On Friday afternoon May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion made history declaring “the establishment of a Jewish state in eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.” But Ben Gurion did not endeavor to define “Jewish State.” He understood that, at the time, Jews of Palestine needed to unite and focus on the impending challenges of war and the longer-term needs of state-building.
Ever the politician, in the months preceding the declaration, Ben Gurion began courting religious Jewish leaders of the Yishuv (the pre-independence Jewish settlement in Palestine) to join the coalition, and then the first government, for the sake of Jewish unity. In exchange, he offered a set of guarantees relating to traditional Judaism’s place in the new society. The definition of the “Jewish State” was de facto tabled until discussions two years later on the law of return. Again, Ben Gurion deflected the debate for the sake of unity in the face of growing violence from Israel’s Arab neighbors. Ben Gurion’s verbiage of the law was accepted without debate; all agreed that any attempt to force a detailed definition would create serious dissent, even a government crisis.
The continuing lack of definition and the power realities of Israeli politics have enabled contentious situations in the Knesset and Israeli Supreme Court and among many Israelis for years. And many of the situations are front and center in Israel today: military/national service for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox; recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis for religious courts and as marriage officiants; public observance of Shabbat and Jewish holidays and issues of public modesty.
But the issue of accessibility of the Western Wall to liberal, pluralistic expressions of Judaism has intensified over the past year or so. The Kotel has been the site of more and more aggressive confrontations, violence, irregular application of laws by police and arrests of demonstrators and aggressors from both sides of the issue. Secular Israelis, many of whom do not visit the Kotel for any number of reasons, came to see in the conflict the broader issues of religion in Israel society. For world Jewry, the vast majority of whom are non-Orthodox, the confrontations threatened the legitimacy of their expressions of Judaism and risked disconnecting Jews from Israel, in general, and the symbolism of the Western Wall, in particular.
Fully understanding the complexities of the situation, Prime Minister Netanyanu turned to Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman and Soviet Jewish refusenik-hero Natan Sharansky to lead a process to propose a workable solution at the Western Wall. “No one wants the Kotel to turn into a place of civil war,” Sharansky said during an interview, later explaining, with his characteristic sense of irony, that “the Jewish people have a special talent for turning everything into a civil war.”
The Jewish Agency for Israel is the largest beneficiary of our Federation’s annual campaign. In his role as Jewish Agency chairman, Sharansky sought to shift the organization’s focus from bringing Jews to Israel to strengthening Jewish “peoplehood,” a call for Jewish unity based on common values and history. He championed Birthright Israel and the Masa Program. Bridging gaps between ultra-Orthodox Jews, liberal Jews, Jews from Israel and the Diaspora, and the Israeli government over controversial issues such as women’s prayer at the Western Wall falls squarely under this definition.
Earlier this year, Sharansky proposed a plan providing for a third prayer area at the Kotel, one designated for pluralistic, egalitarian prayer. The Western Wall proposal to create an egalitarian prayer space equal in size and stature to the current gender-segregated spaces controlled by the ultra-Orthodox has won surprising support from all parties involved: Reform and Conservative leaders in the United States, women activists demanding equal prayer at the Wall and the Orthodox Kotel rabbi in charge of worship at the site.
More than any other organization for the past 25 years, Women of the Wall has been at the forefront of seeking the rights of women to pray at the Kotel in a Jewish egalitarian manner. Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, will speak in the Lehigh Valley on Tuesday Jan. 28 at the Zoellner Arts Center. Her appearance is sponsored by the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University. The program is free and open to the public. And I urge your attendance. Without a doubt, Hoffman is one of the most influential Jews in the world.
Natan Sharansky continues to work on the implementation of the plan to provide a third prayer area at the Kotel. Commenting on his continuing involvement in the process, Sharansky noted “Nothing in the history of the Jewish people ever happened fast or without difficulties.” He added that “one Western Wall for one Jewish people with equal access to all” is well worth the effort.