There is a statement written long ago by our sages that rings true today. “Israel will not be redeemed until all the Children of Israel are united in a single fellowship,” (Midrash Tanhuma to NItzvim). This maxim does not talk about that we must have the same religious observances or agree to a unified set of behaviors. The statement says “fellowship.” Despite the miraculous existence of Israel the decision to postpone the Kotel expansion agreement and the introduction of the bill in the Knesset to disqualify all converts other than Orthodox ones converted by the Chief Rabbinate demonstrates that that fellowship of unity within the Jewish people our sages envisioned long ago is still a dream unfulfilled.
The sadness surrounding the decision by the Netanyahu government to delay, postpone, rescind or whatever term suits us best is not just about going back on an agreement. It is not just the Netanyahu government caving into pressure from the Orthodox parties who threaten to bring down the government. It is not just the tragedy that these religious and nationalist parties are once again creating another serious breach in Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jewish relations. The real sadness for me is that the majority of the state, who we hoped to have had sympathy for liberal Judaism in the state of Israel,appear not to care at all about this issue. Israeli newspaper’s attention to these public statements of outrage and protest from Israeli Reform movement organizational leaders, demonstrate that few care much about the importance of the issue of liberal Jews or women having an egalitarian prayer space at the Robinson Arch of the Kotel. That lack of interest in what is so important an issue to Diaspora Jews is what is most unsettling for me. We simply have a long way to go in convincing the Israeli public that they should care about these issues.
Netanyahu’s reneging on his promise exemplifies the depth of the disconnect between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. The fact that the Netanyahu government knew it could abrogate their agreement to create an appropriate prayer space at the Robinson Arch for the genders and branches of Judaism and not pay a political price from their own parties or the opposite side of the aisle is evidence enough of that chasm between Israel and Diaspora Jews. It is also evidence of the modest impact of the Reform or Conservative movements in Israel. That too is a part of the sad reality as well.
What do we do now? We need to do several things in the aftermath of this debacle for Israel and for us.
First, reform Jews in Israel and in the world will have to decide to revamp their strategy regarding reaching out to the masses in Israel and getting them to march for these kinds of causes. Not just Diaspora Jews but all Jews in Israel should be marching to protest the Prime Minister’s decision to walk away from his commitment to the entire Jewish people. The majority of the Israeli public have many more issues that go directly to the economic, political, and security realms of Israeli society. They just do not seem to take our issues seriously. That is part of the sad reality of this issue today.
We have Israelis who understand the critical importance for Israel’s well being of working together with Jews in America. Tzipi Livini, Israel’s previous foreign minister wrote on her Facebook page, “
“Why do we care about Jewish Israelis from the Western Wall and the Conversion Law? Because it is important to us that Israel remain the state of the Jewish people and that Judaism be what connects us — and not what divides us,”
Shuki Friedman who is the executive director of the Israel Democracy Institute commented and gave us a dose of reality.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t something that will shake up Israeli politics. The storm is mostly in the media,” Friedman told JTA. “Generally speaking, the Reform and Conservative movements have failed in Israel, and the public isn’t really concerned about them. Therefore, mainstream politicians aren’t going to challenge the haredim on an issue like the Western Wall. ”
Second Reform Jews have to think about how to explain this to our own base without creating more and more American Jews who will truly start to be less generous and supportive of Israel in the future. We need to be honest with our membership about not just about how we think of Israel but about how Israel thinks about Jews in America and in the rest of the world. This is not an easy conversation but it is one we should have before the young in particular and those who grew up in interfaith families and who are completely devoted to their faith grow disillusioned with these kinds of politics that divide the Jewish people.
Third, as liberal Jews do we not want to take the moral high ground even though we are hurt and angry beyond measure from this Israeli government’s betrayal on its word? The moral high ground is where we belong. The tragedy is that the Haredi parties are dong their best to take us to the lowest point. There is no engagement, rather, there is only rejection and hatred of us. I am reminded of a verse in Deuteronomy that we read on Yom Kippur morning during the Torah service. “You are standing here this day, before the Lord your God.” This verse goes on to mention everyone from the children, the elders the men and women to enter into a covenant with the Lord. The rabbis asked, “What does the Torah mean when it says “You are standing here this day all of you? Their answer is” When all of you are of one accord then you are standing” (Yalkut Nitzavim). This is my messianic dream which is that we are standing together even if we have different ways of experiencing our faith and our religious practices. We are of one people who believe in the God of all existence, who gave us the Torah. That unity of spirit and history is what is missing here and now.
The Kotel disappointment no matter what happens reminds us that the work we must do is to make our case to the Israeli public in more creative ways. We have to hold up the trust and faith so that the American Jews will not become disgruntled and disaffected with Israel. We do this because we are committed to standing before the Lord and being of one accord with all our brothers and sisters in the Jewish people.