Commentary Magazine


Topic: religious pluralism

Pluralism and Israeli Political Reality

A lot of Americans are upset about Israel’s government for reasons that have little to do with the peace process. Though many liberal supporters of Israel may cling to the delusion that peace with the Palestinians might have been advanced had Prime Minister Netanyahu been defeated last month, the new coalition presents another, more serious problem for American Jews: the return of the ultra-Orthodox parties to the government after a two year hiatus during which there excluded from the government. Netanyahu’s government hangs by a thread so there’s no doubt that the Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism parties will be able to roll back some of the reforms put in place while they were gone from the Cabinet. This is causing a predictable and justified outcry among many American Jews. But before they start blaming Netanyahu for betraying them, they need to reacquaint themselves with the political realities of Israel and understand that Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog would have cut the same deals with the Haredim.

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A lot of Americans are upset about Israel’s government for reasons that have little to do with the peace process. Though many liberal supporters of Israel may cling to the delusion that peace with the Palestinians might have been advanced had Prime Minister Netanyahu been defeated last month, the new coalition presents another, more serious problem for American Jews: the return of the ultra-Orthodox parties to the government after a two year hiatus during which there excluded from the government. Netanyahu’s government hangs by a thread so there’s no doubt that the Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism parties will be able to roll back some of the reforms put in place while they were gone from the Cabinet. This is causing a predictable and justified outcry among many American Jews. But before they start blaming Netanyahu for betraying them, they need to reacquaint themselves with the political realities of Israel and understand that Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog would have cut the same deals with the Haredim.

In addition to being a windfall for the sub-standard ultra-Orthodox education system, the return of Shas and UTJ to power will impact the effort to enact more liberal rules about conversion, the minimal progress made toward civil marriage and/or the recognition of non-Orthodox movements and rabbis. It may also undermine the plans to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

These are sore points for American Jews who see the exclusion of Reform and Conservative Judaism from official recognition by the Jewish state as a standing insult. The fact that the Orthodox rabbinate controls all life cycle events in Israel is something that most Americans — raised in a country where religion and state are separate — is something that both perplexes and infuriates the 90 percent of American Jews who are not Orthodox. At a time when Israel is under assault from foreign critics and many young American Jews are being influenced by left-wing opponents of Zionism, the lack of religious pluralism is another factor that increases alienation from Israel.

As even Netanyahu and other Israeli political leaders have admitted, this state of affairs is problematic at best. That’s why the previous government he led, which included the centrist and secular Yesh Atid and excluded Shas and UTJ was viewed with more affection by the non-Orthodox denominations. Its demise is viewed, not unreasonably, as a calamity for the cause of pluralism.

But those crying foul over Netanyahu’s deal with the Haredim need to get their head out of the clouds and understand that their concerns don’t mean much to most Israelis.

It’s true that most Israelis despise the Rabbinate and that includes many who are religious. It is viewed as corrupt and self-serving. The religious parties are rightly seen as being out for themselves and willing to sacrifice the rest of the country in order to get the patronage they want. The fact that most (though not all) Haredim don’t serve in the military as the overwhelming majority of secular and religious Zionist Israelis are compelled to do is an open sore in Israeli society. So, too, is the endemic poverty of the Haredi community, a problem that is exacerbated by the decision of many Haredi men to engage in religious study rather than work even though the majority of them have large families that are not adequately supported.

The immediate past government made tentative steps towards drafting more Haredim. That and other reforms are likely to be scuttled. That will upset Israelis but their anger will be tempered by the knowledge that the only thing that could have prevented this from happening was electoral reform that would reduce the influence of minority parties. They also know that so long as the religious parties hold the balance of power in a system where neither major party (Likud and the Labor-led Zionist Union) can ever hope to win a majority of the Knesset on their own, the Haredi parties will retain disproportionate influence. Indeed, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog was praying for a chance to offer the same sweet deal to the Haredi parties that Netanyahu gave them.

All of which brings us back to what American Jews should think about this.

Reform and Conservative Jews have a right to be unhappy about this state of affairs but it’s necessary to remind them that until their movements have the same kind of influence in Israel as the Haredim, nothing will change.

The plain truth is that in a country where rabbis are paid by the state, the question of who is a rabbi (which is the real question here rather than the one about who is a Jew) will be intensely political. The Haredim have 13 seats in the current Knesset. Though there are members of the other parties who support religious pluralism (at least in principle), the liberal movements have exactly zero MKs. Though there are growing Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel, it has long been thought that there are actually more Scientologists in Israel than Jews who are affiliated with the non-Orthodox. Even most secular Israelis tend to think of Orthodox synagogues as the only legitimate expression of Judaism. So long as Reform and Conservative Judaism are seen as expressions of the Diaspora rather than an Israeli, they will remain marginal.

Though many Israelis don’t oppose pluralism, it is not important to them in the way that civil marriage or the disestablishment of the Orthodox (two good ideas that will still probably remain pipe dreams for the foreseeable future) are.

It is to be hoped that Netanyahu will insist that his new partners don’t interfere with the planned alteration of the Western Wall plaza to accommodate non-Orthodox worship. But American Jews must realize that Israeli political realities will always trump their desires. Until more of them move to Israel or their movements gain more sabra adherents, even future coalitions without the Haredim aren’t likely to give Americans what they want.

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The Wall Compromise and the “Judaizers”

When Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed the creation of a pluralist prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall last year, there was good reason for skepticism that the scheme would be stopped long before it became a reality. However, the Muslim Wakf that controls the Temple Mount overlooking the Wall hasn’t—at least not yet—tried to stop any construction in the area, as I feared they might. The Orthodox group that currently administers the Western Wall plaza   also seems content to let the plan go forward because Sharansky’s plan to create three separate sections allows them to retain control over the men’s and women’s sections. That would, at least in theory, shunt non-Orthodox Jews who want egalitarian services at the Wall into the Robinson’s Arch section that is currently not accessible from the main plaza.

This is a deft compromise that deserves to be put into effect as soon as possible. Israelis may not care much about religious pluralism, but the spectacle of women seeking to pray in the manner of Reform or Conservative Jews being arrested at the Wall undermines the notion that it belongs to all of the Jewish people rather than just the Orthodox and hurts Israel’s image among non-Orthodox Jews in America. But the announcement that the Robinson’s Arch area that will be set aside for the egalitarians will be administered by the City of David Foundation is causing some to wonder whether the Israeli government is backing away from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pledge to support Sharansky’s pluralist vision. The Foundation has run the City of David archeological park outside the Old City walls. It is identified with the nationalist/settler cause and is assumed, not unreasonably, to support the Orthodox in the debates about pluralism.

This move contradicts Sharansky’s plan that sought to place the egalitarian prayer space at the Wall under the control of a pluralist council. As such, the involvement of the City of David Foundation casts doubt on the future of the plan to change the Wall plaza. If those fears are confirmed, the Israeli government should revoke the Foundation’s control of the area. But criticisms of the move haven’t been limited to worries about pluralism. Left-wing activist Emily Hauser wrote today in the Forward not merely to condemn the decision about the Wall but to slam the Foundation as “Judaizers” who should not be allowed near any of Jerusalem’s holy sites. But while supporters of pluralism may see her article as validating their concerns, they should be wary of conflating the argument about the Wall with Hauser’s agenda that seeks to divide Jerusalem. While leftists may distrust the Foundation’s motivation in rescuing ancient Jewish sites in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods, they need to remember there is no such thing as “Judaizing” Israel’s ancient capital.

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When Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed the creation of a pluralist prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall last year, there was good reason for skepticism that the scheme would be stopped long before it became a reality. However, the Muslim Wakf that controls the Temple Mount overlooking the Wall hasn’t—at least not yet—tried to stop any construction in the area, as I feared they might. The Orthodox group that currently administers the Western Wall plaza   also seems content to let the plan go forward because Sharansky’s plan to create three separate sections allows them to retain control over the men’s and women’s sections. That would, at least in theory, shunt non-Orthodox Jews who want egalitarian services at the Wall into the Robinson’s Arch section that is currently not accessible from the main plaza.

This is a deft compromise that deserves to be put into effect as soon as possible. Israelis may not care much about religious pluralism, but the spectacle of women seeking to pray in the manner of Reform or Conservative Jews being arrested at the Wall undermines the notion that it belongs to all of the Jewish people rather than just the Orthodox and hurts Israel’s image among non-Orthodox Jews in America. But the announcement that the Robinson’s Arch area that will be set aside for the egalitarians will be administered by the City of David Foundation is causing some to wonder whether the Israeli government is backing away from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pledge to support Sharansky’s pluralist vision. The Foundation has run the City of David archeological park outside the Old City walls. It is identified with the nationalist/settler cause and is assumed, not unreasonably, to support the Orthodox in the debates about pluralism.

This move contradicts Sharansky’s plan that sought to place the egalitarian prayer space at the Wall under the control of a pluralist council. As such, the involvement of the City of David Foundation casts doubt on the future of the plan to change the Wall plaza. If those fears are confirmed, the Israeli government should revoke the Foundation’s control of the area. But criticisms of the move haven’t been limited to worries about pluralism. Left-wing activist Emily Hauser wrote today in the Forward not merely to condemn the decision about the Wall but to slam the Foundation as “Judaizers” who should not be allowed near any of Jerusalem’s holy sites. But while supporters of pluralism may see her article as validating their concerns, they should be wary of conflating the argument about the Wall with Hauser’s agenda that seeks to divide Jerusalem. While leftists may distrust the Foundation’s motivation in rescuing ancient Jewish sites in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods, they need to remember there is no such thing as “Judaizing” Israel’s ancient capital.

Many Israelis are opposed to efforts to create space for Jews to live in what are now predominantly Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. But treating the area in Silwan that the group rescued from neglect and transformed into an archeological park that allows visitors to see the remnants of King David’s Jerusalem as an “illegal settlement” is outrageous. It is one thing to support a two-state solution and even to imagine that parts of Jerusalem will be part of a putative Palestinian state. But when Jews employ the term “Judaizers” to denigrate those who honor the Jewish history of the city they are adopting the language of anti-Zionism, not peace.

It should be remembered that all of Israel is the product of similar efforts to recover the history of the ancient homeland of the Jewish people that had been either erased or forgotten during centuries of foreign rule. That’s why Palestinian nationalism has always sought to deny Jewish history, especially in Jerusalem. It’s disturbing that some on the left have remained silent about the shocking vandalism of artifacts by the Wakf while condemning the efforts of those who have worked to preserve and protect the ancient Jewish heritage of the city.

The Sharansky plan for the Western Wall is worth fighting for, and if the City of David Foundation is an obstacle to that effort they should not be allowed to administer Robinson’s Arch. But their work at the City of David deserves praise, not condemnation. Whatever American Jews think about the peace process, they should avoid confusing their justified concerns about pluralism and the Wall with arguments about dividing Israel’s capital. Jerusalem is a city of both Jews and Arabs, but its ancient history is proof of Jewish ties that run deep in its history as well as the hearts of Jews everywhere.

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