Right Wingers in the Service of Orthodoxy

In the process of two ministers fleeing the panel overseeing plans to extend a mixed-gender prayer space, the secular right wing gives an additional stamp of approval to Orthodox hegemony

Female activists praying at the Western Wall.
Michal Fattal

The resignation of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev from the committee overseeing the expansion of the mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall is obviously not an ordinary personal or political step. Both women are utterly secular, yet they have fled for their lives from the committee, which is supposed to see to it that the mixed-gender area at the Wall is expanded in line with the government’s promise to the High Court of Justice.

Both Regev and Shaked understand that this was a binding directive. Both of them know that the cabinet was the one that decided in 2016 – in a decision then seen as historic – to set up a plaza for mixed prayer. But subsequently, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, the government began stammering and stuttering. The committee was supposed to give its blessing to the inevitable, as the lesser evil, in line with the court’s demands.

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The arrogance of Orthodoxy is increasing at the very moment when developments within the ultra-Orthodox community – most notably the rise in the number of people leaving Orthodoxy – seem to be undermining its power. Both ministers fled the committee because they didn’t want to be held responsible for this anti-Orthodox step, out of fear of vengeance from their religious voters. In the process, the secular right wing gave an additional stamp of approval to Orthodox hegemony, not just over the Western Wall plaza, but over our lives in general.

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That same right wing has conferred similar legitimacy upon a dangerous disconnect with progressive Jewry overseas in favor of unenlightened Orthodox Jewry. It has been exploiting the right’s purported victory in the diplomatic-security debate. The preposterous American president is defended in Israel even by people who should know better, appearing to be someone who will make possible the fulfillment of the messianist dream, which is interested not in compromise but in annexation, whether full or creeping.

It’s completely clear that the Netanyahu government, along with a significant portion of the Israeli people, wants to base our ties with the United States on the strong political support for President Donald Trump within the evangelical community, parts of which are unenlightened, as well as Orthodox Jewry, which is relatively small. This is where religious Zionist politician Bezalel Smotrich and ultra-Orthodox politician Yaakov Litzman intersect – on an Orthodox interpretation of issues that would be better handled cautiously and with consideration for the other.

That’s why it’s such a pity, at a time when women are organizing to thwart gender discrimination, and when the LGBT community has won legitimacy despite all of Orthodoxy’s efforts to put obstacles in its path, that the government, including its secular ministers, is the one that’s insisting on imposing an Orthodox character on the Israeli experience.

If so, what should we be doing? Should those who think Israel must continue to be a Jewish and democratic state with liberal characteristics pay lip-service to “loyalty” to the government when they’re outside the country, or should we extend a courageous hand to America’s dominant Conservative and Reform Jewish movements despite the government’s policy?

The answer is clear: There is a genuine need to institutionalize the connection between liberal Israelis and progressive American Jews. We could set up an umbrella organization with the goal of “shared pluralism,” based on their identification with the resounding voice emanating from our camp and our identification with their effort to preserve America’s liberal values in the face of a new U.S. administration that has no sacred values, and certainly no democratic ones.

For both groups, on both sides of the ocean, this is an existential battle. We know what messianic Orthodoxy’s attitude toward democracy is. The battle over the state’s character is also a battle over the people’s character. This is our real common interest.