Non-Orthodox Jews are angry about the Israeli government’s decision to go back on its word about a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet have much to answer for a move that highly damages Jewish unity and undermines support for Israel in the U.S.
But while those affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements have every right to be upset, what most of them don’t understand is why Netanyahu did it. It’s not because he doesn’t care about the Diaspora. Rather, it’s a result of a cynical political struggle in which one side has power and the other does not. As critics of the move attempt to make their voices heard in Israel, they need to understand the context of this controversy and other religious pluralism issues that further widen the divide between American Jews and Israel.
Those who wish to rationalize the government’s decision may think Israel should actively disdain the views of the overwhelming majority of affiliated American Jews who identify with the non-Orthodox denominations. Many Israelis, especially those on the right who see liberal Americans as sympathetic to the Israeli left, wrongly link pluralism to the debate about the conflict with the Palestinians. Others think the non-Orthodox are rapidly assimilating and should be written off.
Both of these excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny. Netanyahu and the Israeli right are unpopular among American Jews. But the 90 percent of the U.S. Jewish community that affiliates with the liberal denominations still represents the backbone of pro-Israel groups like AIPAC. Though support from conservative Christians is very important, forgetting all Jews except the Orthodox minority undermines support for Israel in the U.S.
Concerns about the demographic implosion of American Jewry are entirely justified. But those who think the Orthodox will soon dominate don’t understand that it will still take many years for that reversal to come about, as well as the damage to the entire community that this problem creates. Rather than ignoring Reform and Conservative Judaism, they should be thinking about how to reinforce efforts to keep these movements viable.
Moreover, Israelis need to connect their own justified concerns about the impact that the haredi monopoly on religious issues has on the Jewish state with pluralism concerns. The Kotel is a place that belongs to all of the Jewish people. Accommodations for the non-Orthodox are neither a provocation nor an insult to the Orthodox.
But American Jews also need to understand something else. Israel is a country where there is no separation between religion and state. In such a place, debates on religion are political, not religious. Israel’s political system allows parties like those of the haredi community to obtain a disproportionate amount of power. One can’t be surprised when they exercise that power, both to undermine a historic compromise at the Kotel that was first proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, and to exclude other rabbis, including the Modern Orthodox, from control of conversions.
Netanyahu explained his going back on his word by saying any of his rivals would have done the same. It’s no excuse, but it’s true, and has happened before with Israeli governments of the left as well as the right. His left-wing opponents would also sell the non-Orthodox out if they had the chance. No prime minister would let his government fall in order to satisfy the Reform and Conservative movements, which have no votes in the Knesset, as long as he is at the mercy of the haredi parties that have many seats in the legislature.
An Israeli government willing to live up to its mandate to safeguard the interests of the entire Jewish people wouldn’t let this happen. But until a day in which the political stars are aligned to make this happen, don’t be surprised when this situation repeats itself both on the Kotel and with respect to other pluralism issues.
The challenge for the non-Orthodox is obvious. Until their message is heard and understood by more Israelis, and translated into political power, nothing is likely to change. The message Netanyahu sent them this week hurts, but whatever their views about the Israeli government might be, Reform and Conservative Jews must not let their frustration cause them to give up engaging with the Jewish state—regardless of politics.
By Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS.org