Would the Reform Jewish Leader Give Up the Western Wall for Peace?

A Haredi politician's hint that he would join the left if it drops the Reform movement raises a touchy question: Does peace or religious plurality take precedent?

Non-Orthodox rabbis bring Torah scrolls into Western Wall plaza to protest Israel's inaction. Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick (L), Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Women of the Wall's Anat Hoffman (C), Conservative Rabbi Mauricio Balter, (R) Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv. November 2, 2016.
Women of the Wall

Peace in exchange for Reform Judaism. This was effectively the deal that Moshe Gafni, a veteran ultra-Orthodox politician, proposed earlier this month at the annual Haaretz Conference on Peace. Asked by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Aluf Benn why, despite his dovish views, he insisted on aligning his party, United Torah Judaism, with the political right, Gafni dropped a political bombshell. “We will join the left when the left breaks its ties with the Reform movement,” he promised.

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Some on the Israeli left have since suggested taking him up on the offer. After all, they argue, isn’t making peace a more urgent priority than guaranteeing the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews to hold egalitarian prayer services as the Western Wall?

As Haaretz columnist Carolina Landsmann wrote: “The alliance that Gafni proposes requires rethinking the relationship between secular people in the center and left toward the ultra-Orthodox. The symbiosis created in Israel between religion and state has led secular people to see in the demands of Reform Jews, that is, of American Judaism, as well as the religious Zionist way of life, a kind of life-preserving compromise between the secular and (Ashkenazi) ultra-Orthodox ways of life. But what does a secular person care about issues like the authority to conduct conversions to Judaism, control over the Western Wall plaza and the status of female rabbis?"

Writing in Al-Monitor, Akiva Eldar (a former diplomatic correspondent and columnist for Haaretz) echoed this thinking. “The Reform stream of Judaism, for which pluralism and the Western Wall plan are paramount, includes a majority of the Jewish community in the United States, but is a negligible minority among Israeli voters,” he noted. “The struggle against the ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel is just and important. But it pushes away the Israeli political parties that could replace the current government and then promote pluralism and equality from a position of power, while at the same time reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.”

Reform and Conservative rabbis protest at the Western Wall, November, 2016.
Emil Salman

While both religious pluralism and peace are worthy causes and, in ordinary times, not mutually exclusive, these are not ordinary times, Eldar continued. “These days we have to choose our battles,” he wrote, “focus on the central one and not ease up.”

The Reform movement has long advocated for a two-state solution that would end the Israeli occupation and settlement activity, but it has never been its top priority. If only Reform leaders were as vocal and passionate about the cause of peace, many Israeli leftists lament, as they are about prayer at the Western Wall.

After suffering two huge setbacks this week, the Reform movement is probably less inclined than ever to say a good word about Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, which it holds accountable. On Sunday, the cabinet voted to suspend plans to build a new and permanent plaza at the Western Wall where non-Orthodox Jews could hold mixed-gender prayer services. A few hours later, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to advance a controversial bill that would give the ultra-Orthodox establishment a complete monopoly over conversions in Israel. 

But what if, just what if, the ultra-Orthodox parties were willing to form a coalition with a center-left bloc after the next Knesset election and, in exchange for supporting an evacuation of settlements and the creation of an independent Palestinian state, demanded that Israel withhold official recognition of the Reform movement (and any non-Orthodox movement, for that matter)? Would the leaders of the Reform movement stand in the way?

I put the question today to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America.

Jacobs avoided a definitive answer. Rather, he suggested that a coalition born in such sin, as it were, could not be expected to deliver the goods. “There’s certainly a deep commitment on the part of the Reform movement to the idea that creating two state for two people is absolutely essential to everything that the Zionist dream believes,” he said, “but I don’t think some of these political alignments are going to deliver the dramatic changes that are necessary. So I would caution anyone who thinks that a few little shifts and moves and political backroom agreements are going to deliver the future that we need.”

Religious freedom and pluralism, he insisted, are not values to be used as political bargaining chips. “The idea that we would negotiate these issues is to demean what they are all about,” he said. “These are all issues of principle, and they are all connected. This is not just about the Western Wall. It’s about a whole series of things that make Israel a democracy. It’s about civil marriage. It’s about the freedom to observe Shabbat and to observe all matters of life cycle. This is about integrity. It’s about vision. It’s about the soul of the state of Israel, and let’s not barter that.”