouldn’t be eliminated from the fabric of the country.
For her part, Barbara Hirsh, director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, noted that many Diaspora Jews feel alienated by the lack of accommodation offered by Israel to the various streams of Judaism. “Much of our work is to motivate people to connect to Israel, the connection doesn’t exist automatically,” she remarks.
“It’s also about how you describe Israel, beyond the Wall,” Adler adds. “We want to lift up a higher vision of what Judaism is – younger people are not into the labels, and they want to be accepted.”
She said millennials in particular will simply go elsewhere if they are not accepted.