Netanyahu Can't Afford to Cave to ultra-Orthodox Pressure on the Western Wall Deal

The egalitarian compromise at the Western Wall offers a rare, delicate balance where all Jews can live and pray together with mutual respect.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray in the Western Wall, February 25, 2016.
American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray in the Western Wall, February 25, 2016.Credit: AP
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

I have great sympathy for the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel. Unlike others, I feel a deep affiliation with Judaism in all its hues and manifestations. Unlike some, I’ve never thought the ultra-Orthodox were the nation’s enemies.

I’ve always been disgusted by the inflammatory, ranting and raving rhetoric of anti-ultra-Orthodox journalists and politicians. I’ve never accepted the ugly claim that the ultra-Orthodox are stealing our money and sucking our blood. More than a decade ago I even concluded that the ultra-Orthodox world was undergoing a change that would see that community enrich Israel’s economy, society and culture.

I’m convinced I was right. I see countless signs indicating that ultra-Orthodox women and young people are gradually integrating into Israeli life and making a huge contribution. I have no doubt the next immigration wave that will strengthen Israel will come from Jerusalem, Elad and Bnei Brak.

But the dialogue between the non-ultra-Orthodox majority and the ultra-Orthodox minority must be based on two ironclad principles – preserving the state’s identity as a liberal democracy and preserving the state’s identity as the national home of the world’s Jews.

A liberal democracy means that the ultra-Orthodox, as individuals and as a group, deserve entirely equal rights, but they must not jeopardize the core values of the Declaration of Independence, the Basic Laws and Israeli enlightenment.

A Jewish home means that just as Israel is open to every Orthodox Jew in Israel and the Diaspora, it must be open to every non-Orthodox Jew.

All Jews, whether Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or secular, are flesh of our flesh. Those who believe Judaism has a variety of faces are our brothers and sisters. We won’t exclude them or abandon them. The Israeli homeland is their home.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews mourn around the body of prominent Jewish Rabbi Yochanan Sofer of the Erlau dynasty in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2016. Credit: AP

That’s why the Western Wall compromise made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and brokered by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit) is so important. On the one hand, it recognizes the ultra-Orthodox community’s sensitivity and forbids women to pray in the central plaza in a way that breaches Jewish law.

On the other hand, it recognizes that non-Orthodox Jews have a right to pray in a non-Orthodox way in the Jewish people’s most sacred place. They have received an alternative space where they can express themselves and practice their beliefs. In the land of rifts, contention and strife, this compromise offers a rare, delicate, vital balance that enables a life together based on mutual respect.

So now, when ultra-Orthodox parties and politicians try to shatter the compromise, we must stand against them firmly. Netanyahu can’t afford to cave. As the one who demands that North America’s Jews fight Israel’s war every morning and night, he can’t let Israel betray the overwhelming majority of North American Jews.

Opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid can’t stand idly by. They must offer Netanyahu a safety net that will let him withstand the ultra-Orthodox pressure. The broad secular and observant public must protect the rights of Diaspora Jews, who share its values.

The new ultra-Orthodox, the Israelis, must summon their courage and make their voice heard. The ossified rabbinical establishment and the old ultra-Orthodox politics, which are trying to block the Western Wall compromise, are the forces of yesterday. We must not let them endanger tomorrow.

These are days of terror. People prefer to address the brawl with the Palestinians and the quarrel over the occupation and ignore questions of identity and issues of symbolic importance. They couldn’t be making a bigger mistake. Precisely because of the external challenges we must find a way to manage the internal controversies – intelligently and responsibly.

Israel has no right to betray the trust, beliefs and yearnings of millions of Jews throughout the world, who now raise their eyes to Jerusalem.

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