May 27, 2020

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Why they are so angry

This happened in 2011, at the California Reform Temple that I belonged to. A man – a Temple Board member, approached me with steam coming out of his ears.

“I’m finished with Israel. I won’t give another dime to the Federation,” he said, knowing me to be a strong supporter of Israel.

I asked him why. It seems that he had just read about an incident on a bus in which male Haredi passengers had demanded that a woman move to the back (there were several similar incidents. Here’s another).

“What kind of country is it? Just like the Jim Crow South. I’m finished,” he continued.

I explained that Israel’s Supreme Court had ruled that women could not be required to sit in any particular part of a public bus, and that the great majority of Israelis, religious or not, opposed the idea of sex-segregated buses. Even when there had been segregated buses, they were found only on a few lines that served Haredi populations. He calmed down but he went on for a while about how the country was “a theocracy” run by “ultra-orthodox fanatics.”

The thing I noted about this discussion, which apparently was repeated throughout North America last week after the publication of the news about the government’s freezing of the Kotel compromise and approval of the conversion bill, was that it seemed like the fellow was primed to be angry, and the story about the bus incident set him off. And learning the facts didn’t make him less angry.

Last week’s furor, which hasn’t yet abated, also had a flavor of preexisting anger triggered by events that had little real significance. After all, the mixed-gender prayer area would continue to be available, and work to improve it would continue. The conversion bill, which only would have affected people converted in Israel by rabbinical courts that were not approved by the Haredi Rabbinut, would have no effect on conversions outside of Israel by any stream of Judaism, and anyway still has a long road ahead in the Knesset before it has a chance of becoming a law.

Freezing the Kotel compromise seems to have two practical effects: there will not be a committee that includes representatives of non-Orthodox Judaism to manage the area – the main issue that inflames the Haredim, who see it as a recognition of the legitimacy of Reform Judaism – and there may not (this isn’t clear) be a connection made between the entrance to the new area and the existing Kotel plaza.

But like my friend at the Reform Temple, steam was figuratively coming out of the ears of non-Orthodox Jews in North America, and of some in Israel as well. Rick Jacobs, head of the US-based Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), said that “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to say ‘no’ to his previous ‘yes’ is an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry.” Rabbi Denise Eger of Los Angeles’ Congregation Kol Ami referred to “Benjamin Netanyahu’s crass political move.” In Israel, Daniel Gordis, normally Mr. Moderation, furiously advocated boycotting PM Netanyahu and all other Likud politicians, and even El Al, in order to “make Israelis care.”

It’s not an accident that most of the anger is directed against PM Netanyahu, who is said to have “reneged on his promise,” even more than against the Haredi parties in his coalition who forced him to do it. The URJ is closely aligned with Netanyahu’s left-wing opponents in Israel and with the international establishment that wants above all to get Israel out of the territories.

For years, the official line of the URJ has been that Israel “needs to do more” to bring about “peace,” and that the main impediment is Netanyahu, who secretly opposes “peace.” Many URJ rabbis are members of J Street, and Rick Jacobs himself was an active member of J Street and a board member of the left-wing New Israel Fund before he became URJ President. The URJ and Jacobs didn’t even oppose Obama’s Iran deal, and criticized Netanyahu for coming to the US to warn against it. Both the focus on Netanyahu and the surprising amount of vitriol that seems to have come out of nowhere can be explained in part by this long-term ideological bias.

But there’s a deeper cause for their anger. Sometimes family fights appear to be about one thing but are really about something else entirely. The kind of argument that ends up in divorce court isn’t really about taking out the garbage. And in this case, maybe the Kotel issue isn’t the real problem.

Reform Jews have built their identities more around their (liberal) politics than their Jewish spirituality, although they insist that they are the same. But almost subconsciously, they sense that there is something attenuated about Reform Judaism. They realize that the doctrine that each individual can rationally choose the mitzvot (commandments) that they will observe contradicts the concept of a mitzvah; that the anthropological study of Jewish texts is tedious and doesn’t yield enlightenment; that they don’t have time to learn Hebrew and Aramaic; and that kashrut is a bother and so is keeping Shabbat.

In short, they realize that the despised Haredim are actually right when they say that Reform Judaism is not Judaism, and anything that reminds them of that drives them up the wall with anger.

But Bibi has not given them grounds for divorce. They have not been delegitimized by anything Israel’s government has done. Nothing has changed in the arrangements for mixed prayer at the Kotel, and the conversion bill doesn’t affect them.

Rather than vent their anger against the PM and the state, they might better use their energy in introspection about matters of personal identity.

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