The Kotel: Is the Jewish Agency part of the problem?

The Kotel: Is the Jewish Agency part of the problem?

The modern State of Israel invests a great deal of effort in telling diaspora Jews that it represents them. It has a minister of diaspora affairs, and occasionally it gets offended at anti-Semitic incidents around the world.

But Israel’s understanding of the term “representing” is very different from that of most diaspora Jews. In America, our “representatives” reflect our values, advance our needs, and ask us for permission to represent them. Using that sense of the term, it is becoming exceedingly hard to argue that the government of Israel does much in the way of representing diaspora Jews.

Nowhere is this more clear than with the Jewish Agency’s role in negotiating a new compromise over access to the nucleus of Jewish sanctity and yearning, the Kotel – Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the Jewish Agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, to negotiate a new compromise in the wake of the latest Women of the Wall protests, neither Netanyahu nor Sharansky were representing the diaspora. Netanyahu wasn’t looking for more lenient access or more respect for Jewish diversity, but to silence the debate until the elections were over. It was the final weeks of a hard-fought election, and the prime minister was growing worried about tens of thousands of voters who were switching away from the Likud toward the religiously Orthodox Jewish Home party. He didn’t want religiously conservative Likud voters to find another excuse to turn rightward. He didn’t want a fight over the Kotel.

Several sources have confirmed to eJewishPhilanthropy that Netanyahu specifically asked Sharansky for quiet, not compromise – and that the Jewish Agency since has asked journalists to refrain from raising the subject in order not to harm ongoing “discussions.”

Indeed, the agency is so committed to this silence that it canceled the planned Global Forum scheduled at this week’s board of governors meeting. The forum, run in the past by the organization’s education arm, Makom, would have raised the issues of religious pluralism in the Jewish state.

Natan Sharansky, a nice man, self-effacing and patient, was a good choice for Jewish Agency chairman. But he serves in that role as Netanyahu’s representative, not the diaspora’s.

It is high time for diaspora Jews ask ourselves whether we are, in fact, represented in the Israeli government, whether anyone expresses our values or demands recognition for our needs in a systematic way. And it is time to stop allowing the pretense of representation to disguise the fact that it is sorely lacking.

The women who are getting arrested at the Kotel on a monthly basis for wearing tallitot deserve representatives who will point out that millions of Jews pray as they do, that egalitarian services are not abominations and deserve the dignity of being held at the Kotel, that the most sacred spot on the Jewish map cannot be administered by a narrowly conceived “synagogue” or unrepresentative rabbi.

American Jews do not want a new compromise that will relegate them to the back of the bus or the fringes of the holy mountain. American Jews want the struggle over a free and open Kotel to be the crucible that reignites affiliation and love for Israel, rather than the grinding sore that pushes Jews away.

It’s time American Jews had representatives who want the same thing.