Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism was seven years old when Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, so he is unlikely to have participated in the American civil rights movement. But he is making it up in spades by orchestrating a “civil rights movement” in Israel that includes a high-profile struggle over control of the Western Wall, as well as trying to introduce American social justice warrior concepts into Israeli discourse.
Last week, Jacobs and the head of the Israeli Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, took part in the monthly event in which the Women of the Wall pray, sing and dance with Torah scrolls. The Orthodox authorities that manage the site provide scrolls for Orthodox men, but do not allow women to carry them, nor do they allow mixed-gender groups to pray. Jacobs and friends pushed their way into the site while hapless security guards tried to prevent them from doing so without hurting them.
Let me interject that I personally don’t believe in sex-segregated prayer or some of the customary limitations on women that have accrued in Orthodox Judaism. But the fact is that the Western Wall is treated as an Orthodox synagogue, with an Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovich, in charge. There are rules which they try to enforce, and obviously when someone deliberately violates them there will be friction.
This is not helped by the unofficial “enforcers,” Haredi men who insult the worshippers and try to interfere with them, and women who blow whistles and shriek (video) in order to drown out the women’s prayers (their tactics are reminiscent of Muslims on the Temple Mount who make the visits of Jews as unpleasant as possible).
Jacobs clearly sees himself as the Jewish Martin Luther King Jr., and would like nothing more than to get arrested on behalf of his struggle. But there is almost nothing in common between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and Jacob’s attempts to provoke confrontations at one of Judaism’s holiest sites. For one thing, the demands of the minuscule fraction of the Jewish population of Israel who identify with non-Orthodox Judaism – many of whom are transplants from America – to pray in their fashion at the Wall can’t possibly be compared to the discrimination in public accommodation, employment and education that the black population of Birmingham faced in 1963. It’s embarrassing to watch him try.
This is not to say that Israelis are happy with the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) domination of the state-supported Rabbinate, which controls marriage, divorce, burials and kashrut supervision, or the way the Haredi parties use their balance of power in the government to reach their narrow goals – often to the detriment of the society in general. They aren’t, and this includes many Israelis who identify as “religious.” But mixed-gender prayer or women reading from the Torah at the Wall are not among the issues they care about, and neither is government support for non-Orthodox synagogues.
Jacobs, who often refers to himself as the representative of the largest non-Orthodox Jewish denomination in the world, believes that the Wall and other Jewish sites and perhaps the state of Israel itself belong to the Jewish people as a whole, and therefore he has many votes in its management. Orthodox Jews tend to respond that he and his movement practice a religion other than Judaism, and therefore he has no votes at all. This isn’t an argument that’s amenable to compromise (my own view is that Jews of any denomination who don’t live in Israel tend to be massively ignorant about the state and everything connected with it, and for that reason should not be able to influence its policies).
Nevertheless, Jacobs surely knows enough about the beliefs and attitudes of Orthodox Jews to understand that no matter how hard he pushes, they will not compromise on the recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism. The carefully-worked out compromise that would have provided a special area next to the traditional Western Wall Plaza for mixed-gender prayer foundered primarily on the part that called for Reform and Conservative representatives on a committee that would govern the operation of the site. They might as well have asked for Muslim, Christian and Satanist representation. When the wider Haredi community found out about it, they forced the Haredi political parties that had already agreed to the compromise to back out.
Yet Jacobs continues to provoke confrontations and make demands. Part of the reason is his MLK complex, but another part is that the continued conflict itself serves several less-obvious purposes.
One of them is to embarrass the government and the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Although the Western Wall compromise was not implemented because of Haredi opposition – the Haredi parties threatened to bring down the government if it were – the groups that favor it always blame Netanyahu, saying that he “reneged” on the deal or even that he “betrayed” them. Did they expect him to shut down the country and call new elections because of their hurt feelings?
Rick Jacobs and much of the Reform Movement that he leads, more so than ever before, has moved to the left politically. Many Reform rabbis are members of J Street, the supposedly “pro-Israel, pro-peace” movement that takes many anti-Israel positions and supports the most anti-Israel members of the US Congress. Jacobs was forced to drop his position on J Street’s rabbinic cabinet when he was chosen to head the Reform Movement, as well as his seat on the board of the New Israel Fund, which supports numerous anti-Israel causes. The Reform association of rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, even decided to take no position on President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Is it any wonder, then, that Reform would like to see Netanyahu in trouble?
It is also a fact that the Reform Movement in America, like many religious institutions, has been losing members and income recently. One of Jacobs’ strategies to reverse this trend seems to be to emphasize “social action” in order to energize younger Jews, who are much more drawn to it than to traditional ritual and life cycle programming. Part of this social action is directed at Israel, which the movement’s Israeli arm suggests is becoming undemocratic, theocratic and racist. Only intervention by America’s social justice experts can save it.
Needless to say, anyone who knows anything about the realities of life in Israel and Israel’s position in the Middle East understands that this is nonsense, propaganda of the tiny extreme left wing in Israeli politics.
Rick Jacobs is not likely to succeed in making changes at the Western Wall. In fact, his confrontational approach may actually hurt the Reform Movement in Israel. But it is doing a great job in making American Jews angry, and causing them to withdraw their support from Israel.
Maybe that’s part of the idea.