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columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Netanyahu’s Western Wall decision gives the lie to democracy hysteria

Despite provocation by the Shas Party, the prime minister demonstrates that gloomy predictions about Israel becoming the next Iran are baseless.

The Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 31, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
The Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 31, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It was a story that was over almost before it began. The hysteria over a proposal by the Shas Party to essentially criminalize non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall (Kotel) wasn’t entirely quieted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immediate and decisive move to shelve the idea. But the exercise still undermines the basic premise of the anti-Bibi resistance movement’s claims that the government is about to destroy Israeli democracy and put the country in the hands of religious extremists.

The Shas proposed law was a potential disaster for Israel in many ways. It would have prohibited egalitarian services anywhere in the Western Wall area, including at the small section of the wall at Robinson’s Arch where it is currently allowed. It would have made the monthly Women of the Wall services in the women’s section of the main Western Wall Plaza illegal and also imposed other new restrictions on attire or violations of Shabbat.

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Regardless of what one may think about non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, the measures would have been an insult to the overwhelming majority of American Jewry that identify with those movements. As it is, the Kotel is currently treated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine for the entire Jewish people.

The monthly battles over the demands of non-Orthodox women to hold services in which they wear tallitot and read from the Torah have made for hard feelings on both sides.

The Orthodox consider them to be a deliberate act of provocation that violates the customs of the site. Supporters of the women, as well as the many Americans who regard women praying as men traditionally do to be commonplace and something that should be tolerated, consider the thuggish efforts by their opponents (and sometimes, even by the police) to manhandle and silence them to be intolerant and a violation of their freedom of worship.

More importantly, the existence of a section of the wall for egalitarian prayer—albeit one hard for those not familiar with the site to find and sometimes inaccessible—at least provides a place where those accustomed to mixed prayer services can go.

The secular majority in Israel may rarely visit the Kotel and don’t care much about the principle of religious pluralism, as opposed to the widely shared aversion to the way the official rabbinate controls life-cycle events like marriage. They also generally regard Orthodoxy as normative and non-Orthodox Judaism as a superfluous creation of the Diaspora.

Yet the heavy-handed effort of Shas—a Mizrachi ultra-Orthodox party—to impose the will of the religious community on society went over like a lead balloon. Netanyahu was speaking for the Likud Party as well as the opinions of most Israelis when he made it clear that he was not going to let the proposal take the first step towards being enacted. That he did so in spite of the fact that the idea was part of the coalition agreement he signed with his allies after they won a clear majority in the Nov. 1 election was telling.

It’s possible to argue, as groups like the Conservative movement’s Rabbinic Assembly did, that Netanyahu didn’t go far enough by merely tabling the law. They want him to rule it out permanently. But while even the threat of its theoretical passage is no help to the cause of fostering unity between Israel and the Diaspora, his decision is more than enough to ensure that it never again sees the light of day.

That’s important because the claims that the right-wing/religious coalition is bent on transforming the country into a theocratic nightmare rest on more than just specious arguments in favor of the Israeli Supreme Court retaining virtually unlimited power to strike down anything they consider to not be “reasonable,” regardless of the law or the will of the voters.

Those who turn out for the weekly anti-government demonstrations, coupled with others calling upon American Jews and the Biden administration, depend on the courts to give them victories they can’t win at the ballot box. Much of their position seems to be rooted in the contempt of secular liberal elites for their working class, religious and right-wing compatriots who voted for the Netanyahu coalition. But they genuinely fear that the religious parties will use their majorities to transform Israel into a less tolerant religious society where women and gays will no longer have equal rights.

Yet whatever Shas and others in the coalition may fantasize about, they lack the votes to get what they want. While Netanyahu and the Likud are sympathetic to the sensibilities of the religious community, they want no part of any vision that would, as the critics fear, turn Israel into a Jewish Iran.

And as the response to the prime minister from Shas demonstrated, they are in no doubt about how far they can go. Shas itself withdrew the law without making a fuss after the prime minister acted, even claiming that the more extreme sections of the proposal were there by accident.

Most American Jews fail to understand that for most Israelis, this is a political issue rather than one about religion.  In a country where there is no formal division between synagogue and state, and in which rabbis are paid by the state, the question of what denominations are to be recognized by the government is inherently political. The “status quo” at the Kotel that Netanyahu is determined to maintain may not please the non-Orthodox movements, but unless and until they can develop a broader constituency in Israel—the Orthodox parties won approximately one-quarter of the votes cast in the last election—this is as good as it’s going to get for them, no matter who holds the top job.

The notion that the government will, despite the presence of a one-person anti-gay faction in the coalition, make homophobia the law of the land is equally absurd. The Likud is fully committed to gay rights—something that is made obvious by the fact that Knesset Speaker Omir Ohana is gay and a stalwart supporter of the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s easy success in reining in his allies also gives the lie to the notion that he is their hostage and must do as they bid him. To the contrary, it is they who are dependent upon him and the Likud for preserving their influence. Had the main opposition parties like Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid or Benny Gantz’s National Unity parties really been interested in ensuring that the religious parties were shut out of power, they would have made their peace with Netanyahu and gone into coalition with him. But they are so committed to the bogus narrative about him being a criminal or would-be authoritarian that they actually prefer to grandstand about how awful the religious parties are from the sidelines than to do something about it.

So rather than expose the extremism of the Netanyahu government and prove that it really is a threat to democracy and human rights, this foolish episode demonstrates the opposite. It makes clear that the hysteria about the government and the end of democracy is merely political posturing by parties and leaders that understand that Israel has become a center-right country in which the chances of the election of a left-wing government in the foreseeable future are virtually nonexistent.

Lapid and his allies don’t want to so much preserve the unaccountable power of the courts to protect democracy as they want it to ensure that Netanyahu and the right aren’t able to govern. The reality of the Jewish state may not be a mirror image of liberal American values and sensibilities, yet neither is it a theocracy or an authoritarian state in the making. Americans who have been persuaded by the biased coverage of Netanyahu’s judicial-reform proposals to think democracy really is in danger should be reassured by recent events and understand that those making such charges are cynically crying “wolf.”

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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