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Mark S. Golub Response to Daniel Gordis on Kotel Issue

05 Jul

A version of the following Op-Ed piece by JBS president Rabbi Mark S. Golub

was published July 4th by the Times of Israel.



Once again, Daniel Gordis distinguishes himself as one of world Jewry’s most thoughtful and courageous thinkers. His recent piece in the Times of Israel (“Israelis don’t care that you’re insulted: An open letter to American Jews” – July 3, 2017) is brilliantly written and some of his salient points are gifts to American Jewry and to Diaspora Jewry world-wide.

With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and occupation of the West Bank, Gordis summarizes the American Jewish responsibility to Israel in marvelously succinct words: “Your job, more than anything else, is to help us stay safe and alive…What you owe the Jewish people is to keep the bad guys at bay.”

Also, I am moved by the way Gordis differentiates between the limitation on American Jewry’s right to try to influence Israeli defense policy and American Jewry’s absolute right to exert influence in areas of Jewish personal status and observance in the Jewish State – a state created for
all of the Jewish people.

“Not all Jews are citizens of Israel,” Gordis writes, “but all Jews have a stake in the kind of country Israel is, particularly when it comes to its attitude to Jewish peoplehood.”

My only point of disagreement with Gordis’ argument concerns his encouraging American Jews to withhold financial support for the State of Israel and Israeli institutions. While Gordis titles his open letter to American Jews “Israelis don’t care that you feel insulted,” he is actually critical of Israelis for not caring when it comes to Orthodox rejection of Jewish pluralism.

Gordis’ message to American Jewry is: “Israelis don’t care that you feel insulted – but you should care that Israelis don’t care about you, and punish Israelis financially for their not caring.”

Gordis cites his prior advice to American Jews (offered before the compromise solution of the creation of a third section at the Kotel at Robinson’s arch) that American Jews withhold giving monies to help fund Israeli hospitals.

Because Gordis wanted to punish Mr. Netanyahu (for the inappropriate appointment of an Orthodox Jew as Minister of Health), he was willing to let the Health Ministry suffer.

If the Health Ministry suffers, the Israel people suffer. Withholding monies from hospitals punishes the Israeli people!

In his recent piece, Gordis encourages American Jews to punish the Prime Minister for backing out of the Kotel deal by using the power of their purse.

But funds are fungible. Whatever funds are withheld from Israel are withheld from everything the government does.

Gordis writes from an overwhelming commitment to the State of Israel, the Israeli people and the good of both. But it is also unquestionable that there will be American Jews who will use Gordis’ piece as a justification for their refusing to help fund UJA, Jewish Federations, and other Jewish agencies that help sustain Israeli and Jewish life.

Any American Jew who agrees with Gordis’ call to withhold financial (and emotional) support of Israel is weakening the Jewish State as a whole and is betraying the transcending bond that has been the hallmark of the Jewish community.

It is troubling that Gordis would validate American Jews’ distancing themselves from Israel. And sadly, he echoes what many American Jewish leaders are verbalizing, implicitly, if not explicitly. Instead of providing a perspective to defuse American Jewish anger, too many non-Orthodox American rabbis and major institutional leaders are permitting a well-spring of resentment against Israel to grow.

Gordis’ limits his stated principle — “Your job, more than anything else, is to help us stay safe and alive” – to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone.

But Gordis’ profound articulation of Jewish responsibility should apply to every aspect of Israeli life – indeed, to every Jewish community in need.

Zionism is a political philosophy; but Israel is not a political abstraction. Israel is flesh and blood – men, women and children.

American Jews must understand they are not in partnership with an abstract “State” of Israel – nor with any particular Israeli government. American Jews are in partnership with the people of Israel.

Gordis’ call for American Jewish “humility” needs to extend to every aspect of Israeli life, even when American Jews are affected by a given policy.

This does not mean that American Jews should accept Israeli social and religious policy without expressing their strong dissent and opposition. Gordis cogently describes the lack of Israeli sophistication when it comes to Israelis’ understanding of the nature, strengths and integrity of American Jewish pluralism. American Jews need to educate Israelis to the authenticity of Jewish pluralism and must be ceaseless advocates of their cause.

From my first trip to Israeli in 1970, I have argued there should be a third section at the Western Wall where I could stand together with my wife and daughters. I have been a public supporter of Anat Hoffman and “Women of the Wall,” and the right of women to pray at the Kotel wearing a tallit and to read from the Sefer Torah. For me, it goes without saying that non-Orthodox Jews should have a place at the most important Jewish symbol in the world, if not the holiest.

So of course Rick Jacobs, as Eric Yoffie before him (URJ); Julie Schonfeld (RA) and Jerry Silverman (JFNA) have every right to join in a larger American Jewish protest of any Israeli policy that delegitimizes non-Orthodox streams of Jewish life. They have a responsibility to do so.

But there is one line they may not cross. They may never make Israeli policy a rationale for American Jews distancing themselves from the State of Israel and the Israeli people.

To the contrary. American Jewish leaders must be sure their memberships know that, despite any profound disagreements they may have with the way American Jewry is being treated, as Jewish leaders they would never encourage or support American Jews distancing themselves from Israel.

The New York Times published a story describing American Jewish reaction to the failed Kotel process on the same day Daniel Gordis published his piece in the Times of Israel (July 3, 2017). The New York Times led with an account of a prominent American Jewish donor who demanded a refund of his $1 million Israel bond purchase. Such a reaction is a tragic pity but I imagine the donor believed his demand would be applauded by Jewish leaders whom he respected.

We should fight the Orthodox Rabbinate’s stranglehold on aspects of Israeli life. But we should never abandon the Israeli people, and the Jacobs, Schonfelds, Silvermans – as well as Daniel Gordis — must make this point loud and clear!

Many Israelis have spoken critically of the Israeli political system and the deficiencies of a parliamentary government in which small parties wield disproportionate power because they are necessary to maintain the governing coalition.

This political system, however, is what the Israeli people are so far willing to tolerate.

Until the Israeli people change their political system, government after government will be forced to make concessions to small parties that sustain their coalition. The Netanyahu government was caught on the horns of this ongoing political dilemma.

There is something, therefore, unseemly and distracting in joining the chorus vilifying Prime Minister Netanyahu. He is no less a political being than every prime minister (and American president) has been before him. It was David Ben Gurion, himself, who made the original “deal” with the Orthodox Rabbinate that has spiraled Israel into a religious quagmire of intolerance.

Netanyahu’s goal is to continue to stay in power and lead the government — just as every American president, of either party, tries to hold on to the reins of power.

Netanyahu faced one of two realities: to either follow through on his promise on the Sharansky compromise of an egalitarian section of the Western Wall and bring down his government, or to negate his promise and maintain his government. He inevitably chose the latter – as would most politicians world-wide and throughout history.

Might both Israeli and American Jews wish he had made the opposite choice, even if it meant bringing down his government? Many American Jews wish he had done just that. People are suggesting his decision showed a lack of courage.

How easy it is to tell someone else to have courage. Virtually none of us are in the government or stand in Netanyahu’s shoes. Whether one likes or dislikes Benjamin Netanyahu, his political decision in this instance is totally understandable in the world of real politick. And few, if any, would have acted differently.

Gordis suggests American Jews need more “humility” when it comes to telling Israel what to do in security matters and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This same “humility” is needed here.

I want to reiterate.

I applaud any American Jewish expression of disappointment and a sense of betrayal by the Cabinet’s decision to refrain from implementing the compromise worked out for the Western Wall.

I applaud every Diaspora attempt to argue for the realities of Jewish Pluralism and the legitimacy of non-Orthodox streams of Jewish life.

There should be an egalitarian section at the Western Wall – sharing one access to all sections of the Wall and constructed as beautifully as the plaza that now exists at the Orthodox sections of the Kotel.

But American Jewish leaders should never suggest to their communities that Israel – and the Israeli people — merit one iota less emotional and financial partnership because of an Israeli policy on peoplehood.

It is ironic that the suggestion that American Jews use the power of the purse to pressure Israel to adopt a given policy is exactly what most of us abhor and condemn in the BDS Movement, which also seeks to use financial power (of divestments, boycotts and sanctions) to influence Israeli policy. American Jews must find a means of protesting and influencing Israeli policy without resorting to our own form of financial “divestment” – which is exactly what the American Jewish donor did when he sought to revoke his $1 million in Israeli bonds

What leverage, then, do American Jews have if they can’t use the power of the purse; if it is inappropriate to threaten that Israel will lose American Jewish support; if it is unacceptable to suggest that fewer Jews will visit Israel or that American Jews will no longer lobby for Israel in the halls of American government?

The only appropriate leverage American Jewry rightly has is the power of the “argument.” In the long run, it is the Jewish righteousness of the argument that must persuade the Israeli people to take action.

If the Israeli people are not moved to care enough to demand change, American Jews will simply need to better articulate their argument.

Finally, the way in which the problem of Orthodox monopoly in Israel is portrayed by Jewish leadership impacts American Jews who have never visited Israel in ways that are neither fair nor honest to Israeli life. Reading Gordis’ essay, many non-Orthodox American Jews will imagine Israel as a place where non-Orthodox Jews are regularly mistreated. They will imagine being uncomfortable anywhere they travel should they visit Israel.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every Jewish leader – in America and in Israel – must make clear that when a non-Orthodox Jew steps foot in the State of Israel, that Jew will enjoy a wonderful experience anywhere throughout the Jewish state without ever experiencing a moment of discomfort.

There is an ugly institutional bias against non-Orthodox streams of Judaism embedded in the Israeli “system.” There are ways in which non-Orthodox streams of Judaism suffer concrete forms of discrimination which deny them equal funding and equal status. At the Kotel, non-Orthodox Jews will find themselves in an Orthodox shul. And the Israeli system perpetuates the obscene insanity as the only place in the Jewish world where Jews may not marry with the rabbi of their choice.

But on the streets of Israel — in the cities and towns and hills of Israel — Jewish pluralism is a total non-issue. Moreover, there are active and vibrant non-Orthodox synagogues throughout Israel – including in Jerusalem – which non-Orthodox Jews are welcome to attend.

This is the larger reality which must be the context in which the important philosophical and practical issue of Jewish pluralism in Israel must be discussed and confronted.

Rabbi Mark S. Golub
July 4, 2017



Mark S. Golub Response to Daniel Gordis on Kotel Issue

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