In the Western world, even in its less laudable parts, violating the rights of religious Jews to pray according to their own custom is considered a clear sign of anti-Semitism. As is known, the Israeli government has withdrawn from the agreement to allow non-Orthodox Jews to pray in the area at the southern end of the Western Wall – which is not part of the space controlled by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. Can we say, therefore, that the Israeli government has adopted an anti-Semitic policy?
It’s true that the Western Wall itself is a complicated issue. It was built on the orders of Herod – a lackey to the Romans and a murderous despot – as the outer wall of the Temple Mount courtyard. The late Yeshayahu Leibowitz considered prayer at the Kotel and placing notes among its stones idol worship and the sanctification of dead stones. Indeed, prayer at the Western Wall is actually praying to stones, and a religious person has no reason to assume his God will hear prayer directed at those stones any more than prayer recited elsewhere.
However, liberal religious Jews don’t see things like that and accept the problematic Orthodox assumption that this is a holy site. One can, of course, ask whether the fact that the Temple stood a certain distance from this wall 1,943 years ago really makes these stones holy, and whether such an idea can be part of any religious Jewish outlook. Ostensibly, no; in practice – and very surprisingly – yes.
In any case, the decision to prevent liberal Jews from praying there is like a resounding slap in the face – from a government that presumes to be Jewish, but is controlled by the Haredim and religious Zionists – to the majority of people in the world who identify as Jewish.
What is the political background to this situation? Orthodox Zionists and Haredim together constitute about 10 percent of world Jewry. In Israel, these two religious groups, according to data and surveys, account for some 21 percent of Israeli Jews (40 percent see themselves as secular, and the rest as traditional with varying degrees of religious observance).
The representatives of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset (Shas and United Torah Judaism) hold 13 seats, while the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi has eight – in total, 21 (17.5 percent) of all Israelis lawmakers. According to various reports, there are another seven MKs who identify as religiously observant, meaning a total of 28 (or 23.3 percent) of all MKs. This division quite accurately reflects the results of the abovementioned polls. So we have a situation in which a small minority of Haredi and religious-Zionist Jews prevents other Jews from enjoying freedom of worship.
In addition, non-Orthodox Jews in Israel cannot marry or divorce, except in an Orthodox context. The insult to most of world Jewry and the denial of the right of (non-Orthodox) Jews to enjoy their basic freedom and to marry according to their worldview is a unique phenomenon. Israel is the only Western country in which the government adopts such anti-Semitic positions.
At the same time, we are witnessing a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism in the United States, which is home to nearly 6 million Jews. It is highly likely that the present U.S. administration has released the latent anti-Semitism that has existed all along in the United States from its shackles. The fact that part of President Donald Trump’s family is Jewish doesn’t make any difference here. Aside from his daughter and son-in-law, his government includes a Jewish secretary of the Treasury and a Jewish economics expert. There’s nothing new about this phenomenon, which anti-Semites use against Jews because it is convenient for them for a number of reasons. But that doesn’t prevent anti-Semitism from flourishing.
American Jewry – which, as noted, is liberal for the most part, both in its religious and political outlook – is in a very difficult situation: In Charlottesville, the racists and neo-Nazis demonstrated not against the blacks, as they have done in the past, but against the Jews (the mayor of Charlottesville is Jewish). Trump’s partial identification with these protesters (“There were very fine people on both sides”) has created a sense of siege.
This was expressed last week in the declaration by organizations representing Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis that they will refuse to speak to Trump if he calls them for the usual round of greetings ahead of the upcoming Jewish holy days. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America condemned the white supremacists and their supporters in Charlottesville, but announced it couldn’t refuse to speak to the president of the United States if he wanted to greet them before the high holy days.
Liberal American Jews are caught between the worrisome situation in their own country – exhibitions of anti-Semitism with the partial support of the president – and the attitude of the Israeli government. They can’t rely on it, either. As opposed to the harsh condemnations heard from European leaders against the far right in Charlottesville, the Israeli government made do with a brief, perfunctory statement.
There’s nothing new here. The Israeli government also responded with weak statements against recent policies of the Polish and Hungarian governments, which justified the anti-Semitic behavior of some citizens (Poland) or the government (Hungary) during the Holocaust. It’s not the fault of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, a large majority of whose employees are experts in their field and are doing their best – especially when it comes to combating anti-Semitism – without budgets or support from above. What we have here is government policy in the name of economic and security interests.
It would be an exaggeration to say there’s an anti-Semitic government in Israel. But it probably wouldn’t be a mistake to say this is a government that’s adopting a policy that shows clear signs of anti-Semitism toward the vast majority of the Jewish people.
Prof. Yehuda Bauer is a Holocaust scholar and academic adviser to Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance center.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now