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Israel, haredim, liberal Jews, and the Kotel Hama’aravi

Theodore Herzl founded modern Zionism for a single purpose: to normalize Jewish existence among the nations and thereby end anti-Semitism.

He proposed achieving this laudable goal by ingathering the exiles of the Jewish people from the Diaspora, from whichever land they lived, and making Jewish nationhood the equivalent of French, British or any other kind of national identity. Herzl saw the Jewish people intrinsically as a nation among nations, not as primarily a religion. The key was ingathering of the exiles to the ancestral land of the Jewish people.

A second goal competed with Herzl’s political Zionism, Ahad Ha’am’s cultural Zionism. Ha’am’s vision, authored under the pen name of Asher Ginsberg, meaning “one of the people,” was Jewish cultural renaissance. Ahad Ha’am wrote essays in the incubation period of modern Hebrew, even as Eliezer ben Yehudah revived and modernized spoken Hebrew as a national language. Ginsberg envisioned Zion as the center hub of the Jewish world’s wheel, which would reinvent Jewish culture and export it along the spokes of the wheel to every community of the dispersion. Thereby we would achieve a national reinvigoration and drag ourselves into the modern world of nations.

Neither vision was explicitly religious. One was entirely political, and the other cultural. 

Tragically for the Jewish people, although Herzl’s political vision has been fully realized, fulfillment did not result in achieving Herzl’s vision of the eradication of anti-Semitism. If anything, in the last two decades in particular Israel has become a codename for modern anti-Semitism among the nations. 

Yet, throughout Israel and the Diaspora, Ahad Ha’am’s cultural revitalization, recreating Jewish life in modern terms, beginning with language and continuing into every nook and cranny of Jewish civilization, has seen success beyond our dreams. In both the U.S. and Israel, Jews are revitalizing every aspect of Jewish cultural life, from secular Judaism through the ultra-Orthodox world. Indeed, the first chief rabbi of modern Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook foresaw this development by proclaiming the secular Israeli pioneers, halutzim, to be accomplishing God’s work, despite their irreligiosity.

But the contemporary Chief Rabbinate seeks to arrogate all power within Jewish religious life to itself. This it accomplishes through manipulating the arcane forces of the Israeli parliament, and the fact that Israel has almost never given power to a single political party to rule, necessitating political coalitions which invariably include the ultra-Orthodox parties.  

Why the fight over the Western Wall? Because American Jews, unlike Israelis other than the Orthodox, identify Jewish life with prayer. That is simply because American Jewish life has largely been synagogue centered. When American Jews think of identifying with Judaism, they often think of the synagogue or temple first, unlike the 80percent  of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel who may never attend synagogue worship. The Western Wall, symbolizing prayer in Israel for generations of American Jews, provides the simplest and most effective symbol for rallying American Jews to identify with Israel. 

Thus, the current intense disagreement over the Western Wall, the Kotel HaMa’aravi, is not about prayer per se, but who controls Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora. Denying Liberal Jews a place to pray at the Wall is denying them the promised membership in the homeland of the Jewish people. Totally discordant with the ideas of the founders of the State of Israel, to the point of betrayal of the Zionist vision, the ultra-Orthodox have manipulated politics within Israel to gain control of government-sponsored Judaism to their own advantage, channeling billions of government shekels annually to fund their own constituencies. Rather than welcoming home all of the Jewish people and encouraging all forms of Jewish life as Herzl, Ahad Ha’am and Ben Gurion’s generation envisioned, instead they are exploiting their political position to stifle Jewish creativity unless it agrees with the private opinions of the political elite among the haredi rabbis.

Any interpretation that weighs the current controversy by who prays at the Wall and when misses the point of the debate. The Kotel controversy is the flash point for whether Israel will be the state of all of the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora, or the state for Israeli citizens alone, limiting religious life to the 9 percent of Israeli Jews who are ultra-Orthodox and those willing to play along. 

The soul of the Jewish people and the future of the Jewish state hang in the balance. Let us remember that the independence of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, achieved at great expense in the 25 years between 167 and 142 BCE by the Hasmoneans (Maccabees), who revolted to keep Jews independent and free, was ended by infighting among the Hasmonean leadership in 63 BCE, less than a century after achieving independence. The pure motives and self-sacrifice that created independence were destroyed by infighting and selfish politics.

The Western Wall never should have been designated a synagogue. Until June 11, 1967, it never was a synagogue. Rather, it is the international symbol of the homecoming of the Jewish people, and ought rightly become a rallying point for the connection between the Jewish people and their renewal in a modern state, equal among the nations.

Rabbi Mark H. Levin is founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah. This article was originally published by The Times of Israel.