Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Jerusalem and the Jewish People: Unity and Division

2016 and early 2017 gave world Jewry many opportunities and reasons to think about intra-Jewish relations, and the tensions these relations potentially entail. These tensions are hard to hide, especially when it comes to Jerusalem gradually growing more religiously Orthodox. Jews see them everywhere. They see them as they ponder the issue of the Western Wall (a later chapter is dedicated to this issue) – an issue that was dealt with on the national Israeli level, but happens and impacts Jerusalem. They see them as they travel the city and see its changing demographic faces.

Jerusalem today offers a great variety of cultural and religious options that weren’t available in previous decades. But it also makes Israelis and non-Israeli Jews feel less welcome in a city whose growing sectors are more religiously (and politically) conservative than the general Jewish average. As seen earlier, Reform Jews tend to be highly concerned about Jerusalem’s direction mainly because perceive an encroachment of religious pluralism. And they are not the only ones. A pluralistic Jewish environment is what most of the Dialogue participants expect. They expect it from Israel generally – as previous studies have shown. They expect it in Jerusalem – when the practicalities of pluralistic arrangements seem to be becoming more complicated. Prohibitions against egalitarian access and worship at the Kotel, said a participant at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is an indication of “the lack of religious pluralism in Israel.”[1]

“Throughout the discussion, it became apparent that the underlying issue of pluralism in Israel was the main topic that should have been raised from the beginning,” JPPI reported following a Dialogue session in New Orleans back in 2014. Like many other aspects of the 2017 Dialogue, Jewish pluralism in Jerusalem was a microcosm of the larger issue of Jewish pluralism in the whole of Israel. “If we’re trying to figure out priorities, my two issues are religious pluralism and equality for all peoples,” a New York participant asserted. There is “growing intolerance,” one St. Louis discussant warned. “I believe Jews have a right to express how they feel about Judaism. Live and let live. Tolerate people,” said a participant in Sydney, Australia. In Ann Arbor, a participant said: “I would like to strengthen the more pluralistic connections.” In Rio de Janeiro participants wished for a “Jewish pluralistic city and also for the other religions.”

When participants played the “elect a mayor” game, they gravitated toward the candidate (in the game he was named “Omer”) that seemed most tolerant of multiple Jewish expressions. He was the only candidate that vowed to “invest in pluralistic Jewish education” and “welcome all streams of Judaism, and make a place for them.” This imaginary candidate was elected in West Palm Beach, Melbourne, Minneapolis, St. Louis, New York, Zurich, Sao Paulo, Curitiba, Cleveland. In Washington, 18 participants voted for him, more than double the number that voted for his most vibrant competitor (“Aliza,” a Religious Zionist (Orthodox) woman). These are the “two reasonable candidates,” agreed the group at the Sutton Place Synagogue in New York.[2] The runner up, Aliza, is “not friendly to Reform & Conservative Jews,” explained one “Omer” supporter. “Pluralism seems to be the most important factor,” explained another. The group as a whole agreed that it is “important to be pluralist and welcoming – we don’t want intolerance, we want a place for all Jews.”

Is Jerusalem tolerant and pluralistic? Many Jews we interviewed think not. And the main reason they point to are: 1) general intolerance in Israel toward progressive Judaism; and 2) specific intolerance in Jerusalem with respect to progressive Judaism and also secularism because of the concentration of religious and ultra-religious Orthodox Israelis in this city. In the Dialogue survey, participants were asked to refer to the growing number of ultra-Orthodox residents in Jerusalem, and to agree or disagree with the statement: “If this trend continues, Jerusalem will not be a pluralistic city that is hospitable to Jews of all streams and denominations.”

The outcome (graph 17) was a whopping consensus, with close to 85 percent of participants in agreement that the likely outcome of the current trend will be a less Jewishly pluralistic city (more about this in a later chapter). Add participants’ desire for such a city, their assessment of current trends and their likely outcomes, and the result – that a majority of them think the city is moving in the wrong direction – should come as no surprise.

One of JPPI’s goals in playing the “elect a mayor” game was to try to draw out not just what Jews have in mind as they dream of “their” Jerusalem, but also their priorities as they navigate the many preferences all have. In other words, we were trying to see not just what makes Jews either hopeful or concerned about the future of the city, but also which of these concerns are more acute and assigned a higher priority than others.

Of all the concerns discussed, Jewish pluralism topped all others in most communities. This is mainly due to three reasons:

  1. There is relatively little disagreement within world Jewry about the need for a pluralistically Jewish Jerusalem. And, of course, this does not necessarily mean that all will be in agreement on every detail pertaining to how such “pluralistic” city ought to look in practice (participants in France agreed on the general notion that “basic amenities should be put in place for Conservative and Reform Jews”). But it does mean that the ultimate goal of having a Jerusalem to which all Jews can feel a strong connection and in which all Jews can find a way to express their Jewishness is widespread.
  2. There is a general feeling among Jews that the issue of Jewish pluralism is a “global Jewish” issue – that is, an issue on which non-Israeli Jews ought to have a say. Not all non-Israeli Jews feel that Jerusalem’s economic problems or advantages are something they should be dealing with, because many of them see economics as the purview of the municipality and the state – and not something that should concern Jews who live outside of Jerusalem. But Jewish pluralism in the Jewish world’s core city of the is an issue the Jews feel comfortable talking about.
  3. Dialogue participants see Jewish pluralism as a relatively simple concept that is not too complicated to implement. Unlike issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem, which involve matters of security, the participation of other parties, international considerations etc., Jewish pluralism is an internal matter that involves nothing but the good will of Jews and their ability to cooperate and compromise.

[1] Jewish Theological Seminary, NY, February 22, 2017, Moderators: Arnold Eisen, John Ruskay note-taker: Rabbi Burton Visotzky.

[2]  April 25, 2017. Moderator: Rachel Ain.