Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.
Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.
It cannot be emphasized enough that most American Jews who are angry about this situation haven’t the slightest idea why most Israelis are so indifferent to their complaints about pluralism. It bears repeating that in a country in which there is no formal division between religion and state and rabbis are paid by the government, the question of who is a rabbi is a political issue. As such, so long as supporters of the various religious parties (of which Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi represents the views of the modern Orthodox and is least hostile to the sensibilities of most American Jews) are a major force in Israeli politics and hold the balance of power in their hands while those affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations are a fraction of a percent (it used to be said that they were outnumbered by Scientologists), the influence of the latter will be minimal. The majority of Israeli Jews have plenty of complaints about the Orthodox rabbinate and their monopoly on life cycle events, but what they want is civil marriage and divorce. Securing equal rights for the Conservative and Reform movements—which are both seen as foreign implants—is rather low on their priority list.
But Israelis are just as obtuse about the hard feelings of American Jews about pluralism and Women of the Wall. It may strike them as unreasonable for Americans to demand equality for movements that are marginal in Israeli society or to give the Women of the Wall the right to pray in the manner of Conservative and Reform Jews in the women’s section at the Kotel with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, and singing out loud. But if they are serious about strengthening ties with the Diaspora, especially with the non-Orthodox, then they must treat these complaints seriously. Conservative and Reform Jews believe their denomination is no less valid and deserving of equal treatment under the law in the State of Israel as the Orthodox. When the Jerusalem police ignore the rulings of Israeli courts mandating the right of the Women of the Wall to pray as they like at the Kotel (while sometimes arresting or roughing up the women) or allow mobs orchestrated by the Haredim to keep them away from it at the time of their monthly services, they take it as a personal affront rather than viewing the incidents as the work of marginal troublemakers.
No matter where you come down on the justice of this dispute, there’s no doubt that what Bennett has done is a blunder as far as Israel-Diaspora relations are concerned, though it must be conceded that he has probably helped himself with religious Israeli voters, which is his main interest. Instead of throwing them a bone, as Bennett says he intended to do with this proposal, his idea that will shunt Conservative and Reform Jews out of sight of the main plaza will be viewed as tangible proof of the Israeli government’s disdain for the non-Orthodox. It would have been far better for the government to do nothing while they pondered how to implement Sharansky’s idea than to give Conservative and Reform rabbis an opening to blast the government in High Holiday services. Given that their own interests are at stake with the necessity to mobilize American Jewry against pressure on Jerusalem on the peace process and the nuclear threat from Iran, it shouldn’t have been too much to ask Israel’s Cabinet to avoid giving such offense in the week before Rosh Hashanah.