July 2, 2017
“An Ugly Scene”
As I understand latest reports, on Friday, a compromise was reached by all parties to delay the controversial actions taken recently by Prime Minister Netanyahu with regard to 1) “freezing” of a Kotel plan, and 2) a change in current conversion rules which would have required all conversions in Israel to be done under the umbrella of the Rabbinate only.
There is, I confess, a part of me that would have liked to skip over these volatile issues. But I cannot. They urgently require elucidation and comment. The comment is mine: Certainly not politically correct, it is honest and heartfelt.
Please, be sure to follow through to the end…I have a request.
It is enormously important for the issue of the Kotel plan to be addressed with accuracy – because a shocking amount is being written about the situation that is inaccurate.
Today, the Jerusalem Post ran an editorial that spoke of “the government’s failure to carry out its historic decision some 18 months ago establishing a section for egalitarian worship at the Kotel.” (Emphasis added)
But this is wrong, just as dozens of other reports have been wrong. A section for egalitarian worship at the Kotel exists! It has existed for some years now. Let this be clearly and unequivocally stated.
It will continue to exist, and the prime minister has apparently ordered it enlarged, even as other aspects of the plan have been stopped (or “frozen,” depending on your interpretation).
Women and men can pray together in this area. Women can don their tallitot and their tfillin and read from the Torah.
The egalitarian section is in the area of Robinson’s Arch, near the south wall. It is smaller than the traditional prayer section.
While some enlargement of this area might well be in order, we should keep in mind that it is utilized far, far less than the traditional prayer section. When I visited the egalitarian area, I found it totally empty. This raises a question as to how many people really care about using such a section, day in and day out. Actually, I was there on chol hamoed (the intermediate days of) Pesach, which is more than “day in and day out.”
The entrance to the egalitarian section is separate from the entrance to the traditional section. This is one of the things that the plan was going to address, along with a change in the body responsible for administering the Kotel.
It is important, I think, for me to provide clarity here as to where I stand on religious matters relevant to this discussion:
I am not pleased by ultra-Orthodox control of religious issues in Israel – I am not an apologist for this situation. My preference would be for liberal Orthodox rabbis and groups – sustaining tradition and Jewish law, but with some flexibility – to have far more influence on what is transpiring. I myself identify as modern Orthodox.
I have joyously participated in women’s tefillah (prayer) groups during which women read from the Torah. I understand that some Jews prefer to pray with men and women together. While it is not my choice to do so, I am not offended if others do opt to do so.
There are, however, other matters that have offended me: primary among them is the politicization of the entire issue of areas assigned along the Kotel. As one article on the matter observed, “This is not about God.” Indeed. I have been aware of this for a long time.
One woman prominent in Women of the Wall – a major player in this matter – was cited some time ago, when she objected to having the egalitarian section located in an area at a distance from the traditional section. She protested that, “I want to see and be seen.”
Excuse me. What does “being seen” (in a tallit, undoubtedly) have to do with communing with the Almighty in a place of heightened sanctity?
Rhetorical question. But an exceedingly pertinent one that is perhaps at the heart of the matter. We are in the midst of a power struggle.
I cannot judge what is in the heart of any particular progressive Jew, and it would be wrong for me to try. But more globally, I have wondered: What is this about? Do progressives Jews – who do not relate to Temple issues in a significant manner, if at all – value their place at the Kotel for what it brings to them by way of enhanced spirituality, or is this a matter of making a point about “rights”?
I have been watching – many of us have been watching – as substantial numbers of progressive and even some centrist American Jews have pulled back from active support for Israel. I doubt there is anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with the phenomenon.
Thus, for example, the Israel on Campus Coalition last year reported that support for BDS initiatives was gaining momentum among Jewish critics of Israel. And Jewish left wing journalist Peter Beinart is on record as saying:
“While we condemn Palestinian violence, we must recognize this painful truth: that Israeli policy has encouraged it…Hard as it is to say, the Israeli government is reaping what it has sowed.”
Additionally, there are main-stream Jewish organizations that have defended Palestinian American Linda Sarsour, an anti-Zionist, because it is politically correct to do so. They are at a loss when it comes to criticizing someone who calls herself a Palestinian and a feminist.
Then there is this whole crazy theory of “intersectionality,” which maintains that a position on one issue mandates certain specific positions on other issues. Thus, you cannot be a true “feminist” unless you are also for Palestinian rights, or a true supporter of gays unless you renounce support for Zionism. It is Israel and Zionism that take the hit each time. And many progressive Jews go along.
All of this has been a source of sadness, as the gap between Israeli Jews and American Jews has grown. Sometimes there is the feeling that, in America, there are Jews so caught in their political correctness, their concern for “poor suffering Palestinians,” their various progressive issues (abortion rights, gay rights), that they have lost sight of who we are, what our suffering has been, and what our rights are.
Never mind how deep is their intrinsic connection to us.
In the midst of all of this came the current crisis regarding the Kotel and conversions. Whoa! What a furious reaction ensued. A political furor, far beyond anything justified by what had actually transpired.
They had a right to be angry because the prime minister broke his word. No question. But angry. Not enraged.
The issue about the Kotel I’ve addressed above. The matter of conversions has also been misunderstood: What the ultra-Orthodox are seeking is total control of conversions via the Rabbinate. Currently, there is a system of religious courts established by rabbis from the Religious Zionist movement, such as Rav David Stav and Rav Shlomo Riskin, seeking to do conversions in a welcoming environment but according to Jewish law. They are working with Russians who came to Israel under the Law of Return but are not Jewish according to Jewish law. Their hope, which would be blocked should the Rabbinate assume full control, has been to eventually receive acceptance by the State.
But be clear: there was nothing in the planning that would have permitted Reform or Conservative groups to do conversions here in Israel in any event. From the perspective of progressive American Jewry, then, nothing would be lost if Netanyahu’s acquiescence to full Rabbinate control were to go through (although a great deal would be lost here).
But then we were suddenly hearing from American Jewish leaders who were saying they would no longer support Israel.
It’s a mark of how shallow the commitment to Israel has been for many, that they could consider renouncing her so quickly. Because they did not get their way.
This week I celebrate the 16th anniversary of my aliyah. I rejoice in this.
However, I most certainly do not think that everything here is perfect. I’ve been grieved, I’ve been frustrated, by various political decisions that have been made. There is, actually, enough that needs fixing to keep me busy for the rest of my life.
But the goal is to participate in the repair, with devotion and determination, not to give up and walk away.
This is the message I would like to deliver to progressive American Jews.
Israel is at the heart of what we are as a people, a holy gift. And we are at a stunning historical/ theological juncture. Commit, be part of it.
Without Israel, every Jew in the world would be at greater risk. It thus behooves every Jew to strengthen Israel.
I will note – as other observers have – that if there had been a deeper commitment to Israel on the part of progressive Jewry over the past decades, we would have seen a more substantial portion of them making aliyah. As it is, their numbers in the country are exceedingly unimpressive.
And that is part of the problem. For our government functions with a coalition system, but Reform and Conservative Jews are not numerous enough to have had meaningful input into the system. Had they come, they would have contributed to the building of a more pluralistic society.
Lastly now I want to address a related matter that I find enormously disturbing.
Daniel Gordis, who fashions himself an academic, wrote a piece in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post Magazine that addresses the subjects of this posting. And oh, let me tell you, he is very angry on behalf of America’s progressive Jews. Thus he presumes to give advice to these Jews in America on “How to make Israelis care.”
They should show they are committed to Israel, he says about the American Jews, they should come in large numbers. (He is referring to visits). But never, ever on El Al (emphasis added):
“Why? Isn’t El Al a private airline? Yes, but it is critical to Israel’s security, and Israel cannot afford to let it fail. El Al survives on a thin margin; American Jews shunning it for half a year could break it…Then Israelis will care.”
My blood pressure went through the ceiling when I read this. He is seriously recommending American Jews bring failure to the airline that Israel requires for its security, in order to make Israel notice them.
Then, too, there are the hospitals:
“Israeli hospitals survive in part thanks to American Jewish philanthropy. The flow of money should stop. Meetings with hospitals’ fund-raisers should be canceled. The hospitals did nothing wrong, but when they start running out of money, Israelis will start to care.
Israel is fighting delegitimization daily. Yet Gordis considers it a good tactic to encourage American Jews to reduce our “prime minister to a publicly humiliated pariah.”
Somehow he imagines that the position of American Jews can be strengthened if the Israeli prime minister’s public status is diminished. Incredible that a man of education could be so obtuse.
Instead of telling American Jews to come here and become part of the system, so that they can fight from within, and vote, he advises them to be destructive to Israel and imagines that this will enable them to achieve their goals from the outside.
Sometimes we cannot remain silent. This is one of those times.
If you are even half as enraged by Gordis’s piece as I am, I ask you please to write to the Jerusalem Post Magazine editor, Rhona Burns, and express your anger and disgust. This must be your message, in your words.
Cc your letter to the editor of the Jerusalem Post, Yaakov Katz:
As I always do, I advise you to keep the communication short, and keep the tone polite. Insulting the editors would not be constructive. But they need to know how you who are American Jews feel about Gordis’s suggestions.
This will only be successful in making an impact if many hundreds write. Please be one of those who does, and share this, encouraging others to do the same.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.