Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Principles Behind the Controversy Over the Wall

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kotel (Jerusalem Post)
The debate has not gone away.  From an editorial in the Jerusalem Post
After passing a resolution to establish a third prayer plaza at the Kotel for egalitarian prayer, including an upgrading of the entire site, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet retracted the decision in June, setting off an unprecedented crisis with the Diaspora. 
They blame this crisis on a power hungry Prime Minster that puts his own needs ahead of the country’s. Needing the Charedi powers to remain in his coalition, he caved to their demands to retract the Knesset decision under threat of their bolting his governing coalition. Thus throwing Israel into new elections. Elections that the polls show he would lose.

This my be true. But it is unfair to characterize the debate as one of caving to special interests at the expense to the nation by means of alienating Diaspora Jewry. Unfair - that is - unless one does not care about the Jewish character of the nation. At its heart that is what the debate is really about. If one is Orthodox, then one believes that the Jewish character of the state is directly related observance of Halacha as stated in the Torah and interpreted by the sages.  Still, even with this in mind sometimes certain compromises can be made in the name of Shalom (peace).

Which brings me back to the compromise. Yes, Israel ought to be true to the compromise the Keneset agreed  upon as understood at the time. It was voted upon by the Knesset with the abstention of the Charedi parties in the very attempt to preserve Shalom. 

But it has become abundantly clear that the compromise was not what it seemed to be. That was stated with clarity by a leader of  the Conservative Movement.. The Kotel issue was just  means to their real end which was establishing pluralism in Israel - with each denomination having equal legitimacy. 

I can’t blame the Conservative and  Reform Movements for their quest. Nor for being so upset by the Prime Minister’s decision to reverse the decision. But I can also understand why Orthodox Jews refuse to grant them that and oppose any attempt to do do it. For Orthodoxy it is a matter of religious principle - just as much as egalitarianism is a religious principle for Heterodoxy. 

While the Charedi parties opposed the idea of giving any part of the Kotel for egalitarian purposes, they recognized that this was not the hill worth dying on. They wanted to avoid the obvious religious war that would result. Which is why they abstained when the Knesset voted to expand and upgrade the existing egalitarian space. But when details became clear they protested it. Because the way the deal was structured it gave heterodox movements legitimacy by partnering them with Orthodoxy over over Kotel access. 

Obviously this is not acceptable to Orthodoxy. Because not only does that mean the government will be granting legitimacy - Orthodoxy itself will!

And yet it every editorial that deals with this issue frames it as simple a refusal by Orthodoxy to allow an egalitarian space and a capitulation to that by the Prime Minister for political gain.

Yes, the Jerusalem Post is right about this issue alienating much of Diaspora Jewry. The question is why is this the case? The answer is not as obvious as this and other editorials would lead one to believe. 

I would be willing to bet that the majority of the 90% of American Jewry that is not Orthodox doesn’t even know about this issue. Or care that much about it that much as a personal issue if they do. It is  likely that most of them will never visit Israel, let alone the egalitarian space at the Kotel. Those who have in the past went to the traditional space without protest - respecting the Orthodox tradition established there. However, when asked about it as an issue and presented as a denial of egalitarian rights, they indeed see it no other way. They are going to side with the heterodox argument. 

The ones really screaming about this, though, is the heterodox leadership. They are near apoplectic in the anger they express.  The secular Jewish media is more than happy to give them a platform to show their anger and present their views as the only justifiable ones. As did the Jerusalem Post editorial.

I understand their anger. It isn’t easy realizing just how much in danger of extinction your movement is in. They see Israel as a new frontier with a natural constituency among the majority of Israelis that are not Orthodox but traditional. Heterodoxy has been around a long time. Long before the State of Israel was created. Yes, they currently have a presence there. One which is probably a lot more vibrant than than their American counterparts. They have always wanted recognition. But never anywhere near with the fervor they have now.

That said, I agree with one thing they say. Without these movements, there would have been a lot more Jews assimilating out of Judaism. These movements have in the past helped their members to retain a Jewish identity. At least culturally. But I don’t think that is working anymore. The current generation of secular Jews are increasingly rejecting the need to be Jewish at all.

If these movements suddenly disappeared - it probably would accelerate their exit even more rapidly than their already accelerated exit from Judaism.  So there is a downside. Or at least there was. I’m not sure if it matters any more to the current generation.

This is not to say that the Prime Minister has reneged on the deal based on principle. I agree that for him it is probably about retaining power and pandering to the religious parties. But that does  not diminish the principle behind it. I only wish editorials like the one on the Jerusalem Post would reflect those principles too instead of always presenting one side.