Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid may have put together a coalition without any ultra-Orthodox religious parties earlier this year, but they still fear the power of the haredim and their allies. That’s the explanation for their decision to shelve any idea of moving ahead with the renovation of Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza along the lines envisioned by former Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky when he unveiled his plan in 2013.
Sharansky’s idea, which was eventually endorsed by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, would have not only expanded the area of the Wall that is now reserved for egalitarian prayer (in Robinson’s Arch archeological park that is separated from the main Kotel plaza), but made it more accessible while still preserving the current men’s and women’s sections. It would function as a national shrine that would be more welcoming for the entire Jewish people, including the vast majority of American Jews, who are not Othodox. This idea was praised by both the non-Orthodox denominations and many in the modern Orthodox world who deprecate the way the Kotel is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox.
Bennett helped create the current egalitarian prayer area and supports the Sharansky plan. So do Lapid and most members of their government. But they fear that anything that will antagonize the religious right will strengthen Netanyahu’s efforts to unseat them. Their coalition — composed as it is of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and anti-Zionist Arab Knesset members — is agreed on nothing but to stay in office as long as possible and keep Netanyahu permanently sidelined.
So even though Lapid said the hold on the Western Wall plan is temporary and can be revisited any time during the four years that, at least in theory, the government can stay in power, any idea that it will be tackled in the foreseeable future is a fantasy.
Once again, those who embraced Sharansky’s dream are being confronted with the reality of Israeli politics. The majority of Israelis don’t like the way the Orthodox rabbinate maintains control of life cycle events for Jews and the lack of civil marriage. They’re still outraged that haredim are allowed to opt-out of the military draft while other Israelis must serve their country. Many also sympathize with those who oppose the lack of religious pluralism with respect to government recognition of the denominations.
But other issues always lead their political parties back to the same conclusions about the inordinate costs of going to political war with the haredim. Unlike the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements in Israel, the haredim have the votes. Whether they are in the government or out of it, they still seem to possess a veto over ideas, like Sharansky’s much-praised Kotel compromise, no matter how much good they might do, especially with respect to bolstering ties between the approximately 90 percent of American Jews who are not Orthodox and the Jewish state.
This will, as it has before, lead to much grousing over the Israeli political establishment’s lack of concern about an issue that a lot of American Jews care about. Pluralism — or the lack of it in Israel — is often cited as a reason why many American Jews are increasingly alienated from the Jewish state. But that, along with similar arguments that right-wing policies or dislike for Netanyahu were the cause of the problem, is misleading. Some American Jews are angry about pluralism, or are so out of touch with the reality of the conflict with the Palestinians, that they believe that Israel should be making wholesale territorial concessions in the vain hope of achieving peace. But the cause for the growing chasm between these two Jewish tribes has far more to do with demographic shifts in the U.S. that have led many Americans to lose any sense of Jewish peoplehood than with differences over those issues.
Still, the many American Jews who identify with the liberal movements aren’t wrong to complain that though Israel holds itself forward as representing the interests of all Jews, the Orthodox stranglehold on religious interests there undermines efforts to bolster support for the Jewish state.
But in a country in which there is no separation between religion and state, and rabbis are paid by the state, the question of who is a rabbi is inherently political. And political questions are settled by votes, not sentiment about promoting Jewish unity. Though both the Reform and Conservative movements exist in Israel, and there is now a Reform rabbi in the Knesset — Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Labor Party, who is part of the Bennett/Lapid coalition — their influence in the country, let alone its political system, remains marginal.
Nor is the current government’s abandonment of the Kotel plan the first time any opportunity to achieve change along these lines was missed.
After the 2013 Israeli election, instead of putting together a coalition solely composed of right-wing and religious parties, Netanyahu created a government that was not encumbered by the need to appease the demands of the haredim. That was enabled by the emergence of a new centrist party called Yesh Atid that was led by then-political newcomer Lapid, and which won a stunning 19 seats in its first try for office. Lapid then turned around and made a deal with another big winner in the vote, the right-wing Jewish Home, led by Bennett, which won 12 seats and then the two made another with the prime minister. Netanyahu also made a deal with left-leaning former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, to whom he gave responsibility for negotiating with the Palestinians, another with the right-wing, though avowedly secular Yisrael Beitenu party led by former Netanyahu aide Avigdor Lieberman.
This would not only be a more centrist government rather than one dependent on the right. It also was one that was open to stripping the haredim over the stranglehold over Israeli religious life as well as to cut back the extensive government subsidies it had extorted for its institutions as payment for its votes, as Lapid and Lieberman had vowed to do in their campaigns.
Among those cheering for this development were non-Orthodox Jews. And, at least initially, they were not disappointed. It was during this period that the egalitarian prayer area was created and when Sharansky produced his plan and got the consent of the government.
But long before the Kotel plan could be implemented, it suffered the first of many delays that were presented as temporary but which now must be seen as likely to be permanent. The coalition was unworkable. Lapid turned out to be a terrible finance minister and Livni’s job was meaningless since, despite the Obama administration’s willingness to pressure Israel, the Palestinians would not negotiate seriously. By 2015, Netanyahu had tired of them both and decided to go back to the people whose votes allowed him to return to the familiar right-wing/religious coalition partners who ensured that any push for pluralism or the Kotel plan were non-starters.
Can this change? Perhaps. Israelis are no longer divided over the peace process which a huge majority believes is dead for the foreseeable future. Eventually, the current split, which is solely focused on Netanyahu, will also be put aside, though when that will happen is impossible to say.
In a theoretical Israeli future, maybe there will be a political alignment in which the haredim are not only out of the government but somehow unable to function as a threat to its longevity. But for now, that’s not in the cards.
That means that while non-Orthodox Jews are not wrong to long for an Israel in which religious pluralism and Sharansky’s vision of the Kotel will be realized, the reason it won’t happen has nothing to do with animus for American Jews, their rabbis or synagogue movements. It’s just politics. Though many Americans, who also opposed Netanyahu on other issues, thought that getting rid of him would solve the problem, his successors are just as willing to betray their hopes to stay in office. The obstacle to pluralism remains Israeli electoral math and until that changes, neither will the Kotel.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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