24 short and sober comments on the sudden death of the Kotel compromise

June 25, 2017
Members of activist group Women of the Wall speak to the media following the Israeli government’s decision to create an egalitarian prayer plaza near Jerusalem’s Western Wall, January 31, 2016. (Photo: Amir Cohen/Reuters)

If you haven’t heard the news, the Israeli government has decided to freeze – that is to say, kill – its own resolution to create a platform for egalitarian and progressive Jewish practice at the Western Wall. The ultra-Orthodox parties put their foot down, and the cabinet caved. Here are some very short comments on a much-discussed issue.


Don’t bother to fake shock and bafflement. The decision was anything but surprising.


Don’t waste time on outrage. The decision is outrageous – the response to it should be measured and well planned.


There’s no substitute to political power. The rest is whining. If anyone needed any proof, there it is.


Think about it again: is it really important to you to have a third platform near the Kotel? How important? Are you willing to put your money, energy, dedication, where your mouth is? If not, move on – because the Haredim just proved that for them this issue is really important.


The big black threat of a “rift” between Israel and world Jewry does not work in Israel. Maybe because Israelis don’t care if there’s rift, maybe because it has been overused throughout the years, maybe because they believe there’s already a rift, maybe because a vague “rift” is just not concrete enough to be scary. If you care about changing Israel, search for new strategies.


Do not confuse the interests of small groups in Israel with those of large groups in the US. I have enormous respect for the dedication and determination of Women of the Wall. I still wonder if their cause – the cause of relatively few women – justifies the means – a rift separating millions of Jews from one another.


The behavior of the Haredim is ghastly, disrespectful, hurtful – pick your choice. But they also show great dedication to their cause. Yes, a cause I vehemently disagree with. But dedication nonetheless.


Do not bother with polls showing that most Israelis support the Kotel compromise. Most Israelis probably also support tax cuts that they do not get and better weather in late June that they cannot get. Polls have to examine not just the views of Israelis but also the intensity of their conviction. That is, are they willing to put their energy where their mouth is (see point 4)?


The Prime Minister might be a coward for not testing how far the Haredim will go in their insistence on killing the compromise. But it is not surprising that most of those thinking he should have taken the risk are also those who don’t want his government to survive.


Many respondents rightly called the decision to rescind the compromise “shameful.” But the response in Haredi circles when the decision to approve the compromise was made was not much different. Shame is in the eye of the beholder. That is why we need politics – to pick the winner of the shame contest.


Yaakov Katz asks: “Also, where was Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, the cabinet member who is supposed to represent Diaspora Jewry’s interests in the government? In January 2016, after the cabinet passed the original Kotel deal, he called the vote ‘historic’ and told this newspaper that ‘From today the Kotel is open to all Jews.’” Katz, currently the editor of The Jerusalem Post, was an advisor to Bennet. He asks a good question. Don’t expect any answers.


Reminder to self: use “historic” with caution.


Don’t expect the court to make this issue go away. The strategy of attempting to make policy using the courts – instead of building political power – is also overused.


“So, what can we do?” an American Jewish leader asked me yesterday, when I was sharing my sober observations with him. He was clearly unhappy with my response. I suggested that he read my article from exactly a year ago – June 2016.  Here’s what I said: “making the battle for the Kotel more concrete for Israelis might require a more severe measure… to begin a civil resistance-style fight on the ground. That is, to send groups of progressive Jews to the Kotel to pray in mixed groups. Reform and Conservative prayers at the northern plaza of the Kotel.” Does anyone have the masses to support such a move? If yes, I’ll join the protest. If not, I’ll move on – regretfully.


You want to make this painful for Israel? Cancel Birthright for six months. Make sure no one – or almost no one – gets on Birthright buses. You want to make it painful for Israel? Cancel all flights, hotel reservations, meetings with Israeli officials, fundraising, support for Israeli institutions.


But before you do, think about it again: is this important enough to see it through whatever the cost? – because the ultra-Orthodox will not surrender without fight.


Stop being insulted by the ultra-Orthodox or other Israelis calling you names. So what if they think Reform Judaism is “wicked”? Why should anyone care?


Do not try to convince Israelis – not even me – that the Kotel issue is the most urgent issue on Israel’s agenda. It is not.


Criticizing the rabbinate, or Haredi leaders, will not get you far. Israelis dislike the rabbinate and have little respect for Haredi leaders. They do not fight for the Kotel compromise not because they fear the rabbis or do not understand that the rabbis hurt Israel. They do not fight for the Kotel because it is not important enough for them to fight for.


Also note that the rabbis are generally smart: they don’t take away from Israelis what Israelis truly value – such as soccer on Saturdays.


The Haredim are not “wrong” – they just have different priorities.


Netanyahu was not wrong yesterday – he just has different priorities.


Something to remember: you cannot oppose a government on all things and then expect it to be attentive and responsive to your sensitivities.


Your priorities – and by “your” I mean the priorities of those supportive of the canceled (sorry, halted) decision – are my priorities. We failed to convince the government of Israel that they ought to be its priorities too. So yes, I believe that the government made a decision that is harmful for Israel and the Jewish people. I also believe that we, supporters of the compromise, failed to build on the momentum and force the implementation of the decision.

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