Diaspora Jewry can’t fight Western Wall battle alone
Op-ed: Despite the injustice suffered by Jews in the US and other countries, the holy site’s fate won’t be determined by those who don’t live here. Without the active involvement of Israeli Jews, the public domain will be shaped by those who care more—in this case, the Haredim.
In an article published earlier this week, the executive director of the Masorti (traditional) Movement in Israel, Yizar Hess, quoted a survey commissioned by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which looked into Jews’ views on the Western Wall. According to the findings, 62.2 percent of the respondents were in favor of an egalitarian prayer at the holy site, and only 9.3 percent said non-Orthodox movements should be forbidden to pray at the place according to their own practice. Hess concluded from the poll that “the Israeli public clearly supports us.”
But the survey has another aspect which Hess failed to mention, and it is significant for understanding the power structure surrounding the decision to freeze the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The figures show that 20 percent of Israelis visit the site less than once every five years. Most visit once in two to five years. Only 0.6 percent said they visit the Western Wall frequently.
“If the Israeli society in general remains indifferent to the site and fails to show any interest and involvement in what is happening there,” the Schechter Institute president was quoted as saying by local Jerusalem newspaper Kol Ha’ir, “the existing trend of disconnecting the Israeliness from the place will continue too.”
But there is a difference between statements and turning them into action, and of course political influence. This difference is also why the battle over the Western Wall plan seems to have turned into a world-wide war between the government, the Haredim and Diaspora Jewry. In between, there are many Jews whose attitudes towards the issue range from complete indifference to anger which is more declarative and a lot less effective.
The first type of reaction usually belongs to completely secular people, who couldn’t really care less who gets the right to talk to what they see as merely a wall. “Sorry, but I think that women who want to talk to a wall are as stupid as the men who want to talk to it,” comedian Tom Aharon tweeted. “Please let’s stop pretending that it makes sense just for the sake of equality.”
According to this distressing argument, it’s unclear which religious ritual is worth fighting for so that everyone will be allowed to fulfill it their own way. That’s exactly how a destructive coalition between allegedly advanced secularism and hardcore conservatism is created.
The second type of reaction is often propounded by men and women who definitely feel a certain affinity to Judaism and who were moved, for example, by US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Western Wall. It irritates them, however, to hear about the Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and divorce, for example. Nevertheless, they are more concerned about other aspects of day-to-day life. As far as they’re concerned, state and religion issues will always be marginal compared to security, the economy, etc.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu usually knows how to read the Jewish public in Israel. He may have even realized that both with the Western Wall issue and with the conversion issue, not every clicking of one’s tongue is necessarily a bite as well. Even the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation brought us closer to elections than the question of who actually owns one of the Jewish people’s holiest sites.
Despite the injustice suffered by Jews in the United States and in other countries, the reality is that the Western Wall’s fate won’t be determined by those who don’t live here. Alone, the Diaspora Jewry will be incapable of defeating the ultra-Orthodox community’s crowded and organized system. Even if the High Court does volunteer to pull the chestnuts out of the fire again, without the active involvement of Israeli Jews, the public domain will be shaped by those who care more. This applies to the educational system, to the army and to the Western Wall, which is losing its relevance among those who have had enough of the Haredi dominance at the site. At the moment, this battle is headed towards a major knockout.