World Jewry was shocked that Prime Minister Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to developing a pluralistic space at the Kotel so that all Jews could feel comfortable and respected praying there.
The timing, when the Governing Board of the Jewish Agency, filled with representatives of North American Jewry, was in town seemed particularly insulting.
When we learned Biblical grammar we studied the “vav ha-mehapechet” the “vav” that changes everything. It turns past tense into future (ve-shamru) and future into past (va-yomer). One letter can change everything. Take the word tziyoni (Zionist). Take away the vav and it becomes tzini – cynical.
That is what we witnessed theses past few days– passionate Zionist politicians dropped the “vav” and became hardened cynics. First and foremost, our Prime Minister spat in the faces of all the representatives of Israeli and Diaspora non-Orthodox leadership. These servants of the Jewish people negotiated in good faith and made far reaching compromises to reach an agreement. The Prime Minister spoke at length of his commitment to the making Israel a welcoming place for all Jews. It turns out to have been lip service. The only question is how cynical is Prime Minister Netanyahu. Did he ever mean to implement this agreement? Does it matter? He completely lacks the political will to do the right thing. (By the way– now you know how the Palestinians feel when our Prime Minister speaks of his commitment to peace.)
I am also appalled by the cynicism of opposition Israeli politicians who have condemned the Prime Minister and expressed their enthusiastic support for the non-Orthodox movements. As if they would not sell us out for the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties if they were dependent upon them for a coalition. Do the math and understand that there is no way any major party can put together a coalition without either the Ultra-Orthodox parties or the Modern Orthodox Bayit HaYehudi party. If a center left coalition is possible (God willing) and they want to move forward on the peace process, it will only happen with the support of the Ultra-Orthodox parties. At a recent conference Moshe Gafni, an Ultra-Orthodox member of Knesset, stated clearly that he would prefer to support a coalition that would promote peace, but that as long as the center left continues to support the Reform movement it will never happen. He did not hesitate to proclaim that the possibility of advancing peace, preventing war, and saving lives takes a back seat to his opposition to our movement! If you were an Israeli with a kid about to go into the army, what would you advise the person trying to put together the coalition?
We in the non-Orthodox world were also cynical. We were depending on cynical Bibi to pay off the cynical Ultra-Orthodox parties to allow the deal to go through. That’s what usually happens. I have no doubt that Bibi could have bought them off but he just couldn’t be bothered this time.
What happened? What changed?
Even before the election of Donald Trump, Bibi demonstrated his contempt for liberal American Jews by speaking at Congress against the Iran deal. That was his declaration that he no longer had any use for liberal American Jews (not to mention bi-partisan support for Israel). The same way that Bibi has thrown his lot in with the extreme right in Israel – so it is in the U.S. He believes that the future lays with the Evangelical Christian right and Orthodox Jews. In the long term he looks at the demographics and writes off liberal American Jews. In the short term, the election of President Trump vindicates that decision and this week’s events are a direct result of this world view.
The American Reform Movement had no way to know that Trump would be elected but the consequences are clear- very diminished political influence.
So where does this leave us? I hope a little wiser when it comes to Israeli politics and politicians. For God sake – stop inviting them to speak at your conventions and synagogues and giving them standing ovations and fawning over them when you come to Israel. They see that there are absolutely no consequences to their actions. Our lack of self respect is appalling!
There are mixed feelings in the Israeli Reform Movement regarding getting our hands dirty with politics. I have no problem with our political involvement as long as we act wisely. In politics sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It’s a long term game. If this strengthens our resolve to fight for what we believe in – then it was a worthwhile struggle. If it causes further alienation and disengagement from Israel (and I fear it does) then it is a disaster. The Reform Movement leadership will have to take responsibility for this disaster – naively or foolishly raising expectations without considering the consequences of failure.
Most of us Israelis were less surprised. I am reminded of Claude Rains in “Casablanca” when he declares that he is “shocked” to discover there is gambling at Rick’s as the croupier hands him his winnings. If you are shocked that the Israeli politician reneged on a promise for political expediency – welcome to the world of Israeli politics. If we are going to play the political game we have to be realistic.
As an Israeli Reform rabbi I am also depressed by the behavior of North American Jewry. We have been fighting the battle for religious pluralism for so long. I did four weddings this month – all of the couples had to go abroad to be married civilly so their union would be recognized in the Jewish State. That is an issue that deeply troubles Israelis and it should make American Jews furious. The struggle for a pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel is not at the heart of the matter for most Israelis in general or for Israeli Reform Jews in particular. We have extremely mixed feelings about the Kotel for many reasons (a religious site that has become a fetishization of stones, an historical/national site that has become a place for military ceremonies…) . This is a symbolic issue that reflects the growing power of the Ultra Orthodox rabbinate. The general Israeli public appreciates that we are at the front line in the battle to make Israel as pluralist as possible. They are confused by our obsession with the Kotel.
My prayer is that North American Jewry throw itself into the real struggle for religious pluralism in Israel even if it is less sexy then being dragged away from Kotel by the police while wrapped in a tallit and holding a Torah. Help us to restore the “vav” and turn the tzinim (cynics) back into Tziyonim Zionists. It could also be a chance for North American Jews to support issues (beyond religious pluralism) that reflect the values of justice, morality and peace that are at the heart of our beliefs. This would demand a total reshaping of how Diaspora Jewry relates to religious life in Israel. It would demand that Israeli and Diaspora Jews recognize our real power and our real limitations. It would demand political and spiritual maturity.
Levi Weiman-Kelman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem. Rabbi Weiman-Kelman teaches prayer and liturgy at the Hebrew Union College Jerusalem campus. He lectures frequently in Israel and abroad on Jewish spirituality and prayer. Rabbi Weiman-Kelman has served as Chairperson of MaRaM (the Council of Progressive Rabbis) and is one of the founders and past chairs of Shomrei Mishpat – Rabbis for Human Rights.