PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall (Photo: Reuters)

Charles Bronfman to Prime Minister Netanyahu: “Do What’s Right”


Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Like many in the Diaspora I have been dismayed, then shocked, then angry, then sorrowful, concerning the events of this past week.

Both the delay of the agreement concerning  non-Orthodox praying at the Western Wall, and the confirmation, if it passes, enabling only the Chief Rabbi and those designated by him, to rule in conversions, are, as you know by now, anathema to Diaspora Jewry.

Prime Minister, as Israel is the spiritual and emotional home of the Jewish People, these two insults confirm that only a certain denomination or Jew is welcome. To my knowledge, no other country in the world denies any Jew based on denomination.

We who love Israel and the Jewish People are left to ponder our relationship with Israel – and particularly with the coalition you lead. Significant damage has been done to our relationship in the last years because of reasons to which I need not allude. These two new issues will ensure that our youth will be more and more estranged from the great Nation that we adore..

Yes, a Birthright trip, which your Government generously funds, helps. But I foresee a decline in registration that will affect the future of our younger Jews. And polls among our youth who have. It experience Birthright demonstrate forcibly that their majority now feel estranged from Israel. What a shame!

And what a shame for all those fighting BDS throughout the world!

Prime Minister, I believe that it is your duty to do what’s right, rather than what’s politically expedient.

Please immediately instigate the Agreement spearheaded by Natan Sharansky. And please withdraw your support of the Conversion Bill.

Yours,

Charles Bronfman

Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall on Nov. 2, 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Divided at the Wall


In January 2016 the Israeli government, and the Rabbi of the Western Wall, agreed to legally cordon off a section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer services — a sort of miniature Kotel that would entail official government management and funding. Last week Netanyahu’s cabinet passed a motion formally freezing all plans for the site until further notice.

Before we explore the reaction to this move a few critical facts should be established. Firstly, women as individuals can pray as they wish at the regular section of the Western Wall. If they prefer to wear a prayer shawl and tefillin, noone prevents them. All they are not allowed to do is read from the Torah scroll. Secondly, they can read from the Torah scroll by the Southern side of the Western Wall, where any and all prayer services have been permitted for nearly twenty years. All the cabinet freeze means for egalitarian Jews is that for the time being the Southern Wall won’t be officially cordoned off for their exclusive use.

There were certainly some Israelis who shunned the move, but not all that many. Protests in the wake of the decision drew only a few hundred participants. In Israel, a country that has more politically-driven demonstrations than any other on earth,[1] that isn’t much. To put it into perspective, two thousand Israelis recently protested the kidnapping of Yemeni Children nearly seventy years ago, with another 7,000 Israelis taking to a Tel Aviv square in 2015 to protest a gas deal. A year before that, over 300,000 protesters gathered to the streets in Israel to decry Israel’s planned draft plan, and three years before that 450,000 took to the streets to push for improvements in social justice. So, a few hundred people holding placards outside the Prime Minister’s home doesn’t indicate any exceptional outrage. At least, not in Israel.

And, it’s also fairly easy to understand why. Israelis have proven remarkably indifferent to the Reform and Conservative movements, with less than 3% and 2% of Israelis identifying themselves with each of those movements, respectively. Moreover, the Chairman of the Union of Synagogues and Communities in Israel, Eliezer Sheffer, has reported that there are over 10,500 synagogues in the State of Israel. Of that number, only about forty identify with Reform Judaism — less than 0.4%.

Thus, it was largely the American Jewish community that would form the brunt of the backlash, with leading Jewish-American organizations swiftly condemning the move.

In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times, Lesley Sachs, the Executive Director of Women of the Wall, took a harsher approach. Resorting to unfortunate orthodox-bashing tropes, Sachs described efforts of the Western Wall Foundation to provide shawls to immodestly dressed women as “medieval.” Guards, she went on to claim, forced women to pray silently lest they send the men into a “sexual frenzy.”

Most surprising, however, was the decision by real estate tycoon Isaac Fisher, himself a leading fundraiser in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and member of the board of AIPAC, to freeze his philanthropic activities for the Jewish state unless the government reversed its decisions.

But Israel is a sovereign democracy and its decisions must reflect the will of its citizens rather than that of foreign Jewish donors. As for Lesley Sachs’ claims of the “medieval” practice of “enforcing” modest-dress, women are offered scarves at the Kotel but cannot be forced to take them. If the mere suggestion seems intrusive, one should consider that there are plenty of memorials throughout the United States that enforce a dress code, such as wearing shoes. They do so not to oppress but to accord respect to hallowed ground. If that level of respect can be demanded at a memorial going back just a hundred years, the holiest site of the Jewish Nation should be granted similar latitude.

With regard to Sachs’ claims that female singing is not allowed, any visit to the Western Wall on any Friday night this summer will bear witness to hundreds of Jewish women singing and dancing to their heart’s content. 

When my son and I visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we had to take off our shoes and rinse our hands regardless of what our own religious beliefs were because that was the custom the local orthodoxy upheld. No modernist interpretations of Islam, however popular, would expect to exert its customs in the mosque either. The same can be said of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — protestant services cannot be held there, though it is considered a holy site to Protestants as well. The Western Wall should not be faulted, in a similar vein, for preserving the customs of those who administer it — namely, Israel’s orthodox Rabbinate.

I have seen some ultra-orthodox Jews behave disgracefully at the Kotel, including toward my own family this past Shavuot when I was teaching a Torah class in middle of the night to approximately 60 young men and women gathered in a circle. My children were pushed by extremists who were offended by even the idea of men and women merely sitting together in the very back of the Kotel plaza. These fundamentalists disgraced themselves. But they are no more representative of Judaism than Sachs’ tirade against the State of Israel is representative of egalitarian Jews.

The lesson, as always in the Middle East, is that the real danger to peace is not from people of good will but from extremists and fundamentalists who only know how to disagree with their opponents by demonizing them.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

 [1] Alan Dowty, in Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, 2nd ed., edited by Michael Penner Angrist, (Boulder, CO: Rienner Publishers, 2017), p. 309. 

Jerusalem film school brings shorts to L.A.


A brother-sister filmmaking team from Israel will introduce itself, its unusual alma mater and its Oscar-winning father on the evening of Feb. 5 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Emanuel and Nurith Cohn will present “Little Dictator,” their first production since graduating from the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film & the Arts in Jerusalem.

The central character in the 29-minute short film is Yossi Kleinmann, a history professor and authority on 20th-century dictators who, whatever their crimes, had the charisma to attract fanatical followers.

Kleinmann himself is quite the opposite, a real nebbish who feels, correctly, that he is unappreciated by his students, his three kids and his domineering wife. Indeed, the opening scene shows him speaking to a class in which the few scattered students fall asleep or yawn during his lecture.

Preparing himself for a large family Shabbat dinner celebrating the 90th birthday of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, he runs into a self-inflicted glitch. As he shaves off his beard, at the behest of his wife, his mind wanders and he imagines himself as Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler, addressing adoring crowds.

Suddenly he realizes that in removing all his facial hair, he has left behind a small Hitler-like mustache. Because Shabbat has already begun, Kleinmann, as an observant Jew, can’t complete the shaving job and must face his family and guests while resembling the infamous Nazi leader.

As such, his greatest fear is that the evening’s guest of honor, Oma — grandmother — touchingly portrayed by actress Ruth Geller, might have a heart attack on seeing the pseudo-Hitler. On the contrary, however, Oma proves to be the only one who understands and appreciates Yossi, and she helps him assert his manhood by the film’s end.

Nurith Cohn directed the film, and her brother wrote the script and portrays Yossi, and it is amazing how much substance and commentary they squeeze into the short work.

One conversation between Yossi and his grandmother alone reconstructs the struggles German-Jewish immigrants to Palestine and Israel — the so-called Yekkes — had to overcome in integrating into Israeli society.

Last month, “Little Dictator” won the Mayor of Jerusalem Prize for best drama.

In entering the movie business, the Cohn siblings are following in the footsteps of their father, Arthur Cohn, a Swiss citizen and film producer who has won six Oscars for such classics as “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Black and White in Color” and “The Final Solution.”

Emanuel Cohn grew up in Switzerland, moved to Israel to study in a yeshiva, earned a master’s degree in philosophy at Bar-Ilan University and served in the Israeli army. Asked in a phone interview whether his father influenced his career choice and that of his sister, he said, “My father gave us a completely free choice of what we wanted to do.”

The Ma’aleh film school was founded 25 years ago and “is devoted to exploring the intersection between Judaism and modern life,” Neta Ariel, the school’s director, explained in an email.

Its 100 students include ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, and secular men and women, with 70 to 80 percent identifying as Orthodox.

“Because of the special character of the students and the environment of the school, the films produced by our students, regardless of subject, are clean in terms of language and visuals,” noted Susan Levin, assistant to the director.

The senior Cohn will also attend the screening in Beverly Hills, billed as “A Salute to Jerusalem,” which will also feature two other short movies. One, “Sister of Mine” by Oshrat Meirovitch, revolves around a young Orthodox woman who faces an arranged marriage with an “inferior” man.

“Wall, Crevice, Tear,” the third film, presents a picture of the Western Wall, but from the perspective of the women’s section.

The film presentations will be followed by a panel discussion with the Cohn siblings and Ariel.

On Feb. 9, Ma’aleh will present two short films, “White Mist” and “Getting Serious,” as part of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival.

Tickets to the event are $75 each, which includes a post-screening reception at the La Gondola restaurant in Beverly Hills. For tickets for the Feb. 5 festival, which starts at 7:30 p.m., call (323) 937-0980 or email tali@eventsenchanted.com. Online reservations may be made by visiting