Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel-Diaspora relations

Trying to Help Real Jews Within the Constraints of a Real State

My initial reaction to the latest move in the ongoing conflict over the Western Wall resembled Jonathan’s: I thought the new platform erected at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall was an asinine decision which, however well-intentioned, would only upset large swathes of American Jewry. But my view changed after reading this Jerusalem Post column by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

What Schonfeld explained is that Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett was trying–with some success, in her view–to address the real needs of real-life Conservative and Reform Israelis. And what she understood is something too many American Jews fail to understand: that Israel is a real-world country with real-world constraints, not a fantasyland where ideal solutions can be magically implemented overnight. Thus in trying to bridge the gap between these citizens’ real needs and the country’s real constraints, modest steps that can be implemented quickly are often better than doing nothing, even if they don’t provide an ideal solution.

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My initial reaction to the latest move in the ongoing conflict over the Western Wall resembled Jonathan’s: I thought the new platform erected at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall was an asinine decision which, however well-intentioned, would only upset large swathes of American Jewry. But my view changed after reading this Jerusalem Post column by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

What Schonfeld explained is that Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett was trying–with some success, in her view–to address the real needs of real-life Conservative and Reform Israelis. And what she understood is something too many American Jews fail to understand: that Israel is a real-world country with real-world constraints, not a fantasyland where ideal solutions can be magically implemented overnight. Thus in trying to bridge the gap between these citizens’ real needs and the country’s real constraints, modest steps that can be implemented quickly are often better than doing nothing, even if they don’t provide an ideal solution.

Schonfeld was quite clear that the new platform wouldn’t satisfy her if that were the government’s final offer. But as an interim solution–which is how Bennett explicitly defined it–she deemed it a major step forward. Though the Sharansky plan, which involves developing the Robinson’s Arch site more fully into a coequal extension of the existing Western Wall Plaza, might be preferable, she recognizes that such a major project would take years to complete (if it happens at all). Meanwhile, there are real Israeli Jews with real needs that have to be taken care of–and Bennett was trying to address those needs within the limits of what could be done right now, in time for next week’s Rosh Hashanah holiday.

As Schonfeld explained, Masorti Jews (the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement) have been quietly holding egalitarian prayer services at Robinson’s Arch for 12 years. But until now, they had no permanent place of worship there, so holding services meant “carrying prayer books, tables and Torah scrolls in and out of the site on their backs without cover from rain or sun.” Now, they will at least have a permanent site with its own ark, Torah scrolls and prayer books, one that can accommodate a sizable number of people. As she put it, “With the government’s construction of this platform, 450 egalitarian worshippers will now be able to pray comfortably at one time in several minyanim.” That’s a real improvement for the real Masorti Jews living in Israel, and consequently, Schonfeld welcomed it, even though she still hopes for additional progress in the future.

As religious services minister, that’s exactly what Bennett is supposed to do: address the real religious needs of real Israelis as best he can within the constraints of what can realistically be done quickly at one of the world’s holiest and most sensitive sites. Perhaps he could have done a better job explaining himself to Americans. But if American Jews find a genuine effort to help real live Masorti Jews objectionable, it may be because, as I’ve written before, too many of them still have trouble accepting a flesh-and-blood state with all its inherent constraints and flaws, rather than the utopia of their dreams, which no real state could ever be.

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Deft Wall Compromise Will Never Happen

Natan Sharansky was asked by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to come up with a solution to a seemingly intractable dispute over the right of non-Orthodox Jews to hold egalitarian services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. To the surprise of no one who has followed the career of a man who has embodied both integrity and principle since his days as a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, the head of the Jewish Agency did not fob off the assignment by coming up with a plan for further study or some other tactic for avoiding the controversy. Instead, he actually produced a proposal that would end the Orthodox monopoly over the national shrine by calling for the expansion of the Western Wall Plaza to encompass the little used section known as Robinson’s Arch, where non-Orthodox services could be held without harassment or police interference.

It’s a brilliant idea, but there’s only one problem with it. Even if, as expected, Netanyahu endorses the project, the chances of it being implemented are about as close to zero as you can imagine. It’s not just that the Orthodox establishment will cry foul and use all of their influence to ensure that it never happens. Nor will the enormous cost of such a scheme be the primary obstacle. Instead it will be a group that seemingly has no skin in the game over who controls the Kotel that will spike a plan that could go a long way toward promoting Jewish unity. Anyone who thinks the Muslim religious authorities who control the Temple Mount will consent to a course of action that will involve construction around the area and moving the ramp that allows access to the area isn’t thinking clearly.

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Natan Sharansky was asked by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to come up with a solution to a seemingly intractable dispute over the right of non-Orthodox Jews to hold egalitarian services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. To the surprise of no one who has followed the career of a man who has embodied both integrity and principle since his days as a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, the head of the Jewish Agency did not fob off the assignment by coming up with a plan for further study or some other tactic for avoiding the controversy. Instead, he actually produced a proposal that would end the Orthodox monopoly over the national shrine by calling for the expansion of the Western Wall Plaza to encompass the little used section known as Robinson’s Arch, where non-Orthodox services could be held without harassment or police interference.

It’s a brilliant idea, but there’s only one problem with it. Even if, as expected, Netanyahu endorses the project, the chances of it being implemented are about as close to zero as you can imagine. It’s not just that the Orthodox establishment will cry foul and use all of their influence to ensure that it never happens. Nor will the enormous cost of such a scheme be the primary obstacle. Instead it will be a group that seemingly has no skin in the game over who controls the Kotel that will spike a plan that could go a long way toward promoting Jewish unity. Anyone who thinks the Muslim religious authorities who control the Temple Mount will consent to a course of action that will involve construction around the area and moving the ramp that allows access to the area isn’t thinking clearly.

Sharansky’s proposal calls for creating a space for prayer along the remnant of the Second Temple that will reportedly allow the egalitarian movements an area that is around the same space devoted to the existing men’s and women’s sections in the Wall Plaza. The Women of the Wall, a non-Orthodox group whose members wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah, have faced harassment and expulsion by the police from the women’s section of the Wall, which is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine for all Jews.

As Haaretz reports:

Under the proposal, sources said, the area now known as Robinson’s Arch on the southern end of the Wall will be greatly expanded to create a prayer space roughly equivalent to the existing men’s and women’s sections. Egalitarian prayer is currently permitted at the Arch, which is an archaeological site, but that prayer is only available at limited times and with an entrance fee. The expectation is that the enlarged space would be free and open around the clock, as the Kotel is now, but that could not be confirmed.

The plan also calls for the plaza surrounding the Wall to expand, so that visitors approaching the site in the Old City could clearly chose between praying at the egalitarian section, or the existing sections reserved only for men and for women. Still under discussion is governance of the new prayer area, but several sources said that they thought it would be run by something other than the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the ultra-Orthodox organization that currently controls the Kotel.

This would create a sense of equality for all Jewish denominations at the Wall even though few Israelis support the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements. This would have to proceed despite what will be furious Orthodox complaints and the likelihood of demonstrations and other disruptions by Haredim who may see this as a chance to exercise their not-inconsiderable clout in the capital. However, the absence of the ultra-Orthodox political parties in the current Israeli government may give Sharansky the room to get it approved by the Cabinet.

Finding the money for the new Wall section may be difficult in a time of government budget cuts, but given a will to see this through on Netanyahu’s part and the likelihood that some of the funds for it could be raised in the Diaspora, cash won’t be the primary obstacle.

But anyone who has any memory of the reaction of Muslims to the seemingly inoffensive opening of an entrance to the Western Wall tunnels in 1996 (during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister) knows that it is the Wakf that has the ultimate veto power over the idea.

Though the Wakf has been accused, with good reason, of conducting what is for all intents and purposes a campaign of vandalism on the site of the ancient Jewish temples, it has treated any construction in and around the Kotel as a plot to undermine the Temple Mount. Dozens were killed in rioting when Netanyahu authorized the opening of an entrance to the tunnels. Since then, similar threats have prevented any repair of the ramp leading to the Temple Mount even though Israel’s plans to do so would have primarily benefited the Wakf and non-Jews, since Jews are prohibited from praying there (the one exception to the policy of free access for all faiths at the holy places under Israeli rule in Jerusalem).

The idea that the Wakf will simply allow Israel to move the ramp or rebuild it in such a manner as to prevent it from dividing the sections of the Wall is a fantasy. So, too, is the idea that Netanyahu would risk such violence merely in order to placate the Women of the Wall or a Diaspora that is disgusted by the way the Orthodox govern the Kotel.

All of which is to say that Sharansky might as well have punted on the project. In the meantime, the best we can hope for is that the Orthodox authorities will back off a bit and leave the Women of the Wall alone if they try and pray in the women’s section. In a perfect world, a new and expanded Kotel Plaza might solve the problem. But as we all know, Israel does not exist in a perfect world.

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Can the Wall Become a Symbol of Unity Rather Than Division?

The protest group Women of the Wall is back in the news. They have been fighting for the right to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for years–drawing fire from the Orthodox for doing so–dressed in prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. These are practices that are normative for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations in the United States but considered an outrageous violation of the customs of the site that is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine of the Jewish people, which is the way most Americans think of it. In recent months, members of the group were again arrested when they tried to hold a prayer service. The controversy was further fueled this week when Jerusalem Police Chief Yossi Pariente sent a letter to the head of the protest group warning her that they were prohibited from saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer of mourning—when they held their monthly service at the Wall.

The ensuing furor was only contained when the rabbi who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the place, said no women would be arrested for saying Kaddish. That assurance was delivered to Natan Sharansky, the hero of the Soviet Jewish movement who now heads the Jewish Agency, the philanthropic group responsible for the absorption of Jews from the Diaspora into the country, who had expressed his dismay at this development.

But the exchange shouldn’t reassure anyone. The problem at the Wall is not only not going away, it is escalating and it’s obviously going to take more than talk from Sharansky, who was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu to deal with the situation. Israelis need to understand that the damage being done to their country’s image by these goings on is not a minor issue. As much as he dreads any involvement in what appears to him to be a no-win situation, it is high time for him to step in and stop the madness.

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The protest group Women of the Wall is back in the news. They have been fighting for the right to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for years–drawing fire from the Orthodox for doing so–dressed in prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. These are practices that are normative for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations in the United States but considered an outrageous violation of the customs of the site that is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine of the Jewish people, which is the way most Americans think of it. In recent months, members of the group were again arrested when they tried to hold a prayer service. The controversy was further fueled this week when Jerusalem Police Chief Yossi Pariente sent a letter to the head of the protest group warning her that they were prohibited from saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer of mourning—when they held their monthly service at the Wall.

The ensuing furor was only contained when the rabbi who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the place, said no women would be arrested for saying Kaddish. That assurance was delivered to Natan Sharansky, the hero of the Soviet Jewish movement who now heads the Jewish Agency, the philanthropic group responsible for the absorption of Jews from the Diaspora into the country, who had expressed his dismay at this development.

But the exchange shouldn’t reassure anyone. The problem at the Wall is not only not going away, it is escalating and it’s obviously going to take more than talk from Sharansky, who was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu to deal with the situation. Israelis need to understand that the damage being done to their country’s image by these goings on is not a minor issue. As much as he dreads any involvement in what appears to him to be a no-win situation, it is high time for him to step in and stop the madness.

As I wrote last December, most American Jews have little understanding of the underlying issues at the Wall. The disinterest most Israelis feel about the question of religious pluralism strikes Americans as shocking. However, it is a reflection of the fact that non-Orthodox Judaism is something that most Israelis think is a foreign import with little relevance to their society. As our Evelyn Gordon wrote here a few days after my piece, Israelis are unsympathetic to a movement such as the Women of the Wall that appears to them to be primarily political and intent on disrupting the existing order of the Wall.

Yet as much as I understand that most Israelis may agree with Evelyn’s evaluation of the issue, this latest absurdity about the Kaddish prayer ought to serve as a reminder that what goes in Jerusalem affects the rest of the Jewish people. As Evelyn noted, the spectacle of women’s rights being violated in this manner hurts Israel’s image, particularly among American Jews. It is hard enough for Israel’s defenders to hold their own against the falsehoods and calumnies launched at the Jewish state’s defense policies. For them to be further burdened by incidents that constitute a violation of women’s rights and an insult to the religious practices of most American Jews is as intolerable as it is unnecessary.

When Sharansky told Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz of the Western Wall Foundation “The Kotel must continue to be a symbol of unity for all Jews in the world and not a symbol of strife and discord,” I’m afraid the Orthodox rabbinate may have thought the incident could be papered over with platitudes. But it cannot.

Sharansky is working on a plan which, according to Haaretz, will ensure that “that every Jew in the world can pray in the manner that they are accustomed to at Judaism’s most important national and religious site.” If so, that is a formula for confrontation with an Orthodox establishment that has gotten used to the idea that it can dictate policy about the Wall even, as this week’s incident proved, to the police.

It goes without saying that Netanyahu would prefer to avoid such a confrontation if he possibly can. Even while leading a coalition that, for the first time in a long while, has no Orthodox parties among its members, the prime minister knows that knocking heads with the rabbinate will be messy and costly. But he must also know that when American Jews see headlines about women being arrested for praying at the Wall and policemen talking about prohibiting prayers, that is the sort of black eye that neither the country nor the Jewish people can afford.

When Sharansky comes forward with his plan, it will be up to Netanyahu to see that it is adopted and enforced. That won’t make everyone happy but it will end the running sore that the bans on certain services at the Wall has created. Though many, if not most, Israelis don’t identify with the Women of the Wall, the time has come to start treating the place as if it belonged to all Jews, rather than just the rabbinate. That won’t end the ongoing controversy about pluralism or make Reform and Conservative Judaism equal partners with the majority. But it will be a rational step that will strengthen the country and its bonds with the Diaspora. Let’s hope Netanyahu has the guts to see that this happens.

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The Women and the Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.

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In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.

The battle over the Women of the Wall is just one more illustration of the gap between the rhetoric about Israel being the heritage of all of the Jewish people and the fact that the country is, as a matter of course, always going to be governed to suit the needs and the beliefs of those who live there.

In the United States, where the Orthodox remain a minority in the Jewish community—albeit the only one that is growing rather than shrinking in terms of population—the treatment of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel remains a source of anger and puzzlement. To many American Jews, the fact that Reform and Conservative rabbis and congregations in Israel are not given the same support as those of the Orthodox seems to be an expression of pure bias. The relegation of the Women of the Wall to an out-of-the-way section of the Wall known as Robinson’s Arch for their prayer services is viewed as a contradiction of the country’s purpose as the homeland of all of the Jewish people.

But as much as the Reform and Conservative movements have made some strides in recent years, they remain a tiny minority in the country. It may no longer be true that, as some wags used to say, there are more Scientologists in Israel than Reform or Conservative Jews, but the same point still applies: the political constituency inside Israel for equal treatment for non-Orthodox denominations is practically non-existent.

To those who say that politics should have no role in determining decisions that ought to be made on the basis of the principles of religious freedom and pluralism, the only response is to point out that this is one point on which Israel has more in common with European democracies where there is an established religion than with the United States. In a country such as Israel where religion and state are not separated as they are in America and the clergy is paid by the state, the question of who is a rabbi is inherently political.

Though, as critics of the Orthodox establishment rightly point out, most Israelis are not observant, the vast majority still sees Orthodoxy as the only valid form of Judaism. By contrast, Reform and Conservative Judaism are viewed as foreign imports whose adherents are mostly American immigrants. There is strong support among the Israeli electorate for disestablishing or cutting back on the influence of rabbinate, but there is little interest in the question of giving equal treatment to the non-Orthodox. That is a source of understandable frustration for American Jews, but until the ranks of Conservative and Reform Judaism inside Israel swell to the point that they have some kind of political clout, no Israeli government will care much about them. This is also the reason why most Israelis either don’t care about the Women of the Wall or dismiss them as publicity-seeking Diaspora troublemakers.

The symbolism of the Wall is such that Netanyahu is right to make some sort of gesture about the issue that will calm American Jewry. The Wall ought never to have been allowed to become yet another point of contention in this manner. Letting the Orthodox authorities abuse the non-Orthodox who wish to worship there according to their own lights is a problem that can only worsen the already tattered ties between Israel and the Diaspora. But stripping it of Orthodox control simply isn’t in the cards. That doesn’t make what has happened at the Wall right, but the fact that most American Jews don’t understand why this is so just illustrates how little they know about the country. 

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