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.