Yesterday, a group of Reform Jews went to the Kotel with Torahs as part of a day celebrating the ordination of the 100th Reform rabbi in Israel. It was an august crowd, led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism. It should have been a happy occasion. But, as we might have learned to expect on matters relating to the standing of Reform Jews at the Kotel, things did not go smoothly.
As the group entered the site they were attacked by security guards who report to the ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has been given control of the Kotel by the Israeli government. Then, a mob of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators joined in with shoves, fists, and mace.
The background for this violence is the Israeli government’s decision to stop the implementation of a plan, initially agreed to in January 2016, to integrate a space for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel and to put in place arrangements that ensure that not only the ultra-Orthodox would control what happens at the site.
We’ve seen this before. Time and again, the Israeli government has sold out the values and the needs of the majority of Jews in Israel and around the world, and ceded a stranglehold on religious and family life to the ultra-Orthodox. On the same day that the Netanyahu government withdrew from the Kotel compromise, they also voted to concentrate power over conversions to Judaism in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox.
NIF stands for religious freedom in Israel. We were among the earliest funders of Women of the Wall and of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. And we continue to support a group of organizations that advocate for the rights of Jews who belong to these liberal streams as well as those who want to live a secular life, free of religious coercion.
NIF is also a key funder of other groups working to create equality. And, when I see how Reform Jews are treated at the Kotel, I recognize that the Israeli government is using the same tactics to go after others who disagree with their political line. If you are a Reform Jew, your status as a Jew is questioned and you become a target for violence. If you believe that settlements threaten Israel’s future, you are termed a “BDS supporter.” If you expose human rights violations in the occupied territories, Cabinet ministers will go on TV to call you a “traitor.”
There is something deeply upsetting, and profoundly undemocratic, about these tactics. They are part of what for years I referred to as Israel’s “democratic recession,” but which now might be better understood as part of the global rise of neo-authoritarianism.
These tactics are unacceptable. We won’t stand for them in America. And we won’t stand for them in Israel. We must, rather, continue to stand for the rights of all Israelis. The stakes are clear: Will Israel respect all Jews, or just the ultra-Orthodox? Will it uphold human rights and civil liberties? Will it live up to its founding principles?
It is up to us to reject these efforts to sideline Reform Jews – just as we’ve rejected their efforts to sideline women, Palestinian-Israelis, new immigrants, and everybody else who isn’t a part of their political constituency.