Israel’s Unraveling at the Western Wall

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Yair Sheleg, head of IDI's Religion and State program, argues that there are multiple forms of Jewish identity and that religious coercion should not be used to oppose a reality that history created.

An agreement on the manner of prayer by non-Orthodox movements in the Western Wall Plaza was reached after years of conflict. The dispute stemmed mainly from the desire of women to be full partners in prayer — as leaders of services, readers of Torah, wearers of tallitot and tefillin. These initiatives angered many Orthodox (and mainly ultra-Orthodox) worshippers, who saw the women as an affront to traditional prayer customs. A “separation of forces” was agreed upon to prevent conflict. Traditional prayer services would be held in the Western Wall’s traditional plaza, while prayer services in the feminist spirit would be held in the Western Wall’s southern plaza, which would be expanded and adapted for that purpose.

While the political representation of the ultra-Orthodox sector was also opposed to this compromise, it viewed the deal as the lesser of evils and agreed to allow the legislation to go through when it was presented for a vote earlier this year. But under pressure from radical ultra-Orthodox lobbies, the ultra-Orthodox politicians recanted, returned to all-out opposition to the compromise, and delivered ultimatums in their demand that it be abolished. The reason for this change was not the plan itself, which had been known already, but the understanding that the agreement gave the Reform and Conservative movements official recognition by stipulating that the Western Wall’s southern plaza would be run by a council that included representatives of those movements. The ultra-Orthodox, who do not see the non-Orthodox movements as legitimate streams of Judaism but rather as heretical offshoots that seek to destroy it, are vehemently opposed to any such recognition.

In the face of such a demand, it must be said that religious coercion cannot be used to oppose a reality that history created. Like it or not, approximately 250 years have elapsed since Jewish identity and traditional Orthodox identity overlapped with one another. Jewish identity contains other religious movements together with, of course, many Jews who do not define their Jewish identity on any sort of religious basis. Also, in the reality of the 21st century, where many Jews in the Diaspora have no interest whatsoever in institutionalized Jewish frameworks such as a synagogue or community, the settings offered by the non-Orthodox movements serve many as almost the sole option for preserving any Jewish identity at all. For all practical purposes, the state recognized the non-Orthodox movements a quarter-century ago, when it accepted the conversion compromise that led to the establishment of a government institute for Jewish studies run by representatives of all the movements.

The ultra-Orthodox have the democratic right to keep disagreeing with the non-Orthodox movements’ customs. But they do not have the right to use their political power and the state’s laws to exclude these movements. Democracy requires that adherents of the non-Orthodox movements be allowed to follow their customs too, and the members of these movements deserve praise for choosing not to insist on their right to do so in the Western Wall plaza and agreeing to compromise on the Wall’s southern section.

From a national standpoint, it will also be very bad for the Jewish State — which is supposed to be a home for all members of the Jewish people — to exclude major Jewish groups that comprise the vast majority of American Jewry. It is wrong in principle, and it is also a blatant practical error.

At a time when the State of Israel is being attacked by much of the international community, causing possible offense to the steadfast support of American Jewry is a kind of national suicide.

This article originally appeared in the Times of Israel.

Yair Sheleg runs the Israel Democracy Institute Religion and State program.