Israel’s Leaders Are Appeasing Extremists – at the Cost of Diaspora Jewish Support

Two diametrically opposed world views are clashing in Israel – and at stake is whether Israel will continue to be a unifying symbol for Jews worldwide.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood burning Israeli flags on Lag Ba'Omer, 2008.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood burning Israeli flags on Lag Ba'Omer, 2008.Credit: Alex Levac

Israeli society is in the midst of a culture war that is being fought along many lines. We are clashing between those who feel that a soldier who shoots a neutralized terrorist should be exalted versus those who think he should be tried for murder. We are clashing between those who see the transfer of Palestinians as a viable option and those who abhor this as completely unacceptable. And we are, once again clashing over two diametrically opposed religious world views.

For Reform Jews, the renewed clash with the ultra-Orthodox took a dangerous turn this week.  The refusal of the Haredi parties to recognize the government’s 15-5 decision on establishing an egalitarian section at the Western Wall, and their threat to topple the government over this issue, shows that the religious authorities are deeply rattled. For the ultra-Orthodox establishment, the fact that liberal Jews are making real headway towards meaningful participation in the religious life of the Jewish State and are no longer willing to acquiesce to their monopoly is the stuff of nightmares.

A woman prays at the Western Wall, Feb. 25, 2016.Credit: Olivier FItoussi

This cultural clash is being fought on multiple battlegrounds: attempts to keep us out of the state-sponsored mikvaot, to keep the SPNI out of the Gazelle Valley (for fear of possible recreation on Shabbat), and more. This week we witnessed a new low: a horribly xenophobic outburst from the Sephardi Chief Rabbi claiming that, according to Jewish law, non-Jews should not live in the Land of Israel. Many of us may brush this off as another episode of insensitive logorrhea by a Chief Rabbi, but as we know from experience, there are always a few on the fringe who might take this as a call to action. We would hate to discover that the fine line between freedom of speech and incitement has been crossed once again.

Hate speech, coercion and political maneuvering to boost one’s position are nothing new.  However, let us step back and recognize that the struggle for a third official section at the Western Wall is about more than the Western Wall. It is about Israel’s soul and whether or not the State will continue to be a unifying symbol for Jews worldwide.  Liberal Jews are not looking to oust or replace ultra-Orthodox Judaism from the lives of its adherents. We recognize their place and importance for their community—and we expect them to recognize ours.

Despite what contrarians say, there are many multitudes abroad who love Israel and want deeply to feel connected to her - as witnessed by 18,000 coming out last week for a pro-Israel conference. However, when Israel’s leaders send the message that staying in power and appeasing extremists is more important than keeping one’s promises, it is understandable that many are not only deeply rejected, but react with disillusion and disconnection.

The symbol of the Kotel has returned to represent deep divisions among the Jewish people, just as it did in the years leading up to the Great Revolt against Rome. Ultimately, the Rabbis teach, it was senseless hatred among our people that sparked the Temple’s destruction. This time though, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past. 

It is incumbent upon Jews in the Diaspora to prevent the current trends from eroding their connection to Israel, and to do all they can to stand up and speak out to all those who are in positions of power. It is incumbent upon all those in Israel to exercise their democratic and civic duty to voice their opposition to this assault on the rights of fellow Jews to practice Judaism in their own way, and to prevent extremists from holding a veto over Israeli cultural life.

We cannot miss this opportunity. 

Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.  He was recently ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.

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