Ultra-Orthodox make their new power felt

This posting has these items:
1) Haaretz: NOW American Jews Are Angry, Gideon Levy, old school, fulminates about the American attention devoted to this issue rather than to Palestinians;
2) +972: Ultra-Orthodox anger over Western Wall deal isn’t about American Jews, the most insightful reporter, Eli Bitan, places the row firmly within intra-Haredi conflicts;
3) Guardian: Historic deal allows men and women to pray together at Western Wall, article from 2016 when reform and liberal Jews hailed a victory;
4) NY Times: Israel Suspends Plan for Egalitarian Prayer Area at Western Wall, typically thorough American account of the changes in last eighteen months

A view of the separate men’s and women’s sections at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, June 23, 2017. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90

NOW American Jews Are Angry

When it comes to the Western Wall, suddenly U.S. Jews are liberals, criticizing Israel. Did they ever fight for the right of Palestinians to worship freely?

By Gideon Levy, Haretz premium
June 29, 2017

American Jews are hurt. They’re furious. They say that Jewish unity is imperilled, that the entire Zionist vision is about to implode. In urgent night-time cables, Israel’s consuls in the United States were instructed to prepare for the growing protest and to address it “with an obliging spirit.” Never before have American Jews expressed such anger and protest against Israel.

What is causing American Jews to be so furious at Israel, the apple of their eye and a source of pride until now? Is it the antidemocratic legislation passed here in recent years, which shames Israel and casts doubt on its democracy? The witch hunt against left-wing civil society organizations? Its shameful treatment of African asylum seekers? Its withholding of electricity from two million people who’ve been caged up for 10 years? The massacre of civilians during Operation Protective Edge? The massacre of civilians in Operation Cast Lead? The executions of knife-wielding girls? The 50 years of occupation?

None of these has ever provoked any real anger from American Jews. They adored Israel blindly, even when it committed all this. They contributed to Israel generously even when they knew all this was going on. They sent their children here to visit the settlements and the army with armed escorts, to be brainwashed, and they ignored the occupation.

Now they are furious at last. Over what? Over all-important issues: the worship arrangements at the Western Wall, which will remain as strict as ever, and over conversion in Israel, which will remain Orthodox. These are serious issues that should not be taken lightly, but after forgiving Israel for everything, this is what they’re so worked up about?

Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold torah scrolls at the Western Wall Plaza, in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 18, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

After all, Reform and Conservative Jews — the majority of U.S. Jews — are considered so liberal and enlightened. These self-described liberals support the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and battle aggressively against any conscientious person who tries to criticize Israel. Unlike the benighted Orthodox minority, men and women pray together, and they drive to synagogue on Yom Kippur, which is of course their right.

But these liberals, who supported Barack Obama and despise U.S. President Donald Trump, many of whose parents took part in the civil rights movement, forgive Israel everything. They remain silent and their silence is thunderous and shameful.

Now they are launching a determined, furious battle on behalf of the Women of the Wall. Is it only when something affects them personally that their enlightened souls are awakened? Are they liberal only when it comes to religious ritual? Did they ever fight for the right of Palestinians to worship freely at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, or even to go there? But when it comes to the Kotel, suddenly they are liberals, daring for the first time to loudly criticize Israel. They’ve even threatened to use their doomsday weapon: to stop fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, heaven forfend.

There is no connection between liberalism and fighting for the freedom of worship at the foot of a stone wall, located in occupied territory, on account of which the homes of hundreds of people were destroyed 50 years ago.

American Jews must stop talking high and mighty. To provoke this turmoil in the name of freedom while supporting, directly or indirectly, one of the most repressive enterprises in the world, sets a new record for hypocrisy. American Jews applauded Israel for everything. They saluted Israel automatically and sickeningly even when it committed far worse actions than blocking women wearing colourful scarves from praying alongside men.

Let them continue to cheer. They have no right to oppose the government in the name of a rule of conscience. Let them go to the Western Wall and pray — men and women together, or separately —for a more just Israel. The state needs their prayers much more than it needs their hypocritical preaching.

Ultra-Orthodox anger over Western Wall deal isn’t about American Jews

The Israeli government’s decision to abandon a deal creating an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall led to an unprecedented rift with Diaspora Jewry. But American Jews, and the Reform Movement in particular, are merely collateral damage — caught in the crossfire of an internal ultra-Orthodox power struggle.

By Eli Bitan, +972
July 06, 2017

When men, women and children prayed at the same time in the same unsegregated space before the Western Wall circa 1917

With all the coverage of the brouhaha among Diaspora Jewry over the suspension of a deal to create a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, one might reasonably think that the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Israeli government chalked up a victory last week. They didn’t. The real victory was won by their biggest opposition — from within the ultra-Orthodox community.

Interestingly, the ultra-Orthodox anger over the Western Wall deal targeted neither Reform Jews nor Prime Minister Netanyahu. Most of their ire was saved for the ultra-Orthodox political parties and rabbis who backed the compromise.

The narrative that was reported — mostly unchallenged — throughout the Jewish American media, as well as in Israel, was that ultra-Orthodox politicians were striking back against the evil Reform Movement, which they view as a clear and present threat to the very soul of Judaism. The version of events that suggests the Western Wall compromise was forced on the ultra-Orthodox politicians couldn’t be further from the truth. The deal, which was signed a year and a half ago, was formulated with the ultra-Orthodox, including Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and other prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

So who did protest the Kotel deal, as it’s known? Every single ultra-Orthodox rabbi, politician, journalist, or writer who isn’t directly associated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties.

The first was Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who attacked the Western Wall rabbi for his support of the deal. After that came Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, an ideological opponent of Shas, who also expressed his disapproval for the deal. Then the rest: Rabbi Auerbach, who heads a sect of radical ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, top Sephardic rabbis, and many, many others — all of whom openly oppose the ultra-Orthodox political establishment.

Their biggest fear is losing the ultra-Orthodox population’s leverage and deterrence over the rest of Israeli politics, in this case manifested in their political parties’ willingness to compromise on matters of religious principle. The ultra-Orthodox community’s political power in Israel is born of the fact that the overwhelming majority of governments in Israel’s history have relied on ultra-Orthodox parties in order to form a majority coalition in parliament. It is almost impossible to form a functioning government without them.

Red lines

In the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox opposition, the Western Wall deal was yet another step in the religious political parties’ willingness to compromise on a growing list of issues they consider sacred and holy. The same type of criticism has been sounded time and again over efforts to end an historical exemption to Israel’s mandatory military conscription law for ultra-Orthodox men, and recent high-profile arrests of army deserters within the community. Conflicts like that, which pit the ultra-Orthodox community against Israel’s secular parties and population, would have led to the collapse of the government in the past. One doesn’t hear such threats anymore. “The headlines scream ‘crisis,’ yet a seat at the government table is more enticing,” one prominent ultra-Orthodox commentator wrote on Twitter.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against Israeli army conscription, in Jerusalem, on March 28, 2017. Photo by Menahem Kahana/ AFP

None of that, however, was enough to put pressure on the ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset, who still enjoy widespread support from their community. That was until ultra-Orthodox media outlets unaligned with any political party joined the fray. The moment the Western Wall compromise was reached, two major ultra-Orthodox news sites began sounding their opposition. Then came the radio stations and the weekly newspapers. The religious politicians in Israel’s government, along with the Western Wall rabbi, all tried to wave off the criticism against them, but to no avail.

This was not an expression of disdain for Reform Judaism as much as it was a sign of the growing power of both the ultra-Orthodox opposition and that of young, independent journalists in the community.

The ultra-Orthodox MKs understood that despite the fact that the compromise over the Western Wall was likely the best deal they can get — especially considering that Israel’s High Court of Justice will almost certainly rule in favour of pluralistic prayer options at the holy site — they simply can’t explain that to the Haredi public, which demands that its politicians draw clear red lines over which they are willing walk out of the ruling coalition.

“Anyone who doesn’t have a red line is worthless,” an ultra-Orthodox journalist who has been following the story since its onset explained to me. “Every bit of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ political power was based on the fear that the Haredi MKs can always leave the coalition, thus bringing down the government. This fear has been replaced by an understanding that no matter what happens, the ultra-Orthodox will stay. Work on the Sabbath? The Kotel? Haredi conscription? It doesn’t matter, the ultra-Orthodox will remain in the government. And while most of the ultra-Orthodox population continues to support their elected officials, the politicians — perhaps for the first time in their lives — are now acting in accordance with public criticism against them, not necessarily in line with their own positions.”

Even faced with an outcome that will be likely worse for the ultra-Orthodox if the government’s Western Wall deal is abandoned and the issue is adjudicated in court, he explained, much of the ultra-Orthodox street simply want the leadership to stand strong on their principles. “An anti-religious ruling by the High Court is preferable to our consent and recognition of the [Western Wall] deal. No one wants to think that Litzman and Gafni supported handing over the Kotel to Reform Jews,” he said, referring to two prominent ultra-Orthodox politicians.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against businesses that operate on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest, Jerusalem, June 29, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

It is important to understand just how much power the independent ultra-Orthodox websites have. The protests against conscription and arrests of ultra-Orthodox defectors, which have erupted over the past half year, brought establishment ultra-Orthodox politics to the edge. Thousands of young men have hit the streets to protest the conscription law, and the political parties that supported it, leading to the establishment of new organizations in Israel and abroad to fight the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF.

Nevertheless, polls show that support for the ultra-Orthodox parties remains steady, and aside from one prominent ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem sect, there is no one who could actually challenge the consensus political support they enjoy. And yet, the three major Haredi politicians — Aryeh Deri, Moshe Gafni, and Yakov Litzman — understand the anger on the street they took action.

The ultra-Orthodox politicians will attack Reform Judaism in order to save themselves. Moshe Gafni, of the United Torah Judaism party, sounded the opening shot at a Haaretz conference last month, making clear that, at least on the Palestinian issue, he is far closer to the peace camp than the right-wing government with which ultra-Orthodox politicians are traditionally aligned. But, he continued, he would rather vote for policies he disagrees with from inside a right-wing government than be part of a left-wing coalition that allies itself with Reform Jews.

Eli Bitan is a journalist in the ultra-Orthodox press in Israel, and is a blogger on Local Call, where a version of this post appears in Hebrew. Read it here.

Historic deal allows men and women to pray together at Western Wall

Israel approves official separate area for mixed gender praying that will be registered in country’s Law of Holy Sites

<small> A Jewish woman prays at the Western Wall
A Jewish woman wears a prayer shawl as she prays at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo by Ariel Schalit/AP

By Harriet Sherwood, Religion correspondent, and Kate Shuttleworth in Jerusalem, The Guardian
January 31, 2016, update June 23, 2017

A battle lasting more than a quarter of a century over the Western Wall, the religious site revered by Jews all over the world, has resulted in a historic deal to create a space where men and women are permitted to pray together in equality.

On Sunday, the Israeli government approved the creation of a permanent and official separate area for mixed gender praying at the site in Jerusalem’s Old City. Liberal and reform Jews hailed the move as a victory for Jews everywhere.

Women of the Wall has campaigned for equal prayer rights at the Western Wall for the past 27 years, holding monthly protests in the plaza in front of the wall’s ancient golden stones. The gatherings frequently ended in physical tussles and arrests.

The women’s demands were anathema to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, which manages the site. The rules governing worship – set by the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz – forbade men and women from praying together. A small section of the wall is sectioned off for women.

Women of the Wall also demanded an end to ultra-orthodox bans on women praying aloud, reading from the Torah and wearing traditional prayer shawls, known as tallit.

Thousands of Jews pray every day at the site, the last remnant of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, pushing scraps of paper bearing handwritten prayers into the cracks between the ancient stones. The site also attracts thousands of tourists and international dignitaries, with Pope Francis, Barack Obama and Madonna among global figures who have prayed at the wall.

The new section for non-Orthodox mixed gender prayer will double the size and make permanent an area designated under a temporary compromise reached in 2013 after Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered a solution to be found to the dispute. The expanded area, costing £6m, will accommodate 1,200 worshippers and be officially registered in Israel’s Law of Holy Sites. It will be administered by government officials.

The Israeli cabinet approved the plan without a formal vote. Ultra-Orthodox cabinet members criticised the move, with interior minister Aryeh Deri saying: “For all the years of its existence, the state of Israel has conducted itself based on traditional Judaism.”

Women of the Wall wearing prayer shawls sing as they walk towards the women’s section of the Western Wall. Photo by Jim Hollander/EPA

The Israel Religious Action Centre and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism hailed Sunday’s agreement as historic. “For decades, Israel has given full religious authority at the Kotel [the Western Wall] to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. That is about to change,” said Rabbis Noa Sattah and Gilad Kariv in a joint statement.

They added: “This will put an end to the embarrassing spectacle of male and female soldiers and officials being segregated at government and military events, and to situations where the Kotel’s Orthodox rabbi refuses to let women light menorahs or female soldiers to sing our national anthem, Hatikvah, in public.

“This landmark decision gives expression to a fundamental truth: there is more than one way to be Jewish. There is more than one way to pray. There is more than one way to connect to Jewish traditions and identity.”

Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce said the decision was a “revolution for women and Jewish pluralism in Israel”.

“By approving this plan, the state acknowledges women’s full equality and autonomy at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel,” she said.

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, the sister movement of Reform Judaism in Israel, said: “This is a landmark decision for Jews across the globe. It recognises that Judaism is an inclusive religion with a variety of different but valid expressions.

Jewish women and men pray in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, during the Cohen Benediction priestly blessing at the Jewish holiday of Passover, April 09, 2012. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90

“Equality of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation are central to Liberal Judaism and now at last liberal Jews can celebrate a Judaism in keeping with the modern world at our most holy site.”

The Western Wall forms part of a huge compound in the Old City, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif. It is the third holiest place in Islam after Mecca and Medina, and the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque.

The Women of the Wall protests attracted global attention three years ago when the US comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted in response to the arrests of her sister, Susan, and niece, Hallel: “So proud of my amazing sister and niece for their ballsout civil disobedience. Ur the tits #womenofthewall.”

A group of young American women and men from the Beth El congregation, New Jersey pray together. The girls keep to the left, the boys to the right but no barrier is erected.

Israel Suspends Plan for Egalitarian Prayer Area at Western Wall

By Isabel Kershner, NY Times
June 25, 2017

JERUSALEM — Yielding to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Sunday backtracked on a decision to create a space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where men and women can pray together and non-Orthodox rituals can be practiced.

The agreement for the new egalitarian prayer space, adopted 17 months ago by the government after years of negotiations with Jewish leaders, was supposed to restore harmony at the ancient site, the holiest place where Jews can pray. The suspension of the plan is likely to deepen the divide between Israel and a majority of Jews in North America who are affiliated with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

There was no immediate comment from Mr. Netanyahu, but the decision not to move ahead with the plan exposed a rift within his right-wing coalition.

“Today’s cancellation of the decision is a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, the Jewish communities and the fabric of the relationship between the state of Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora,” said Avigdor Lieberman, the defence minister and leader of the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party. He called on other cabinet ministers to “return to rationality” and prevent a schism.

The iconic wall in Jerusalem’s contested Old City, a potent symbol for Jews around the world and a place for quiet reflection, has become the focal point in recent years of a battle over rituals between the strictly Orthodox authorities who control most religious life in Israel and the more diverse and liberal communities here and abroad.

American Jewish leaders, who had long chafed at the strictly Orthodox control of the ancient site, with its segregated men’s and women’s sections, had hailed the cabinet decision of January 2016 as “historic.”

But the prospects of it being fulfilled did not look good from the start. The ultra-Orthodox parties opposed it from the outset, and the original cabinet resolution lacked details and sidestepped any formal recognition of non-Orthodox religious branches in Israel.

After months of stalling by the government, the Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall, a Jewish feminist group, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to compel officials to act. In November, liberal rabbis carrying Torah scrolls led a protest at the wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel.

Sunday was the deadline for the state to file a response to the petition regarding implementation of the agreement, and the government decided instead to freeze it.

Mr. Netanyahu instructed two representatives to try to come up with a new framework and said the construction work to upgrade an additional prayer space at the southern section of the wall would continue.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, based in New York, said that any attempt to “cobble together” some lesser agreement was “unacceptable.”

Liberal Jewish activists from the US and Israel approach the Western Wall carrying Torah scrolls on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 (courtesy)

Speaking shortly after landing in Israel for a gathering of world Jewish leaders, he described the Western Wall decision as “insulting” and “shameful,” and said it “communicates so loudly and clearly that non-Orthodox Jews don’t matter.”

“We all care deeply about Israel and we all see this as a distressing and dark day,” Mr. Jacobs added.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision was “a stunning surprise, because this was the prime minister’s own proposal,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis in the United States. “After five years of negotiations, we can finally say this deal is now dead.”

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel who was instrumental in the negotiations for a deal, expressed his “deep disappointment” with the decision.

The Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, had at first said he would not oppose the deal with the non-Orthodox leaders, then he turned against it. “Before the ancient stones of the Kotel there are no streams, sects and disputes, but one large community of individuals standing in prayer, together, in awe,” he said in a statement on Sunday. He pledged to uphold the tradition and custom of the place of the past 50 years, meaning Orthodox control.

Uri Ariel, the agriculture minister from the Jewish Home Party who supported canceling the 2016 decision, said, “It took time, but we have succeeded in persuading the government to cancel the deal, which damaged the Kotel and the Jewish status quo.”

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