Authority over the Western Wall? That’s “an internal Israeli matter,” Jewish Home Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich told the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors on Sunday morning, prompting sharp intakes of breath and murmurs of horror across the David’s Citadel Hotel conference hall. Just a few hours later, the cabinet showed its full agreement with that assertion by casually abandoning the painstakingly negotiated deal to give non-Orthodox Jewry shared oversight of a permanent pluralistic prayer area alongside the main Western Wall.
Yaakov Litzman, the United Torah Judaism leader who celebrated Sunday’s cabinet decision by declaring that it ensures “the Reform will not have… recognition at the Western Wall,” rubbed further salt in Diaspora wounds on Wednesday by asserting that, if Reform Judaism ran for political office in Israel, “they wouldn’t get 1,000 votes.”
Smotrich and Litzman insistently miss the point. The State of Israel is not only the sovereign state of those who live here, it is the national homeland of the Jewish people wherever they live, and however they choose to practice their faith. That’s how it is seen, and how it has always wanted to be seen. In its founding declaration, indeed, the fledgling state reached out to Jewry worldwide to assist in the task of nation-building that has followed: “We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”
And they have rallied round — emotionally and practically. Endless public demonstrations of solidarity with Israel in times of war and crisis. Relentless political activism on Israel’s behalf wherever it can be mustered worldwide. And vast direct financial support — investment in Israeli business and technology; philanthropy that is central to the functioning of partner towns and cities, welfare programs, educational institutions, health services and much, much, much more. Communal life across the Jewish world, alongside providing for the direct needs of the local community, is heavily focused on supporting Israel, protecting Israel, raising money for Israel, coming to Israel.
But here’s the fact that seems to have eluded the Smotrichs and the Litzmans and the Israeli cabinet majority that, lemming-like, went along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s out-of-the-blue demand that they raise their hands to scrap the so-called Western Wall compromise: The vast majority of those passionate backers of Israel globally, and notably in the world’s only other multi-million strong Jewish community, don’t share the Israeli ultra-Orthodox approach to Judaism.
They don’t all keep Shabbat and kashrut. Some of them like to sit next to their spouses in synagogue, and want their daughters to read from the Torah at their bat mitzvahs. Many of them, beyond that, including in Diaspora Orthodox and even ultra-Orthodox communities, take a pretty dim view of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community’s attitude to Israel: the widespread avoidance of military service and the sometimes violent attacks on the minority who do serve; the process by which many of the community’s males, rather than only the best and the brightest, spend their working lives at study rather than at work, and the consequent reliance on government subsidy and welfare handouts.
But, even for the critics, that was Israel’s business. Israel had its own needs and norms. And they love Israel, inexplicable norms and all. The Jewish Agency’s board had gathered in Jerusalem this week under the banner of the “50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.” How concrete an assertion of connection, of partnership, of stake.
Except that Sunday’s chik-chak cabinet decision made overt what had previously been implied. Until Sunday, many passionate non-Orthodox supporters of Israel overseas could convince themselves it was rain, not spit, when ultra-Orthodox MKs and ministers over the years denigrated their streams of Judaism as “counterfeit Jews,” sinners, illegitimate and worse. But then those hands went up around the cabinet table, and the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism were told that no, you do not get a safe haven for prayer anywhere along that hallowed Wall to which Jews worldwide direct their prayers. The government of the State of Israel can’t give you that guaranteed place of solace. You’re just too… well… treif.
There’s an expression in Hebrew, often associated with Netanyahu, that actually dates back decades to some of Israel’s earliest finance ministers: “He promised, but he didn’t promise he’d keep his word.” (It works a little better in the original.) The Diaspora leaders who negotiated the Western Wall compromise with Netanyahu thought it was enough that he had promised. They didn’t realize he hadn’t promised to keep his word.
What you have now is an outraged sense of both betrayal and delegitimization. The Israeli government has both broken its word and disenfranchised non-Orthodox religious Judaism. Accurately or not, the prime minister has indicated that his very coalition would have fallen had he honored his agreement, so foul was the Western Wall deal to the ultra-Orthodox MKs on whom he depends for his majority.
It should be no great shock, therefore, to hear, as we have now started to hear, reports of deep disappointment and hurt from US Jewish communities, and the rumblings, too, of financial consequence. There’s no shortage of other good and needy causes. Why finance and subsidize the very people who are telling you to get lost?
The prospective partial loss of American Jewish investment and philanthropy should not be the wake-up call that prompts Netanyahu to reverse his reversal, and implement the deal negotiated under his auspices and to which he originally gave his assent. This most Diaspora-expert of Israeli prime ministers should have known far, far better than to behave in so disreputable a manner in the first place. When you’re at odds with Natan Sharansky, that should tell you right away that you’re in the wrong corner.
Jewish Agency chief Sharansky told this writer on Tuesday evening that he believes a formula will yet be found to enable implementation of the Western Wall deal, and that the second crisis area, regarding legislation to cement the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversions, will also be resolved.
Maybe. The tragedy of this week’s Israel-Diaspora rupture is that even if Sunday’s appalling cabinet decisions are reversed — and it’s a very big if — the harm has been done. And it will not be easily fixed.
Many in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, so blindly contemptuous of their unwanted Diaspora brethren, don’t know and don’t care how heavily they benefit from Diaspora support in many of its varied forms. Netanyahu, though, knows intimately. Which should have made him all the more determined to resist the likes of Yaakov Litzman. And which requires him to now move swiftly to minimize the damage.
In truth, he could almost certainly have called the ultra-Orthodox MKs’ bluff. His coalition probably wasn’t in real danger. But global Jewish unity is.