A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli cabinet minister and head of the Jewish Agency, for a new movie I was doing at the time about the Reform Judaism movement.
The day I interviewed him, it was announced that Israel would be creating a pluralistic prayer pavilion at Jerusalem’s Western Wall that would provide a space for men and women of all denominations to pray together. Sharansky criss-crossed between Tel Aviv and the United States many times to broker the agreement between the Israeli government and U.S. Jewish leaders. The main reason for him doing this was that he and many other thinking politicians in Israel (a rarity these days) realized that for the country to survive and prosper as the homeland of the Jewish People, it must accommodate all Jews.
But on June 25, the Israeli government betrayed and shamed this principle by abruptly scrapping the plan. One would think that Israel’s prime minister, who comes from a family of Jewish scholars, would remember what sinat chinam (groundless hatred) has done to the Jewish People throughout history.
The typical Israeli excuse for cancelling the historic agreement was that “foreigners will not dictate Israeli internal decisions.” Most of the time, I agree with this school of thought. I personally don’t believe that a Jew – no matter how Zionistic that person claims to be – who lives in the Diaspora should tell Israelis how to live their daily lives. Diaspora Jews rarely have to suffer the consequences of such decisions, whereas for Israelis, the outcome can be a matter of life and death.
But in this specific case, the Israeli government is wrong. Not only is it wrong, it is being reckless with the future of Israel. Before the usual mash up of right-wingers jump up, let me explain.
I have many issues with some of the positions the Reform movement has taken over the years. Some in the movement’s leadership have flirted with anti-Semitism and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Yet all of this has no standing over who gets to pray at the holiest site in Judaism. The Kotel is not, and should not be, the private playground of Orthodox Jews. They do not control the way to God.
While I do sympathize with their issues with the Reform movement, the haredi should remember that they are reformers themselves. When they speak of the Diaspora, they should remember that they are the walking embodiment of Jews who reformed themselves to adapt to the Diaspora, and forgot to revert back after 1948. Factually speaking, there is an egalitarian praying space that exists at the Western Wall: the Robinson’s Arch prayer area. The issue is creating a more accessible entrance to the space and physically expanding it to accommodate more people. The space can be found under the Mugrabi bridge, but people cannot currently enter it from the Western Wall Plaza.
The Western Wall is an issue that affects Jews all around the world, not just Israelis. It is, after all, the holy site of the Jewish People and that includes all the Jews who live in the Diaspora. All Jews should thus have a say. Israelis are the custodians of the wall, but let’s be honest: the Diaspora Jews, through tourism and money given to Israel’s various charities, are just as involved in the upkeep of the area and their spiritual connection to it is just as strong.
The Israeli government took a historic step a few years ago. But like many other things in Israel, it has allowed the Orthodox fringe and some in Zionist religious circles to dictate policy.
The government has abandoned the majority of secular and traditional Israelis who have absolutely no issue with allowing all Jews to pray freely. At a time when Israel needs the Jewish world to unite, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the minions in his coalition are doing all they can to split everyone apart. Each Passover, we say, “next year in Jerusalem.” Should the Reform movement add, “What for? We can’t even pray there!”
Igal Hecht is a filmmaker who lives in Toronto.