By most counts, there are about 14-15 million Jews in the world today. Not very many, right? On Sunday, the prime minister of the world’s only Jewish state made clear to many millions of them: Israel really doesn’t want you.
Benjamin Netanyahu would never put it in such blunt terms, of course. And doubtless he will expend considerable rhetorical energy in the near future insisting that it is not the case.
But his minister of health, Yaakov Litzman, leader of the United Torah Judaism party, has no Jewish realpolitik imperative to mince his words. In the boastful language of victory, after the Netanyahu-led cabinet decided on Sunday to halt the establishment of a permanent, official, pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall (as opposed to the current temporary area), Litzman declared triumphantly: “The government’s decision to freeze the Western Wall arrangement sends a clear message to the entire world: The Reform do not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”
For the ultra-Orthodox, the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are among the most bitter of foes. Jews who just don’t care are no threat to their ultra-narrow interpretation of our faith, and, who knows, may yet be drawn to their version of it. But the Reform Jews, and the Conservative Jews — they have their own ways of observance. More open. More egalitarian. More questioning. Much more threatening. “Even though the Nazis and the Reform Jews tried to destroy us…,” an ultra-Orthodox relative of mine once remarked in a speech at a family event. He wasn’t trying to be provocative, which almost made it worse. He was unthinkingly parroting received wisdom in much of his community.
The prime minister, personally, is no ultra-Orthodox zealot. The prime minister, politically, however, has quite evidently decided that his future depends on keeping the coalition’s two ultra-Orthodox parties happy.
In a November 2015 address in Washington to the leadership of the Jewish community in North America, where millions identify with non-Orthodox Judaism, Netanyahu promised: “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews.” Specifically, he told the thousands at the Jewish Federations’ annual General Assembly, he hoped his government would soon reach the “long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] will be a source of unity for the Jewish people, not a point of division.”
How they applauded.
How cheated and betrayed they must feel now.
Litzman’s UTJ holds precisely six seats in the 120-member Knesset. The second ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, has seven. On Sunday, for the sake of those 13, Netanyahu struck a blow to the heart and soul of millions of Jews worldwide.
His decision is both short-sighted and fraught with long-term danger. Some critics rushed to call it a divorce from the Diaspora. If it’s not quite that, because the damage is not yet irrevocable, it is certainly the sign of a marriage in deep trouble.
Israel needs all the friends it can get. And it should be doing everything it can to avoid alienating its core supporters, its own flesh and blood. Non-Orthodox Jews, in Israel and abroad, emphatically do not agree with everything that the Jewish state does, but the arguments, and the passion, reflect the connectedness of the global Jewish family.
I happened to be moderating a panel of Knesset members on Sunday morning in Jerusalem at the opening session of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors’ meeting. Most of that audience have spent much of their lives doing everything they can to help the State of Israel survive and flourish; many in that audience identify with non-Orthodox Judaism, and represent millions more like them. Hours later, when the cabinet decision was announced, I’ll wager most of them felt more sorrow than anger — sorrow at the damage to the Jewish unity we should be striving to maintain and deepen.
The Jewish state is beset by external threats. We can and must defend ourselves against them. We can’t always resolve them. On Channel 2 news on Sunday night, the main item was about the Syrian civil war, as it threatens, afresh, to draw in Israel. On Friday, we watched as millions of Iranians marched in support of Israel’s destruction. In Lebanon that same day, Hezbollah’s leader vowed that the next conflict he drags us into will involve “hundreds of thousands” of fighters from across the Muslim world. Two days earlier, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, with whom we would like to make peace, again dismissed an American demand that he stop paying salaries to terrorists who kill Israelis.
By contrast, we should be able to resolve intra-Jewish challenges by ourselves. When it comes to the so-called Orthodox-secular divide, we should be able to find ways to ensure both that Jewish scholarship flourishes in the Jewish state, and that the rights and burdens of physically protecting the country are shared fairly. Similarly, we should be able to muster the wisdom to give all Jews, however they connect to our shared faith, a genuine sense of stake in the national homeland of the Jewish people.
At the spiritual and emblematic heart of that revived national homeland is the Western Wall. And the irony of Sunday’s self-defeating decision is that the now-frozen “compromise” plan wasn’t really a compromise at all. It did not affect arrangements at what most people think is the Western Wall, the section where men and women pray separately, and where the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate maintains complete control. The idea was that those who like to pray without those constraints would be able to do so elsewhere, a short distance away, at a properly prepared pavilion (as opposed to the current, temporary arrangement) under joint oversight involving all major streams of Judaism. A case of live and let live, pray and let pray.
But even that Solomonic solution, earnestly perfected over years of painstaking negotiation by people with the best interests of world Jewry at heart, was evidently too threatening for the ultra-Orthodox leadership. And Israel’s Diaspora-savvy prime minister, in capitulating to their narrow-minded demands against his better judgment, showed that survival in office now even takes precedence over the deepest sensibilities of the global Jewish nation he aspires to lead.
The third paragraph and penultimate paragraph of this article were edited on June 26 to clarify the nature of the now-frozen plan for the pluralistic prayer facility at the Wall.
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