By Anshel Pfeffer
Last Shabbat was a rare moment of Israeli bliss for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. In Israel for their annual convention, they spent the weekend in Tel Aviv, being feted in synagogues, meeting local dignitaries and attending a special morning service at the city’s museum. Pumped by the feeling of suddenly being part of the Israeli consensus, some of them even ran the Tel Aviv marathon.
The oldest mistake in Israeli politics – one made so often by non-Israelis and Israelis alike – is to think that the right-on progressive vibe of Tel Aviv reflects in any way the rest of Israel. But the U.S. Reform leadership has been here enough times not to make that mistake. Its weekend on the coast was welcome respite and looks great in a gushing press release, but the real question remains what happens in Jerusalem.
This time around, some of the leaders at least were lulled into thinking there may actually be a change afoot up in the Judean Hills. For the first time, their visit to the capital also included a festive prayer at the foot of the Western Wall – and there were no ultra-Orthodox protesters on hand to jostle female rabbis wearing tallithot and rainbow-colored kippot. For this visit came weeks after the eagerly anticipated agreement to establish a new progressive, egalitarian and mixed-gender prayer space at the southern end of the Kotel, separated from the Western Wall plaza and its ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) hegemony.
But even if that morning made them feel like the paratroopers liberating the Western Wall in the Six-Day War, there was still a battle awaiting them in West Jerusalem. Their leaders had greeted the agreement as “historic” and, at last, a formal Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism. But the forces arrayed against them were formidable. They should have realized what they were up against when, three weeks earlier, Prime Minister and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu hadn’t reprimanded his own party’s tourism minister, Yariv Levin, for describing Reform Jewry as “a waning world” and accusing them of responsibility for assimilation and the disappearance of American Jewry.
Netanyahu made do with an anodyne statement that Reform Jews “are part and parcel of the Jewish people.” Netanyahu, of course, received the rabbis cordially in his office but, tellingly, his press officers failed to release any photographs or press releases regarding the meeting.
Meanwhile, the rabbis and ultra-Orthodox politicians that Netanyahu relies upon to maintain his narrow, 61-member coalition afloat were ramping up the rhetoric on a daily basis. The Reform movement was accused of ruining Judaism, of selling out its values and of ultimately not being Jewish but “idolators” – as Rabbi David Yosef, a member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, said this week.
When the prayer space deal was signed at the end of January, the assumption was that the ultra-Orthodox parties would strenuously object but not turn this into a coalition-busting issue. After all, the deal had left their domination of the main Kotel area – which had been contested for years by the Women of the Wall group – intact.
But on Thursday, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay (Shas) told a gathering of rabbis that as far as he is concerned, the matter is yehareg ve’al ya’avor – to be killed rather than transgress, the halakhic definition of a commandment that a Jew must be prepared to die for (usually reserved only for the sins of murder, idolatry and adultery/incest). Azoulay may have gone farther rhetorically than his political and religious masters wanted, but the signal was clear: Netanyahu will have to mollify them.
Some time in the next few days or weeks, rabbis and politicians will gather in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Reform movement will not be represented there. The Western Wall agreement will be amended so that the new prayer area will be defined as some general heritage enclosure for public use, with no formal religious or spiritual connotations. Gone will be any recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. The Haredim will be able to tell their public that they have seen off the Reform menace. In phone calls to the United States, ministers will try to explain to the Reform leaders that nothing has really changed and assure them that the new section of the Wall will still be at their disposal. It is still a “historic” achievement, they will say.
If they try to object, they will find very few allies. At most, a handful of Meretz and Zionist Union MKs will put out a weak chorus of protest, probably no more than a few posts on Facebook. The leaders of the center-left parties – Isaac Herzog, Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon – will remain silent. All of them know that to have any hope of replacing Netanyahu in the foreseeable future, they will need at least one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in their coalition, and there are simply no votes in supporting the Reform struggle to make such a gesture worthwhile.
The Reform leaders will be facing a difficult dilemma. Either accept the downgrading of “their” Western Wall, hand the ultra-Orthodox yet another victory and continue convincing themselves and their members that they can still turn the new site into a bastion of Jewish enlightenment in the heart of Jerusalem. Or reject the new formulation, thus opening up a formal breach between them and the Israeli government, and admit that for all their declarations of a “historic” achievement recently, they are as powerless as ever in Israel.
It doesn’t matter how many times the Reform movement has been humiliated by Israeli politicians: The frustration of the leaders of the largest Jewish movement in the United States remains as bitter as ever. “How do you ask Jews around the world to support Israel politically, economically, socially … and at the same time you have these ministers who say to our people, ‘You’re not really Jewish’ or ‘You don’t have a place here in Israel’? That incongruity is a real problem for us,” the exasperated Rabbi Steven Fox, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, told The Associated Press.
He knows the answer though. You continue doing so because the only alternative is to sever ties with Israel, its government and most of its society – who, despite decades of effort, have yet to warm to non-Orthodox Judaism. Outside of Tel Aviv, that is.
There are those whispering in Netanyahu’s ear that, actually, the Reform movement isn’t such a great lobbyist in Washington, either. Just look whose children are joining anti-Israeli groups like J Street, they say. They won’t stay loyal Jews anyway, much better to invest in those you can trust, like evangelical Christians. Netanyahu is a much more cautious politician than he’s given credit for; he won’t burn bridges, but he certainly won’t go out on a limb either. Ultimately, he will always give the ultra-Orthodox what they ask for.
So, after their all-too-brief “historic” moment, the political reality for the Reform movement is about to reassert itself in Israel. When Winston Churchill said in 1944 that the Vatican would object to the Soviet Union’s plans to dominate Roman Catholic Poland, Joseph Stalin retorted, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” The Reform movement, whatever influence it may have in the United States, has no fingers in the Knesset. Unless that changes, it will have no choice but to come back again and again for more humiliation in Jerusalem.