By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
The decision to establish an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall on seemingly same terms as the two Orthodox ones that are now there (one for women and one for men) may be theologically dubious in the eyes of some of us, but it has been politically most effective. Some of the evidence can be found in the outrageous and often vulgar reactions by spokesmen of Israeli Orthodoxy.
They’re particularly active these days because the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis is having its annual conference in Israel. Leading Reform rabbis have even met as an official delegation with Prime Minister Netanyahu who has been surprisingly supportive of late. His Orthodox cabinet colleagues are said to have been outraged and, I surmise, some of his less Orthodox colleagues are less than enthusiastic, probably at least part out of fear of a coalition break-up.
But the Orthodox cabinet members don’t seem to seriously threaten to leave the coalition. Should they do so, two parties currently outside the government would probably be delighted to take their place: Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, both secular and both anxious to govern instead of opposing, but without the restrictions imposed by the Orthodox parties. (The continued and often vicious attacks by Lieberman on Netanyahu make him sound more like a jilted lover than an authentic opponent.)
The Orthodox know that their institutions depend largely on government money and it’s more likely to come their way if they stay close to the action as insiders. They, too, appear to be prepared to sacrifice political principles for political gains, just as Reform Jews who don’t think much of the Wall have done yet celebrate with glee the creation of its third, egalitarian section.
The so-called Council of Torah Sages, i.e., the Orthodox ayatollahs, held what seems like an emergency meeting to discuss the advances of non-Orthodox Judaism, the threat to their religious monopoly in Israel and their grip on its population. I hope all Conservative and Reform, i.e., Progressive, leaders will see it as a compliment.
Of course, as has been well publicized, the Orthodox aren’t the only ones objecting to the egalitarian prayer area. The Jordanian Muslim custodians of the Temple Mount have also expressed their misgivings lest it encroaches on their territory. Israeli archeologists have protested fearing that it may compromise their work. Some Orthodox women who want to stay in the existing women’s sections but with the same rights as men aren’t too happy about the new arrangement either.
So why did the prime minister agree to yield to Reform and Conservative demands at the urging of Natan Sharansky, the chair of the Jewish Agency, and others? There’s nothing to suggest that it’s Netanyahu’s love for Reform, Conservative or any other kind of religious Judaism. The only answer I can think of is his realization that support of American Jewry, especially for his brand of Republican Zionism, is sagging and his belief that in order to continue to be sustained by the United States in this election year, the Jews must be on board. And the majority of them are Reform or Conservative.
Whatever the reason, this is good news for the Progressives. Since the establishment of the State of Israel they’ve been subject to Orthodox discrimination and secular indifference. If Israel is serious about being there for all Jews, it has to show evidence that it means it.