Jewish Journal illustration

When the dream of Israel clashes with reality


“I had rocks thrown at me.”

This is what my sister remembers most from her 2007 visit to Israel.

She was 23 years old, just out of college, visiting her nice Jewish boyfriend at the time, a student at the Sackler School of Medicine. She had done nothing wrong that day or said anything untoward to anyone. She was just walking. And not through a French banlieue with a big Star of David around her neck, where you might expect this sort of thing, or through the center of Ramallah, waving an Israeli flag.

She was in Jerusalem, making her way through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, when a woman standing on a sidewalk saw her, cursed at her in hysterical Hebrew and started lobbing rocks at her.

This punishment-by-stoning was biblical penalty for the indefensible crime of wearing pants.

When I first heard this, I was upset but not surprised. Mea Shearim is famous for its strict halachic observance and the community’s insistence that even visitors adhere to Jewish law. Ominous street signs warn: “TO WOMEN AND GIRLS, PLEASE DO NOT PASS THROUGH OUR NEIGHBORHOOD IN IMMODEST CLOTHES.” To do so is to risk menacing stares, Hebrew profanity, projectile spittle — and rocks launched at your body. I’m not aware of any men being stoned for ripped jeans.

Did my sister make a mistake? Or is it crazy that a woman can be pelted with stones for her choice of clothing on a public street in a state that claims to be a bastion of liberal values?

I remember how upset she was, how ashamed. That her shame was the product of her gender, no more than a random trick of nature, was astonishing. I remember telling her, “Just don’t go there anymore. There is plenty of Israel to love and plenty of Israel that loves you back.” Let the ultra-Orthodox have their tiny slice of 20 B.C.E.

A decade later, though, that fringe cluster has metastasized. Today, it isn’t only some small neighborhood where secular, liberal Jews must tolerate retrograde gender rules for an hour in order to buy Judaica, but an expanding religious mandate that chokes the Israeli government and inhibits democracy. Today, the rock throwers get their way at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest site, where if women dare don tallit or tefillin or pray aloud — God forbid men hear their voices and succumb to sexual mania — they are harassed, spat on or beaten. Perhaps even more disturbing, the secular police that serve as the enforcers of Israeli law might arrest them and drag them away.

This is a strange reality for a country that aspires to be Jewish and democratic. But there is precedent for this: Ever since David Ben-Gurion signed a 1947 deal ceding control of Israel’s Jewish character to the ultra-Orthodox, they have maintained sovereignty over Jewish life there.

“Despite the fact that the vast majority of Jews in Israel and around the world are not Orthodox, in Israel, Orthodoxy has a monopoly on Judaism,” Women of the Wall Executive Director Lesley Sachs wrote in a July 1 op-ed for The New York Times. “The Chief Rabbinate (all male and all Orthodox) controls all religious aspects of a person’s life, cradle to grave.” 

That control extends over marriage laws, circumcision, burial and conversion. Just last week, a controversial bill granting the Chief Rabbinate complete authority over conversion in Israel was delayed after a public outcry. In addition to life events, the rabbinate also controls Israel’s holy sites.

The internecine tension over who has the right to worship according to their custom at the Western Wall is part of a long-running saga. It reached fever pitch June 25 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu capitulated to the most conservative elements in his governing coalition and reneged on his commitment to establish a contiguous, egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel in which liberal Jews, and women in particular, can worship as they please.

His about-face has caused much of American Jewry to convulse with rage, igniting what some have termed “a civil war.” Because what is under assault in Israel today is not only immodest dress, but the values of religious freedom, egalitarianism and pluralism.

The stakes in this battle are enormous. Beyond the politics is a larger theological struggle over how much traditional Judaism should tolerate change in order to adapt to the
modern world. And let us be clear: The link between religious freedom, egalitarianism and pluralism in their threat to the religious establishment is that all three represent the emancipation of women.

So let us not pretend that the Kotel controversy is about “Diaspora Jewry” or “liberal Jewry” or “American Jewry.” Rather, it is a clash between an ancient, traditional way of life, in which women function primarily as child-bearers and challah-braiders, and 21st-century Western liberalism, in which women can run companies, run for office and read Torah — as rabbis.

Every earthly society grapples with issues of inclusion. In America, the legal barriers to equality have, for the most part, been torn down, so while our egalitarianism is hardly perfect, separation is seen for what it is: inequality.

For the Israeli government to withdraw its support for this symbolic measure represents to American Jews a regression of democracy and an injustice. President Donald Trump’s tweets and behavior notwithstanding, Americans have, for the most part, removed the major obstacles to gender equality in public life. So the decision about the Kotel is a stark reminder that in the Israel so many of us adore, elements of fundamentalist religion stand in the way of a just and fair society.

The Jewish world is quick to criticize religious extremism in other religions, but how many of us are honest about the way it poisons our own? The biblical literalism that defines decorum at the Western Wall is the same malaise that has, in part, corrupted Israel’s ability to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Too many ultra-Orthodox leaders don’t believe there is a conflict: When land is given to you by God, it is neither your prerogative nor your right to compromise about it. And so 2.7 million Palestinians and the future of Israeli democracy languish in limbo. 

Criticism isn’t betrayal, and it beats abandonment.

The ultimate status of liberal Jews at the Kotel depends on how the State of Israel wants to define itself for the future: Will it be a semi-“Sharia” state, where Jewish law is indistinguishable from national law? A hybrid of democracy and theocracy, where citizens vote but civil rights emanate from an ancient religious text?

These choices would constitute an irrevocable breach with liberal Jews and compromise global Jewish solidarity.

Zionism has never been a question for me. For as long as I can remember, I have loved and supported Israel. There was never any complicated calculus: I was born a Jew and Israel is the Jewish homeland; therefore, Israel is mine, and I will be faithful to her.

But by now, I’ve suffered such a series of insults to my standing as a Jew, a woman and a person of conscience that I sometimes wonder if there is a limit to that support. I wonder what would happen if, for example, Israel went the way of far right-wing leader Naftali Bennett and annexed the West Bank without vesting the Palestinians with full voting and civil rights. Would that stop me from traveling there? Would it silence my defense of Israel before her detractors? Where, exactly, is my red line?

American Jews have been wrestling with questions about hard limits on their support for decades. This isn’t new. But it is getting more intense, more divisive, more intractable. Some of us are reaching a point of no return; others are clinging tighter than ever to unconditional, uncritical acceptance, no matter the policies of Israel’s government. But when a staunch defender of Israel such as Rabbi Daniel Gordis proposes a boycott of El Al Israel Airlines, can other gestures of mainstream protest be far behind?

The other day, I asked a politically progressive, gay friend of mine if Israel could do anything to end her support. “No,” she said, without hesitating.

Not even if it does things that contravene your values?

“Oh, it crossed that line a loooong time ago,” she said. “I don’t love the Israeli government. I love the Israeli people. If the government does things I don’t like, I’ll protest.”

This is a healthy position. And probably not far from the attitude of most Israelis. As American intellectual Leon Wieseltier says, “Self-criticism is the hallmark of a mature community.”

Criticism isn’t betrayal, and it beats abandonment. After all, half of Americans consider the current U.S. leadership a stain on the democratic system but have not absconded to Canada in protest. We all have our hypocrisies.

But as Jews, we also are fortunate that there are great leaders throughout the world who can show us a better way. A month ago, during an interfaith panel I moderated on the Six-Day War for the Shalom Hartman Institute, I asked Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David Judea if Jews fetishize the Western Wall.

He said something shocking and profound: He admitted — in public, before a room full of Jews — that he avoids visiting the Kotel when in Jerusalem. “The reality of it is never quite as sublime as it is in my head,” he said.

Imagine: Here was an Orthodox rabbi, who keeps the Sabbath, who keeps kosher, who davens with a mechitzah, but who also understands that no single sect of Jewry can claim dominion over a historic relic meaningful to all. He’d rather protest the reality and revel in the dream.

Kanefsky’s attitude is instructive. Although she disappoints me, and disappoints me often, I continue to love and support Israel because she is sublime in my head. To help her realize her potential requires my dissent when she falls short.

Yes, Israel is a nation-state with a flawed government that has caused innocent people suffering and heartache. But Israel also is the people Israel — a dysfunctional tribe, a community of myriad colors, all of whom are bound together by history and destiny. This Israel has produced philosophers and scientists and artists and visionaries whose contributions extend far beyond Israel’s borders. Israelis have the resources to resolve the issues of their day, and Diaspora Jews have an obligation to aid them in their struggle for improvement.

If world Jewry means anything at all, it means working together for the success and viability of our mutual interests and to ensure that we actually have some. An Israel that serves as the guardian of all Jewish traditions sounds like a good place to start.

Because of all her various expressions, Israel is, above all, a dream. She is the expression of a religious aspiration for a better world, a world redeemed.

So while we cling to a vision of justice, freedom, dignity and peace for all her inhabitants and guests, let us avoid the complacency that favors the current reality.

There is much to be proud of when it comes to Israel’s existence and her gifts. But when the symbolism of a state — and her holy sites — becomes more meaningful than her people, what follows isn’t love but idol worship.