Chances for de-escalation between Israel’s religious establishment and non-Orthodox movements in Israel and North America appear increasingly unlikely as new developments pile atop old ones adding layers of injury.
Today, events seem to be careening toward a perfect storm. In recent weeks alone, the government has made clear that it intends to renege, for the foreseeable future, on its promise to make the Western Wall (known as the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest site) prayer-friendly to all branches of Judaism; the Knesset passed legislation to limit non-Orthodox Jews’ access to state-sponsored ritual baths, or mivkaot, and the chief rabbinate has refused to recognize conversions conducted by some of North America’s most respected rabbis.
In response to these events, the tone and language coming from ultra-Orthodox authorities, on the one side, and from non-Orthodox religious leaders who are some of Israel’s strongest supporters, on the other, is growing increasingly harsh. For the largely ultra-Orthodox controlled Chief Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox lay leaders and politicians in Israel, the focus is on rejecting any grant of legitimacy to the non-Orthodox streams. Those streams, meanwhile, in Israel and abroad, are increasingly focusing their demands on the Israeli government.
The question is, how will this affect the broader relationship between Israel and the Diaspora?
The proposed plan for the Kotel was first accepted by the government in January 2016. A painfully wrought compromise, it was the culmination of nearly three decades of fighting between the ultra-Orthodox, who control the Western Wall, and the non-Orthodox movements. The long struggle included numerous appeals to Israel’s High Court of Justice and three years of intensive negotiations involving the government, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation—the ultra-Orthodox organization that manages the Western Wall—and representatives of Judaism’s liberal religious movements in Israel and abroad.
A Perfect Storm: The Deepening Religious Rift Between Israel and Diaspora Jews
According to that agreement, a new section of the Wall, to be known as Ezrat Israel (the section for all of Israel), was to have been established to the south of the main plaza, in an area popularly known as Robinson’s Arch. To symbolize the equality between the sections, a new single entrance for all three sections—the men and women’s segregated Orthodox prayer areas and the new Ezrat Israel section—was to be built at the plaza.
The government approved this plan despite the opposition of ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition. At the time, Knesset Member Moshe Gafni, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, denounced the plan and, for good measure, called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah.” Rabbi David Yosef, a prominent Sephardic rabbi, labeled Reform Jews as “idolaters—simply and literally.”
Beyond the name calling, the ultra-Orthodox continued to apply pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. Soon enough, Netanyahu backed down, saying he would seek more time despite the deadlines he had promised for implementing the plan.
“We thought we had reached a consensus,” Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, told the Forward. “For the government to back down now because of ultra-Orthodox pressure is a slap in the face to all Jews, everywhere.”
Like the fight over the Kotel, the Mikvah Law is another attempt by the largely ultra-Orthodox controlled Chief Rabbinate to refuse recognition to the non-Orthodox denominations.
The law, passed July 25, effectively blocks the liberal Jewish movements from using state-run ritual baths and circumvents a High Court decision barring the exclusion of Reform or Conservative converts.
In a Knesset speech praising the law, David Azoulay, the minister for religious services, dismissed the non-Orthodox denominations as “cults.” Azoulay, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, vowed, “We won’t allow them to control us remotely or to damage the country’s Jewish character.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the North American-based Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism accused the government of no less than failing to uphold “the promise of a democratic Jewish state that looks out for the welfare of all Jews.”
Ultra-Orthodox leaders have focused mainly on efforts by Reform and Conservative Judaism to assume legitimacy in Israel – but not solely. In July, state rabbinical courts courts refused to recognize a conversion overseen by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a revered, New York-based Orthodox rabbi who formerly headed Kehilat Jeshurun, a modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. (Separately, Lookstein oversaw the conversion of Ivanka Trump, the daughter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.) In the past, the Rabbinate has also questioned conversions performed by Rabbi Avi Weiss, founding rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox congregation in the Bronx, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founding rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and chief rabbi of Efrat, a town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“What is happening now is the delegitimization of the State of Israel, not by our enemies, but by our own government,” Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky told the Forward.
Sharansky, who brokered the now- abandoned compromise plan for the Kotel, called on the government to “recognize that the majority of Jews in North American belong to the non-Orthodox denominations, and that the State of Israel belongs to everyone.”
But this, says Rabbi Betzalel Cohen, who heads the Chachmei Lev Yeshiva in Jerusalem, is precisely what the ultra-Orthodox establishment cannot do.
Cohen, who also defines himself as ultra-Orthodox, calls for a distinction between the style and the substance of the ultra-Orthodox position.
Ultra-Orthodox public expressions, he told the Forward, are always “melodramatic, and apocalyptic. It’s a cultural style – and it’s used as much [within] the ultra-Orthodox community as it is against those who are opposed to it.”
While criticizing that style, Cohen warned that the substance of the ultra-Orthodox position will not change.
“There are, course, political power issues involved, including a struggle between the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox over control over the Chief Rabbinate. But the ultra-Orthodox fight against the modern movements has been going on since the Enlightenment,” he said. “To the ultra-Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism represent no less than the destruction of the Jewish people.”
Cohen said that he personally would have agreed to the compromise on the Kotel for the sake of “unity.” But he called on world Jewry to recognize that the ultra-Orthodox parties and movements do not believe that they can, or should, make any compromise.
Yehuda Kurtzer, a leading thinker and author on Israel-Diaspora relations, warns that this impasse is “reaching a tipping point” as frustration with Israel among non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews builds. And Yair Sheleg, who studies issues of religion and state at the Israel Democracy Institute, says he can already see a “difference in tone and direction” as non-Orthodox groups “are willing to openly and strenuously confront the institutions of the State. That is qualitatively different.”
Indeed, warned Kurtzer, who is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, “some Jews are pulling away, becoming apathetic.” Rabbi Philip Scheim, president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic association, said he, too, has seen “diminishing enthusiasm within congregations for support for Israel, and I expect that that will continue.”
Yet that same tipping point could also, Kurtzer said, lead towards heightened involvement. “Some Jews are becoming angry, and that anger is a sign of engagement,” he said. “American Jews realize that their identities as Jews are impacted by the State of Israel, and they will fight to ensure that the State of Israel reflects who they are. We are stakeholders, too.”
Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, pointed to demographic and sociological changes in North America’s Jewish community that could, he said, lead at least some Jews to challenge, rather than abandon, the state that they feel is rejecting their basic values.
“In just one generation, the proportion of adult American Jews who have visited Israel has doubled, thanks to programs like Masa and Birthright,” he said, referring to Zionist programs that have brought hundreds of thousands of young Jews to Israel for free since the 1990s. “That, together with social networks and the internet, have created a group of engaged Jews who are better informed about what is really happening in Israel….And they intend to stay involved.”
One measure of the anger—and perhaps the kind of engagement Kurtzer spoke of—was evident when Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, declared recently that Diaspora Jewry would use its influence in the United States to challenge Israel’s support for measures that exclude religious non-Orthodox Jews “in the same way that America Jewry made the rights of Soviet Jewry into a major diplomatic issue.”
“The government of Israel knows that the Jewish community is a strategic asset to the State of Israel, and therefore, it is far past the time that we be treated accordingly,” Wernick said.
The non-Orthodox movements are already considering legal action against the government. In a July 11 letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Reform and Conservative leaders announced that they will likely petition Israel’s High Court of Justice over the Western Wall. Following passage of the Mikvah Law, Kariv confirmed to that this issue, too, would be brought to the court.
Even some Modern Orthodox Jews are joining in. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the Orthodox rabbi who heads the pluralistic Shalom Hartman research and leadership center in Jerusalem, was among those taking part in a July 5 demonstration at the Kotel protesting the government’s reneging on the compromise agreement for the shrine’s use by all movements. “When one group of people owns the holy, then it ceases to be the inheritance of the whole Jewish people,” he said.
The following day, an ad hoc coalition of religious leaders and educators from all denominations joined a protest against the rabbinate’s rejection of the Orthodox religious conversion that had been overseen by Lookstein.
But Sheleg doubted these cross-denominational gestures of support would lead to any political realignment. “For most of religious Zionism, even the most liberal, questions of the Greater Land of Israel”—the struggle to retain the occupied West Bank—“are paramount and take precedence even over issues of theology and religiosity,” he said.
Dov Waxman, author Trouble in the Tribe, a recently published book examining the deepening rifts between Israel and American Jewry, also predicted that none of this is likely to have much impact on Israel’s leaders. “The Israeli government prioritizes its own stability over the unity of the Jewish people and the rights of the non-Orthodox,” he said. But in North America, the non-Orthodox make up a majority of the Jewish lay and professional establishment. Might they put their money where their demands are?
Rabbi Seth Farber, who heads ITIM, a group that helps new immigrants through Israel’s religious bureaucracy, says that this is already happening. Farber, whose group sponsored the demonstration in support of Lookstein, said that 10% of his budget comes from the UJA-Federation of Greater New York, “a very significant increase from previous years.”
Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America told The Forward that JFNA is supporting Israel Hofsheet, a broad coalition of Israeli organizations that is developing public campaigns to create pressure on the government and its coalition, and Hiddush, an advocacy organization for pluralism. JFNA has also established the Israel Religious Expressions Platform, which focuses on issues of inclusivity and pluralism in marriage and divorce in Israel and its effect on Israel-Diaspora Relations.
“At a minimum,” Silverman said, “Israel must recognize all streams of Judaism.”
Religious Rift Deepens Between Israel and Diaspora Jews
Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.