Hardliners ‘alienating diaspora from Israel’

Nathan Jeffay
1 April 2016
The Jewish Chronicle

Fears that Netanyahu will backtrack on historic Kotel deal under Charedi pressure

Rabbis and community leaders around the world have warned that extremist stances taken by Israel’s Charedi leadership are alienating members of the diaspora.

This week, the Israeli government was poised to rethink — under Charedi pressure — a plan to develop an area for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, and MK Meir Porush was reprimanded by the Knesset ethics committee for saying that the feminist group Women of the Wall should be “thrown to the dogs”.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted that while he still wanted to implement the Kotel plan, it had hit “difficulties” — prompting fears among non-Orthodox groups that it may be watered down or scrapped completely.

The Charedi political parties that prop up the governing coalition have threatened to resign if the plan is implemented. They have also launched bitter attacks on Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements since the scheme was announced.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the liberal Orthodox Shalom Hartman Institute in the US, said: “Around the world, especially in North America, there are many people sitting on the fence and wondering whether they should give up on the Israel enterprise.

“The language and the issue of the Kotel are the same — they are symptomatic of a group that thinks that Judaism is theirs and they are the sole arbiters of Judaism, and are willing to use political power to further their ideology.”

In a Knesset speech on Monday, Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid, said that American Jews could start shunning Israel as a result of the Charedi tirades. He said: “There is real harm to our strategic alliances because the Jewish communities are a political force for Israel across the world.

“Last year, again and again and again and again, I was told by senior leaders of Jewish communities: ‘If that’s how you treat us then don’t ask for our help.’

“No one approached my grandfather in Mauthausen and said: ‘You’re Conservative, so you’re not really Jewish. We won’t murder you’.”

Mr Lapid said that US Jewish community leaders, asked by Israel to lobby against the Iran deal, had told him: “This is the last time because we can’t keep taking the insults that are hurled at us from the Knesset podium.”

In the UK, Liberal Judaism’s Rabbi Charley Baginsky, who is responsible for Israel programming and strategy, argued that Mr Netanyahu has an opportunity to show he recognises that Jews in Israel practice their religion in many different ways. She added: “The recent Kotel decision does not exclude anybody from praying at the Wall in the way in which they wish to. To reverse the decision, however, would be to exclude the fundamental right of Progressive Jews within Israel to be able to pray at an ancient site that so many Jews have always turned their hearts towards.”

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall defended the Orthodox position on the Kotel in a letter to a Muslim visitor to the site.

After the woman wrote a Facebook post about her positive experience visiting the Kotel, Rabbi Rabinowitz wrote: “The Western Wall is open to any worshipper, on any day of the year, at any time of the day.Now, when the fire of hatred is burning among the descendants of Avraham Avinu, your letter is a beacon of light.”

To add to the controversy, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said in a sermon this week that it was “forbidden for a non-Jew to live in the Land of Israel unless he has accepted the seven Noachide laws”.

Rabbi Danny Rich, the senior minister of Liberal Judaism in the UK, said he was “saddened” by what was going on in Israel. He said: “It saddens me that many of these attacks on ‘liberal Jews’ and non-Jews are so personal in nature.

“For Israel to be a real light unto the nations, non-Jewish citizens need to feel an equal part of a country that was established less than 70 years ago.”

The Board of Deputies also criticised the Sephardi rabbi’s comments, saying in a statement that they “risk stoking prejudice towards Israel’s minorities”.

Jonathan A Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, labelled outbursts about the Reform movement from the Orthodox establishment as “hate” speech.

Charedi politician Moshe Gafni’s recently said: “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

To Paysach Freedman, a Charedi rabbi and communal leader, the Reform, Conservative and other linked movements are “driving a wedge” between Israel and the diaspora by demanding religious changes that few Israelis care about and some find offensive.

While he regarded the rhetoric as “counterproductive”, he believed that the Charedi leadership was right to oppose the Kotel plan, claiming that this was part of the democratic process. “The bottom line here is that local politicians and local realities will carry the day.”

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