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The Struggle for Israel's Identity

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American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, February 25, 2016.
American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, February 25, 2016.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / אי־פי

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the end found the bureaucratic opening to help him put off the solution to yet another crisis – the one over the mixed egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall

The solution involved using handicapped-accessibility regulations, which allow the expansion of structures without a permit. The regulations are intended, of course, for people with disabilities, but if they can be used to shut the Reform movement up for a while, why not?

To complete the farce, Minister Uri Ariel opposed the expansion of the prayer site in the name of good government. “The authority for the entire Western Wall is in the Chief Rabbinate’s hands … and the Prime Minister’s Office is trying to bypass the Chief Rabbinate,” he said. Ariel, one of the orchestrators of the symphony of robbery in the West Bank, for whom good government was always at best a bonus, has become a champion of Israeli law. It was worth living this long to see it.

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But Ariel also spoke the truth: “The argument isn’t about expansion – if it’s another four meters – the argument is about who has authority over the Western Wall.” The Western Wall plan, which the government revoked, stipulated that authority over the expanded prayer plaza would be taken from the Chief Rabbinate, the Religious Affairs Minister and the Western Wall rabbi, and given to a new public council. This means paving the way to state recognition of other religious streams in Judaism – the Reform and Conservative ones – and that is something the ultra-Orthodox parties cannot live with.

But their fear is not only for Judaism. They fear the breach of Orthodox Judaism’s monopoly on all official religious institutions in Israel, and the political power that this monopoly has been generating for them over the past 70 years. The argument is whether Israel will grant a monopoly over Judaism to the corrupt, crumbling institution of the Chief Rabbinate, or whether Israel is willing to accept the Judaism of rabbis like Yizhar Hess and Gilad Kariv as well. 

This is a struggle for Israel’s identity, and Netanyahu hopes to turn it into a fight over parcels of land. Take a few meters, he tells the Reform and Conservative movements, recognition we’ll discuss some other time, I have a window in my schedule in 2040.

Netanyahu isn’t the first prime minister being forced to compromise for coalition reasons. The compromises he’s made to preserve his position are important. He made alliances with the darkest forces in Israeli society, and one of his pacts is with the Rabbinate mafia, a factory for jobs and political wheeler-dealers that has spun out of control. Netanyahu is not the one paying the price. 

For this government, there are very few real Israelis, all of them reflecting its image. All the rest are barely Israelis, they’re Israelis on probation. It’s okay to call them “Israel haters,” to say “they should stay in America,” and that they’re “the destruction of the people of Israel.” All this has been said about Reform Jews. (Not about leftists, heaven forbid.)

I’ve always wondered how people who hate so many Israelis accuse others of hating Israel, but politics is indeed the art of the possible. The prime minister is supposed to represent the Israelis and the non-Israelis, but he wants to keep his job and for that he is ready to toss all values into the garbage heap. 

The Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism looked at the Jewish texts and tried to figure out how to live as a Jew in a way that regards women as equal, that doesn’t humiliate people for their sexual inclination, and respects the other and the foreigner. This movement offers Israel a choice between a state that celebrates its citizens, that sees them as an asset, and a suspicious state that is scared of its citizens, that sees only a small, dwindling part of the population as legitimate. Netanyahu made his choice long ago. Now we must make ours.

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