Wailing Wall of Exclusion and Orthodoxy
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s misguided policies of “trading the long-term strategic interest of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel in exchange for short-term political gains, is a mistake” says TRNN correspondent Shir Hever
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. A crisis has emerged in the relations between the State of Israel and its Jewish communities. This crisis arose when the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to cancel a compromise agreement which allowed Reform Jews to pray at the Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall or the Kotel in occupied Jerusalem. At the same time, the Israeli government passed a law that only recognizes those Jews that converted to Orthodox Judaism for the purpose of being recognized as a Jew by the State of Israel. This causes a real problem for those Jews that are not Orthodox.
Even extremely pro-Israeli Zionist organizations, such as the Jewish Agency and the Anti-Defamation League, were horrified by the decision that Jewish Agency actually canceled a dinner with Prime Minister Netanyahu over this. Then on Friday, Netanyahu called an emergency government session to reconsider the conversion law, but the prayer agreement at the Wailing Wall seemed to remain strictly under the control of the Orthodox rabbis. Here are some of the responses by some non-Orthodox rabbis who were speaking on Israeli television in response to the two decisions.
Speaker 2: I’m disappointed. I’m very upset. I’m a Conservative rabbi in a large Conservative congregation in Highland Park, Illinois. I’m disappointed at this time in the work of the memshalah, of the government of the State of Israel.
Speaker 3: You’ve worked closely with us for years. We had a dream to be able to create real pluralism in the holiest site of Jerusalem, of the Jewish people. Yesterday’s decisions do not honor that. It is time to lead.
Speaker 4: Prime Minister Netanyahu, the leaders of world Jewry were shocked on Sunday to arrive in Israel only to discover that the Kotel agreement, a proposal that you brought to us, that we negotiated with your representatives for three and a half years, you led your cabinet in freezing and invalidating permanently.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now joining us to explain the situation is Shir Hever. Shir is a Real News correspondent in Heidelberg, Germany, but has lived in Israel for most of his life. Thanks for joining us here, Shir.
SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Shir, explain briefly what Kotel arrangement was and which Netanyahu canceled, and why this is causing such a uproar.
SHIR HEVER: The main issue is about the right of women to pray at the Kotel, because right now, the Kotel is managed by the ultra-Orthodox rabbis. A specific ultra-Orthodox rabbi is called the Kotel rabbi. He’s managing it as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue in a way, so that means men are separated from women. Even though Reform Jews could theoretically come to the Kotel and pray, only the men can actually mingle and pray at the Wailing Wall, while women are segregated. There is a small section for women to pray silently, but this is for Orthodox women, where they’re not allowed actually to raise their voices. They are segregated from the men. But the Reforms demand the right for women and men to pray jointly, for women rabbis to lead people in prayer, as is customary in Reform Judaism, also among Conservative Jews. In 2016, in January, the government after a very long negotiation decided that a very small section of the Wailing Wall would be dedicated to this group, to the mixed group. Now the Prime Minister decided to renege on the agreement and cancel it.
SHARMINI PERIES: How did the ultra-Orthodox manage to become so influential over the Israeli government?
SHIR HEVER: Indeed, the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Israeli coalition together comprise about 10% of the seats of the Knesset. Their political power mainly came traditionally from their flexibility, because while the Israeli politics is usually divided between left and right, mainly on issues concerning the occupation and how Palestinians should be treated, sometimes on economic issues as well, the ultra-Orthodox parties are willing to go with whoever takes care of the needs of their own community. That means that they’re not necessarily committed to the ideas of the right wing or the left wing. As long as their traditions are respected, as long as they are given some kind of autonomy, and as long as they are relieved of military service, they can join the coalition. That gave them some influence.
I think the very interesting point happened in the recent Israeli coalition between 2013 and 2015. In this coalition, Netanyahu recruited to his government several politicians who were very, very anti-ultra-Orthodox to the point of racism against these groups, stereotyping the ultra-Orthodox and even calling them parasites. These politicians promoted this populist hate politics and demanded that the ultra-Orthodox will be recruited forcefully to the Israeli army. Then in 2015 when the law was about to be approved, the ultra-Orthodox formed a very large alliance, an unprecedentedly large alliance, with Mizrahi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews together.
It was actually The Real News that broke the story that the ultra-Orthodox had threatened the government that if they go ahead with recruiting them to the army against their wish, against their will, they will reconsider their alliance with the Zionist movement and will instead consider an alliance of solidarity with the Palestinians. At that moment, Netanyahu called for an early election. In 2015, there was another election. After that election, he decided to invite the ultra-Orthodox parties to his coalition, to leave those anti-ultra-Orthodox forces outside of the coalition, and the recruitment law has been frozen until further notice.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Shir, the Haaretz newspaper had a peace conference in June. At that conference, a member of the Knesset, Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox party Torah Judaism, has given a very surprising interview. What did he say, and how did this contribute to the government’s decision?
SHIR HEVER: Moshe Gafni was interviewed by a very hostile journalist from the Haaretz newspaper who started the interview by accusing the ultra-Orthodox that they only care about money. Moshe Gafni was offended, but nevertheless continued the interview. When the authors say that the main issue that concerns the ultra-Orthodox is not the issue of that occupation or the building of additional colonies in the West Bank and so on, the main issue that concerns them is the issue of the Reform Jews, which many ultra-Orthodox consider to be not Jewish at all, calling them Christians or pagans and that sort of thing, this was the first priority for the ultra-Orthodox parties, and this was something that the participants of that conference did not expect to hear. They were quite surprised by this very vehement position by Moshe Gafni.
Then there appeared several articles in Israeli newspapers, including in Haaretz, saying, “Well, actually, what the left in Israel should do if they want to depose Netanyahu, if they want to have a peace treaty with the Palestinians, they have to throw the Reform Jews under the bus basically.” Let’s give the ultra-Orthodox what they want, which is decisive action against the Reform Jews, and in exchange, the ultra-Orthodox will change their positions on the issue of the peace process. I think Netanyahu has also read these articles, and preempted such a move by throwing the Reforms under the bus before his opponents could do so.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now Shir, these two decisions taken by the Israeli government simultaneously, clearly preferring ultra-Orthodox Jews over other branches of Judaism, such as Reform, Conservative, Traditional, and so on, why is Netanyahu promoting this policy now?
SHIR HEVER: This is a question that a lot of people in Israel are asking. In fact, the AIPAC, the Israeli lobby in the United States, sent an emergency delegation to meet with Netanyahu and tried to dissuade him from this decision, saying by taking this decision, Netanyahu is really compromising his good relations with the United States and with the Jewish community in the United States. Also in Canada, the Canadian consul issued a warning to the Israeli government saying, “We’re getting a lot of protests from Jewish communities in Canada about this decision, about these two decisions.”
I think the reason that Netanyahu pushed ahead with this move is because the investigation against him within Israel is really closing on him. Even his staunch supporter, Sheldon Adelson, which we discussed here in The Real News quite a lot in how he supports Netanyahu, has now given a testimony to the police against Netanyahu, and talked about what kind of possibly illegal bribes Netanyahu has received. For Netanyahu, any challenger to his rule at this point would make it possible for his opponents to call for an immediate investigation. As soon as somebody becomes plausible successor to Netanyahu, Netanyahu will be in serious trouble. He’s trying to prevent that. He’s trying to show that he’s completely popular, that there is no chance for any kind of investigation against him, and that charges should not be pressed against him. He’s trading the long-term strategic interests of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel in exchange for short-term political gains.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Shir, this debate that’s going on right now is not just an internal religious dispute between different branches of the Jewish faith. From the very beginning, the crisis has been reported in the framework of a Zionist movement and the occupation of Palestine. What is the connection here?
SHIR HEVER: Well, if you look at most of the pictures of the Wailing Wall or the Kotel, you see that most of these pictures are taken from a top-down angle showing the plaza. Other pictures show it on the ground, seeing the wall. For example, the famous picture of Donald Trump, President Trump, praying at the Kotel. If you raise your eyes just a little bit, you see the Dome of the Rock and the Golden Dome, so you see the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is a major religious sacred place for the Muslim religion. It’s just a few meters away from the Wailing Wall. While the issue of the freedom of faith, the freedom of the right to express one’s religious tendencies and to pray at the Wailing Wall, is now fiercely debated between the Reforms and the ultra-Orthodox, what about the right of Muslims to pray?
Muslims are extremely restricted in their access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on various pretenses, various restrictions that apply, for example, based on age, on gender. On certain days, only people who have children are allowed to enter the mosque and pray, and so on. Of course, Muslims from countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel are extremely limited in their chances of praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The holy sites of East Jerusalem are not just important for Jews. They’re important for all monotheistic religions.
What the ultra-Orthodox and the Reform Jews are fighting about in many ways is not just the Wailing Wall, but it’s about the idea of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, an idea that is not just about the sacred site of the Wailing Wall to be a kind of toy that they’re squabbling over, but the Palestinian people is a kind of toy that they’re squabbling over, and the Palestinian territory that they’re squabbling over.
I think that is really what not so many people are discussing, except for the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy. He did write about this, that the Reform Jews have been remarkably silent regarding a very long history of Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians, including the violation of the freedom of religion. Now when it comes to the freedom of religion of the Reform Jews themselves, suddenly they wake up and they are concerned about human rights and equality. Well, where have you been?
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. This also poses a problem for the State of Israel, and Netanyahu in particular, because the State of Israel and Netanyahu has posed themselves as the state for all Jews living all over the world, as well as Netanyahu has pitched himself as the representative of all Jews no matter where they live. Now is this going to alter the relationship between those Jews living abroad and the State of Israel, and of course Netanyahu himself?
SHIR HEVER: This crisis exposes the internal contradictions in the very idea of a Jewish state. You cannot have a Jewish state which is also at the same time democratic. Obviously, when you decide that the state serves one particular faith, you’ve created a system of discrimination immediately. That discrimination then starts to bleed into other fields and into other groups. Even though originally the plans of Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was to create a state for all Jews of the world, and to segregate between Jews and non-Jews, of course the segregation doesn’t stop there. It continues, and now there is discrimination between different types of Jews. Some are considered better than others. That’s something that I’ve experienced at school, that only one particular interpretation of the Bible is accepted and taught in school. Other ideas are just not accepted by state schools. That of course creates a problem.
Of course, it also shows that Israel is not really a Jewish state, but it’s a state that serves a very specific group of people. That group of people happens to be more affiliated with Orthodox Judaism, but that can always change. I think historically we have to understand what was the mistake of the Reform Jews. To answer your question, is this relationship going to change? Well, the Reform Jews have not always been so largely in support of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. The change happened in 1967, 50 years ago, when Israel conquered the Palestinian territory, the remaining Palestinian territory after the conquest of 1948.
In that second wave of conquest, which was celebrated as a great victory of the Israeli army, that is the moment where Reform Jews and also Conservative Jews in the United States and Canada changed their opinions and started to be very, very pro-Israeli, because they wanted to be on the side of the strong against the weak. That put them in an impossible moral position. If you support the strong against the weak, then of course when the time comes when they’re not strong enough and the Israeli government decides to leave them out of the state support for the faith, well, there’s nothing they can do about it.
I think they’re not going to change their mind as long as Israel continues to be strong, because the majority of the Reform Jews and the Conservative Jews even today find themselves attracted to strength and to the strength of the Israeli military. But I do think that after that, situation will change. Palestinians will win their freedom and become equal citizens of the state, or will have their own state on equal footing. At that moment, I think that the Reform Jews and the Conservative Jews will change their political opinions, and will have more respect to the rights of Palestinians.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Shir. This is obviously going to be an ongoing discussion on The Real News Network, but I thank you so much for joining us today.
SHIR HEVER: Thank you very much, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.