Baseless hatred at the Kotel is a clarion call for solidarity and action
The creed of mutual responsibility is a binding force of Jewish peoplehood: Our organization’s initiatives aim to deepen and enrich these connections
Disturbances at the Kotel, sadly, are nothing new and rightfully raise anxieties and concerns across the Jewish world. But the events that unfolded June 30, when several families having b’nai mitzvah ceremonies were aggressively confronted require deeper reflection. These events also call for a more concerted collective response by Israelis and Jewish communities outside Israel who share a common commitment to strengthening Jewish peoplehood.
For nearly a decade, an officially sanctioned space for egalitarian prayer has existed at the southern end of the Kotel in Jerusalem’s Old City. The site was established with the support of then cabinet member and future prime minister Naftali Bennett. The place, termed “Ezrat Yisrael,” has served as a popular gathering point for Jews from all corners of the Jewish world, including countless Jewish families and communities from North America, who pray there and express their unbreakable connection to Jerusalem and our holy sites.
In the early hours of June 30, a group of hooligans suddenly appeared and deliberately disturbed multiple b’nai mitzvah ceremonies at the egalitarian plaza. The attack shocked Jews worldwide. It broke faith with these families, a faith bolstered by the commitment of Israeli authorities that all Jews would be welcome at this site.
What happened there poses a challenge to the creed of mutual responsibility that is a binding force of Jewish peoplehood.
It affects all of us. “Any Jew, no matter where they live, no matter where she worships, no matter what he believes,” one of us once told a gathering of the American Jewish Committee in the shadow of the Kotel, “is connected to this place.” What happened that day cannot be brushed aside.
The news cycle may have moved on but what happened that day was a demonstration of Sin’at Chinam, baseless hatred. It was not Machloket L’shem Shamayim – it was not what our sages teach us can be a constructive disagreement. These disturbances are Chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, as Rabbi Rick Jacobs and many others said at the time.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid appropriately called one of the affected families to express solidarity. Israel’s national authorities must continue to respond vigorously and constructively to protect the rights of all Jewish worshippers, as they have been called to do by the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America. Yet there is also a case to be made that Jewish civil society itself must engage collectively in response to what happened.
Only the hooligans themselves, and perhaps those who inspired or sent them, are responsible for their actions. Law enforcement officials and the Israeli government are responsible to prevent a recurrence. But all of us bear responsibility for creating an environment in which what is common to all Jews prevails over what differentiates us. For we are all stakeholders in the Jewish future, and in Israel’s future, including those of us who are “non-voting” shareholders. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh LaZeh.
Taking responsibility can extend to expressions of solidarity and support, like a recent letter to these b’nai mitzvah families signed by nearly four dozen Israeli NGOs who are part of Israel’s “Peoplehood Coalition.” Banding together, this diverse set of Israeli civil society organizations reaffirmed their commitment to “respect” and to “Ahavat Yisrael, our age-old charge to show care, concern and love for all members of our broader Jewish family.”
The initiative was led by ENTER: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, the organization we are proud to be affiliated with.
Beyond expressions of solidarity, there is also work to be done to deepen the connection of Israeli Jewish society to its global Jewish family. There is a growing body of evidence that the more connected and the more knowledgeable Israeli Jews are about Jewish communities outside Israel, the more respect, understanding, and empathy they express.
ENTER is piloting a range of programs in Israel’s public education system that raise awareness and increase connectivity with Jewish communities worldwide. We facilitate peer-to-peer online encounters between young Israelis and Diaspora counterparts, leading to in-person meetings and friendships. We are working with the Ministry of Education to develop new resources for Israeli public schools that adopt a theme of “peoplehood” in their school community. We aim to bring information about, and the perspectives of, Jewish communities outside Israel to a far greater audience of Israelis.
Other important initiatives in this broader “peoplehood” field are pushing in the same direction, whether it is Hillel International’s Campus Fellows program, Birthright/Taglit’s integration of IDF soldiers with its visiting young adult cohorts, “reverse Taglit” immersive experiences sponsored by philanthropies like the Ruderman Foundation, community twinning like the Jewish Agency’s P2G framework, or efforts by NGO’s like Momentum, which is strengthening Jewish identity for Jewish mothers and parents, while at the same time exposing Israelis to the richness and diverse Jewish expressions of their broader Jewish family. A growing circle of other organizations and communities are involved in similar work.
No doubt, what unfolded in the early hours of June 30 was a tragedy for the families and for these young b’nai mitzvah children. What was done to them cannot be undone. But we can use these events as an opportunity to take greater collective responsibility. Let us work more closely together, Diaspora communities and Israelis, toward a vision of ensuring that the Jewish people remain a global community that is united, secure, and inclusive.
Alon Friedman is the Founding CEO of ENTER: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance. Daniel Shapiro, co-chair of ENTER’s Professional Advisory Committee, is the former United States Ambassador to Israel.
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