The Israeli government opens a rift with American Jews over prayer rights
WHO is allowed to pray where at the Western Wall in Jerusalem? An answer to this fantastically vexed question was found last year, and a deal was struck. But last month the Israeli government decided to halt its implementation. This has opened an unusual rift between the Jewish state and the world’s largest Jewish community, in the United States.
Ever since Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967—and with it the revered retaining wall of the former Jewish temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70AD—Jewish prayers at the holy site have been regulated according to ultra-Orthodox practices. Men and women are segregated by a partition and, as in Orthodox synagogues, women may not lead or perform prayers with Torah scrolls and prayer shawls. Women are, in effect, treated as spectators of male prayers. Women who challenged such precepts would often be met with shouting and jostling, and have been blocked by custodians and police.
This has long rankled with many American Jews, most of whom follow non-Orthodox streams—mainly Reform and Conservative Judaism—which allow both mixed and women-only prayers.
According to a “historic compromise” overseen by the government in January 2016, the main plaza in front of the Western Wall would remain under the administration of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. But non-Orthodox Jews would be allocated a separate section, currently an archaeological site, which would be upgraded at public expense.
But ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition of Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, were up in arms. They regard progressive Jews as perverting Judaism. And with 13 seats out of his 66-member coalition (the Knesset has 120 members), they have enough leverage to reverse government policy.
Mr Netanyahu’s decision to back down has led leaders of American Jewry to accuse him of “betrayal”. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that “the state of Israel and government of Israel is willing to sell our rights and our well-being for coalition politics.” A routine meeting with the prime minister of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organisation that represents both Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, was cancelled. The crisis has been deemed serious enough for an emergency delegation of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in America, to fly to Jerusalem, and for the American ambassador to Israel as well as members of Congress to intervene. Israel has traditionally relied on American Jews for both political and financial support. One Israeli cabinet minister admitted that “the situation with the US is very serious.”
According to the Pew Research Centre, most American Jews are affiliated with the two progressive streams of Judaism, with 35% identifying themselves as Reform and 18% Conservative. Only one in ten American Jews are Orthodox. By contrast in Israel, religious life is monopolised by Orthodox Judaism even though most Israelis are not actively affiliated with a particular religious stream: they define themselves as secular or vaguely “traditional”. Few of them are much interested in these issues and the 10% of Israeli Jews who are ultra-Orthodox wield disproportionate political power by voting for parties that are willing to bring down the government over matters of state and religion.
Israel presents itself both as the Jewish state and the only nation in the Middle East which allows members of all faiths freedom of worship at their holy sites. It is odd, therefore, that so many Jews are not allowed to pray according to their customs at the Western Wall. “Bibi is supposed to be the guy who knows American Jews best,” said an Israeli official involved in talks with the Jewish diaspora, of the MIT-educated prime minister. “He sure misread them this time.” Or just as likely, the man who has claimed to represent all the world’s Jews is more interested in his own political survival.
Source: Israel versus the Jews