This week the conflict between liberal and progressive elements in American Jewry and the government of Israel was escalated.
On November 16, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the American Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), and others tried to push their way (see video here) into the Western Wall area carrying Torah scrolls in defiance of rules established by the Orthodox authorities that manage the site, intending to pass them to members of the Women of the Wall group, also in violation of the rules. They ultimately succeeded after a shoving match with security guards and ultra-Orthodox protesters.
It should be noted that none of them were arrested, nor did the reaction of the guards rise above the level of shoving (Jacobs was threatened with pepper spray, but not sprayed). It seems clear that the guards made the decision not to use greater force in order not to injure anyone. The behavior of the Haredi protesters was abominable, of course. I don’t know if any of them were arrested, but those guilty of assault should have been.
The New Israel Fund (NIF), an organization that has been criticized for funding groups active in the delegitimization of the Jewish state as well as BDS and lawfare against it, almost immediately organized a joint letter from non-Orthodox rabbis to PM Netanyahu, expressing “outrage.” Would that the NIF might express outrage over the lies, libels and distortions told around the world by their grantee, Breaking the Silence!
The hand of the NIF is seen throughout this conflict. Jacobs himself has a long-time connection to the NIF. Before he was elected to the presidency of the URJ in 2011, he served on its Board of Directors as chair of its committee on religious pluralism. The NIF is a big donor to the Israel Religious Action Center, the NGO arm of the American Reform movement in Israel, which is the main sponsor of the demonstrations at the Western Wall, and which has recently inaugurated a campaign to bring American political correctness and hysteria over race to Israel.
On November 24, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely was criticized by the PM and forced to apologize for remarks that she had made earlier, in which she tried to express the (very true) fact that American Jews are disconnected from the realities of life in Israel, and their criticisms of Israeli policy are often misconceived. Unfortunately she appeared to suggest that American Jews do not participate proportionally in the US military, something which is almost certainly not true. The response was vicious and instantaneous. Despite her clarification, Rick Jacobs of URJ was not satisfied, and called for her to be fired. So far, Netanyahu has resisted the pressure.
On November 27, the Masorti Movement in Israel – associated with the American United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – released a video attack aimed directly at the PM, accusing him of presenting an “alternative truth” about the Western Wall controversy, and concluding “shame on you, Mr. Prime Minister.” They could have attacked the Haredi parties, which had initially agreed to a compromise, but reneged when their constituents complained. But they chose to blame Netanyahu.
The leaders of non-Orthodox Judaism are spoiling for a fight. The main objective seems to be to create anger among American Jews by telling them over and over how Israel disrespects them. The Western Wall argument is presented as a rejection of Reform and Conservative (i.e., American) customs of mixed-gender prayer, although aside from the provocative actions of Jacobs and his crew, few if any Reform or Conservative Jews have wanted to pray in a mixed group at the Wall (if they had, one would think that at least a few of them would have done so at the location that is set aside for this, despite their objections to the arrangements for access to the site). But the point is not the facts but the “insult” inherent in it.
The same is true for the various crises over attempts to permit or forbid conversions to Judaism in Israel outside the official rabbinate. Israel is accused of treating non-Orthodox Jews as “second-class citizens,” or “delegitimizing” the non-Orthodox Diaspora. Again, the emphasis is not on what the practical effects of legislation might be in Israel or outside of it, but on how it can be construed as insulting to non-Orthodox Jews.
The tactic is simple, and always works. Provoke a confrontation by making demands that anger the Haredim, who then threaten the PM that they will leave the coalition. The PM will look for a compromise – after all, he has a country to run – which can be construed as “submission to the ultra-Orthodox” and insulting to the Diaspora. The Haredim can always be counted on to play their role, including calling the non-Orthodox Jews names and thus increasing the degree of insult.
Orchestrating a physical confrontation, as with the Western Wall security guards, who clearly don’t want trouble, or the helpful Haredi protesters, who clearly do, is another wonderful tactic. Expect more of it.
And then don’t be surprised when, in the next election, Israelis will be told by the opposition not to vote for Netanyahu, because he “damaged our essential relationship with the US.”
The proper response to all of this is that as a sovereign state, we get to determine the rules within our borders. Jacobs thinks that the Western Wall – indeed all of the state of Israel – belongs to world Jewry, and therefore the big machers like him should be able to give us orders. I am willing to agree that in some sense the Western Wall “belongs” to all Jews, but decisions about how it operates must be made by the state in which it is located. And it certainly isn’t appropriate for Jews from America to come here and violate our laws in an attempt to change the rules. This isn’t Birmingham in 1963. It’s about religious customs, not civil rights.
We also get to make our own rules about things like marriage, conversion, divorce and burial for Jews in our country. I and many other Israelis don’t like the ones we have very much, but it isn’t up to Jacobs to try to change them for us. That’s why we have a sovereign state, a democratic state in which we elect our leaders, a state that protects us in return for our fulfilling our (sometimes heavy) obligations to it.
The Reform Movement has an ideology that is a result of the replacement of mitzvah-observance with “tikun olam,” which seems to mean a universalist social-justice ethic that is more at home in Berkeley than Jerusalem. Unfortunately, like the Jews for Jesus, the Reform movement is evangelical in nature, and it won’t be satisfied until it converts the rest of the Jewish world – particularly the uppity Jews of Israel – to its vision of a borderless, multicultural, gender-fluid socialistic worldview. Apparently it has gotten the Conservative Movement (which still maintains a commitment to halacha) on board by exploiting the Western Wall and conversion issues.
The New Israel Fund is in effect the military wing of the Reform Movement, using dollars instead of rockets as weapons. It gives millions of dollars each year to groups working to remake the state of Israel in accordance with its vision, and even to some groups whose goal is to destroy it.
Israel seems to have learned how to deal with evangelical Christians. We will accept their support, but they must understand from the start that trying to change us is out of bounds. Those who nevertheless try to proselytize among us are asked to leave.
Perhaps the same should go for politically evangelical Reform Jews like Rick Jacobs?