The decision by the Netanyahu government, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, to suspend the compromise at the Western Wall and enshrine in legislation the state conversion system is a ringing slap in the face not only to American Jewry – consisting of millions of Reform and Conservative Jews – but to everyone who desires pluralism, equal rights and basic freedom of worship in Israel.
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The compromise, to establish a permanent mixed prayer plaza for men and women of Judaism’s non-Orthodox branches, was the result of many years of struggle for equal rights in one of the most sacred places to observant Jews the world over. The struggle led by Women of the Wall and movements for progressive Judaism ended with a promise from the prime minister that is now being crudely broken due to narrow considerations for his governing coalition.
At the same time, a bill circumventing the High Court of Justice that will strengthen the monopoly of state conversion courts is intended to prevent the recognition of private Orthodox conversions in Israel and block the possibility of recognizing conversions by other branches of Judaism.
These two steps are an ugly surrender to the ultra-Orthodox powers and another move toward a country ruled by Jewish law – and a country in the hands of a small community that claims sole ownership of the interpretation of Jewish law. Those who believe that this struggle only involves the relations between Israel and the Jewish world, or a few women who want to pray in their own way at the Western Wall, are wrong.
The struggle is also over Israel’s liberal character and the separation of religion and state. As evidence, now that the ultra-Orthodox succeeded with the Western Wall and conversion, the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset have already demanded that the Transportation Ministry revoke permits for public transportation on Saturdays in cities throughout Israel. And Interior Minister Arye Dery, also chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has requested another hearing at the High Court on the issue of businesses operating on the Sabbath.
Netanyahu, who claims to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish world when he stresses the sanctity of Jerusalem, must now keep his promises and allow freedom of worship at the Western Wall for all branches of Judaism and for both men and women.
The compromise was flawed from the start. It exiled to a separate corner second-class Jews. But once the compromise was accepted by all sides, it had be to respected – not only for peace between the country called the “Jewish state” and the Jews themselves, but also to ensure that an extremist minority would not force its religious practices on the rest of Israelis.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.