A decision to further suspend implementation of the plan to develop a space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, reportedly under discussion by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, may seem surprising to many. Not to me. At least, not after having discussed the matter at length with several coalition ministers and Knesset members a few weeks ago.
In fact, further to those conversations, I’d be more surprised by an announcement that the compromise – brokered in 2016 by then-Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky between leaders of Diaspora Jewry, Women of the Wall, representatives of Israel’s liberal religious streams and parties to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition – was being enacted as agreed. Conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.
Given the composition of the present government, sans the ultra-Orthodox who scuttled the agreement in the first place, alongside statements of record made by those who are in power today regarding religious pluralism in general and the Western Wall (Kotel in Hebrew) in particular, one might understandably have expected the matter to have already been resolved. But there’s no room for conventional wisdom in Israeli politics. Nor is the issue what it appears to be.
Just as much of the Western Wall is buried deep below the surface, so, too, are the reasons for the delay in sharing it equitably. Here are three of them.
It’s not the Kotel, stupid
For years already, there has been a large, dedicated area for pluralistic prayer alongside the Western Wall that anyone can make use of. It needs some sprucing up and, crucially, a platform allowing more people to touch the actual stones, but even in its present state, there’s more than enough room for those who’d like to make use of it to conduct services and ceremonies as they wish.
But that’s not all that was called for by the agreed-upon plan. It included three more essential elements: a single entrance to the entire Western Wall plaza, clear visibility of it for all who pass by and a state-recognized administrative council including representatives of liberal Jewish movements. At present, the area can be reached only through a distant side entrance while a high fence blocks it from view so that anyone not specifically looking for it won’t even know it exists.
Kind of like being forced to the back of the bus. The seats may be just as comfortable, but if sitting there is your only option you know you’re a second-class citizen. What those pressing the matter want, and what the agreement called for, was that anyone visiting any portion of the Western Wall would come through a single gate and readily see that there is more than one way of being Jewish, all equally legitimate and accessible.
But the realization of this arrangement, as hugely important as it is for those who are not Orthodox, yet want to feel that Israel belongs to them as much as to anyone else, is of greater symbolic than practical significance.
The canon of Orthodoxy
Of far greater impact on the lives of many, is the outright discrimination entrenched in Israeli law and practice that prevents non-Orthodox Jews from marrying as they might wish and, oftentimes, even from living in this country. In the same week that the Kotel agreement was reportedly again frozen, Yosef Kibita, a member of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda was denied the right to make aliyah by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior. For the third time. His has been in a five-year legal battle to be recognized as Jewish by the so-called Jewish state and welcomed here as should any Jew according to the Law of Return.
It’s a struggle he has conducted from within Israel, where he has been living on Kibbutz Ketura for most of the past four years. His initial request to become a citizen when his student visa was about to expire, was countered with a deportation order.
He challenged that in court with the assistance of the Israel Religious Action Center and his case was finally heard this past February. The verdict? Another delay. Though he had already undergone formal conversion in Uganda, the presiding judge advised him to convert again to ensure that his appeal would not be rejected on technical grounds.
As humiliating a proposal as that was, given that Kibita has lived his entire life as an observant Jew, he readily accepted the suggestion and underwent a conversion overseen by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement – which the Supreme Court ruled the state had to recognize for the purpose of granting citizenship – and resubmitted his aliyah application. After months of foot-dragging, the ministry, headed by Minister Ayelet Shaked, has now defied the court ruling and, in so doing, rejected the right of the Rabbinical Assembly to authorize conversions. Kibita will yet again be appealing this injustice but unless the courts intervene, he will be forced to leave the country by December 31.
As concerned as I am for Kibita, however, I am even more concerned by the implications of his case for the State of Israel. While he is not giving up on us despite having been repeatedly rebuffed, I am deeply worried that others will.
Who needs, and why support, a Jewish state that has essentially declared its religion to be stringently Orthodox and excludes those who would wend their way to our gates on another path? Kibita’s case is only one of too many to count. There are dozens like him rejected by Israel every year and hundreds of thousands already in Israel who are unable to marry or divorce altogether, or even be buried in Jewish cemeteries. In the meantime, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox institutions continue to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding while parallel Reform and Conservative bodies are left to fend for themselves.
Why is this happening?
They just don’t get it
In the hours I spent discussing religion and state with those now in a position to bring about a profound change in these matters, I discovered that a number of them are simply oblivious to the real issue. All were ostensibly sympathetic and duly supportive of the importance of alleviating the pragmatic concerns of those discriminated against on religious grounds, but too many were insensitive to the deeper need of being accepted as who they are. They want to deal with the practicalities while not comprehending the importance of engendering a sense of fully belonging.
“We can solve the problem of those whom the Chief Rabbinate won’t permit to marry by instituting civil marriage,” I was told. Legalizing weddings officiated by Reform and Conservative rabbis is simply not something they are prepared to consider.
“How many people would really even take advantage of an enhanced pluralistic prayer space?” I was asked, not understanding that the real question isn’t how often I plan on riding the bus, but where I have to sit when I do.
“Are these people from Africa really Jewish?” I was questioned, my interlocutor not realizing he was negating not only the bona fides of this community, but the authenticity of the entire Conservative movement they belong to, and, by extension, all liberal Judaism.
While continuing to proclaim that Israel is the nation-state of the entirety of the Jewish people, there are those among the coalition partners not prepared to take the steps necessary to make it truly so. That, of course, impacts not only on those living in Israel but its supporters abroad who are feeling increasingly disenfranchised from the state they are being implored to support.
Caution: proceed at your own risk
Should Bennett and Kahana continue to defer implementation of the Western Wall agreement, and Shaked persist in denying the legitimacy of conversions conducted under the auspices of the Reform and Conservative movements, they will be doing so at their own risk, causing untold damage to Israel’s standing in the eyes of the vast majority of world Jewry and alienating many of the country’s own citizens, whatever their level of observance, who have had enough of being told that there is only one way of being Jewish.
This is particularly frustrating as this new government was welcomed by both of these constituencies with high hopes that a government freed from the shackles of the ultra-Orthodox would finally enact sweeping reform advancing Jewish pluralism in the Jewish state.
Should that not happen, those of us who have been advocating for such reform for decades will undoubtedly continue to do so, despite the setback. But it would be surprising if those who are only now in the process of developing a relationship with Israel – particularly the younger generation – will not be discouraged from doing so. It’s damn disagreeable to be told over and over again that you’re only good enough to sit at the back of the bus. I, of course, will continue to encourage them to join in the struggle to make of Israel all that it was meant to be, but I am fearful that the actions of our government will drown out the niceties of my words.
The writer recently completed a term as deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency Zionist Executive and is a former chairman of the Masorti Movement in Israel. His latest venture is “Israel ArchiTexts: Designing Engagement with the Jewish State.” www.IsraelArchiTexts.com. He welcomes feedback at [email protected]