Reversal on Kotel decision ruptures promise of Jewish unity

June 29, 2017
Worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Jan. 17. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Why wasn’t I surprised to hear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flip-flopped again and reneged on the government’s 2016 decision to allow egalitarian prayer at the Kotel? Perhaps because at the same time I was watching the current season of “House of Cards,” where anything goes to stay in power.

Frankly, I don’t care so much about the Kotel. Yehuda Amichai, the great Jerusalemite poet, once wrote that Jerusalem will become normal only when a tour guide will stop telling his group, “You see the man sitting there? On his right, there is an ancient arch.” (I’m paraphrasing fom memory.) Instead, he should say, “You see the arch there? Left of it there is a man, probably coming back from the market.”

However, I remember vividly the moment 50 years ago, in the heat of the Six-Day War, when I landed from a sortie in Sinai and upon entering my squadron’s officers mess, I heard the words “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu” (The Temple Mount is in our hands). An outburst of joy erupted from our crowd of airmen, with none of us being even close to Orthodoxy.

Reflecting on this today, I know that what touched us at Squadron 103 so deeply had nothing to do with religion but with the fact that this Wall was the focus of yearning and praying of Jews over centuries. When Jews say “Next Year in Jerusalem,” they have the Kotel in mind. Indeed, some worship it because it was a part of the Second Temple, while others, like me, tend to regard it as an important magnet for Jewish identity. More than the Kotel itself, I value the fact that my friend, professor David Heid, a philosopher from The Hebrew University, is one of the four paratroopers immortalized in the famous photo taken by David Rubinger, standing next to the Kotel immediately after it had been taken. 

Now, the Kotel manages to stir emotion in my heart once more, this time rage, not elation, and again, it is not about religion but about the base, cynical and ungrateful attitude of the Israeli government toward fellow American Jews.

In November 2015, Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, in Washington, D.C. To the standing ovation of the crowd he promised, “I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel — Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews — all Jews.” 

Then he touched upon the issue of the Kotel specifically: “I am also hopeful that we will soon conclude a long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel is a source of unity for our people, not a point of division. And we’re getting there, I have to say.”

Indeed, in January 2016, the Israeli government decided to establish a pluralist prayer section at the Kotel. The architect of this momentous move was Avichai Mandelblit, then-government secretary and today attorney general, an Orthodox Jew. On June 25, Netanyahu’s government surrendered to its ultra-Orthodox veto-holders and reversed its decision.

I wonder if Netanyahu would dare address the next General Assembly and speak again about Jewish unity to thousands of Jews of all denominations — those who responded to his oratory and rallied against their own government on the Iran deal, when he asked them to do so. What a shame.

What should American Jews do now? To start with, the board of governors of the Jewish Agency was right in cancelling a dinner that was scheduled with Netanyahu for June 26. In the longer run, the best thing that could happen would be an aliyah of 1 million American Jews — Conservative, Reform, Modern Orthodox — who would change the political scene here. Just see what the Jews from the former Soviet Union have accomplished here in a short time.

Assuming that this option is not so viable, then second best for American Jews would be not to wash their hands of Israel, but to ally with individuals, movements, organizations and parties in Israel that believe in and promote equality for all Jews, regardless of how they choose to exercise their religion.

There are still some of us here who will fight against this political-religious tyranny, and if necessary, I’m willing to even mobilize my old comrades from Squadron 103 for that cause.

Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club. He served as spokesman of the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments from 1992 to 1996, during the Oslo peace process.

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