July 7, 2017
The Jews of Israel are watching Muslims near and far killing themselves, and contemplating horror scenarios of a serious threat from Iran, Hezbollah, or some other evil source. There are near daily efforts of individual Palestinians to attack Jews, but for the most part, the Muslim front is quiet for us while chaos prevails among those who have declared their intention to destroy us.
The furor among Jews has ratcheted up to what we haven’t seen in some time. Optimists or the indifferent see it as another round in the rituals of conflict, with lots of noise and few tangible consequences. One of my PhDs, who is also a politically active Orthodox rabbi, used the concept of rituals to describe what was happening. Those who see this uptick as unique might take a look at my “Rituals of Conflict,” which I published a bit more than 20 years ago. It describes nastiness that looks pretty much like this one, even though it touched on other details.
Current spats concern the government’s response to ultra-Orthodox demands to suspend work on a portion of the Western Wall meant for joint prayer with men and women according to the practice of non-Orthodox Jews, and to tighten the control of the official Rabbinate on procedures of conversion.
Activists and commentators quarrel over the details of the changes and their implications for various kinds of individuals. Those trying to sort their way through competing contentions can begin with what appears in an overseas paper, Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, or whatever blogs Google produces in English, Hebrew, Russian, French and/or Spanish.
Non-Orthodox religious Jews claim that the Western Wall belongs to all of Judaism. Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox politicians and rabbis claim that it is Israel’s to manage, and some claim that non-Orthodox rituals are not Judaism.
It may help in understanding the ultra-Orthodox position to think of Catholics and Protestants, both Christians. But Protestants are not mounting a campaign to take part of St Peter’s Basilica for their rituals.
My own summary is that it is an intellectual and political mess of competing claims by activists. Yet mine is the view of a cynical and indifferent secular Jew, perhaps made more Israeli than American over the course of spending more than half my long life in this place. I have felt religious at various times, and for some years I’ve been studying Talmud with a religious friend I tell him the lessons have made me more Jewish and less religious. I value participating in conversations and arguments that have continued among rabbis and others for more than two thousand years, but I find more than a little nonsense, along with wisdom, some humor and cynicism in the holy texts.
Among my perceptions are the following.
• The government’s action was unnecessary, gratuitous, and perhaps inconsequential, but a damaging concession to the ultra-Orthodox parties that is likely to affect, at least in the short run, relations with Jews outside of Israel.
• Even before the suspension, there was little if any work being done on the extension of the portion of the Western Wall meant for non-Orthodox prayer; and whatever change was made to procedures of conversion may affect few individuals.
• The context of the government decisions was the weakening of the prime minister, currently under police inquiries, and the exploitation of the situation by ultra-Orthodox politicians for their own advantage among supporters. At least part of the excitement of the ultra-Orthodox reflects the concern of one ultra-Orthodox party leader to move attention away from police investigations into his own activities and those of family members.
• Threats by American religious activists from Reform and Conservative sectors to withhold their support of Israel appear parve in the context of some doubts about American Jews’ discipline behind their rabbis’ political demands. Moreover, it’s just those sectors of American Jewry that have already been wavering in their attitudes of Israel. JStreet attracts many of the politically active members of Reform and Conservative congregations.
• At least some of the tension over the rights of non-Orthodox religious Jews in Israel shows the impact of American and Israeli secular politics. Non-Orthodox American Jews are firmly in the anti-Trump camp, and Israeli Jews have been expressing admiration for Trump’s move away from Obama’s affinity for Palestinians and other Muslims. An item in The Economist shows that only Israelis and Russians, among the countries surveyed, show more positive attitudes toward Trump than toward Obama.
• While most American Jews identify with Reform or Conservative communities, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are divided between a near majority who are secular, a substantial number who are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, and a large number described as Traditional, who are somewhere between Orthodox and secular. The religious demography of Israel produces either opposition or indifference to the demands of non-Orthodox religious activists and their rabbis.
• While religious but non-Orthodox Jews demand equal rights at Judaism’s sacred sites, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis demand the right to preserve those sites for what they consider to be the proper rites of Judaism.
• There are secular Israelis who avoid the Western Wall, and all of Jerusalem on account of what they describe as the undesirable influence of the ultra-Orthodox. Some say that they last visited the Western Wall, or Jerusalem, when accompanying overseas relatives.
• Threats by American Jews to withhold financial contributions encounter several contentions that are as much speculation as certainties. A substantial amount of the money raised by American Jews comes from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox donors, and is meant for the activities of their comrades in Israel. The increasing wealth of Israel makes donations from overseas less important. Major donors may weigh the opportunity to put their family name on an Israeli facility above the preaching of a local rabbi. A substantial portion of fund raising by American Jews remains within the US, where it is meant to cope with the problems of American Jews, including the sensitive issues of assimilation, drifting away from Judaism, and intermarriage, Orthodox Jews are inclined to say that those problems are a result of Americans’ drift from Orthodoxy, while secular Israelis may express a lack of power or concern with what happens to Americans.
Gevalt? Or another round in the occasional tussle of Jews about internal matters, currently during a lull in the threats from those who hate us all, and see us as a blot that should be eradicated from what they view as holy?
Comments welcome. Irashark@gmail.com.