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Jerusalem and the Jewish People: Unity and Division

The 2017 Dialogue process took place when it was already clear that the “Kotel compromise” – the agreement[1] (and government decision) to establish an officially recognized third platform near the Western Wall for progressive practice of Judaism – was in trouble due to Haredi resistance to implementing the plan.[2] However, the ultimate cabinet decision (June 25, 2017) to put the plan on hold, and the consequent anger and disappointment, was not yet known.

The grievances of non-Orthodox Jews, especially in the United States, but also in Israel,[3] concerning Haredi dominance of the Western Wall have a long legal, political, and religious history. Much more than its actual importance to any specific movement or Jewish leader, this issue has become both a symbol of Israel’s disregard for Diaspora Jewry’s interests and sentiments. It is a litmus test of Israel’s seriousness in declaring its intention to allow a more Jewishly diverse public sphere to emerge, and in being more considerate of world Jewry.

In the final report on JPPI’s 2014 Dialogue on Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State, we reported that the “example of the Western Wall – that is, the inability of non-Orthodox Jewish women to hold services at the Kotel in ways compatible with their own understanding of Judaism – was commonly cited by Jews who are unhappy with Israel’s religious preferences, and was often mentioned in JPPI seminars.”[4] Previous JPPI research argued that “young Jewish Americans are not fond of the fact that the Kotel plaza has a strict separation policy between men and women, and that the responsibility for enforcing it is in the hands of an Orthodox rabbi who applies to all visitors the rules of behavior that agree with his conception. of Judaism.”[5]

In the eyes of Jews around the world, time and again Israel fails the test, and this further enhances the issue’s symbolic value. This was of obvious importance when the Dialogue dealt with Israel as a Jewish and democratic State, and was of no less importance in the Dialogue concerning the future of Jerusalem – whose main emblematic feature for Jews is the Western Wall.

“The Wall is the heart of our religion,” stated a participant in Cleveland.[6] When asked about Jerusalem’s significance “people mentioned personal experiences at the Kotel,”, reported a New York group.[7] The “Kotel presents a sense of spirituality and inspiration,” said a participant in Washington, with another adding that “The Kotel and all that it symbolizes” was what makes Jerusalem special for him. In Melbourne, Australia, a participant shared his experience: “It strikes me as amazing when I get to the Kotel and there is someone davening with an iPhone. The old and the new. I wonder for how long have people been praying at the Kotel and how many people have been here before me?”

In fact, the sense of connectedness to the Kotel is yet another case where Dialogue participating Jews are connected to a site in Israel – at least in the hearts – even more so than Israeli Jews. The percentage of Dialogue participants who reported feeling highly connected to the Kotel (60 percent) surpassed the percentage of Jewish Israelis who reported feeling this way (56 percent) (graph 25). Even more vivid was the lower percentage of Dialogue participants who reported feeling no connection to the Kotel (5 percent) than the percentage of Jewish Israelis who reporting feel disconnected from it (13 percent). It is important to note, though, that when Israeli Jews were recently asked by a pollster “What in your opinion is the most important site in Jerusalem?” 61 percent said the Western Wall. In that poll, 76 percent of Jewish Israelis said that they had “visited the Kotel in the past year.”[8]

But there is a shadow over this rosy picture of Kotel-connected Jews. “The image of the men and boys at the Kotel evoked several negative remarks, concern about the ‘hegemony’ of the Haredi population, the lack of respect for non-Orthodox Judaism and the ‘work’ that needs to be done internally within the Jewish community around respect,” stated the report from the Dialogue seminar in Minneapolis. “I can’t stand this place anymore,” a participant in Detroit told the moderator, referring to the Kotel. “The Kotel is not my favorite place. Jerusalem is a complex place. Religiously on the ground it is not a place all Jews can go,” a participant in Washington explained. In San Paulo Brazil “Masorti participants brought memories of having problems with Haredim during Shabbat in Jerusalem (stones against cars) and Neshei HaKotel.”

JPPI discussants in their references to Jerusalem mentioned the Kotel many times as a symbol of both the importance and value of the city, and the grievances they have as they connect with it. JPPI’s Dialogue survey asked one specific question about the Kotel compromise(graph 26), and the responses predicted the ensuing crisis over the government’s freezing of the compromise. Participants were asked to consider three possible options:

  1. No change in the status quo near the Kotel – the preference of merely 7 percent of the participants, most of them Orthodox;
  2. Preference for change but acceptance of the notion that Israel has other, more urgent priorities on its agenda – 23 percent agreed with the position, which was, essentially, the position of the prime minister when deciding to freeze the Kotel agreement;
  3. Change near the Kotel must be a priority for Israel – the option that a clear majority of 69 percent of respondents chose (remember: this survey was conducted prior to the crisis). Namely, a clear majority of Jews were not willing to accept the status quo, not even on practical grounds. Policy makers searching for the reasons behind the significant outcry over the Kotel compromise freeze could find it right here. This 70 percent support for modifying the arrangement at the Kotel can be seen in other surveys as well. For example, the 2016 AJC survey of American Jewish Opinion found that 70 percent supported “the creation of a mixed-gender prayer area near the Wall.”[9]

As is true on several other issues – and is clearly a reflection of America’s front and center role in the battle over the Kotel compromise – the view of the American Jewish community on this issue (as expressed by Dialogue participants in the United States) is even more pronounced than that of other Jews. Note that Dialogue participants are mostly connected to the established Jewish community, and hence are probably more aware of the topic and of the limitations that complicate the implementation of the compromise. Still, of the American Dialogue participants, 74 percent seem to have lost patience while waiting for a move by the Israeli government – a finding that would probably be even clearer had we repeated the survey following the eruption of the crisis over the government’s decision to freeze the deal.

Also of note, if not quite surprising, is the fact that the Kotel arrangement seems more urgent and necessary to Reform and Conservative Jews – and to secular Jews who tend to sympathize with all things non-Orthodox (graph 27). More than 80 percent of Reform Jews participating in the Dialogue demanded that a Kotel compromise be implemented expeditiously, compared to just 46 percent of Orthodox participants. Also worthy of note is that even among Orthodox respondents to the Dialogue survey a 28 percent minority rejected any change and wished to retain the status quo at the Kotel. This runs contrary to the views of Orthodox Israeli Jews, most of whom rejected the compromise, and any change at all, even amid the fury following the cabinet decision to freeze the compromise deal.

The views of Israeli Jews on the question of the Kotel depend largely on how the question is framed. In the 2016 Pew survey of Israelis, Israeli Jews were “about evenly divided between those who favor (45 percent) and oppose (47 percent) allowing women to pray out loud at the Kotel.” [10] According to this survey, Haredim were generally opposed to allowing women to pray out loud at the Western Wall (81 percent). By comparison, 55 percent of secular Israeli Jews favored allowing women to pray at the Kotel; 35 percent were opposed. “Two-thirds of Datiim (Orthodox) oppose allowing women to pray at the Kotel, while Masortim (traditional Jews) are closely divided on this issue (44 percent favor, 48 percent oppose).”

A survey conducted in 2017 by the Schechter Institute asked a different question: “Should everyone be allowed to pray at the Western Wall in an equal manner?” This time, 62 percent of respondents said yes. Seventeen percent of respondents said that “a solution allowing everyone to pray at the site but with priority for Orthodox and traditional prayer services should be implemented.” 6.1 percent said non-Orthodox services should be given precedent. Nine percent of respondents said non-Orthodox services and those of the Women of the Wall group should be banned.[11]

Following the government decisions of July 2017, the Ruderman Family Foundation asked a more general question: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared to the leadership of the Jewish community in the United States that ‘every Jew should feel that the Western Wall [Kotel] belongs to him and every Jew should feel welcome in Israel.’ Do you agree or disagree that all Jews, including Reform and Conservative, should feel that the Western Wall [Kotel] belongs to him and that every Jew should feel welcome in Israel?” Eighty-two percent of Jewish Israeli adults answered affirmatively.[12]

The activist organization Hiddush found that 63 percent of Jewish Israelis oppose the “government’s decisions this Sunday in acquiescence to the ultra-Orthodox political parties’ demands to suspend the ‘Kotel Compromise’ and pass the Conversion Law.”[13] On the other side of the spectrum, a survey by an Orthodox activist center of ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Israelis found that 94 percent of Haredi voters oppose a platform for Reform and Conservative Jews, and 68 percent of the Orthodox party Habayit Hayehudi have the same view. Ninety-four percent of the Haredi Shas Party’s voters said that the platform was a “red line” and that the party ought to leave the coalition if the compromise is realized.[14]

[1]  See: The two Kotels solution: Cheer it with a grain of sadness, Shmuel Rosner, Jewish Journal, Feb. 1, 2016.

[2]  See: Is the Kotel compromise dead? Answering a reader’s question, Shmuel Rosner, Jewish Journal, March 29, 2016.

[3]  See: Herman, Tamar, (May 2013), “Israeli public opinion on the Women of the Wall,” IDI (http:// en.idi.org.il/analysis/articles/israeli-public-opinion-on-the-women-of-the-wall). From the analysis: “the survey data show that support for the demand of the Women of the Wall to be allowed to pray at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries is not distributed evenly Israeli Jewish public, and is concentrated among Israelis born in Europe and America and their children (with the exception of Israelis born in the former Soviet Union), university educated Israelis, and traditional and secular Israelis. In contrast, support for the Women of the Wall is far lower among Israelis who were born in Asia and Africa, among Israelis with a low level of education, among religious Jews in Israel, and—even lower – among Haredim”.

[4] Page 83 in the report. http://jppi.org.il/uploads/jewish_and_democratic-eng.pdf

[5] Rosner, Shmuel, (2011), “Debating Religion and State, Debating Distancing,“ JPPI.

[6] Group 1. Moderator: Bruce Goodman, note taker: Lakshmi Nebel.

[7]  New York Federation, group 1, note taker Andrea Fleishaker.

[8] A survey for Yediot Daily by the Midgam Institute, June 2, 2017.

[9] The exact question was: A proposal has recently been made to set aside an area near the Western Wall in Jerusalem—a site holy to Jews—for mixed-gender Jewish prayer. Currently, prayer services are conducted according to Orthodox tradition, with men and women separated by a barrier. Do you support or oppose the creation of a mixed-gender prayer area near the Wall? See: AJC’s 2016 Survey of American Jewish Opinion, conducted by the research company SSRS, http://www.ajc.org/site/c.7oJILSPwFfJSG/b.9456115/k.F87D/AJC_Survey_of_American_Jewish_Opinion_2016.htm

[10]  Pew asked a somewhat strange question: “Should women be allowed to pray out loud near the Western Wall?” We should assume that most respondents understood this to be a question about Women of the Wall, but the formulation (the controversy was never about prayer volume) casts doubt on these findings. See: Israel’s Religiously Divided Society, Pew, 2016.

[11]  See: Survey Results Are In: 62% of Israelis Believe Everyone Should be Allowed to Pray at Kotel, http://www.schechter.edu/survey-results-62-israelis-believe-everyone-allowed-pray-kotel/

[12] See: http://www.rudermanfoundation.org/news-and-events/news/poll-israeli-attitudes-toward-american-jews

[13]  Note that this survey employs a questionable formulation. Jewish Israelis’ view of the ultra-Orthodox community is not positive, and thus reminding respondents that the government’s decision was made “at the demand of the ultra-Orthodox political parties” invites a certain response.

[14] The survey was conducted by the Liba Center, which opposes the Kotel compromise. See: http://www.libayehudit.org/en

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