Putting the Kotel Decision in Context

By Dan Feferman and Shmuel Rosner

The recent Israeli government decision from June 25, 2017, to freeze the Western Wall (Kotel) agreement, and advance a conversion bill, was dramatic, as were the responses from Jewish leaders and organizations in the United States, Israel and other countries. This, of course, did not occur in a vacuum, and should be understood in the proper political, social and demographic context. The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) has been researching some of these issues and is set to publish a comprehensive report on the status of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. Our findings and conclusions, some of which are used for this article, might shed some important light on the complex and heated topic of the Kotel.

Five conclusions come to mind as the dust settles on the crisis that is not yet resolved.

One: It is important to recall that while most Israelis are sympathetic of Reform and Conservative Judaism and support the Kotel agreement, very few have been willing to go to political war over it, as opposed to the ultra-Orthodox, who wield significant political influence. Recognizing this imbalance, the progressive Jewish movements have used two main forms of leverage to gain access, equality and rights (with a good deal of success). The first of these is the High Court, and the second is the American Jewish community. That the Prime Minister chose to acquiesce to ultra-Orthodox pressure to save his government might signal long-term trends pointing to a possible weakening of these leverages over Israel’s policies.

Two: The most difficult issues in promoting a more religiously pluralistic Israel are the symbolic aspects, while practical advancements are, at this time, easier to achieve. This is not say that the symbolic aspects are not important. Indeed, it is incumbent upon Israel to officially make room at the table for the non-Orthodox movements, despite their small size. Still, it would not be unreasonable to propose that the progressive Jewish movements and their allies consider adopting a long-game approach that builds on a string of practical victories and broaden their grass-roots efforts. Such an effort would translate the broad sympathy they enjoy into concrete political support, and make the symbolic gains eventually easier to achieve.

Three: The Israeli government did not anticipate the severity of the response from world Jewish leaders following its two decisions, which may stem from long-simmering frustrations among world Jewish leaders over a perceived erosion of liberal democracy in Israeli society. Thus, the government will have to work quickly and sensitively to mollify the outrage and mend the relations, or risk a decrease in the critical support of many of the world’s Jews, many of whom are Reform or Conservative, and who felt deeply betrayed and offended.

Four: The Israeli government and the Israeli Rabbinate would be wise to examine the trends in Israeli society, whereby as the ultra-Orthodox controlled rabbinate tightens its grip on power, through legislation and political maneuvering, it continues to lose appeal and relevance to average Israelis. An increasing number – secular, traditional and even Orthodox – are slowly building religious alternatives that skirt the institution, which could soon render it irrelevant to much of the population.

Five: These events highlight the importance of conducting two serious and related discussions. The first is within Israeli society regarding the nature of the relationship between religion and state. The second regards Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora, and what it means on a symbolic and a practical level for Israel to be the “homeland for all the Jews.”

Navigating these issues with sensitivity and resolving them quickly is important for maintaining Jewish unity, in Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora.

Shmuel Rosner is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, where he heads the Project on Jewish Pluralism in Israel. Dan Feferman is a Fellow at the Institute and the author of a forthcoming report on progressive Judaism in Israel.