If you had read the recent headlines, you would believe that the Jewish State is once again engulfed in inward political turmoil. Interestingly, however, it isn’t as much the Israelis battling one another over a controversial policy. This time, it’s primarily Americans agitating behind the fray.
Following years of egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall — generally featuring mass counter-demonstrations and arrests — the liberal religious activist group Women of the Wall seemed to be on the brink of victory. In January of 2016, the Israeli government, and even the Rabbi of the Western Wall, agreed to cordon off a section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer services — a sort of miniature Kotel that would entail official government management and funding. In the time since, however, little was done to create the new facility. Then, last week, Netanyahu’s cabinet passed a motion formally freezing all plans for the site until further notice.
Before we explore the reaction to this move, a few critical facts should be established. Firstly, women as individuals can pray as they wish at the regular section of the Western Wall. If they prefer to wear a prayer shawl and tefillin, no one prevents them. All they are not allowed to do is to read from the Torah scroll. Secondly, they can read from the Torah scroll by the Southern side of the Western Wall, where any and all prayer services have been permitted for nearly . All the cabinet freeze means for egalitarian Jews is that for the time being the Southern Wall won’t be officially cordoned off for their exclusive use.
There were certainly some Israelis who shunned the move, but not all that many. Protests in the wake of the decision drew only participants. In Israel, a country that has more politically-driven demonstrations than any other on earth,* that isn’t much. To put it into perspective, Israelis recently protested the kidnapping of Yemeni Children nearly seventy years ago, with another 7,000 Israelis taking to a Tel Aviv square in 2015 to protest a . A year before that, over protesters gathered in the streets of Israel to decry Israel’s planned military draft plan, and three years before that 450,000 took to the streets to push for improvements in social justice. So, a few hundred people holding placards outside the Prime Minister’s home doesn’t indicate any exceptional outrage. At least, not in Israel.
And it is also fairly easy to understand why. Israelis have proven remarkably indifferent to the Reform and Conservative movements, with less than of Israelis identifying themselves with each of those movements, respectively. Moreover, the Chairman of the Union of Synagogues and Communities in Israel, Eliezer Sheffer, has reported that there are over synagogues in the State of Israel. Of that number, only about identify with Reform Judaism — less than 0.4%.
Thus, it was largely the American Jewish community that would form the brunt of the backlash, with leading Jewish-American organizations swiftly condemning the move. Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein that the “lack of unity” brought about by the freeze “could lead to an “erosion of support.” Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, further expressed deep concern, saying that he was “deeply perturbed by the divisiveness that has arisen” as a result of the move. Sixty-five leading Jewish figures and philanthropists — among them my close friend Michael Steinhardt, one of the greatest Jewish philanthropists of our time, and Israeli-American business mogul Haim Saban — even took out an ad in several leading Israeli papers decrying the Israeli government’s backtrack on the Western Wall plan, saying it sent a message that was “wholly unacceptable.” They too, were “deeply disappointed.”
In an op-ed published in the New York Times, Lesley Sachs, the Executive Director of Women of the Wall, took a far harsher approach. Resorting to unfortunate and unnecessary Orthodox-bashing tropes, Sachs described efforts of the Western Wall Foundation to provide shawls to immodestly dressed women as “medieval.” Guards, she went on to claim, forced women to pray silently lest they send the men into a “sexual frenzy.”
Most surprising, however, was the decision by real estate tycoon Isaac Fisher, himself a leading fundraiser in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and member of the board of AIPAC, to freeze his philanthropic activities for the Jewish state unless the government reversed its decisions. No doubt I am not the only person who finds this very conditional support of the Jewish state troubling.
Interestingly enough, Fischer claimed in a televised interview that he was reacting to the government’s moves in a “language they understand.”
Now, many of these Jewish leaders are men and women for whom I have deep respect, and the Jewish people as a whole owe them a debt of gratitude for their leadership and charitable works in the Jewish community. But there are critical points they ought to consider.
First and foremost, Israel is a sovereign democracy, and its decisions must reflect the will of its citizens rather than that of foreign Jewish donors, however generous they may be. Donors like Ike Fisher have done great things for the Jewish State. But their contributions are meant to be predicated on a dedication to the first Jewish state in 2000 years, rather than threats to control it. This point is especially apt considering Fischer did not say he would cut funding to a particular political party but to the Jewish Federation and the State of Israel as a whole (he has thus far cancelled a $1 million purchase of Israel bonds.)
As for Lesley Sachs’ claims of the “medieval” practice of “enforcing” modest-dress, I have to begin by noting that it is factually incorrect. Women are offered scarves but cannot be forced to take them. If the mere suggestion seems intrusive, one should consider that there are plenty of memorials throughout the United States that enforce a dress code, such as wearing shoes. They do so not to oppress but to accord respect to hallowed ground. If that level of respect can be demanded at a memorial going back just a hundred years, the holiest site of the Jewish Nation should be granted some latitude.
With regard to Sachs’s claims that female singing is not allowed, that is factually false as well. I need only ask that you visit the Western Wall on any Friday night this summer. There, you will see hundreds of Jewish women, whether from Birthright tours or the military, singing and dancing to their heart’s content.
When my son and I visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we had to take off our shoes and rinse our hands regardless of what our own religious beliefs were, because that was the custom the local orthodoxy upheld. No modernist interpretations of Islam, however popular, would expect to exert its customs in the mosque either. The same can be said of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — Protestant services cannot be held there, though it is considered a holy site to Protestants as well. The Western Wall should not be faulted, in a similar vein, for preserving the customs of those who administer it — namely, Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate.
Believe me, I have seen some ultra-Orthodox Jews behave disgracefully at the Kotel, including toward my own family this past Shavuot, when I was teaching a Torah class in middle of the night to approximately 60 young men and women gathered in a circle. My children were pushed by extremists who were offended by even the idea of men and women merely sitting together all the way in the back of the Kotel plaza. These fundamentalists disgraced themselves and Judaism. But they are no more representative of Judaism than Sachs’s unfortunate tirade against the State of Israel and Orthodox Jews in the pages of the New York Times is representative of the many Conservative and Reform Jews who wish to pray in egalitarian services at the Kotel. I may respectfully disagree with them but they remain my Jewish brothers and sisters who are my equals in every way.
The lesson, as always in the Middle East, is that the real danger to peace is not from people of goodwill, but from extremists and fundamentalists who only know how to disagree with their opponents by demonizing them.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
* Alan Dowty, in Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, 2nd ed., edited by Michael Penner Angrist, (Boulder, CO: Rienner Publishers, 2017), p. 309.