Thursday 13 July 2017

The Unifying Wall That Divides

Image from
A decision by the Israeli government not to approve the construction of an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Compound in Jerusalem and Judaism's holiest site, has opened wounds between the Israeli government and the American Jewish community.  It is ironic that, only weeks after celebrating the 50th anniversary of the return of the Kotel to Jewish hands, this iconic landmark and holy site is giving rise to huge divisions between different groups of Jews.  How differently the Kotel is being viewed now, as opposed to 50 years ago when Jews around the world were rejoicing in unison at the prospects of being able to visit and pray at this site.

Things have clearly changed over the past 50 years that we are fighting amongst ourselves over this matter.  Fifty years ago,  Jews would have been happy simply to be able to visit and pray at the Kotel. It would not have mattered if this would have been by a group of men or women on their own, or by mixed groups and families.  After so many years of having been denied the right to visit the site of the Temple, the details of how prayers would be offered there were unimportant.

Fast-forward fifty years, and the Kotel Plaza has been developed to allow and encourage Jews to visit the site for historical and religious reasons.  It was developed according to the tenets of Jewish religious law as befits a site of prayer.  This means that men and women have been provided with separate prayer areas.  This separation is not a new or alien concept amongst Orthodox and traditional Jews.  It is something that is expected at holy sites and areas of prayer.  And while Orthodox or traditional strands of Judaism are dominant in Israel amongst those who wish to identify with the Jewish religion, the same is not true outside of Israel.  There, the Reform and Conservative strands of Judaism are more popular.  These strands follow a somewhat less stringent interpretation of the Orthodox Jewish laws, either because followers have studied the laws and rejected some of the stringencies arising from Rabbinical interpretations and pronouncements over the years, or because it is simply easier to follow.  In a world where the rate of assimilation amongst Jewish communities around the world is running at alarmingly high levels, any form of identification with Judaism can be considered to be positive.  It is for this reason that the Reform and Conservative communities, particularly those in the USA, have gathered enormous power as they manage to stem some of the massive flows of Jews away from the faith.

The battle lines between Orthodox and Reform/Conservative Jews have long been drawn.  The Orthodox communities have done all that they can to reject the dilutions that are inherent with the Reform/Conservative view on the Jewish world.  They have worked to discredit and delegitimise them, even accusing them of not being Jews.  The Reform and Conservative communities, particularly those in the US that command power and have access to large sums of money, have used this to fight back against the Orthodox world view.  The battle over the Kotel is simply an extension of this power struggle between the different groups.  The Reform/Conservative strand believes that their followers (and other non-religious people) would prefer to visit and pray at the Kotel in an area that is mixed with men and women - an egalitarian area.  This would also allow families to enjoy this experience together.  The Orthodox are absolutely opposed to this, claiming that the Kotel is a religious place of prayer that requires separation of the sexes according to the traditional Jewish Law.

The State of Israel has set out not to distinguish between different groups of Jews.  In fact, the Law of Return that grants immediate Israeli citizenship to Jews, has chosen to use Hitler's definition of Jews rather than going by Jewish religious law.  Hitler decided that any person who had one Jewish grandparent would be eligible to be treated inhumanely by his regime, and to be part of his plan of extermination.  The Israeli government decided that if a person was good enough to be exterminated by Hitler, they would be good enough to be granted immediate Israeli citizenship.  This means that some of those who have been granted immediate citizenship under this law, are not Jewish according to Jewish Law.  This demonstrates the extent to which the State of Israel has opened its arms to many different groups of Jews - and even to some non-Jews.  Under the circumstances, it seems as though the government would be sympathetic to the claims of the non-Orthodox groups at the Kotel.

Even though the government would probably wish to be more accommodating to the demands of the non-Orthodox lobby, and even previously agreed to their demands for an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, politics always seems to come first.  The current government coalition can only exist with the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset.  Upon hearing of the government's plan to accommodate an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, the ultra-Orthodox parties flexed their muscles and threatened to bring the government down if the plan was implemented.  Prime Minister Netanyahu went into survival mode, even at the expense of his relationship with US Jews, and acquiesced to the demands of his coalition partners.  At least for now.  American Jews responded in disgust by withdrawing their support for the Israeli government.

Does the Reform/Conservative lobby have a valid case in declaring open warfare on the Israeli government as a result of this decision?  The Israeli government has said that an egalitarian prayer area does already exist, but it is just not in the premier Kotel Plaza area.  The non-Orthodox lobby claims that this is not good enough, and effectively treats some Jews as second-class.  Their demand is to have the egalitarian area front and centre alongside the other prayer areas in the Kotel Plaza.  The battle is one of power and of wills. This is a battle between different groups of Jews, each of whom demands that their way is accepted, and with the Israeli government being called upon to act as referee.

Is the Kotel a Jewish national asset that should be required to accommodate all groups of Jews in a way that is to their liking?  Or is it an asset that belongs to the religious, as the holiest religious site in Judaism?  Does creating an egalitarian prayer area alongside the other areas serve to dilute its importance and religious status?  Is this issue important enough to be worth creating a rift amongst different groups of Jews?

I don't have answers to any of these questions.  And even if I did, I feel sure that the warring parties would not consider my point of view in formulating their reactions to the situation.  Of course, the Israeli government will always act in way that promotes its own best interests.  At the moment, that requires it to take the side of the ultra-Orthodox parties and freeze the egalitarian prayer area.

In my opinion, the situation requires tolerance and understanding by all parties.  It is natural to expect that the holiest site in Judaism should have some of the most stringent rules attached to it, and that Orthodox Jewish law should apply.  We live at a time, however, when Jews around the world should find reasons to unite, and not reasons to be in conflict with each other, especially over a site as central as the Kotel.  The ultra-Orthodox parties are not generally known for making efforts to unify different strands of Judaism, but it is never too late.  They should know that no man is in a position to judge another one, nor judge his interpretation of the religion.  So they should be taking the moral high ground on this matter in an attempt to accommodate the requests of the non-Orthodox groups.  Surely accommodating an egalitarian space could be acceptable, as long as they continue to have their separated areas?  The situation now requires unity and not conflict.  It is incumbent upon the parties to sit down, and find a compromise that will be acceptable to all.  Is this too much to expect?

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