Yediot Achronot, Jan. 24th 2010
Prevent the Schism
By Yizhar Hess
It was some two months ago that Nofrat Frenkel was arrested at the Western Wall (Kotel) Plaza for the "transgression" of wearing a Tallit. Nofrat, an Israeli born medical student at Ben Gurion University, a member of the Masorti Movement (the Israeli name for the Conservative Movement), is active in Women of the Wall (WOW), a group of Orthodox, Reform and Masorti women who have gathered each Rosh Hodesh (new month) to pray in the women's section of the Kotel.
Two weeks ago, the head of the organization, Anat Hoffman, was called in by the police for questioning. She was finger-printed and interrogated. She was then released. The possible charge: inciting a rebellion.
These incidents, which reflect an internal problem in Israel – yet another sign of Haredi dominance of the Kotel, touch a raw nerve with North American Jewry. The events were deeply insulting and nearly every American Jewish newspaper reported these events. Even the venerable New York Times devoted significant space to the story. Last week, in San Francisco's Union Square, hundreds of men and women, draped in Tallitot, called on the Israeli authorities to wake up.
Yet here in Israel – a near deafening silence.
In recent days the leadership of the organizations of the Conservative Movement produced a statement, unprecedented in its scathing nature, aimed at the Israeli government.
One must keep in mind that the Conservative Movement is the central stream of Judaism in North America. Its membership fills the ranks of leadership in most all important Jewish organizations.
"We feel that the arrest of Nofrat Frankel and the interrogation of Anat Hoffman drives a wedge between our communities at a time when working for unity within Israel and enhancing the connection between Diaspora Jewish communities and Israel should be a primary concern," said the statement.
These words come from Jews who hold Israel dear, who have visited Israel time and again, whose support for the State is all but automatic. They feel as though they are being given the cold shoulder by Israel. They are being scorned by the country they so love. They are not valued for who and what they are.
American Jews do not live in a cultural vacuum. This is the single most affluent community in Jewish history. They have built public institutions for research, culture, and religion. They carry significant influence in the American public sphere.
Yet in recent years there has been a shift. Statistics published by Dr. Steven Cohen, one of America's foremost Jewish sociologists, demonstrate that the strong connection of American Jewry to Israel has been weakening. Now, with the events surrounding the Kotel, American Jewry feels as though they have been spit upon.
Have Israelis heard of the biting reaction of American Jewry? Of the public outcry and demonstrations? Of the many letters sent to Israel's ambassador to the United States? Of the numerous essays and opinion articles published in Jewish newspapers? Of the sermons preached in synagogues?
The sad answer is that most Israelis are unaware of this response and thus our politicians have been able to avoid the issue.
This is a dangerous trend. Not simply because of the Kotel events. The Kotel is but a metaphor for a larger picture. In our haste, our incompetence, and sometimes even our insidiousness, we drive American Jewry even further away from Israel. Only a minority of American Jewry identifies as Orthodox (10%). The majority of affiliated Jews identify with the Conservative and the Reform Movements. Yet when they visit here, in the Jewish State, they encounter systemized discrimination aimed at all who are not Orthodox.
Orthodox public institutions receive generous governmental funding, taking advantage of carefully crafted rules and criteria that deny the non-Orthodox the ability to even apply for such allocations. Not forgetting the Orthodox monopoly over marriage, conversion and burial. Occasionally the courts have succeeded in correcting an injustice – but this is but a drop in the ocean.
We must not lose one of our most valuable assets - the sense of partnership between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The bridge must be rebuilt. If we fail to value their Judaism and their contribution – then let us not complain when Israel no longer serves as an inspiration.
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