By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
A headline in Monday’s Ha’aretz sums it up: “Netanyahu to American Jews: Drop Dead.” Though I mailed my previous reflections just before the official announcement about the prime minister caving in to his ultra-Orthodox colleagues, I anticipated the outcome. That’s what I wrote:
The present wave of Orthodox pressure on the prime minister is for him to renege on his commitment to provide such space (i.e. egalitarian prayer space at the Western wall and not on the side as is currently the case). As he’s more interested in staying at the helm than pleasing American Jewry, he’s likely to cave in to his coalition partners in the guise of one excuse or another.
And cave in he did. The fact that the news was published at the time that the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency – the ostensibly representative body of Diaspora Jewry, dominated by the Americans – was meeting in Jerusalem tells us that the Ha’aretz headline was spot on.
On several occasions in recent years Prime Minister Netanyahu has claimed to be the spokesman, nay the leader, of all of Jewry. We’ve now been reminded that this means that he runs the errands of the ultra-Orthodox ministers many of whose followers refuse to serve in the army and abuse those who do. As for as the rest of the Jewish people, as the headline had it, they can drop dead. Some leader of world Jewry!
Though I live within walking distance of the Kotel (the Western Wall) I never go there to pray – for religious reasons. It has been turned into an Orthodox synagogue that de facto bars non-Orthodox Jews even though they’re the majority both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
But most, perhaps all, Jews, whether religious or not, see the Western Wall as a national symbol that belongs to the entire Jewish people, not only to the (self) select minority. By caving in to those who’ve turned it into an Orthodox synagogue the prime minister of Israel is depriving the majority of the Jewish people of its most important national symbol.
I speculate that he calculates that the storm over his recent decision will soon blow over and the Diaspora will continue to support Israel and its government while he remains at its helm. The Jewish leaders now attending the Jewish Agency meetings will make some noises and perhaps one or two insignificant gestures – like cancelling a meeting with him, which they just did – but then things will return to what, alas, has become normal.
And as soon as this dust settles, the ultra-Orthodox politicians will force Netanyahu to support a bill that will outlaw all conversions to Judaism that aren’t under their auspices, which includes conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora. Soon perhaps even Ivanka Trump’s celebrated embrace of Orthodox Judaism will be declared null and void.
But our greatest worry should be that many young Jews in the United States and elsewhere in the Diaspora, who’re already lukewarm about Israel, will now claim a valid reason to withdraw altogether. The great exponents of Judaism that the Orthodox claim to be and the supreme leader of the country, which is Netanyahu’s apparent ambition, will have delivered a severe blow to commitment to Israel, the unifying force of our people.