By Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO & Carole Nuriel, Director of ADL's Israel Office
Last week an unprecedented crisis emerged between Israel and US Jewry over the issue of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Back in January 2016, following an arduous four-year negotiation process led by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the government approved a plan that granted non-Orthodox Jews an egalitarian prayer space in a section of the Western Wall known as Robinson’s Arch.
The plan, which was a wide-ranging compromise with buy-in from Orthodox and non-Orthodox religious leaders and politicians, was seen as progress on bridging the growing divide between Diaspora Jews and Israel, as well as a demonstration of respect for non-Orthodox Jews who have long sought to pray in their preferred manner.
The conflict between the ultra-Orthodox, who control Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and non-denominational Jews is as old as the State of Israel. Many have long objected to the rabbinate’s ironclad control over religious issues in Israeli society in areas like prayer at the Kotel and life-cycle issues of conversion, marriage and divorce.
The State of Israel’s nonrecognition of non-Orthodox Jews and their practices and the ever-expanding monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox establishment are seen by many Israelis and Diaspora Jews as a narrowing of the “Jewish space” by a group of Jews who believe that only they have the right to determine what “real Judaism” looks like.
From the perspective of haredi leaders who objected to the Kotel plan, they see themselves as safeguards of the Western Wall and indeed of Judaism itself. They are unwilling to compromise their interpretation of the religious standards for prayer. Because Reform and Conservative Jews constitute a minority in Israel, many haredim are uninformed or dismissive of their perspective, and see them as outside interlopers.
For American Jews, the majority of whom affiliate with non-Orthodox denominations, the issue of the Kotel is particularly resonant. This holy place is for many the highlight of their visits to Israel, where they can connect to their Judaism in a very personal way. For many, that means praying in a mixed-gender, egalitarian manner, and this is the emotional and spiritual vehicle that connects us to the Jewish state.
This has practical impact. Over the past decades, that connection has led US Jews to donate hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Israel, to lobby Congress to send Israel billions in military aid, and to engage in a multitude of efforts to defend Israel against BDS and other anti-Israel activity across the US and around the world.
This is important both in practice and conceptually. The solidarity and support of Jews, wherever they may be, for Israel has vital strategic importance. Following the government’s decision to suspend the Kotel plan, the responses from non-Orthodox denominations, community representatives and various organizations were vociferous and indeed unprecedented. It was perceived as disrespectful and demeaning to the Diaspora communities so invested in its long negotiations and implementation.
We, too, at the Anti-Defamation League, who are committed to pluralism and inclusion and who work daily to advocate for and defend the Jewish state, expressed our strong protest, arguing that the failure to implement the plan has serious negative ramifications for US Jewry’s relationship with Israel.
Adding to the tensions over the Kotel plan is the issue of the looming conversion bill. While the debate on the matter was recently postponed for six months, if passed this bill would effectively allow the rabbinate to determine who is granted Israeli citizenship by virtue of requiring that all those seeking citizenship under the Law of Return to convert through its auspices.
Should this occur, it will be seen as yet another effort to question the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jews, and the reaction from Diaspora Jewry will undoubtedly rise to the intensity of the Kotel issue, if not more.
When the Kotel plan was approved in 2016, there was a sense that, after so many years of tensions, progress was finally being made to address the concerns of non-Orthodox Jews and make them feel more welcome in Israel. While many issues still remain, this plan was seen a sign of a willingness by ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike to compromise for the sake of Jewish unity. That feeling was tarnished by last week’s decision.
We know that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sensitive to these issues and tensions, and are encouraged by the government’s decision to delay the conversion bill in order to seek input from Diaspora Jewry and religious leaders.
Yet with respect to the Kotel plan, it is imperative that Netanyahu and his government reevaluate their decision, take into account just how damaging it is to US Jewry and seek to reactivate both the letter and the spirit of this historical compromise agreement.
Rebuilding trust between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is sorely needed, and this would be a welcome and important step. The stakes of letting the ongoing tensions simmer are simply too high.