Opinion

19th-century Rabbis Dictated Netanyahu’s anti-Zionist Kotel Capitulation

The prime minister’s personal behavior compounded Reform rage at the cabinet’s decision

File photo: ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Tomer Appelbaum

Without Reform Jews, there would be no ultra-Orthodox. The self-definition of the so-called Haredim is in antithesis to the Reform movement. The ultra-Orthodox exist today because, since the end of the 18th-century, their leaders have ruled that the only way to fight emancipation, modernization and reformation is by freezing time. By staying exactly the same. By resisting even the most minute change, by being a stickler for the most inconsequential details, by refusing to give an inch, no matter what. Confronted by the Reform revolution, the ultra-Orthodox closed ranks and circled the wagons. Without the Reform movement, very religious Jews, if they had existed at all, would look different, talk differently and think differently than they do.

The greatest warrior against the Reform movement, the Chatam Sofer, borrowed the injunction “new is forbidden by the Torah” in order to stop progress. He created the bubble that is the ultra-Orthodox world, from lofty religious philosophy to mundane questions of clothing and jewelry. It’s why Haredi men and women wear clothes that were the latest Jewish fashion in Budapest, Warsaw and Vilna 200 years ago. Some of them may embrace modern gadgets with gusto, but their legs are still anchored in an extinct world that exists only by virtue of their fervent faith.

There are fanatic Haredim and moderate Haredim, but they are all trying to recreate the ghetto, at least symbolically, in which devout Jews did as their rabbis told them to, in the days before the exalted Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef decided to allow Jews to mingle with the general population. Many Haredim live in the real world, work for a living and come into daily contact with secular Israelis but some of their leaders, including those who influence their politicians, still live in a 19th-century catastrophe in which their world is crumbling and the enemy is at the gates. They’ve grown even more obsessive on questions of modesty and more resistant to core studies in schools, as if an edict has come down from an anti-Semitic Polish or Russian government. And they are as adamant as ever in rejecting Reform Jews, insulting them regularly in coarse language, refusing to acknowledge their Judaism, other than as lip service, viewing them as Samaritans, Karaites or Sabbateans who are forbidden from mingling with the rest of Israel.

In 2017 Israel, the ultra-Orthodox are still waging the war the Chatam Sofer managed from his yeshiva in Pressburg, Bratislava of today, in the early 19th-century. They are still doing their best to “move them outside our camp”, as he invoked. As long as Reform Jews were anti-Zionist and concentrated on making their way in America, they didn’t bother the Israeli ultra-Orthodox too much. But in recent years, as Reform Jews became increasingly involved in Israeli affairs and even started to gain a foothold in Zion, the Haredim have become increasingly restless and have relaunched their ancient wars. They won’t go as far as their forefathers did in 1848 in Lemberg, today’s Lviv, when they murdered Reform Rabbi Abraham Kohn and his youngest daughter by poisoning their food, but they will do whatever they can to kick Reform Jews out from wherever they can. Two centuries have gone by, but when it comes to the Reform movement, the Haredi motto is no compromise and no surrender.

However, the responsibility for the surreal reality in which the government of Israel accepts diktats issued by 19th-century rabbis at the expense of 21st-century diplomatic and security needs does not lie with the Haredim but with the secular majority that enables it. Israel’s proportional representation electoral system gives the Haredim their power. The extreme political polarization over the issue of peace and occupation, which could even justify a deal with the devil, if he had a political party, has turned the ultra-Orthodox into the kingmakers who determine what kind of coalition will be established. Standing over them now is a prime minister who has embraced Louis XIV’s credo of l’etat c’est moi. Netanyahu is convinced that the risk of the Haredim toppling his government and curtailing his tenure is more important than any clear and present danger to the unity of the Jewish people.

Netanyahu claimed this week that every Israeli prime minister would have acted the same way. Perhaps. Ehud Olmert, who is being released from prison, was too clever to get embroiled in such a snafu in the first place. Ariel Sharon, though he certainly tried to please the ultra-Orthodox, didn’t react well to threats: he dismantled the Ministry of Religious Affairs, fired Shas ministers from his cabinet and dared to prefer a coalition with the ultra-secular Shinui party led by Yair Lapid’s father, Tommy. An arrogant Ehud Barak probably ruined his own prime ministership by refusing to back down to the ultra-Orthodox on the negligible question of whether an electric turbine should or should not be moved on Shabbat. Only Yitzhak Shamir capitulated completely to the Haredim after the 1988 elections, when he agreed to their demand to change the definition of a Jew in regards to Israel's Law of Return. But this precedent doesn’t serve Netanyahu very well: Shamir’s acquiescence provoked a tsunami of rage in American Jewry, which dispatched high-level delegates, including leaders of AIPAC, to warn Shamir that his move threatened their donations and support. Shamir quickly capitulated and set up another national unity government with Labor instead.

On the face of it, the question of whether women will pray at the Kotel is less significant than an Orthodox definition of who can be considered Jewish, but things have changed over the past 30 years. On the one hand, the Reform movement has completed its 180-degree turn from the anti-Zionist Pittsburgh Platform adopted in 1875 to the 1997 Miami decision to encourage members to visit Israel and even to consider making aliyah to live there permanently. On the other hand, unlike in Shamir’s time, American Jewish support for Israel is no longer uniform or automatic. The Reform movement’s belated adoption of Zionism must now contend with its growing disapproval of the occupation, of Israel’s anti-democratic laws, of Netanyahu’s hostility towards Barack Obama, of his strong embrace of Donald Trump and, perhaps most importantly, with their own personal experience of dealing with Netanyahu over the past few years on the question of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel.

The sense of betrayal felt by Reform and Conservative leaders was compounded by Netanyahu’s constant maneuvers and delays, by his ironclad commitments that seemed to quickly melt away and by his festive declarations that expired as soon as they left his mouth. This disappointment is fueling their current resentment no less than the actual revocation of the Kotel agreement. Even though they were warned in advance not to trust Netanyahu or his promises, his American Jewish interlocutors gave Netanyahu generous leeway and room to maneuver, during which he told them they could trust him and things will be all right. When the Kotel deal was approved in January 2016 the Reform and Conservative leaders rejoiced, feeling their patience had paid off, despite the warnings. They refused to accept that in Israel facts can turn into fiction, decisions are always reversible and everything is transitory, except for the political power wielded by the ultra-Orthodox.

But Netanyahu is no longer the same Netanyahu either. Not only does the support of Reform and other liberal Jews suddenly seem superfluous to him following the election of Trump and a GOP Congress, but he has become more paranoid and suspicious as well. He is constantly on guard against the harm that his interlocutors may be planning to inflict on him, but his fear has blinded his ability to foresee their reactions. Netanyahu may have surmised that the Reform leaders would protest and get back to business as usual but not that they would enlist most of American Jewry against him, which is what happened. As soon as he realized his mistake, he became even more defensive and lashed back. He actually blamed the Reform and Conservative movements for his cabinet’s about-face, like Yitzhak Rabin conspiring to kill himself.

The ultra-Orthodox, whose views haven’t changed in two centuries, castigated Reform Jews for intermarriage, assimilation and what they view as blasphemous religious conversions. Now, it’s just a matter of time before they are accused of spreading homosexuality as well. This was the theme of an infamous convention held last year by the so-called National Haredim on “dealing with the influence of the Reform on the identity of the State of Israel” in which a prominent rabbi, Yigal Levinstein, described gay people as “deviants”. For right-wing religious fanatics, opposition to Reform Jews is twice as strong, because they don’t adhere to Jewish law and because of their past opposition to Zionism as well as their present objections to occupation.

The Haredim themselves, on the other hand, refrained from mentioning the anti-Zionist past of the Reform Movement, and for good reason. Their current political parties all stemmed from Agudath Israel, which was set up to oppose Zionism over 100 years ago and which, unlike the Reform Movement, hasn’t formally changed its tune since. Moreover, the cabinet’s decision to reverse its earlier approval for the Kotel framework is the essence of anti-Zionism. It places religion over the needs of the state, suborns cabinet decisions to religious edicts and prefers rabbinical will, against which modern Zionism rebelled in the first place, over the financial, political and moral support of Diaspora Jews for Israel. It distances these Jews from Israel and harms the country’s well-being in order to placate Haredim who don’t care for Zionism or for any conventional definition of the good of the country either.

This crisis won’t cause the leaders of the Reform movement to abandon Israel: They care for it too much and they need it to keep their flock unified. But it may very well have a negative influence on thousands of Reform and Conservative Jews who are active in pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC, and diminish their motivation to help Israel in its time of need. This is the reason why a high level AIPAC delegation came urgently to Jerusalem this week to warn Netanyahu about the potential fallout from the cabinet decision.

The crisis widens the yawning gap between American Jewry, which is mostly liberal, and Netanyahu’s Israel, which is increasingly viewed as conservative, nationalistic and clerical. It’s not a coincidence that the Pew Survey published this week found that Russia and Israel are the only countries in the world that actually prefer Trump over his predecessor Barack Obama. All three countries - Israel, Russia and the U.S. - are being led by men who worship themselves, despise liberals, fight freedom of speech and are moving public opinion to the right. All three have also allied themselves with religious fundamentalists who are allowed to impose their will on the public in exchange for their ironclad support for the leader. Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are, as they saying goes. But perhaps that’s clearer from over there than it is from here. The fact is that Reform Jews are incensed while Israeli Jews merely yawn, even though they can plainly see the ghetto walls grow higher around them.