‘Egalitarian prayer’ and ‘who is a Jew?’

Given Israel’s unique standing as the one and only Jewish state – the lone place of refuge for Jews worldwide – this assuredly cannot be allowed to happen within the country.

David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall (photo credit: GPO)
David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall
(photo credit: GPO)
The fury over the Netanyahu government’s shelving of a proposal to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall has bordered on mass hysteria, and thus, unsurprisingly, has missed the point entirely.
Whereas the process leading to the deferral was grossly mishandled, especially when considering both the political realities in Israel and the makeup of the current coalition, the end result will not, as some have claimed, “go down in history as a shameful day for the Jewish state,” nor will it “lead to a greater divide between Israel and the Diaspora.”
The reason is two-fold.
First, the debate over whether to create an egalitarian section at Judaism’s holiest site must be viewed in the context of the challenge which it represents to the religious “status quo” in Israel, as agreed to by David Ben-Gurion and the ultra-Orthodox community prior to the declaration of statehood. More fundamentally, it is a manifestation of the overriding and equally longstanding debate in Israel over “who is a Jew?” In 1947, Ben-Gurion, then the head of the predominantly socialist and secular Jewish population in British Mandate Palestine, persuaded both Agudat Israel and Mizrahi to join what would become Israel’s first government in exchange for a set of guarantees giving special standing to ultra-Orthodoxy in the future state; specifically as regards the observance of Shabbat and associated Jewish laws, such as kashrut, as well as those governing “personal status,” such as marriage and conversion. Additional promises – highly contentious in contemporary Israel – were made, including state funding of religious schools and the exemption from military service of full-time Torah students.
As Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population was then relatively small, Ben-Gurion could not necessarily foresee the current crisis over the Western Wall, as well as many of the internal tensions that presently exist between Israel’s secular and religious communities; social and economic issues resulting from the exponential explosion in the size of the haredi population, and religious due to the disproportionate power Israel’s system of government bestows upon small political parties. Many of these measures have, indeed, become untenable moving forward.
Irrespective, since its inception, a concerted campaign by opponents of this “status quo” has been waged to chip away at the essential monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox over all things Jewish in Israel. The effort has accelerated in recent decades primarily due to two evolving realities; namely, the incredible rate of assimilation among Conservative and Reform Jews in the US and the demand that their denominations be given equal footing in Israel, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the growing extremism of Israel’s haredi leaders, who have become increasingly inflexible in their interpretation of Jewish law to the detriment of other movements, including even Modern Orthodoxy.
The central issue in this battle has always been how to define what constitutes a “Jew” and, by corollary, who is eligible for immediate citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return; who can marry legally within Israel; and which type of conversions are to be recognized by Israeli authorities. Who can pray under what conditions at the Western Wall is merely a cause célèbre for those whose real aim is to wrest away from the ultra-Orthodox the power to answer such fundamental religious questions.
The conflict has been pushed into the mainstream by the growing prominence of intermarriage among American Jews (estimated at approximately 60%), many of whose spouses have been converted to Judaism in contradiction to Halacha – Jewish law – by the Reform and Conservative movements. These conversions are not recognized in Israel, thus leaving hundreds of thousands of people in the US – including the children of many intermarried couples – who consider themselves Jewish but are not recognized as such under Israeli law. This has prompted many non-Orthodox US Jewish organizations to take up the cause of ushering in a more “egalitarian” Israel.
For its part, the Jewish Agency, ostensibly responsible for promoting immigration to Israel, but which has over the past years expanded its mandate to include the promotion of Jewish values globally, has been intricately involved in negotiating the Western Wall deal. The organization has led the choir of condemnations in the wake of the agreement’s suspension, employing the harshest, undiplomatic language in denouncing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move as “deplor[able].” Agency chief Natan Sharansky further castigated the Israeli premier for making a promise he could not keep (no doubt lost on Sharansky is the irony that Ben-Gurion himself devised Israel’s “status quo” while leading the Jewish Agency in 1947).
But while Sharansky is right in respect to Netanyahu’s handling of the issue, he is wrong on the substance of the debate. The truth is that Netanyahu’s decision neither changes (rather, it reinforces) Israel’s longstanding religious tradition, nor does it alter the existing definition of “who is a Jew?” It cannot therefore be considered “shameful” unless all of Israel’s history – along with traditional Judaism – is also besmirched by the same allegation.
The claim that the move will “lead to a greater divide between Israel and the Diaspora” is likewise flawed, as it attributes erroneously a motivation that is almost universally lacking among secular American Jews. The landmark 2013 Pew Research Center study, “A Portrait of American Jews,” found that only 15% of US Jewry (which includes the Orthodox population) believes that being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, whereas 62% of respondents said that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.
Accordingly, the vast majority of American Jews does not go to the Western Wall for purposes of prayer but, rather, out of personal connection to its historical significance. The presence, or lack thereof, of an egalitarian prayer section at the Wall should thus, in practice, be immaterial to most American Jews, thereby invalidating the assertion by another prominent Israeli writer – “Netanyahu to millions of Jews: We don’t really want you.” Aside from the potential effect of self-fulfilling doomsday articles and widespread institutional denunciations, Netanyahu’s move should, substantively, have virtually no impact on the average American Jew.
It is thus hard to understand how the present “crisis” could have any significant negative effect on Israel-Diaspora relations. In this respect, it is noteworthy that the Pew study showed almost no change in the level of support of American Jewry for Israel between 2000 and 2013, albeit it does not break the figures down by denomination. It is therefore hard to deduce whether Conservative or Reform Jews are, in fact, distancing themselves from Israel, which, in any event, would certainly be attributable in most cases to political rather than religious reasons.
Equally difficult to reconcile is how some of the strongest proponents of the imperative of maintaining Israel’s Jewish and democratic character – which has become a pseudo-sacrosanct axiom espoused in the context of making territorial compromises to the Palestinians – are now railing against a decision by the democratically elected Israeli government, which is responsible for safeguarding the Jewish nation.
Which brings us to the second part of the equation, the heart of the matter: Who should get to decide “who is a Jew?” While the values of the liberal Western democracies, to which Israel ostensibly subscribes, have largely endured through various iterations (and against serious ideological threats) since 1789, their “progressive” application on the world stage today remains seemingly malleable and apparently elastic, indeed fragile at best. In such context, it is hard to accept that so profound a question as “who is a Jew?” should be decided subjectively, on an individual basis, rather than be determined in accordance with Jewish law.
Rooting the collective in such first principles is all the more recommended given the reality that Jews who do not adhere to traditional religious values are significantly more likely to assimilate, intermarry and raise their children as non-Jewish. This is true both of the Conservative and Reform movements in the US (as confirmed by the aforementioned Pew study), whose efforts to adapt Jewish practice to contemporary society at large have only resulted in the dilution of the bond of faith, with an entire generation of non-Orthodox American Jews at risk of eventually disappearing entirely.
In fact, the Jewish People has continued to exist over the millennia, against all odds, only because many of its adherents have remained true to Judaism’s fundamental precepts. Remove those, and history teaches that the entire foundation collapses.
Given Israel’s unique standing as the one and only Jewish state – the lone place of refuge for Jews worldwide – this assuredly cannot be allowed to happen within the country.
This sense of obligation accounts, in part, for the intractable positions of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leaders, and while many of their concerns are warranted, their actions regularly cross the line into the realm of fanaticism. This is clear when considering that the announcement to shelve the Western Wall project came in conjunction with plans to advance a bill that would grant total control over conversions in Israel to the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate, a body widely viewed as intransigent and corrupt by huge numbers of Israelis, and thus loathed. That ultra-Orthodox leaders felt it necessary to further consolidate their religious monopoly in Israel even after such a “victory” evidences their keen awareness that the greater war being fought is over the definition of “who is a Jew?,” along with their willingness to wage battles over elements such as conversion ruthlessly.
The need to temper this zealousness requires that Israel’s religious institutions indeed be transformed, but any such changes should be devised by Israelis themselves – in the absence of external pressures – especially because the American model has been shown to be a recipe for potentially existential problems over the long term.
Accordingly, Israeli government officials would be wiser to concentrate their efforts on moderating the haredi leadership, a process that could be greatly accelerated by the formation of broader ruling coalitions, thereby limiting the power of ultra-Orthodox parties. Concurrently, Israeli political and civil leaders should fast-track efforts to integrate (not assimilate) the average haredi into society, a process already well underway and showing signs of success.
This is the best way to ensure that Israel remain open to all Jewish denominations (without necessarily appealing to all of their respective religious sensibilities), as well as to guarantee the perpetuity of the Jewish nation – by far the greatest “status quo” imperative of them all.
The author, a journalist, is a secular Jew who immigrated to Israel from Canada five years ago.