Behind the Wall, Part Two
First published in Hamodia.
In our previous installment, we discussed the changing standards of the American liberal movements, and their preference for Western mores over Torah Judaism. This is what they wish to import to Israel: not merely their current beliefs, but whatever they endorse at their conventions, at any point in the future. Saddest of all, they are doing this not because Israel needs or demands their services, but because they need to prop up their authority and relevance as their numbers diminish in America. And they have chosen the holy Western Wall as their battleground.
The demands of the Women of the Wall (WOW) are described as a battle for “women’s rights” — women, they say, are denied the right to read from a Torah scroll by “ultra-Orthodox” men. Yet alternate accommodations provided by the Israeli government are universally rejected, though each offering is more than sufficient to meet their needs. Even today, WOW declare that they will continue to pray in the women’s section for years, until many millions of dollars are spent building an alternate plaza that, if ever built, would never see significant use.
This is because WOW has two conflicting goals, neither of which is prayer. They come wearing Tefillin out of place, singing in loud voices, making a mockery of sincere Tefillah.
What are their real agendas? One is to gain legitimacy and recognition for American liberal movements. The second is to “save” all frum women, whom they believe to be trapped under the control of “ultra-Orthodox rabbis” and, given awareness of alternatives, will become feminists and demand to read Torah and lead services. Staging demonstration “prayers” at the Kotel, especially if they can provoke a raucous response, serves both agendas.
Their claim to merely wish to pray abuses the concept of prayer itself. But they couch this as a struggle for “women’s rights,” attempting to tie their activity to those past civil rights leaders who staged demonstrations and prayers.
An Intolerant Tolerance
This reflects a consistent tactic used by liberal movements to disparage the Orthodox in recent decades. Earlier in their history, they believed that the observant community was a dying vestige — and at that time, they were free to be dismissive and rejectionist. As recently as 1996, Simeon Maslin, then head of the (reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis, delivered a speech at their biannual convention in which he ridiculed traditional Jewish practice and concluded “we are the authentic Jews. We, and not they.”
Once they realized that the Orthodox were here to stay, however, they reversed the narrative. Today the reformers, who rejected Torah, are portrayed as innocent victims of rejection by the Orthodox. Liberal groups misuse terms like tolerance, civil rights and women’s rights in order to pursue their agenda — which inevitably leads to quashing the religious rights of the observant.
They claim that tolerance requires a belief in “pluralism,” the belief that all movements are equally “valid.” Paradoxically, they are absolutist and intolerant about this new standard; certain institutions will only invite teachers who profess to be “pluralistic.”
The Right to Destroy Our People
In Israel, the American liberal movements use this language to argue that were they granted “equality” alongside Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, Israeli Jews would stream to their services and more Jews would be “religious.” Over 20 years ago, a reform leader predicted that “tens of thousands of Israeli couples suddenly would want to be married by Reform and Conservative rabbis,” were they given the opportunity.
At one point, a religious Zionist Knesset member offered these movements recognition, but as alternate religious groups — similar to the way that Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant clerics can all conduct marriages in Israel. The liberal movements categorically rejected this option; They knew that, contrary to their public statements, the overwhelming majority of Israelis would prefer to be classified as Jews according to traditional standards. And thus they continue to claim that their “rights” are denied, because their actual interest is to replace traditional definitions of Judaism and Jewish practice.
What would this “accomplish?” In all areas, they would replace halachic standards with their own, with the current and future whims of the reform movement — and the disastrous consequences would persist for generations. Funding for Torah institutions and Torah programs would be under even greater threat, but that is the least of the issues.
No government Kashrus agency would be free of reform or conservative intervention. IDF services for observant soldiers would be provided by liberal “rabbis” who keep neither Shabbos nor Kashrus. Hundreds of thousands of workers drawn to Israel would be able to register as Jews after a brief conversion workshop. Marriages would not be trusted, and even worse, halachic marriages would not be dissolved in halachic fashion, permitting ill-informed women to produce an unprecedented number of mamzerim. Even at the end of their lives, Jews could no longer be assured of a taharah and kosher burial. Nothing would be safe.
Israeli Adherence to Tradition
The American liberal movements have expended tens of millions of dollars in order to gain interest in Israel… and the results have been underwhelming. The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism commissioned a survey to display their strength — and even according to their rosy view, merely one in six Israeli Jews had so much as visited a reform congregation even once during the previous five years.
And those who go are unimpressed. Israel’s current President, Ruby Rivlin, was a freshly-elected Likud MK in 1989 when Reform Rabbi Uri Regev brought him to the United States to learn more about American Jewry. Upon his return, he told the Israeli media that “as a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked… Any connection between [Reform] and Judaism didn’t approach reality. I felt as if I were in a church.”
Rivlin is hardly alone. Compared to American adherents of the liberal movements, Israelis are vastly more attached to Jewish tradition. This is not merely because, as the Pew Research Center reports, 22% of Israeli Jews are observant, as compared to only 10% of American Jews.
Even the 49% of Israeli Jews who identify as “hilonim” (secular) are so invested in Jewish ritual as to be practically Orthodox by American standards. For example, half of “hilonim” light Shabbos candles “at least some of the time,” and one-third keep kosher at home; among American Reform Jews, by contrast, only one in ten usually lights Shabbos candles, and a mere 7% keep a kosher home. While 35% of Israel Jews say that Jewish observance is an essential part of being a Jew, merely 19% of American Jews agreed.
An Unrealistic Picture
Despite the disastrous consequences of “liberal Judaism” in America, some public figures in Israel romanticize these movements and misportray them as a positive force. Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, architected the “Kotel plan” which, in its final version, would create an “egalitarian prayer space” at the Western Wall under control of the American liberal movements and the feminist Women of the Wall. He claimed that this would be a positive step, because “many assert that the reform cause assimilation, but this is not correct: it is the final defense before assimilation.” Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat went still further, advocating for liberal movements to share religious facilities in Israel, and stating that “they’re not our enemies, they’re our partners.”
These statements are jarringly discordant with the sad reality. Among the non-Orthodox in America, the intermarriage rate has exceeded 70%, due to lack of religious conviction and an ever-increasing “welcome” of the intermarried in liberal congregations. Steven Cohen, Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University, is also a Research Professor at the reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. So he is hardly preaching to his choir when he dismisses congregational outreach to intermarried couples as a “dubious strategy” with no signs of success.
According to Cohen, there is only one religious observance dramatically more likely to be found in an intermarried home: a tree, whether named a “Chanukah bush” or with greater honesty. In fact, intermarried couples are only growing more distant from the Jewish community. According to a survey conducted by Baltimore’s Associated Jewish Charities in 2010, only 30% of children of intermarriage were being raised as “Jewish-only,” and fewer than half raised Jewish at all, compared to 62% raised Jewish-only in 1998.
The Growing Orthodox Influence
In contrast to the crisis of assimilation facing the liberal movements, Orthodoxy is blossoming in America as it is in Israel. According to the Census of American Jewish Days Schools conducted by Marvin Schick in 2014 for the Avi Chai Foundation, attendance at Hasidic schools more than doubled in the fifteen years between 1998 and 2013, while students at “Yeshivish” schools increased nearly 60%. During that same period, attendance at the conservative Schechter schools declined by nearly 45%, and the already-minimal enrollment at reform schools declined an additional 17%.
The Baltimore Jewish Times described the results of the 2010 Associated Jewish Charities survey as “stunning:” the Orthodox population had grown 50% in barely a decade, while the non-Orthodox declined over 10% during the same period.
In the wake of the Pew Survey of American Jewry of 2013, Chanan Gordon and Richard Horowitz last year published a revision of their classic report, “Will your Grandchildren Be Jewish?” While their chart tells its own story, one could summarize the results as follows:
According to Pew, there are currently roughly 2.1 million American Jews affiliated with the reform movement, and nearly 1.1 million affiliated with the conservative. There are also roughly 120,000 Jews who adopted observance as adults. If one imagines that all of these Baalei Teshuva adopted Yeshiva or Chasidic Orthodoxy (which is not true, but nearly so), and shared the birthrate of that community (ditto), then according to Gordon and Horowitz, these 120,000 will have as many Jewish grandchildren as the entire memberships of the reform and conservative movements today.
From all of the preceding, it is obvious that the liberal movements are not responding to an actual need for their “improvement” of Israeli Jewish life. And with liberal Judaism in collapse in America, their true focus should be upon motivating their own congregants to be more involved with Jewish life.
And that is exactly the point. They need a cause around which to rally their troops. This explains both their demand for recognition and legitimacy in Israel, and their support for WOW and changes at the Kotel as an initial objective.
Israel’s secular, left-wing media openly assists in the liberal agenda. Although WOW leaders have openly and repeatedly discussed their desire to change Orthodoxy via shock and provocation, their media cheerleaders aid in their false depiction as merely an innocent group of women trying to “pray in their own fashion.” The media further describes WOW as “representing women,” while its monthly antics trample upon the rights of thousands of traditional women who wish a consecrated space for traditional prayer at the holy Western Wall. The Orthodox counter-group, Women For the Wall, is similarly portrayed as “ultra-Orthodox,” although neither of its leaders, Leah Aharoni and Jenni Menashe, is charedi.
The “Kotel Plan” brokered by Sharansky would waste millions of dollars in order to give the American liberal movements and WOW joint control of a space of similar size and equal prominence to the plaza used by millions of Jews. Because, as mentioned earlier, WOW has two differing objectives, the announcement of WOW’s agreement to this plan caused the group to fracture.
It is apparent that the head of WOW, Anat Hoffman, went along with the Sharansky plan both because she realized that it is unlikely to be implemented, and because the reform movement pays her salary. Many of the original, core supporters of Women of the Wall were outraged that the group might ever abandon their goal of disrupting the prayers of traditional women. This led to the formation of an alternative group, calling itself the “Original Women of the Wall,” O-WOW.
Hoffman said openly that she never joined WOW in order to pray, but to stage a demonstration:
They came to Israel in 1988 to attend the first International Jewish Feminist Conference. They went to the Western Wall, wishing to read from a Torah… I had a folding table and they asked me to join them. You know, for demonstrations you always need a folding table and a megaphone, and I have both.
Hoffman’s personal preference seems to be to reduce prayer at the Wall as much as possible. She once proposed that for many hours a day the Wall serve as a secular “monument,” one “open to the public but not to ultra-Orthodox men” (apparently believing charedi men not to be part of the “public”). On another occasion, she suggested to Israel television that a day would come when visitors to the Kotel were shocked to learn there had ever been a mechitzah at the site. In the court hearing just conducted, the lawyer for O-WOW, Dr. Susan Weiss, similarly expressed her opinion that the mechitzah should be removed, saying she would “send all of [those praying there] to their synagogue.”
As director of the “Women in Black,” an “anti-war” group prior to the Oslo Accords, Hoffman advocated for giving all land over the 1949 armistice line — including the site of the Holy Temple — back to the Arabs, ending all Jewish prayer at the site.
And that is hardly the only tie between WOW and anti-Israel causes. According to research by Rachel Avraham, news editor for Jerusalem Online News, Hoffman chairs the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem, which is part of Al-Aqsa Grassroots, an anti-Israel network supporting “resistance to the occupation.” Batya Kallus, Vice Chair of WOW, is an advisor to Sikkuy, a group that calls for the abolishment of Israel and praises violent resistance. Kallus also helped obtain funding for Adalah, a group that denounces Israel as a “colonial state” and was credited 38 times by name in the infamously anti-Israel Goldstone Report produced after the last Gaza War.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that Hoffman is funded by an American movement that seems openly at odds with the Israeli consensus regarding Israel’s security needs and the dangers of terrorism. The current head of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Rabbi Rick Jacobs, served on the Board of Directors of the leftist and pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund. Jacobs strongly advocated for the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to accept J Street as a member, and even threatened to withdraw the URJ from the Conference after it declined to do so.
The Battle to Quash Religious Rights
In 1988, when WOW got its start, Anat Hoffman was running for the Jerusalem City Council on the Ratz-Shinui ticket. Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht describe in their book “To Rule Jerusalem” how she came to be elected:
Two weeks before the election, the party distributed a map that shocked the city. The map showed all of the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem with black dots of various sizes and densities indicating the extent to which the haredim had “spread” in Jerusalem. Many secular Israeli Jerusalem nights, however, were outraged at what they perceived as an anti-Semitic campaign. How, they demanded, would Jews respond in a Christian country if the dots represented them rather than the haredim? Or, how with the same Israeli civil rights activists respond if the dots had marked Palestinian residences?
The authors concluded that the party’s “ability to harness anti-haredi rage succeeded magnificently,” as it garnered four seats on the city council that year. “An informal poll conducted by Anat Hoffman asking Ratz-Shinui voters why they had chosen the party indicated that anti-haredi sentiment was the paramount factor.”
So this purported civil rights’ activist began her career on a platform of open bigotry. But after fourteen years on the Jerusalem City Council, she found an even better partner than her voters to help vent antipathy for the charedim — the American reform movement. After all, a properly-motivated individual can do far more damage to religious rights arguing before Israel’s leftist, activist, and secularist Supreme Court, than by participating in a democratically-elected city council.
The reform movement hired Hoffman in 2002 to be Director of its Israel Religious Action Center, which Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum described three years later as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” IRAC delayed the building of a religious center in Rechovot for over a decade despite City Council approval, attempted to prevent Chabad from operating at Ben-Gurion Airport, and recently announced that it will sue El-Al to prevent voluntarily accommodation for hassidic travelers who prefer not to sit next to someone of the opposite gender.
The Court Cases
The Supreme Court is currently hearing three separate petitions as one case: one from the reform movement and WOW to force the government to uphold the “Kotel deal” giving the Reform control of a separate plaza, one from the O-WOW splinter group for permission to read from the Torah in the women’s section, and one from Mercaz Liba, a religious-nationalist group seeking to keep the Kotel reserved for traditional Jewish prayer.
This conflict is probably the liberal movements’ last opportunity to export their failed models to the Holy Land. If current patterns continue, in a decade the future of Judaism in America will be obvious to all. For the moment, however, Israeli government officials still often believe that the leaders of the liberal movements speak for “Diaspora Jewry.”
This is why it is critical for observant Jewry to be heard, not only in Israel, but from America as well. This is why we must immediately and loudly challenge the false narrative told by the liberal movements.
If Knesset representatives know the truth and make the right decisions, it is unlikely that the future of Torah’s authority in Eretz Yisroel will again be challenged in this fashion. Yet if the liberal movements gain the foothold they desire today, they will only fade away after wreaking permanent havoc in Israel, as they have in America.