Western Wall battle: Viewing Jewish culture wars from a balcony in Israel's Galilee region

The view from my hillside guest house in the northern Israeli village of Amirim -- where I'm writing this post -- takes in the lake known in Hebrew as the Kinneret and in English as the Sea of Galilee. The lake-side city of Tiberias is also visible, as is the militarily strategic high plateau called the Golan Heights.

Errant shells from fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan regularly land across the tense border in Israel, as they have during my stay here. But they’re too far away, perhaps 20 or so miles, to be of immediate concern.

Likewise, the regular threats made by the Iranian-aligned, Lebanese Hezbollah militia to eradicate Israel in a barrage of rockets. Lebanon is just a dozen or so miles due north, but that border is mostly quiet for the moment. So why be concerned now?

What is of immediate concern, however, is the recent flare up over the Israeli government’s decision to rescind an agreement allowing non-Orthodox religious Jews to share prayer space at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

The nod to Orthodox political pressure enraged the organized non-Orthodox Jewish establishment. From cries of boycott Israeli leaders to claims that Israel gave U.S. Jews “the finger,” liberal journalistic pundits and organizational leaders alike seemingly competed to express the depth of their outrage and disgust.

(A second decision negating a provision that made conversion to Judaism somewhat easier within Israel was also made, though it's attracted much less attention outside of Israel, where conversion requirements are generally less stringent than they are in Israel.)

Consider all this the Jewish world’s internal culture war -- a struggle between strict adherence to traditional religious practice versus broadening the practice to accommodate contemporary sensibilities.

Ironically, the brouhaha is of little concern to the average Israeli Jew, the majority of whom are by no means strictly Orthodox, if not outright secular (though culturally staunchly Jewish). Only the minority of ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews are deeply invested in the struggle, resistant as they are to all religious liberalization.

But it's another story for liberally religious North American and other diaspora Jews, who are overwhelmingly non-Orthodox. (In the United States, the vast majority of religiously involved Jews are connected to the Reform and Conservative movements -- the latter, despite its name, is also left of center.)

For them -- and I count myself among them -- the issue goes to the core of their increasingly fraught relationship with an Israel seen as religiously dominated by a myopic Orthodoxy more devoted to pushing its narrow political agenda than caring about international Jewish support for the nation that, when threatened, has looked to this same external backing for its very survival.

If you need some basic background on the dispute, click here (The New York Times)>, or here (The Times of Israel), or here (Jewish Telegraphic Agency).

Why would the Israeli coalition government led by Benyamin Netanyahu take this step?

Wily politician that he is, he knew the reaction it would generate at a time when legions of diaspora Jewish leaders have warned that Israel’s right wing political leadership has alienated non-Orthodox, non-Israeli, liberal Jews -- the young in particular -- straining their needed support for Israel’s national survival.

The answer is simple: Israel is more than the Historical Jewish homeland. It's also a modern nation with its own distinct political system and perceived needs. Jerusalem -- and certainly not Amirim, for that matter -- is not New York or Los Angeles, the bi-coastal centers of American Jewish life.

This analysis piece from The Forward, North America’s premier liberal Jewish newspaper, lays it out. So does this opinion piece distributed by Religion News Service. Note that both these pieces were written by prominent liberal Jews.

Both make the point, in much greater and important detail, of course -- which is why I'm not making it easy for you by simply pulling out a nut graph or two -- that I made above. Read one or both of them to gain a full understanding of the issue’s backstory. 

Religion journalists: Your stories on Jewish reaction in your neck of the woods will be enhanced by accessing this background. 

Also read this news release issued by the ultra-Orthodox America Jewish organization Agudath Israel to better understand the strict traditionalist argument.

To reiterate: Israel is not the Upper West Side of Manhattan or the west San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

Additionally, Israel’s religiously right wing ultra-Orthodox Jews care little about the cries that international Jewish support for the State of Israel -- or Zionism itself -- is at stake. For them, it's more about faith, the religion of Judaism and it's survival in its most traditional form.

Lastly, Israeli politicians act as politicians do world wide. Priority number one is self-preservation. 

As I said, it's a culture war. And like the parallel conflict convulsing the United States over issues of gender, sexuality and public spending, how it all ends has the potential to divide international Jewish society just as its American equivalent has the potential to further tear apart the already divided larger American society.

For the moment, though, I'm going back to staring at the view from my guest house deck.

I need the break. 

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