If anyone was looking to create an incident whose principal aim was to help alienate more American Jews from Israel, the attack on bar mitzvah ceremonies being held at the egalitarian prayer area at Jerusalem’s Western Wall (Kotel) certainly fit the bill. On June 30, an estimated 30 to 40 youth who were described in the press as “ultra-Orthodox extremists” charged into the area of the Wall known as “Robinson’s Arch,” which has been set aside by authorities for egalitarian prayer where three separate b’nai mitzvot were being held.
What followed was a disgraceful display by religious students in which they blew whistles, attempted to drown out the Conservative services being held, as well as bumped, pushed and confronted the worshippers and the families of the youngsters reading from the Torah. The children fulfilling their obligation to formally join the adult Jewish community in prayer were called “Nazis,” “Christians” and “animals,” and in an insult that struck the objects of these imprecations as more ironic than anything else, as “Refomim” since they were adherents of the Conservative movement of Judaism, not Reform.
The fact that the families of the celebrants were not the primary targets of haredi intolerance is cold comfort to those who rightly worry about what happened. The reason why these “students” were present in the vicinity of the Kotel was the monthly Rosh Chodesh service conducted by the Women of the Wall group. The goal of the Women of the Wall is to make the national shrine a safe place for non-Orthodox worship. That puts them at odds with the group that the government allows to control the Kotel and ensure that it is treated as an Orthodox synagogue.
To the Orthodox and even some secular Israelis, the Women of the Wall are provocateurs, not Jews seeking the freedom to worship in their own manner. The fact that they are identified with the politics of the left when it comes to the Palestinians and have rejected the compromise solution that has allocated space for egalitarian services at Robinson’s Arch makes them even more unpopular.
That is no excuse for the contemptible efforts of Orthodox groups to disrupt the Women of the Wall’s services in the Women’s Section of the Kotel. That Orthodox religious students are monthly bussed into Jerusalem to shout down and do all in their power to intimidate the liberal group with no interference from the police is a disgrace.
So, while those who organized this campaign against the Women of the Wall disclaimed any responsibility for what happened at the b’nai mitzvot, it’s still their fault. After this group had been allowed to try to rough up the Women of the Wall, it was hardly surprising that—hyped up by adrenaline and the mob mentality that is part of such an exercise—they would try to lash out at any other non-Orthodox Jews within their reach. Indeed, some of the same people who seek to attack the Women of the Wall also reject the presence of the non-Orthodox at Robinson’s Arch since it offends their sensitive feelings about Jewish observance that differs from that of their own.
That those involved have little sense of the sacred or any actual respect for Judaism was amply illustrated. The thugs not only grabbed and sought to desecrate siddurs from the Conservative worshippers; one of them tore up the prayer book and blew his nose in one of the pages, even though it is entirely possible that the sacred name of God was printed on it.
Fortunately, the incident resulted merely in hurt feelings and disgust at such disgraceful behavior, rather than bloodshed. But it’s no use dismissing it or pretending that it wasn’t exactly the kind of provocation that does real harm to the relationship between American Jews and Israelis. It was fodder for anti-Zionists who seek excuses to justify their efforts to exacerbate tensions between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. It also feeds into exactly the sort of stereotypes about Israelis, the Orthodox and how a supposedly “right-wing” Israeli tribe, whom many on the American left liken to a pro-Trump red state, their lowest form of insult, has nothing in common with blue state non-Orthodox American Jews.
As bad as that incident was, it is nevertheless important not to jump to the wrong conclusions from it so as to further a specific political agenda and be distracted from the hard work needed to solve the very real problems in the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
At the top of the list of those who got this wrong is someone who really ought to have known better.
Newly confirmed Ambassador and historian Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for monitoring and combatting anti-Semitism, said that she was “deeply disturbed” by the Kotel incident. Fair enough, so are most people. But she then went on to say that she was asked by a colleague whether if this had happened in other country, it would be termed anti-Semitism. That she just threw that remark out without explaining that there is a big difference between intra-Jewish quarrels and her brief, which centers on Jew-hatred, was a mistake. As awful as those Kotel hooligans were, their goal is not the extinction of the Jewish people or their state.
If Lipstadt thinks her job is to be a critic of Israeli society—opining on its excesses and problems rather than using the bully pulpit of her position to expose actual anti-Semites on the left or the right—then that calls into question the need for such an envoy. She is not the ambassador of one branch of the Jewish people to the other, but someone whose task it is to help persuade the Biden administration to combat Jew haters rather than to appease them.
Equally wrong would be those who leap to the conclusion that what happened at the Kotel represents mainstream Israeli public opinion or even that of the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews.
Reform and Conservative Jews have a real grievance with a system that doesn’t recognize their rabbis as being equally as legitimate as those who are Orthodox. But in a country where there is no separation between religion and state, and rabbis receive salaries from the government, the question of who is a rabbi—the real issue at stake in these arguments, not one about who is a Jew—is inherently political. And so long as Reform and Conservative Judaism are perceived by most Israelis as Diaspora movements and have precious few followers in the Jewish state, they will remain the losers in this dispute. The various Orthodox parties can command enough votes to have strong contingents in the Knesset and to perhaps provide the balance of power in governing coalitions more often than not.
But as much as Reform and Conservative Judaism are viewed as something that is American rather than Israeli, the sort of hatred that was on display at the Kotel last month is something that most Israelis deplore. That is equally true of Orthodox Jews who, whatever their opinion about the Women of the Wall or the validity of non-Orthodox denominations, are devoted to the principle of Jewish unity and loving other Jews.
Violence at the wall is—like some other Israeli social pathologies, including the so-called problem of “settler violence”—a problem that exists but involves a tiny fraction of Israeli society. Treating it as somehow normative or indicative of how most Israelis feel about fellow Jews elsewhere or even the non-Orthodox is a canard.
The problem is not so much the existence of Jewish thugs as it is the way that they have been tolerated by leading rabbinical authorities who should be doing their best to anathematize them.
Equally at fault are Israel’s political leaders—both new Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both have paid lip service at times to the need to treat Diaspora and non-Orthodox Jewry with respect and in implementing a compromise Kotel formula first floated by former Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky which would have made the egalitarian prayer area bigger and more accessible. Given his alliance with the haredi parties, no one really believed Netanyahu’s promises. But the same should be true for Lapid. His secular hostility to the ultra-Orthodox allows him to pose as a defender of the non-Orthodox, but in the unlikely event that he will be able to put together a government and hold onto his position, he will sell them out to the haredim just as quickly as Netanyahu will.
While Israelis and those who care about Israel should take this problem seriously, let’s not pretend that it will be solved by elections or by American Jews disassociating from the center of Jewish life. The goal of bringing these two disparate Jewish tribes together is too important to be allowed to be thrown away because of extremist violence or the anti-Zionist political agendas of Israel’s foes. It requires people of goodwill on both sides of the Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide to recognize that we need each other and to remember that, especially in the eyes of enemies who recognize no distinctions between different kinds of Jews, what we have in common is still stronger than those forces that continue to divide us.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.