If Only Reform Jews Visited the Western Wall en Masse

Reform, Conservative Jews didn’t understand how Israeli system works on state and religion, where things move from the ground up, not the other way

Women of the Wall celebrate the new month of Tammuz at the Western Wall, Jerusalem. July 7, 2016.
Daniel Shitrit

The Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, were exposed to a simple truth this week: Whoever exerts more pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu reaps more benefits.

The prime minister betrayed the trust of American Jews, as well as of some local ones, after being pressured and stressed out by his ultra-Orthodox and national-religious coalition partners. This is a legitimate political game and the response, albeit a bad one, is also political. It is resulting in increased alienation of Jews living overseas.

Where did American Jews go wrong in their political assessments and conduct? What did they miss when they went dancing in February 2016 in response to the cabinet’s ratification of the compromise deal at the Western Wall?

They erred in their appreciation of the enormous appetite of the ultra-Orthodox parties in this government in matters of state and religion, and in Netanyahu’s willingness to satisfy it. They were wrong in believing that someone in Israel would do their work for them. Reform and Conservative Jews are a marginal, negligible group here, and non-observant Israelis, including their political representatives, are indifferent to matters of religion and harbor reservations about non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

They also misunderstood the way the system here works on state and religion issues, where things move from the ground up, not the other way. The compromise deal on the Kotel was probably premature.

Over the years, other than in some exceptional cases, the Haredi parties, particularly when they shared political power, strove to ensure the independence of their education system. Looking after the welfare of their community was the bread and butter of their representatives. This included housing, budgets for religious seminaries (yeshivas), ensuring exemptions from military service, granting specific benefits such as income supplements to yeshiva students and exemption from property taxes for religious institutions.

In the present coalition, these parties are bringing forward numerous bills that are intended to consolidate the rabbinate’s monopoly over the general public. This includes conversions, supervision over women in ritual baths (mikvehs), kashrut issues, and an imminent attempt by Shas to pass legislation forbidding municipalities from allowing businesses to open on Shabbat.

Up to now Netanyahu has demonstrated feebleness in the face of his Orthodox coalition partners, allowing them to further cushion ultra-Orthodox autonomy. Thus, his government broke all records in the allocation of funds for yeshivas, allocating 1.2 billion shekels ($340 million) a year for these institutions.

So far, the ultra-Orthodox parties have been unable to bypass a High Court of Justice ruling that permits the opening of Tel Aviv supermarkets on Shabbat, and a bill regarding ritual baths passed in a softened version. However, the shattering of the accord regulating prayer at the Western Wall is a dramatic demonstration of priorities by Netanyahu, constituting a new phase. He is in effect telling the ultra-Orthodox that the Wall, just like the yeshiva budgets, is an exclusive Haredi dominion over which they have total control.

The larger Kotel area, from the Robinson Arch to the central prayer plaza, does not belong to the entire Jewish people, in contradiction of what Netanyahu himself declared on many formal occasions, but is part of the Haredi autonomous region. Thus there is no impediment to running it as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, supervised by a Haredi rabbi.

Will the non-Haredi majority put its foot down this time around? Obviously not.

On the Kotel issue, the government came out in January 2016 with a ceremonious, exceptional declaration which preceded reality. In other words, anyone wanting a prayer plaza should also provide the worshippers. There was and still is an area there called Ezrat Yisrael. It is open to the public but the number of worshippers is small in comparison to the dimensions of the controversy. The fact that on most days the area allotted to non-Haredi communities stands empty is a significant one. It has enabled those opposing the plan to organize “protest prayers” by Orthodox groups in the empty Ezrat Yisrael area.

These may have made it easier for the government to go along with ultra-Orthodox demands. It is possible that if Reform and Conservative tourists had filled the area on a regular basis, the cabinet would have found it more difficult to cancel the earlier plan.