Editorial

The Damage Done by Pope Netanyahu

In empowering itself to decide who’s a Jew and who is less a Jew, the government is acting as a Vatican of the Jewish religion

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men stand with protest banners outside the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 8, 2019.
GALI TIBBON / AFP

The violent confrontations that erupted on Friday between thousands of ultra-Orthodox worshippers who faced off against activists of Women of the Wall and the Conservative movement, are a painful reminder of the farce of the Western Wall plan to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a signatory, and the deep rift created during his latest term in office with American Jews, a majority of whom are affiliated with either Reform or Conservative communities.

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The special prayer session organized by Women of the Wall marking 30 years since its founding was met by a violent and organized protest with the backing of the Western Wall rabbi. The police scandalously ignored the violence. But these confrontations could have been avoided had the prime minister not reneged on the Western Wall plan which was approved by the government three years ago. The plan had intended to end a more than 25-year controversy with Reform and Conservative Jews struggling to permit women to hold egalitarian prayers at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall plan, drawn up with the prime minister’s knowledge and consent, pledged to prepare a prayer platform at the southern part of the wall for the use of Reform and Conservative worshippers and Women of the Wall; to build a common entrance to all the platforms, all sharing equal status; and for the new platform to be run jointly by the state, the Conservative and Reform Movements and Women of the Wall. But the Haredi parties put pressure on Netanyahu, who, as is his custom, gave into them in order to stay in power.

Exactly as in the instance of the plan for the refugees, where Netanyahu signed an agreement with the United Nations, then reneged on it in less than a day later due to criticism and pressure from the right, this, too, is how it went with the Kotel plan. Time after time Netanyahu prioritizes narrow coalition considerations over substantive policy, even at the price of backtracking from good and necessary decisions, even those that he initiated himself. His political survival will always be the top interest.

Netanyahu is doing wrong by both the citizens of Israel as well as world Jewry. By means of the nation-state law Israel has given Diaspora Jews preferential status over Israel’s Arab citizens, and by cancelling the Western Wall plan Netanyahu has given Haredi Jews preferential status over other streams of Judaism. On the one hand, his government has empowered itself to decide which Israeli citizens are permitted to take part in determining the state’s character and which are not and, in a blow to democracy, has acted to delegitimize political representation to Israel’s Arab citizens. On the other hand, the Netanyahu government has also empowered itself to decide who’s a Jew and who is less a Jew, by appropriating the Jewish religion and acting as a Vatican of the Jewish religion with Netanyahu serving as the Jewish pope.

Let’s hope that the next government revives the Western Wall plan and devotes itself to repairing the rift that Netanyahu has sown with American Jewry.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.