Who Are the True Villains in Israel’s Western Wall Saga?

It is easy to point to the Ultra-Orthodox as the primary obstacles to egalitarian prayer, but secular impassivity seriously damages of the idea of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

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Clashes between ultra-Orthodox groups and Reform and Conservative rabbis attempting to enter the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls, November 2, 2016.
Clashes between ultra-Orthodox groups and Reform and Conservative rabbis attempting to enter the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls, November 2, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Reuben Berman
Reuben Berman

This week, the drama over non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall began its new yet familiar act. The aftermath of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cowardly non-implementation of January’s compromise concerning an egalitarian prayer space at the wall led American Jewish leaders to conclude that they can only demonstration their frustration through loud, visible protests. On Wednesday, the leaders of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Union for Reform Judaism and Women of the Wall led more than 200 Jews carrying Torah scrolls to the Western Wall, broke through security barriers and were confronted with violence from ultra-Orthodox youths while the police watched. Fistfights erupted, siddurim were stomped on and the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, repeatedly called the Women at the Wall “Nazis.” Once again, it’s a story of American liberal Jews against Israeli Jewish fundamentalists, with the rest of Israel’s society nowhere to be found.

It is easy to point to Haredim as the primary obstacles to egalitarian prayer, and they have long been viewed as the antagonists in the quest for greater recognition of all forms of Judaism within the Jewish State. They exemplify the perfect villains in a tale of antiquarian religious reactionaries pitted against modern tolerant pluralists. But, contrary to popular belief, the ultra-Orthodox do not represent the greatest hurdle to the hopes of liberal Jews. After all, they only make up about 9 percent of all Jews in Israel. Rather, it is the indifference of Israel’s hilonim, or secular population, which dooms alternative forms of Judaism to continued marginalization within the Jewish State. Their impassivity not only contributes to the ever-growing rift between Israel and the Diaspora, but also seriously damages of the idea of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

American Jews have hoped that, if Israel’s society were sliced along socio-religious lines, they would find overwhelming support for their agenda among the hilonim, who make up nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population. Unfortunately, such an assumption has consistently led to disappointment. Only 65 percent of hilonim favor allowing non-Orthodox rabbis to conduct marriages in Israel, while less than 60 percent consider someone to be Jewish if his or her conversion was carried out by a Reform or Conservative rabbi. Furthermore, just 55 percent favor allowing women to pray aloud at the Western Wall.

Israelis might glance over these statistics, found in both the Pew 2016 survey "Israel's Religiously Divided Society" or the Pew 2013 "A Portrait of Jewish Americans," without a second thought, but to Americans, they are shocking. American Jews know that hilonim have always stood strongly against the Haredi agenda, and overwhelmingly oppose gender segregation on public transportation (93 percent) and closing all public transport on Shabbat (94 percent). Furthermore, hilonim are strongly associated with support for democratic principles, liberalism and minority rights. However, when it comes to supporting other Jews in their struggles for equality, hilonim are unwilling to coalesce.

There are multiple reasons for this disjointed reaction. The first is related to secular Israelis' opinion of religious practice. Nearly 80 percent of hilonim say that religion isn’t important to them, and an equal number say that they never pray. Thus, they would feel little affinity for Jews striving to act in a manner that is anathema to their behavior.

Another reason is political. Since the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, there has only been one government out of sixteen in which United Torah Judaism, Shas, and/or Agudat were not members. For a left wing that continues to weaken, and with more than quadruple their numbers identifying as right-wing, any hope of the Left taking back the government after 15 years of political exile requires a coalition with Haredi parties. American Jews cannot vote, and catering to their interests is an electoral hindrance.

The third reason is that hilonim are distancing themselves from the vision of a unified Jewish people. When weighing Jewish and Israeli identities, hilonim are the only demographic in which a majority (59 percent) view themselves as Israeli first. Hilonim are also the only Jewish group in which fewer than nine-in-ten claim a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (81 percent) and they also feel less of a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need (43 percent). These numbers are indicative of a hiloni population that is slipping away from the ethno-religious identity of Jewish into a new concept of Israeli that is severed from the Diaspora and the Jewish people as a whole.

This reason demonstrates why the questions about the Kotel, marriage and conversion are far more important than the sum of their parts. This isn't only a conflict over prayer in front of some old stones, but rather evidence of the fact that all different segments of Israeli society are drifting away from their compatriots in the Diaspora. For Haredim and Orthodox Jews, the issues are religious, but their Jewish identity still causes them to strongly feel that they are a part of the unified Jewish people. With hilonim, for whom the religious identity has long since slipped away, the affinity for peoplehood may soon be following.

Thus, Reform and Conservative American Jews are left to bang their heads against the wall of political realities and demographic characterizations that range from ambivalence to hostility. Recent events, such as the new laws prohibiting the use of public mikvehs for non-Orthodox conversions, the banning of a bar mitzvah for a Conservative boy with special needs in Rehovot or the complete breakdown of the Kotel Compromise have only reinforced the feelings of exclusion emanating from the Reform and Conservative movements in America. 

Barring the mass immigration of members of these movements to Israel or the unification of all secular Israelis in common cause against the religious reactionaries of the Haredi and Orthodox populations, this status quo will remain, and American Jews will remain frustrated with the lack of support from their fellow Jews in Israel. While Israel and the Jewish world worry about the rift between the two communities around the questions of security and settlements, this unaddressed wedge continues to drive American Jews towards increased criticism of the Jewish State and further from a unified vision of peoplehood and a shared state for all Jews.

Reuben Berman is a native of New York, a graduate of Columbia University and JTS (The Jewish Theological Seminary) and a former member of the Reut Institute's Israel-Diaspora Taskforce.