Debra Kamin writes: A scene in the 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati offers a pitch-perfect crystallization of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.
It plays out in a Jewish National Fund forest in central Israel, where new Israeli immigrant and titular character Sallah is planting trees. A taxi pulls up bearing the rich American couple who paid for the forest. After the pair snaps a few photos and drives away, a new couple pulls up, and the sign bearing the first donors’ names is quickly swapped out for a new one. The Israelis nearby wipe the sweat off their brows, smile for the second couple’s camera, and chuckle among themselves.
The satire feels particularly poignant this month, as an unprecedented rift between Israel and American Jewry threatens to erupt into a permanent schism. Some diaspora Jews, furious with a series of legislative blows from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, are now threatening to stitch up their deep pockets once and for all.
“The rift is real,” says Seth Farber, a modern Orthodox rabbi who leads ITIM, an organization that offers assistance to Israelis in navigating the country’s religious bureaucracy. “[Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox] are not just shifting uncomfortably. They are saying: This is not the Israel that we know.”
The issues, all revolving around the ever-thorny questions of who is a Jew and what claim non-Israelis can stake to matters of Israeli life, have been simmering for years. But last month, when the Israeli government issued a swift one-two punch to non-Orthodox Jewish observance by nixing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and approving a bill that would block all but the most religious rabbis from performing Jewish conversions, the pot boiled over.
Despite its status as a parliamentary democracy, Israel grants a coalition of ultra-Orthodox rabbis legal authority over major life issues, including marriage, divorce, and burial. Only about 11 percent of Jews in Israel define themselves as Haredi, or ultra-religious, but their significantly higher birth rate — 6.9 children per woman, compared with 3.1 among secular Israelis — means their numbers are projected to dramatically increase over the next 10 years.
The sector also wields immense power in the nation’s multiparty system, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu currently holds a razor-thin 61-seat coalition; dissent from a single party could throw the majority, forcing new elections and bringing a challenge to the premiership. Netanyahu knows that in order to hold on to power, he needs the cooperation of ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and nowhere has this reality played out more dramatically than at the Western Wall.
One of the most important sites for Jewish prayer in the world, the Western Wall is under the control of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which means that the rules there are the same as within an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Male and female worshippers are segregated, and there is a total ban, on the women’s side, on traditionally “male” accoutrements of prayer such as Torah scrolls, tefillin (phylacteries), and kippot (skullcaps).
In Israel, even the most secular Jews are used to the idea that prayer at synagogues and religious monuments usually requires adjustments like modest dress and gender segregation. But in the United States, the picture of Jewish observance is much more complex. More than half of American Jews identify with either the Reform or Conservative Jewish movement, where women are welcomed to don prayer shawls and read from the Torah, husbands and wives sing Hebrew liturgies together, and ancient Jewish laws over issues such as kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and keeping the Sabbath have a looser, modern interpretation. Whereas most Jews in Israel identify as either religious or secular, outside of Israel’s borders it’s entirely possible to practice a form of secular Judaism that looks, to the average ultra-Orthodox observer, not like Judaism at all.
So when Netanyahu bowed to ultra-Orthodox pressure late last month and nixed a hard-won agreement to build an egalitarian space at the Western Wall — one that would have allowed not just for mixed-gender worship but for women to sing prayers and read from the Torah and for girls at the site to engage in the ritual of the bat mitzvah — the move was seen as a slap in the face to the majority of the globe’s Jews. [Continue reading…]