Unanimity is not everything when it comes to the Kotel crisis - opinion

The Jewish Agency leadership passed a watered-down resolution to the point that even Eretz Hakodesh party did not have any reason to oppose it.

 WOMEN OF the Wall hold their monthly prayer at the Kotel, earlier this month (photo credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)
WOMEN OF the Wall hold their monthly prayer at the Kotel, earlier this month
(photo credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)

Last week, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors proudly announced that they had unanimously voted for a compromise resolution, which was reached with the support of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who has previously backed protests against Women of the Wall (WOW) condemning what it called a despicable protest at the Western Wall’s egalitarian section, last month, by Orthodox extremists.

One should appreciate, of course, any initiative to protect against assault on pluralism and freedom of religion in Israel, but it is difficult to be enthusiastic about the Jewish Agency resolution, mainly due to what it lacks. We are well aware of the saying “Perfect is the enemy of good.” We do not expect perfection, but the direction that the resolution takes is problematic.

It reflects the objectionable phenomenon, familiar in both the Agency and Israeli politics: The heckler’s veto.

In this case, the desire to gain the artificial support of the ultra-Orthodox Eretz Hakodesh party in the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which was founded in the first place in order to fight against pluralism and religious freedom. This very group is a key player in attempting to prevent the WOW’s monthly prayers at the wall and, it was reported, the one that funded, with WZO funds, the bringing of thousands of ultra-Orthodox girls to protest and disrupt the WOW monthly prayer just a few months ago.

Bowing to their demands, the Jewish Agency leadership passed a watered-down resolution to the point that even Eretz Hakodesh party did not have any reason to oppose it.

The problem is not just the fact that to reach a unanimous decision, the Jewish Agency Board agreed to omit the demand for implementation of the Western Wall compromise.

This compromise was reached between the government, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the WOW, but was subsequently canceled when former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave in to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

The problem with the agency’s resolution is twofold; The BOG “threw the Women of the Western Wall under the wheels of the bus,” waiving any demand to protect them at their monthly prayers held in the women’s section of the main Western Wall plaza.

The women gather for Rosh Hodesh prayer in a legitimate, legal, and praiseworthy manner. The group includes women from all streams of Judaism.

Every month they are exposed to verbal and physical violence, without receiving any real protection from the police or from the Western Wall ushers. The resolution focuses solely on the Ezrat Yisrael egalitarian plaza, making it clear that Agency leadership was willing to forego the critically needed protection of the WOW.

WORSE, THE resolution (perhaps deliberately) reflects the misconception of the challenge facing Israel and the need for a partnership with the responsible leadership of Diaspora Jewry. The Jews of the diaspora make up half of the Jewish people, and they lead their Jewish life based on a foundation of pluralism, freedom of religion and freedom of choice.

The Jewish Agency

The Jewish Agency’s leadership (with a few exceptions, such as advocating against change in the definition of “Jew” in the Law of Return as demanded by the ultra-Orthodox parties) has refrained from resolutely engaging in the defense of these values, which are denied by Israeli law and governmental policies, such as the right to marriage, for example.

The denial of the right to marriage hurts hundreds of thousands of Israelis, but also denies this right to most of the children growing up in the American Jewish community, should they wish to make Aliyah and marry in Israel.

Occasionally, the subject of marriage has appeared on the agenda of the Jewish Agency’s Unity of the Jewish People Committee, but each time it has been buried.

We appreciate, of course, the remarks of Julie Platt, chairwoman of the Jewish Federations of North America and the sentiment they express: “There’s nothing that matters more to me and to my partner, President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, than the strength of the Israel-Diaspora relationship and derech eretz (proper behavior) – the respect for all Jews and however they choose to worship.”

However, Jewish leadership must understand that the root of the problem is not the way Jews want to worship but the way Jews want to live.

As long as this leadership does not show a willingness to bite the bullet, and resolutely and assertively face the challenges of Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, which has failed to fully translate into law and policy the principles of the Declaration of Independence promising freedom of religion and equality, then engaging in details such as the disturbances directed against worshipers at the egalitarian plaza may give the members of the Board of Governors a good feeling that they “did something,” but not much more than that.

What the Jewish leadership should realize is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support these very principles, while Israeli politicians cynically treat them as merely trading cards.

What is needed is a willingness to move beyond a mindset that fails to see the forest for the trees, which focuses on details and does not deal with the larger threat to Israel’s identity.

It is time to refuse to accept solutions based on the principle of separate but equal, like the Western Wall compromise, which too remains unimplemented. Already back in 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled that: “The doctrine of separate but equal has no place!” We too should say loud and clear (and act on it): Separate but equal is just not equal!

In the current reality where the principles of equality and freedom are under threat, both in Israel and in the US, it is important to realize what’s at stake.

We must stop fearing controversy and the threats of extremist, fundamentalist and anti-democratic circles. Unanimous is not the objective and refusing to surrender to heckler’s veto is a virtue.It’s time to demand that, in the State of the Jewish people, we will settle for nothing less than religious freedom and equality for all.

The writer heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel.