Have the Likud’s ties with progressive Jews hit a Wall?

Why the Kotel suddenly became a key issue in the ruling party

American family celebrates bar mitzvah summer 2017 in the Azarat Yisrael plaza at Robinson’s Arch archaeological site at southern end of the Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
American family celebrates bar mitzvah summer 2017 in the Azarat Yisrael plaza at Robinson’s Arch archaeological site at southern end of the Western Wall.
Pablo Murlager admits he is a strange bird.
Murlager, 62, has been a proud and active member of the Likud Party since shortly after he made aliya from Argentina at age 15. He is a member of the party’s powerful central committee and an activist who is well known by the Likud’s ministers and MKs.
He is also a proud Reform Jew, who is the chairman and treasurer of the growing Kehilat Hadror community which meets in Jerusalem’s Tali Bayit Vegan school. Murlager keeps his politics out of his synagogue.
But in the Likud, he fights for Reform Jewry, going to battle against new Likud recruit and outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat for giving a paltry NIS 75,000 to five Reform communities while distributing huge sums to the city’s Orthodox synagogues.
“It is complex to be both a Likudnik and the head of a Reform community,” Murlager admits.
That dichotomy has become even more challenging since last Thursday, when Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev resigned as chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee for Holy Sites, citing her objection to upgrading the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is advancing plans to physically renovate the prayer site, after the indefinite suspension of the June 2017 agreement on progressive prayer at the Kotel. Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz ultimately agreed to take Regev’s place, but only after other ministers turned it down, realizing that the issue had become a hot potato in the Likud.
Regev, who has become an expert on reaching out to the Likud’s electorate, rode a wave of praise for her decision. Hundreds of Likudniks signed online petitions showing her support, while hundreds more wrote words of praise on Likud activist Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups.
“We stand beside you in your struggle for the Kotel,” was the headline in full-page ads taken out by Likud central committee members, which featured a flattering picture of Regev, an Israeli flag, and an image of the Wall full of worshipers.
The ad said the 128 central committee members who signed it and hundreds more were thankful to Regev for “standing strong for the Western Wall’s holiness and not enabling the formation of a Reform section close to the Wall.”
Asked if he is feeling less comfortable in the Likud amid the anti-pluralist wave in his party, Murlager says he is confident that the party is going in a direction different from the one indicated by the ad.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken the issue in his hands, he loves US Jews, and he is determined to solve the problem,” Murlager says. “I don’t think going against US Jews is in style in the party. The Likud cannot continue to endure without its appreciation for American Jewry, including those who want to pray together at Robinson’s Arch.”
BUT OTHER activists in the party say Regev’s decision reflects a long-term pattern of the party becoming more Orthodox and less welcoming to those whose synagogue of choice is not Orthodox, whether they go to synagogue or not. They say that more Religious Zionists have joined the party, and the people who describe themselves as traditional are becoming less tolerant of American-style religious pluralism.
Shlomo Feig of Mitzpe Yeriho, who paid for the ad, says that since he joined the Likud 20 years ago, more and more people who have become active members of the party are like him – National Religious, Orthodox residents of communities over the Green Line.
“More than a third of the party members are religious, as are 600 members of the 3,000-member Likud central committee, so the ministers and MKs need to take us into account,” Feig says. “They can’t ignore such a large group. We see what Miri does for tradition and Judaism, so she will get votes, while Steinitz and others won’t. Most of the Likud wants the country to have stronger values and to be more Jewish.”
Baruch Leviev, a central committee member from Beit Shemesh, who signed up hundreds of activists supporting Regev on social media, says the fact that no minister rushed to replace Regev to sign off on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall proves how sensitive the issue has become in the Likud.
Leviev heads a group of Likudniks from the Caucasus. He is not religious, but when he does attend synagogue, it is an Orthodox one.
“I know all the ministers and MKs in the Likud, and none of them are Reform,” says Leviev. “Most people in the party don’t understand the Reform way. They see it as strange. They know what the traditional way is. I am in favor of everyone, respect everyone, love everyone, but the tradition has been here for 3,000 years, and the Reform brought their ways from America not too long ago. There have to be limits. We can’t make a joke of Judaism and the Bible. A small group can’t manipulate and force its ways on people.”
Regev’s associates stress that they were unaware of the ad in advance and did not contribute anything to it. They say that while she is not Orthodox, she is traditional, and a special visit by Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar to the Knesset persuaded her to take action.
While they say she recently met with the Reform community when she was in Argentina, Regev’s associates are quick to add that she did not attend a Reform prayer service and that she never has.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, says that as long as the Likud is joined by more of what are called hardalim (an acronym for ultra-Orthodox Religious Zionists), Regev will continue to get stronger at the expense of more tolerant ministers.
Besides Steinitz, he cites Tzachi Hanegbi, Gilad Erdan and Gila Gamliel as ministers who are more respectful of progressive Jewry. He says that, ultimately, Netanyahu will decide the fate of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, and his letting intolerance fester is not a good sign.
“There are very liberal people on religious matters in the Likud,” says Kariv, who was on the Zionist Union list in the last election but did not make it in to the Knesset. “The Kotel is just a symptom. There is a struggle for the character of the Likud. Now it’s expressed on the Kotel issue, but wait until [US President] Donald Trump presents his peace plan. There are extremists who are loud and progressives who are quiet and afraid of their shadow.”
Kariv’s movement sponsored an extensive Dialog poll in October that questioned Israelis about their political affiliation and feelings about religious pluralism. The poll found that 64% of Likudniks believe relations with the Diaspora are very important, but 54% disagreed with the statement that breaking the Kotel deal hurt those ties. Asked whether the views of Diaspora Jews should be taken into account when deciding matters of religion and state in Israel, 57% said no, 32% said yes, and 11% did not know.
Shown pictures of women holding and reading from Torah scrolls, about half the Likudniks said they did not like what they saw in the pictures. But around 40% said the pictures did not bother them at all, which could give hope to Murlager.
“There are plenty of Likud ministers and politicians who have supported us and will continue to support us,” he says.
Asked if in the next Likud primary he will cast a ballot for Regev, Murlager answers affirmatively, without hesitation.
“I will still vote for Miri because of her agenda,” he says. “Of course, I disagree with her on this issue, but I like the other things she is doing.”