American Jews absolutely love to speak and behave as though what we think should have immediate practical and political bearing in Israel.
But the current Women of the Wall crisis in Israel represents a debacle of internal Israeli affairs and civil liberties. The Israeli government has enacted policies which favor a certain power structure over another, raising clear issues of separation of church and state: May a democracy empower solely one interpretation of Jewish law, halacha? Deciding this is the legislature’s responsibility. And we see Prime Minster Netanyahu’s office taking steps in that direction.
Yet the American Jewish community has a great deal to say about this, and a host of other Israeli matters.
And, the more I think about it, that’s a good thing.
Diaspora Jewry’s frustration with the Israeli government’s handling of issues of gender and freedom to worship shows that Jews still feel like we have a stake in Israel,that our beliefs and futures are bound up with those of the Jewish state. In that regard, the argument that American Jews have no place criticizing Israeli civil affairs fails to grasp several key things about the nature of the Kotel and the Diaspora-Israel relationship.
The Kotel reflects the highest religious aspirations of Jews worldwide, not just Israelis. It’s arguably the holiest place on this earth. Further, the policies which marginalize women and empower a rigid theocracy are enacted in the name of Jews worldwide. For these reasons, the Kotel policies aren’t just another set of domestic civil affairs, and we should not look at the Kotel’s restrictions on women’s prayer as another, far away, example of religious oppression.
Freedom to worship the Jewish God is a far more imminent matter. And if Jerusalem is the heart of the people of Israel, the Western Wall is the vena cava, the main vein, for transfusing Israel’s prayers, blessings, and cries to the Almighty. That’s why the Kotel policies aren’t just a domestic affairs issue, but are germane to all Jews. Solutions proposed thus far, such as a three part Mechitza, or different prayer time slots, make me hopeful but not optimistic.
Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state is also bound up with its ability to address the views of Jews worldwide. When many Jews look at the Kotel policies, they see a refutation of our most basic principles, such as gender equality and religious pluralism. Entrenching the current Israeli rabbinate’s power structure will only serve to further isolate Israel in the global Jewish community.
Israel will achieve its mission when Jews across the globe can say: This is a place which represents my values. This is my home. Let’s make it our home.