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To reach Diaspora Jews, start by acknowledging their struggles

Those who dismiss the struggle at the Western Wall because it ignores Palestinians should recognize how important the Kotel is to American Jews. Their struggle for justice might start at the Western Wall, but it doesn’t necessarily end there.

By Rachel Canar

Jewish American leaders march on the Western Wall to protest the government reneging on an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space, Jerusalem, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Jewish American leaders march on the Western Wall to protest the government reneging on an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space, Jerusalem, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Something unprecedented happened in Jerusalem on Wednesday. More than 200 people, including 12 rabbis — leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Masorti movements — held a major Jewish protest against the status quo in Israel.

It wasn’t about the occupation; it was about the rights of Jews of all streams to pray in their respective traditions at the Western Wall, a right that has been actively denied them for decades. Some Jewish and Israeli activists, who for years have been waiting for the Diaspora leadership to march on the barricades of the occupation, were frustrated to see that energy focused on something as seemingly unimportant as the Western Wall.

It seems that many Israelis, especially those who are not religiously affiliated or inclined, do not understand how important the Western Wall (“Kotel” in Hebrew) is to Diaspora Jewry. They seem to be especially blind to the anger roused by the Israeli government reneging on an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space at the wall.

Diaspora Jewry’s connection to Israel is physically centered at the Kotel. The entire country is supposed to be a homeland for the Jewish people, but when Diaspora Jews visit, Israel invariably feels foreign. It is only at the Western Wall that they say, “aha!”, this is my connection. “My ancestors laid their hands here, or dreamed of it, just as their ancestors did.” When you lay your hands on the stones, you can almost feel a buzzing and hear whispers of millions of prayers. This is where we can see and feel that we are all one people that come from this place.

UNESCO notwithstanding, there is no question that these stones are the last remnants of the wall that once framed the Second Temple, the center of the civilization of a scrappy band of tribes known as The Hebrews.

Anyone who has a vested interest in Diaspora Jews taking action on or engaging with Israel, even in order to oppose the occupation, must first and foremost recognize that reality. It is not mere symbolism: either this is their homeland or it isn’t, and the Kotel is the most tangible space that makes it theirs. You can argue whether this should be true or not, and whether it is wrong or right. But it is what it is.

A youth group of the Reform and Conservative movements hold a mixed-gender prayer service during a visit to the Western Wall, Jerusalem, July 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A youth group of the Reform and Conservative movements hold a mixed-gender prayer service during a visit to the Western Wall, Jerusalem, July 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The significance of the Kotel cannot be understated — not for Jewish Israelis, certainly not for Diaspora Jewry. Yet the Israeli government on Wednesday continued to dismiss the Diaspora’s connection to and rights at the Kotel, instructing police to block their path and allowing them to be roughed up by young ultra-Orthodox men, some of whom work for the authorities who run the Kotel. The prime minister called the protest a “unilateral violation of the status quo.”

Challenge the status quo is exactly what they set out to do. The Kotel is no longer merely a symbol of the Jewish people’s historic ties to this physical space. For many it has also become a symbol of how a minority group of religious extremists has hijacked the Jewish character of the State of Israel, imposing values antithetical to those of a democratic nation-state, and the plurality of modern Jewry. The Rabbi of the Wall, to whom the state has given a monopoly on running the site, has turned what was once a sacred space that belonged to all Jews into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, segregating, excluding and silencing women.

So it should come as no surprise that the experience of intolerance at the Kotel has been a turning point for the way many Diaspora Jews experience and relate to Israel. “I had never felt so alienated, so humiliated for being a Reform Jew,” Melanie Robbins, a Jewish American woman who moved to Israel to work for an Israeli-Palestinian organization and a prominent pro-peace group, told me about her last visit at the Kotel. “We were unwanted in what should’ve been a spiritual home, a physical home. I lost a lot of determination that day, determination that I have yet to regain.”

Time and again we hear from family, colleagues and Diaspora Jewish communal leadership that the Diaspora relationship has become harder to maintain as Israel drifts further away from once shared values of democracy, gender equality, tolerance, and humanism.

That is the real reason Women of the Wall is so popular among Diaspora Jews — not just because some of them pray in a similar fashion, but because they understand these women should have the right to do so. It is in this context, we should understand the words of Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the Kotel on Wednesday, the head of the Union of Reform Judaism representing more than 2 million people: “We will change this place, we will change this country, and make this a home for all Jewish people.”

Israel’s recognition of only the most fundamentalist version of Judaism is at the heart of what is wrong with so much of this country today: it emboldens a core philosophy that allows for the occupation of another people, and an entire gamut of civil and human rights infractions. Modern Judaism does not conflict with democracy, but when policy is dictated by a state-sponsored ultra-Orthodox monopoly over religious authority, such conflicts are almost guaranteed.

Arms locked together and tightly grasping 14 Torah scrolls, hundreds of Israelis and Diaspora Jews broke through police barricades at the Kotel on Wednesday. Women of the Wall held their monthly service and read from the Torah, and hundreds participated in an egalitarian service in the plaza. It was the North American Jewish community’s way of saying: we’ve been waiting patiently while you insult us and treat our Israeli counterparts with demi-status. We’ve agreed to compromises and endless discussions. We won’t wait anymore. We will make Israel more pluralist, tolerant and egalitarian because it must be if it wants to be a homeland for the entire Jewish people, a people that includes a whole lot of Jews who care about justice.

Once they set out to effect change, I can’t imagine it will stop at the Kotel.

Rachel Canar is the development director of Israel Hofsheet, and the director of NGO Catalyst.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Tommy Goldberg

      Yes, yes, we must stop harping on about alienating concepts like “equality” and “rights” and instead help Jews from Wisconsin feel a closer connection to “their homeland” (which, I gather, ain’t Wisconsin.)

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bus189

      I think that the ultra-orthodox have way too much power in Israel and support removing their monopoly over religion in Israel.

      What annoys me is the premise according to which Diaspora Jewry takes it upon itself to dictate to people actually living here how to live. If Rick Jacobs wants to change Israel he and the two million people he claims to represent should move here, join the army, vote in the elections and force change that way. Otherwise it is just a bunch of foreigners demanding to have an equal or greater say over the country as the citizens of that country.

      If you want it to change you will have to do it as citizens rather than as tourist activists. Otherwise, and unfortunately for your cause which to a large part I probably support, Israeli politics and democracy will determine policy and not a group of people who wish to dictate policy from their comfortable homes in Scarsdale, NY.

      Oh, and Melanie Robbins (the “Jewish American woman that moved to Israel”), best as I can tell, left Israel and went back to the US. So, I guess she isn’t going to be voting to change Israeli policy either and prefers to influence Israel from her comfortable home in New York. Oh, who am I kidding with the comfortable home thing? It is New York. She probably lives in a shoebox.

      I’ve seen this phantasy a couple of times now. Once from Chemi Shalev and once from Peter Beinart. Two million liberal American Jews move to Israel and fix all the problems. Except that they aren’t doing that, because for the most part secular liberal American Jews don’t care about Israel or the Western Wall. If they cared they would be here. But they are not. So, unfortunately we have to deal with the ultra-Orthodox on our own. And yet they show up to whine and moan as if they have much legitimate influence on the matter.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Bus189: I’m all for a hands-off policy too! No more U.S. vetoes of U.N. resolutions concerning Israel – we shouldn’t interfere. No more state laws equating BDS support with anti-semitism – Israel is not our problem. Please return the $38 billion in military and financial aid the U.S. government pledged to Israel over the next 10 years.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bus189

          The internal affairs of Israel are none of your business. The US gives us money to buy crappy hardware from US manufacturers like the F35 which no one actually wants. If the US doesn’t want to give us the money, then stop sending it. But the people of Israel will decide on internal affairs and not some spoiled JAPs on their tourism activism mission.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Tommy Goldberg

      Well, look at that: Bus189 has joined Hadash.

      Yes, American Jews are foreigners to Israel. The course of Israel’s democracy should be determined by Israel’s citizens. Ayman Odeh couldn’t have said it better himself.

      Reply to Comment
      • I'm an alien

        Do you really need an incentive to oppose a military occupation of an indigenous population? Shame!

        Reply to Comment
    4. Mark

      Sounds to me like the usual rant supporting anything and everything that is remotely critical of the Israeli government. If there’s a chance to swipe at the Haredi so much the better.

      I keep an eye on +972 posts just to get a flavour of why “the left” is held in such disdain by Israelis. I am trying not to get driven to the right myself.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Shoded Yam

      Israel can do anything it wants, but nobody said there wouldn’t be any consequences. Not while you’re taking our dime, not while American Jews are leaning on their political representation to support Israel in all things, and not while our diplomats are running interference for Israel at the UN. Understand? Israelis are confused. Our folks were willing to write you blank cheques. Guess what? The folks are dead and the new game is called; “pay-to-play”. You want $38billion dollars in loan guarantees over the next 10 years? That’s nice. What’s in it for us? You want us to turn a blind eye to settlement construction and the attendant deprivations inflicted upon the Palestinians? That’s gonna cost you. Let’s say in return for our largesse (diplomatic and otherwise), the price will be separation of church and state and barring that, maybe a Masoroti Chief Rabbi. No? Than piss off. When you’re ready to do business, give us a call. Until, then we have other things to do. Sounds fantastical, doesn’t it? Guess what? That’s the future. I wouldn’t bank on any of the Madame Secretary’s promises either. History will inform Israelis, that as soon as it becomes politically expedient, Mrs Clinton will throw Israel under a bus.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bus189

        Guess what? Go ahead and do whatever you want, but you are not going to tell us how to live. You don’t want to live here? Great, then bugger off with your demands.

        It takes quite a bit of arrogance to have some spoiled millennial brat somewhere in NJ insist that another country is run according to his desires.

        Reply to Comment
        • Shoded Yam

          Wrong, sweetheart.. I’m an Israeli American and an IDF veteran, my wife’s Israeli, and so is the kid. I earned the right to piss in your face, all of your bitching and moaning to the contrary, notwithstanding.. 😜 But hey, money talks and bullshit walks the marathon. Sooner or later you’ll come to the table, ready to do business. If not, my guess is you’ll be looking for other friends, okey dokey?

          Reply to Comment
          • Bus189

            So, you came to Israel, decided it was too hard and that you didn’t care enough and went back to the US. Now you will tell those of us who actually live here how to live. Your right to “piss in my face” ended the moment you left the country and decoupled your future from ours. If you don’t have to live with the consequences you have no right to determine the actions taken.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shoded Yam

            Yes, well, vent your spleen if you must, but that’s not how it works. Because as you can see, in fact, I am pissing in your face, and will continue to do so with, great abandon, for sometime to come. Lol. Keep a towel handy.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bus189

            I can see you mouthing off, but you have no influence and will have none because you are not here. You are just another obnoxious foreigner. Have fun mouthing off and enjoy America.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shoded Yam

            If you want to continue this pretense that you’re an arbiter of anything, that’s you’re affair. The reality, as we all know, is somewhat different. Its funny you should mention consequences though. In a way, thats was Ms. Canar’s piece is all about. Reform and conservative American Jews have come to the realization that any continued association with people such as yourself will have ever diminishing returns insofar as it applies to their place in American society. That said, such an onerous burden if it must be beaten at all, must now be counter-balanced by concessions on the part of the a**holes, that are creating it in the first place. Thus we come to the issue of “Women-of-the-Wall”, (And you know, we’re talking about some Jewish Millennial’s mother, sister, or even grandma) and the issue of orthodox Jewish hegemony. 😄 You see the problem here is that this young Jewish, secular Millenial votes. And not surprisingly, she doesn’t like what you did to her mom and her grandma. And she’s gonna remember that going into the election booth, now and for the next 30 years. Yes, chamoodi. The great Jewish concensus on Israel is gone. And it’s gone because….you’re kind of a douche. 😜

            Reply to Comment
        • AJew

          “It takes quite a bit of arrogance to have some spoiled millennial brat somewhere in NJ insist that another country is run according to his desires.”

          Especially since that Brat does not represent the opinions of the majority of American Jews.

          PS
          That name of his “Shoded Yam”, thief of the sea (pirate in Hebrew) says it all. What a little creep. Another narcissist who is in love with himself.

          Reply to Comment
          • Shoded Yam

            Prognostications are not your strong suit. Change your handle to AJACKASS.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Yep. He is in love with himself. An IDF hero, no less. A hero in his own mind. And an opinionated one with a sense of entitlement. We will be sure to heed his stupid advice. What a schmuck 😂

            Reply to Comment
          • Shoded Yam

            Can I ask you a personal question? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but are you a man or a woman? You see the reason I ask is, because like a woman, you project your insecurities. It’s like I’m arguing with my wife. You’re certainly shrill enough 😄 Now see, if you were a man, you’d sound off like you have set between your legs. You’d rebutt my assertion with citations and links in a logical progression. But you can’t and your worried that I’m right (you can stop worrying. I am. 😜) so you throw your little temper tantrums, stamp your feet and scream your little insults. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were menstruating. 😆 Why don’t you and your PMS take a Midol?

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Idiot!

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Behold, the great internet hero, Shoded Yam: Tarnegol al galgalim.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Alan Rutkowski

      I am reminded of Yeshayahu Leobowitz’s epithet for the Kotel. he called it the diskotel. The idea that giving into liberal Jewsih demands for equal access to this piece of religious kitsch will somehow lead them to demand justice for the Palestinians is absurd.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben

      Ah yes. Everything is just fine and dandy in the sweet relations between the real Israel (as opposed to the Leon Uris Disney Kitsch version) and America. Love is breaking out all over. A real sustainable relationship there.

      Tommy Goldberg’s comment is astute:

      “Well, look at that: Bus189 has joined Hadash. Yes, American Jews are foreigners to Israel. The course of Israel’s democracy should be determined by Israel’s citizens. Ayman Odeh couldn’t have said it better himself.”

      Reply to Comment
      • This article was written by a 48 year old Israeli who lives and works to help make social change in Israeli society so it is better for all Israelis. You are correct that I was born in America but in Nebraska – not New Jersey. By being so off base here, one has to wonder how completely off base all your other comments are.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          I assume the author’s comment here is addressed to Bus189?

          Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            For what it is worth:

            I believe that Bus189’s post was addressed to Shoded Yam. I in turn quoted Bus189 and reinforced his message about Shoded Yam.

            Having said that, my opinion is that the Kotel should be shared by as many Jewish streams as practiclally possible as long as all streams accord everyone else the due respect that our holy place deserves.

            As for Shoded Yam, I will quote part of what he said about women:

            “like a woman, you project your insecurities.”

            AND this too:

            “so you throw your little temper tantrums, stamp your feet and scream your little insults. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were menstruating. 😆 Why don’t you and your PMS take a Midol?”

            So Rachel, if you are looking for mysogynysts, don’t forget about this little clown who calls himself Shoded Yam.

            That’s it from me. I am bored again.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shoded Yam

            So I was doing some quick calculations.
            Here’s what it’s worth;

            A lot of whining and complaining- $2.99

            An inflated sense of self-importance- $1.75 + a game token from Chuck-E-Cheese

            Watching you become increasingly agitated as you re-read my comments- Priceless

            😎

            Reply to Comment
        • Shoded Yam

          🌽 Go Cornhuskers! 🌽

          Reply to Comment
        • Bus189

          I know that you live here. Yet your article is all about how North American Jews want to change Israel. So, they show up on a tourist activism mission and make their demands on the citizens of a country they do not live in.

          The two mentioned by name live in Scarsdale and in NYC.

          Reply to Comment
          • Rachel Canar

            This article was written in response to those who very much want the Diaspora Jewish community to be involved in helping to end the Occupation. There is actually a demand/ assumption on the part of the right and the left that the Diaspora Jewish community will be involved with Israel including – donating, advocating, promoting, or opposing – but in some way engaging. Perhaps you don’t think the Diaspora Jewish community should be involved in Israel, but that is a minority opinion reflected primarily by those who have no responsibility for Israeli society.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bus189

            There is an assumption that American Jews are spoiled brats and have little to no knowledge about Israeli society or politics and as such their opinions are worth little. That is the majority position and that is true on both the left and the right in Israel. Both sides would certainly be willing to use American Jews for their political advantage.

            But yes, I get it now. You are trying to appeal to left-wing American Jews to help you in your own goals by pretending that more religious tolerance in Israel would lead to some sort of anti-occupation pressure. I didn’t realize your target audience or your angle. I admit it. Kudos for figuring an angle on how you can harness the anti-occupation Jews for your own agenda. It looks like the cynical use of American Jews really is a pan-Israeli hobby.

            My view is that if American Jews want to help Israel that is their choice and they should do it for their own benefit. But if they wish to force their opinions and policy positions on Israeli society then it is an anti-democratic attempt at subverting Israeli politics and democracy. And yes, the same applies to Sheldon.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            “So, they show up on a tourist activism mission and make their demands on the citizens of a country they do not live in.”

            It’s funny how israeli jews continually bite the hands that feed them. I would prefer that the u.s. withdraw all financial support to israel immediately. Who knows? Maybe a pres. tRUMP will demand israel pay it back?! there’s a lot of jews in the u.s. who don’t like what is being done in their name, don’t like their taxpayer dollars supporting apartheid and give a damn enough about it to tell israeli jews enough is enough. You’d do the same thing if the tables were turned so stop whining about it and work to end the occupation.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bus189

            No one cares what you prefer. Also, make sure to vote. It will make a big difference.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            You don’t care? That’s no surprise and just fine with me. I don’t live in america anymore, but can vote here. 🙂

            Reply to Comment
    8. Shoded Yam

      You ever watch “The Office”? You’re lilke the Dwight Schrute of zionism. 😄

      Reply to Comment
    9. AJew

      Whatever.

      Now tell us, Shoded. Do you know what Tarnegol Al Galgalim is? You should, know coz you are one. Care to translate what it means? Not for me. For your fans out there. In other words for YOURSELF 😜

      Reply to Comment
      • Shoded Yam

        It’s fun to do this with you. I admit, that if you were clever, it wouldn’t be so amusing, but as it is you’re as dumb as a box of rocks. So thank you for an entertaining weekend. 😀 But just so you know, you lost the argument the moment you decided to cry like a bitch instead of at least attempting to rebutt my assertion. But I gotta tell ya’ That thing you do, when you’ve used up your stock of witticisms, and are reduced to the comebacks of a 3rd grader? Thats hysterical. 😆 I gotta say though, you’re a braver man than I, gunga din. To repeatedly make futile attempts to save face, by relying on such a meager intellect as yours? Now that takes balls. Lol

        Reply to Comment
        • AJew

          💤💤

          Reply to Comment
        • AJew

          Calm down little man. I know I bruised your giant ego but don’t take it so badly. There there Tarnegol 🐔

          Reply to Comment
      • Shoded Yam

        Tarnagol al Galgalim? You know what? Chelm called. They want their idiot back. Phone home. 😄

        Reply to Comment
        • AJew

          And you are still here?

          Reply to Comment
    10. Lewis from Afula

      The bulk of the Jewish Diaspora is finished. With 70% intermarriage and separate high levels of no-marriage (ie MGTOW & feminist spinsterhood), the secular diaspora is crumbling away. In another 30 years, only a tiny core of ultra-orthodox will remain outside Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        So what, is it BAD that European Jews (who used to be viewed by resentful gentiles as a disloyal, conniving fifth column) are now accepted without reservation as fellow citizens?

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          No Ray, it is Not Bad. They are just disappearing into nothingness!
          In the future, the only Jews in existence will be (1) Israelis and (2) Ultra-orthodox ghetto diaspora Jews.

          Reply to Comment
    11. David Cohen

      Re: ” … the Israeli government on Wednesday continued to dismiss the Diaspora’s connection to and rights at the Kotel, instructing police to block their path and allowing them to be roughed up by young ultra-Orthodox men, some of whom work for the authorities who run the Kotel.” […]

      “Arms locked together and tightly grasping 14 Torah scrolls, hundreds of Israelis and Diaspora Jews broke through police barricades at the Kotel on Wednesday.”

      –> The description above is not accurate.

      The Police did NOT block the path of those entering the Kotel Plaza with Torah scrolls (and it follows that the Israel government did not “instruct” them to block their path).

      There were NO police barricades at the Kotel.

      The violence towards those holding the Torah scrolls occurred only AFTER they had entered through the standard Kotel Plaza Security Gate.

      As shown in countless videos and photos, the violence was committed by the security guards hired by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (wearing fluorescent yellow vests marked “Mikud Security”) and by ultra-Orthodox individuals.

      In fact, the Police mostly watched from the side and did not become involved in the situation.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Ellie Morris

      Perhaps if more diaspora Jews were to make aliyah, that might help the situation. Numbers matter.

      Reply to Comment
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