Israel-Diaspora Relations: Part I Religion The Western Wall Controversy

Israel-Diaspora Relations: Part I Religion
The Western Wall Controversy

by

Howard Adelman

Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s right-wing Deputy Foreign Minister, was at the centre of a heated controversy over remarks she made on Israeli-diaspora relations in an interview on Tel Aviv-based i24News TV Channel on the topic of relations between Israel and US Jewry last Wednesday. (https://ca.video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&p=Hotovely+on+Israeli+Arabs#id=4&vid=8e2673cfc0e64a6cd1d52480e8136874&action=view). Lauded by some right-wing commentators, but harshly denounced by both the left and her own Prime Minister, three questions arise. What did she say that ignited such a fury? Was the fury deserved? What does the heated debate indicate about Israeli-Diaspora relations?

In the actual interview she insisted that she was using her position in the cabinet “to bring American Jews closer to Israel.” She expressed the hope “that more Jews from North America immigrate to the Jewish state.” She also observed that there was a “growing tension between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.” That tension, if I interpret her correctly from that interview, revolved around three issues; the Jewish question; the security question and the relationship of Israeli Jews to Palestinians.

Hotovely was not speaking out of ignorance of America. At 18, before her army service, she had spent a year in Atlanta as part of her National Service. For her whole political life, Israeli-Diaspora relations have been a centerpiece of her political career. Did what she say sound like an attack on American Jewry? Were the remarks offensive? Were they even a rebuke of American Jewry? Did she indicate anywhere that she rejected Diaspora Jews? Did she convey a message that she denigrated the support American Jews gave to Israel? Was her intention to increase the widely observed increasing chasm between American Jewry and Israel? She actually said, “I think it’s a very important goal to bring American Jews closer to Israel, this is one of my goals,” In her apology she said, “I see us as family.”

Did her remarks deserve the severe reprimand of Benjamin Netanyahu? Her generalizations must be seen against the background of three specific issues that exemplified Israeli Diaspora conflicts over religion, security and relations with Palestinians – the conflict over prayer at the Western Wall, her comments on American Jewish contribution to the military related to defence, not simply of Jewish but of Western values, and, third, the very recent cancelling of an invitation from Princeton’s Hillel for Hotelely to address the student body, a cancellation issued on the day she arrived to give her talk. Hotovely had denounced Palestinians for appropriating Jewish history. I will deal with each in turn in this and subsequent blogs.

As far as the increased tensions between Israel and US Jewry over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, when practicing their commitment to egalitarianism in prayer, Reform and Conservative Jews had been relegated to praying at a section of the Western Wall near Robinson’s Arch not visible to the general public. After some mediation by Natan Sharansky, a historic agreement was reached in January of 2016 to define three spaces at the Western Wall where different groups of Jews would be enabled to pray according to “established custom”: a men’s section – the main Western Wall plaza to be formally designated as a place for Orthodox worship – a women’s section at the upper Western Wall prayer site where the Women of the Wall organization protesters would no longer be able to pray using prayer shawls, tallit and Torah scrolls, and a third much upgraded section near Robinson’s Arch for egalitarian prayer.

The Ezrat Yisrael egalitarian section founded in 2000 had been previously significantly upgraded in 2013 under Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, but the changes had been considered totally inadequate. Further, critics claimed that the space still reified two classes of the Jewish people. In July, Anat Hoffman, director of both the Women of the Wall prayer rights group and the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, prepared a video depicting the Ezrat Yisrael facility as providing “a second-rate platform for second-rate Jews.” The rising influence of an intolerant religious establishment’ was declared “an existential threat to [Israel’s] future.”

In response to that and the billboard campaign in Israel titled, “Free the Western Wall – Enough of Charedi Control,” Rabbi Yaakov Menken of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a North American Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox group, called on the Reform and Conservative movements “to stop dividing the Jewish people.” Supporters of the status quo threatened to leave the government if the compromise solution was passed into law.

Netanyahu’s effort to cater to the Orthodox and the Haredim on the issue of the Western Wall may not have been necessary. If it was necessary, it might only be a stopgap measure. Just yesterday, Israeli Health Minister and United Torah Judaism party leader Yaakov Litzman resigned from the government following the government’s decision to allow Israel Railways to conduct maintenance work during the Sabbath. However, the debate over the Wall versus the debate over Shabat railway maintenance are not parallel. Litzman may have resigned, but the Torah Jewish Party did not even threaten to leave the coalition. Instead they adopted a waiting game to ensure in practice a balance between the public’s need for safe and continuous transportation and respect for the Jewish sabbath. Perhaps they might do the same over the Wall controversy if the Prime Minister had pressed ahead with the compromise. Netanyahu evidently was not willing to take a chance.

In the Sharansky compromise, the egalitarian section was to be governed by a committee headed by the chairman of the Jewish Agency with representatives from Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America and the government o that committee. The administrator of that section would be appointed by the Prime Minister. The three sections were to have a common security entrance; all would be visible to visitors. In February of 2016, the Israeli Cabinet approved the compromise which was to be formally concluded by passing an amendment to the 1981 Law of the Holy Sites. The Prime Minister declared the Western Wall to be “a place that is supposed to unite the Jewish people.”

Led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform Movement held its first official prayer at the Western Wall to celebrate the ordination of the 100th Reform rabbi in Israel. The assembled worshippers recited the shehecheyanu blessing to mark the special occasion. In the egalitarian service, both men and women joined together in reading the Thursday portion of the Torah. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, declared that, “The prayers of hundreds of people and reform rabbis at the Western Wall is the ultimate answer to the incitement of the ultra-Orthodox leadership.” The law would be reaffirmation that all Jews, whatever their beliefs, could regard Israel as home and could visit “this place and not feel like visitors, quietly and meekly taking our place, but in full voice, be who we are, saying ‘this too, is our place.’”

However, in a subsequent service at the site, Haredi men scuffled with the worshippers and tried to disrupt that service. Security guards threatened to spray Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs with mace. A group of Orthodox Jewish organizations petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent the establishment of the egalitarian section. Further, under threat of his Orthodox partners – Shas and United Torah Judaism – seceding from the government and forcing an election, the government did not upgrade the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The historic agreement was never passed into law. In June 2016, Netanyahu postponed the implementation of the agreement, which, given its long gestation period and promise of quick action, was an effective reneging of that agreement.

As the contending parties waited for a Supreme Court ruling on the dispute, participants in the egalitarian movement avoided any physical conflict by largely staying away from the Wall, a decision leading to that section being virtually vacant on the 17th of Tammuz commemorating the day on which the IDF breached the walls of the Old City and captured it in 1967. Not only the Orthodox, but the government as well offered the emptiness as proof that the Reform movement was only interested in scoring political points and not worshipping at the Wall.

In December 2016, Haredi Orthodox Knesset members from the Jewish Home and the Likud parties submitted a bill to the Knesset to prevent non-Orthodox public prayer at the Western Wall. However, in January of 2017, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a ruling that greatly upped the ante. It did not endorse the compromise but went much further. The Court ruled in favour of women being allowed to read from the Torah in the women’s section at the Western Wall. The Court also declared that an egalitarian prayer area set aside at Robinson’s Arch did not constitute access to the holy site.

The Court issued an injunction that gave the Wall’s Orthodox administrators and state agencies 30 days to show cause why women cannot pray “in accordance with their custom” and allow them to pray as they choose. Women would no longer be body searched at the entrance to preclude them from entering the women’s section with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs. Women of the Wall greeted the ruling as follows: “Today, we have come much closer toward implementation of the Western Wall agreement on gender equality and religious freedom at the Wall.”

Both the government and the Western Wall administrators ignored the injunction. In July 2017 the government did not unfreeze the compromise but did promise to expand and upgrade the egalitarian section of the Wall at Robinson’s Arch. In August, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate claimed that the Israeli Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to rule on the intrareligious struggle concerning both egalitarian worship and the rights of women to worship as they chose in the women’s section. The Court, they claimed, had entered the political arena to advance government and feminist issues. Current practice did not interfere with freedom of worship.

Of course, the battle was really over rights at a national site and not over the rights to worship in different synagogues and in different places. In September, the Supreme Court reprimanded the state for its failure to implement the plan for the egalitarian section in accordance with the compromise agreement of January of 2016. Deputy High Court President Elyakim Rubinstein expressed the Court’s exasperation since the Cabinet had endorsed the compromise agreement. “Things have been dragged out forever and without any limit.” The most pressing issue was the state’s failure to implement the agreement, but the Religious Services Minister refused to sign onto the new regulations.

Rubinstein went on to insist that the issue concerned the unity of the Jewish people. “Whoever doesn’t want pluralism can go to the northern [Western Wall] plaza, and whoever does can go to the southern plaza; we are a Jewish people.” The Reform movement all along had insisted that ultra-Orthodox leaders “continue to incite and we continue to create a more pluralistic and tolerant reality in Israel.” Divisiveness was promoted by Haredi actions. The Haredi and parts of the Orthodox establishment, in contrast, viewed the progress and expansion of liberal ideas as sewing the seeds for the destruction of Judaism as a religion of unity.

However, the organized Jewish community leaders in America had a very different view of the situation than the Haredi. American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris decried the Israeli government reneging on the compromise agreement. He declared that the failure to implement Supreme Court decisions was a “setback for Jewish unity.” Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, insisted that the failure of the government to carry through on its promise was a “slap in the face” to Diaspora Jews. Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, went further. The actions of the Israeli government had deepened “the already accelerating divide between Diaspora Jews and Israel.”

Against this background, Tzipi Hotovely’s comments that the Reform movement had made a religious issue into a political one must be understood. She had suggested that Reform Jews were not really interested in praying at the Wall since Robinson’s Arch was virtually empty when it could be expected to be full on the 17th of Tammuz. Though her words were not divisive, though she only insisted that American Jews and Israeli Jews were informed by different experiences of threat, experiences which explained their attitudes, though she could be criticized for faulty analysis and significant errors in phrasing and in fact, nothing she said had been an insult to American Jewry and nowhere rejected American Jewry. Her “error” had been far more serious: Hotevely had adopted the Haredi line in a religious dispute, something the Teflon PM had always sought to avoid.

The Haredi position can be summarized. American Jews were making a mountain out of molehill, politicizing a debate over the Western Wall when they showed no significant inclination to pray in any significant numbers at the egalitarian section already set aside for egalitarian prayer. They were fighting for equal recognition, not the right of egalitarian prayer.

In that assertion, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox description was accurate, The Western Wall was the greatest symbol of identity and religious rights. Though Tzipi took the Haredi line in her support of government policy, earning thereby the criticisms of progressives, Netanyahu supported only the Haredi practice in place while taking the dominant American position on egalitarian prayer as a matter of policy. Tzipi Hotovely had failed to walk with one foot going forward and the other backwards. For her inability to walk in two directions at once, for her lack of skills as a contortion artist, she became a target for Netanyahu’s anger as well as the barbs of the Reform and Conservative movements.

To be continued

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

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