T he secular Jewish media is filled once again with wall-to-wall words about the Wall, or more precisely, about the heterodox prayer site nearby it (a controversy we might coin Dung-gate, after the entrance closest to that site). The space has been open for business since 2000, but in 2014, the Israeli government decided to greatly expand it — presumably because the current space was simply bursting at the seams due to the throngs of heterodox Jewish visitors.

It also decided to create one unified entrance leading to both the Kosel and the heterodox space, and to create a multidenominational committee, comprised of Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews, to administer the site. After dragging its feet since then on implementing this arrangement, the Israeli cabinet has now suspended the part of the arrangement requiring formation of an oversight committee.

To understand what’s going on here, we need to understand that far more important than the suspension of this agreement is the suspension of reality that is occurring. We’re all together in a global room, arguing and shouting, and there are huge elephants roaming that room that are being ignored by everyone present.

First, there is the issue of just what heterodox American Jews believe and feel and long for vis-a-vis Israel and the Kosel. Do they, as we are told, harbor in their bosom a deep love and caring and loyalty toward the State of Israel? Does their inability to stand with their spouses at the Wall deny them a deeply sought religious experience? Does the suspension of the agreement pose a grave danger of alienation from Israel and their deeply loving and loyal relationship with it?

Where to begin? I suppose with the sad fact that only one-third of Reform Jews and barely half of Conservative ones have been to Israel even once, with a full quarter of those saying they have no interest in ever going. The rest give a variety of reasons for not having ever visited, but feeling disenfranchised by the Orthodox at the Kosel or elsewhere isn’t one of them.

A recent American Jewish Committee poll surveyed 1,002 American Jews on pluralism in Israel, with 48 percent of them saying that “Orthodox control of the Rabbinate weakens ties between their community and Israel.” Except that the pollsters added that “52 percent of [those] polled have never been to Israel.” So these members of America’s most affluent ethnic group, who’ve vacationed everywhere from Tahiti to Timbuktu, have never been moved enough to spring for the thousand bucks to pop over to Israel for a week — but they’re sure that the Rabbinate’s control over conversion and marriage is weakening their ties to the place.

Then, as regards those brave American Jewish souls who’ve somehow ventured over to Israel despite the evil Rabbinate’s control, there is the 17 years’ worth of evidence of just how deeply offended they are by the gender-separated Kosel. Although we don’t have hard statistics as to how many people have used the heterodox prayer site during that time, the reality that’s readily observable at the forlorn heterodox site at any hour of day or night tells us all we need to know.

And it tells Israelis, too. For them, there’s nothing worse than to be hoodwinked, taken for a “freier,” an easy mark. They know who comes to their country in large numbers in good times and bad and who comes to the Kosel at all hours and in all weather and who leaves the heterodox space largely vacant.

And consider this: Heterodox Jews are not the only ones who have to deal with circumstances in Israel that assault their religious beliefs. Orthodox Jews, to cite one example of many, have to stand by mutely as tens of thousands parade annually through Jerusalem and other cities (200,000 in Tel Aviv alone), broadcasting their rebellion against G-d in a way that the Torah itself says will lead Him to spit our people out of this Land, all the while being funded and feted by government officials. Yet have Orthodox Jews ever made the kinds of threats against this country and its people that we’re now hearing, things like withholding donations and terminating business dealings that will impair the Israeli economy?



HAVE ORTHODOX JEWS EVER SUGGESTED, as Conservative clergyman Daniel Gordis has, that “Israeli hospitals survive in part thanks to American Jewish philanthropy. The flow of money should stop. Meetings with hospitals’ fundraisers should be canceled”? Have Orthodox Jews put constituent pressure on members of Congress to involve themselves in an internal matter of Israeli politics and religion and decry Israel’s lack of religious freedom for all America to hear, as heterodox Jewish leaders have now done?

Gordis says the problem is that Israelis don’t care about pluralism at the Kosel or anywhere else, but that when “their hospitals… begin to falter, when their airline faces bankruptcy … Israelis will begin to notice and will start to care.” No, no, the problem isn’t that Israelis don’t care, but that, by and large, secular and heterodox American Jews don’t. The only way to make American Jews start caring about Israel would be to get them to start caring about Judaism in general, but instead, their leaders take the much easier route to getting their way: threaten Israelis with economic ruin and sic American politicians on them. How’s that for love and loyalty?

It should be noted that these threats are being made not by the rank and file of American Jewry, or even of its religious movements, but by a handful of Jews in the leadership of the denominations and Federations. Where would the average American Jew even have heard of the Kosel controversy — at his daily daf yomi shiur, or at the synagogue services he only attends thrice yearly?

The Jewish media is filled with white-hot headlines proclaiming that “American Jews Are Furious about the Western Wall,” but the pieces are all about what the organizational flacks are saying, with nary a quote from a regular Jew in the pew. One article reports that Israel’s Foreign Ministry “has reportedly instructed staff at its nine US consulates to prepare for mass Jewish protests” over the Kosel issue. Perhaps they’d be wiser to hold off on ordering riot gear and tear gas, and wait and see whether the heterodox movements can get enough of their constituents to get off their recliners and hit “send” on the chain e-mail protests they’ve prepared for them.

But if it isn’t the lack of recognition for their denominations or egalitarian prayer at the Kosel that keeps American Jews apathetic, alienated, or worse toward Israel, then what is it?

This issue was the subject of an April 2016 Mosaic symposium in which all the participants, not one of them Orthodox, agreed with Elliot Abrams that the “American Jewish community is more distant from Israel than in past generations because it is changing, is in significant ways growing weaker, and is less inclined and indeed less able to feel and express solidarity with other Jews here and abroad.”

Jewish leaders’ outrage at the Israeli cabinet’s move might indeed be genuine, but has nothing to do with prayer or religious beliefs — it’s more about denominational ego. The heterodox prayer site remains open as before; all that was rescinded was the oversight committee that would have given the heterodox movements a modicum of control over Israel’s most important religious site and a foothold from which to agitate for ever more control and legitimization.

The issue of recognition and parity for the heterodox in Israel unleashes, in turn, yet another elephant to run amok as everyone present shuts their eyes tight. Thus, Natan Sharansky blames the current crisis on Israelis’ ignorance about the heterodox movements: “There are many… good Israelis… loving Jews, who believe that Reform is a kind of sect which destroyed Judaism from the inside in America and… now they are trying to come here.” He added that “that’s exactly what anti-Semites were saying about Jews in Russia.”

To which I add: “and what numerous American Jewish sociologists and honest heterodox clergy say about Jews in America.” As Daniel Gordis put it in the Jewish Review of Books: “The numbers are in, and they are devastating. The Pew Research Center’s ‘A Portrait of Jewish Americans’ portrays a community in existentially threatening dysfunction…. Non-Orthodox Judaism is simply disappearing in America…. By abandoning a commitment to Jewish substance, American Jewish leaders destroyed the very enterprise they claimed to be preserving.”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 667. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com