The disturbing image of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, being roughed up — first by security personnel and later by a group of charedim — while carrying a Torah scroll toward the Western Wall last Thursday morning in Jerusalem underscores the bitter dispute between liberal American Jews and the Jerusalem government over issues of religious identity, and beyond.
Jacobs, whose suit was torn but who was not injured, was part of a delegation of Reform Jewish leaders walking with Torah scrolls to protest Israel’s regulations prohibiting egalitarian prayer at the main plaza of the Kotel. Since June, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet reneged on a compromise plan to enhance egalitarian prayer in the area and supported a bill to give the fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversion in Israel, the gap between liberal Diaspora Jews and the Netanyahu government has widened in deeply troubling ways.
The split indicates the lack of understanding between the two sides. The great majority of American Jews are not Orthodox, and many of them feel like second-class Jews in the eyes of Israel when it comes to their religious and civil right, since personal status issues like marriage, divorce, conversion, and burial are subject to Orthodox rulings. Many Israelis are puzzled over why non-Orthodox Jews care about prayer at the Kotel. (Many secular Israelis, who view the Kotel primarily as a historic site, and charedim, who believe egalitarian prayer at the holy spot is a violation of Jewish law, see the protests from American Jews as political.)
But Jews everywhere expect and deserve a Jewish state that treats all Jews equally, in keeping with the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which says Israel must “guarantee freedom of religion” and “ensure complete equality” for all its inhabitants.
At the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America last week in Los Angeles, the board of the umbrella group for federations issued an uncharacteristically blunt resolution calling on Jerusalem to remove its “divisive and damaging” moves regarding the Kotel and conversion. The statement said that lack of progress on the issue could “undermine the Zionist vision and the State of Israel’s sacred role as a national home for the entire Jewish people.”
Already we’ve seen how members of a younger generation of American Jews express more ambivalence toward Israel than their elders, citing policies regarding the settlements, the lack of progress toward Mideast peace, the treatment of Arabs, and a government in Jerusalem that has shifted further right in recent years. The prospect of further alienating the youth of American Jewry should give Israeli leaders pause.
Acknowledging the depth of sentiment, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addressed the GA and called on American Jews to “respect Israel’s democratic process,” which in this case means the clout of the charedi parties in the coalition. He expressed hope that American and Israeli Jews will “get to know each other better.”
Netanyahu, who addressed the assembly via satellite, seemed to make light of the dispute, saying that only the “ideological” components of the compromise plan were frozen in June. He highlighted the fact that construction is moving forward at Robinson’s Arch, the area of the Kotel where egalitarian prayers are held. But more important than the work at Robinson’s Arch, the plan called for equal access to the main Kotel plaza. And it was the “ideological” piece Netanyahu glossed over in his GA remarks that was THE key element of the compromise, since it would have allowed representatives from the liberal denominations to have a say in the administration of the Kotel. The charedi parties felt that such a move would have indicated a weakening of the Orthodox control of religious life in Israel.
In an effort to dramatize the inequity of religious liberties in Israel by highlighting its marriage laws, Temple Emanu-El in New York on Sunday morning, Dec. 3, will host weddings of three Israeli couples who could not, or would not, marry in Israel. One couple includes a Reform Jewish convert, one couple is lesbian, and one couple rejects the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce in Israel.
Some may see the triple wedding as a provocative act, publicizing the deep dissatisfaction here with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and, by extension, the Netanyahu government. But there is widespread anger and frustration with both institutions in much of the community, here and in Israel.
“We want to continue to bring the issue of religious pluralism to the forefront by making a public statement” through the triple wedding, said one of the officiants, Rabbi Rachel Ain of the Conservative Sutton Place Synagogue. She added that it was important for the community to see that the liberal denominations can work together.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the Conservative movement, noted that every wedding is both “a private act for its own sake and a model for the community. So it is extremely appropriate in this case to take that very traditional model [of marriage] and make it public.” She asserted that it is “a terrible travesty” that an act of conscience — a wedding in Israel not sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate — is also an act of civil disobedience, considered a criminal action and subject to two years in prison.
In calling on rabbinic colleagues of all denominations to join him on the bima in offering a blessing for the three couples, Rabbi Joshua Davidson, senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El (Reform), noted that “all of us standing together will send a message to Israel’s leadership that we will abide no longer its choice to ignore not just the religious rights of Judaism’s non-Orthodox streams, but the civil rights of all Jews.”
Jews physically attacking other Jews — from the Women of the Wall to the leaders of the Reform movement — for carrying Torah scrolls and seeking to pray in the shadow of the Kotel is the antithesis of klal Yisrael, Jewish peoplehood. Whether or not we agree on the interpretation of Jewish law, Jews of all religious viewpoints should champion the concept of freedom of religious practice that Israel espouses but has yet to honor.