We have been through this a hundred times before. It is a depressing spectacle.
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The leaders of Diaspora Jewry love Israel, embrace the Zionist cause, and fight for Israel’s legitimacy in the world. They do this because they must — because no matter where they reside physically, Israel, warts and all, is for them both home and holiness. But incredibly, in return for their devotion, the government of Israel thumbs its collective nose at Diaspora concerns, dismissing with contempt the religious legitimacy of millions of Diaspora Jews.
Let’s review the most recent example of this scenario.
UNESCO, the premier cultural agency of the United Nations, passed a resolution two weeks ago condemning Israel for supposed violations of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The resolution, titled “Occupied Palestine,” uses only the Islamic name for the site, purposely eradicating its connection to the Jewish people. And in the process, the resolution insults not only Jews but Christians, whose ties to the Temple and the hilltop on which it stood are also an indisputable historical fact.
This resolution was an absurdity and Jews throughout the world rose up in protest. Angry statements were issued, Diaspora governments were contacted for support, and letters to the editor were sent. The usual divisions that separate Jews on most everything else did not apply here. Leftwing Jews and rightwing Jews, secular and religious Jews, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews and hawkish and dovish Jews all came together on this issue. With the exception of the truly extremist fringe, they saw the UNESCO resolution for what it is: A perversion of history and an ugly effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.
And now the irony: The compound referred to in the resolution includes the Western Wall, which is the remnant of a retaining wall built to expand and surround the Temple and its auxiliary buildings on the hilltop. Given that the Jewish people have rallied to the defense of this most sacred site, would not one expect the State of Israel to make the Wall available to all Jews, to pray there according to their established customs? Surely Reform and Conservative Jews, who have joined in the battle against UN Israel bashing, should have the right to pray at the Wall as a recognized community.
I do not suggest a quid pro quo. If UNESCO, or any other arm of the United Nations, chooses to engage in Orwellian absurdities that make a mockery of both Jewish and Christian history, non-Orthodox Jews will stand at Israel’s side. After all, their ties to Israel are irreplaceable and non-negotiable. It is Israel, and Israel alone, which replenishes their spiritual and intellectual batteries while offering refuge and security to any Jew who requires it.
Nonetheless, it needs to be said that there is something downright ugly about what the Prime Minister and his cabinet are doing. Stand with my government, he says to the Jewish world. Defend Jewish rights to the Temple and the Wall. Affirm our connection to the holy sites of the Old City. Join us in the struggle for a united Jerusalem.
Oh, but by the way, you need to realize that these holy sites that you fight for will be open to others but not to you. You need to accept that when you pray to God at the Wall, you must do so in a way that is acceptable to extremists and zealots. You need to appreciate that in the modern State of Israel, the control of holy sites can never be in the hands of Reform and Conservative Jews, even though these movements are now taking root in Israeli soil. My fundamental message, the Prime Minister says, is this: You will never be entitled to see these holy places as your own.
And yes, it is true, I made promises to you, offering you access to the Wall and a measure of equality and recognition. It was far from a perfect deal, but it was a start, an honorable compromise. But, of course, promises are one thing and politics are another. Since I have coalition issues to worry about, don’t expect my promises to be kept. So in summary, concludes Israel’s elected leader, this is the situation: Whenever the next UNESCO crisis (or some other crisis) arises, you will fight for me, but do not expect that I will fight for you.
On the one hand, it should be said, the Prime Minister is right. When the next crisis comes, or the one after that, the current leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism will fight Israel’s battles. Their commitment to Israel is unshakeable. They know that Israel has returned us to history, and following the Holocaust, has affirmed that Jews will live and not die.
But on the other hand, in the long term, the Prime Minister is taking a terrible risk. The masses of Jews in the Diaspora affiliated with Reform and Conservative Judaism simply do not understand what is happening. As poll after poll demonstrates, they find Israel’s Orthodox establishment to be contemptible. They are angry and offended that their Judaism is not recognized in Israel and that their rabbis are not accepted as rabbis in Israel. They are less understanding and patient than their leaders. And if changes are not made and solemn promises are not honored, the gravitational pull that Israel has on the Jewish soul is sure to dissipate.
Interestingly enough, Israel’s High Court of Justice seems to understand what Prime Minister Netanyahu does not. They have given Israel’s government until November 17th to explain why commitments made to create a new space for pluralistic prayer at the Wall have not been kept. And in a march to be held this coming Wednesday, leaders of the American Conservative and Reform movements will carry Torah scrolls through the Old City in a demonstration that will protest government inaction.
Is it possible that the Prime Minister and his stonewalling government will respond? Not likely. Nothing that they have done recently indicates that they can transcend self-interested coalition politics for the sake of a higher purpose.
But they should be aware that a reckoning is coming. Eventually, and sooner rather than later, the Jewish world will say “enough” to a Jewish state that sees major streams of Judaism as fraudulent, inauthentic, and devoid of legitimacy. Either we are a single Jewish family or we are not. And this means that, in the very near future, Israel’s leaders had better take steps to assure that the different Jewish movements can live with dignity within the national home of the Jewish people.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie