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Three Short Notes from Toronto: Kotel, War, Pew

by Shmuel Rosner

November 3, 2013 | 9:23 am

A view of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site
and the Dome of the Rock, in the Old City of Jerusalem
Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

1. Kotel

I wrote an article last week about the Kotel, and about the empty platform that needs to be filled with Jews, or else… (you can read it here). Since then I have had several conversations with the leaders of Israeli progressive Judaism – all of them seem to believe that I was expecting too much, and that the time for them to act hasn’t yet arrived. I get the impression that this is also what they’ve been telling Israeli government officials.

My argument was simple: there is a platform which is standing empty, demonstrating to Israelis that making an effort to give progressive Jews “their” plaza was not necessarily worth the trouble. The counter argument of the leaders I spoke to is this: they didn’t ask for this platform to be built in such haste; it still isn't ready to accommodate their needs; the guard still doesn’t have proper instructions to let people in for all kinds of proposes; the arrangements for handling the site still haven't been finalized; the entrance is still from the side, not from the main area; and so on and so forth. They are right – the facts they lay out are all facts. Yet I’m still unconvinced.

In Israel there are two ways to do things. One is to wait for the process to be completed. This takes time and might never happen. The second option is to 'just do it' – the way Naftali Bennet did it when he built the platform. It’s a “settler mentality” that I don’t always admire, but one that the leaders of progressive Judaism would do well to adopt in some cases. You have a platform- so start building your Jewish settlement near the Kotel. As we all know, there’s nothing more permanent than a settlement (at least in Israel).

2. Iraq

In one of the speaking events I’ll be doing today in Toronto, I’m going to talk about Israel and the Yom Kippur War forty years later. There are many things to say about the lessons of this war, and about Israelis’ struggle to come up with an agreed conclusion for it: we can’t even agree about whether the war was won or lost.

As I was thinking about my remarks, I bumped into this Pew nugget, presented by the researchers because of next week’s visit of Iraq’s Nouri al Maliki in Washington. Apparently, deciding if a war was won or lost isn’t something that only Israelis have trouble doing. Take a look:

46% of Americans said the U.S. had mostly succeeded in achieving its goals in Iraq while 43% said it had failed to do so. That compared to a 2011 survey in which 56% of Americans had said the U.S. succeeded in Iraq.

When it came to using military force in Iraq, 44% said it was the wrong decision while 41% said it was the right decision. The public had also been divided on this question in 2011: 48% said it was the right decision and 46% said it was the wrong decision.

3. Pew

Speaking about Pew, I wrote a short NYT article last week about Israel’s response to the Pew Jewish study. Here’s a slightly different version of what I said in this article:

The Pew Research Center released a comprehensive and nuanced study on October 1st about the character of the American Jewish community. The reaction in Israel was a typical mix of triumphalism and apprehension, and focused on two aspects: The high percentage -- 58 percent among young Jews -- of interfaith marriages and the vast support among American Jews for Israel.

The subject of interfaith marriage is the one that prompts a sense of triumphalism. Such a high percentage of mixed marriages inevitably leads to the assimilation of Jews into American culture, and conjures long-standing Israeli fears over the future of the Jewish people. In this narrative, assimilating is tantamount to accepting annihilation. Many Israelis believe that Jews who do not live in Israel are putting the future of the "tribe" in danger, and the Pew findings prove it. "The only place in the world that enables multi-generational Jewish life… is the state of Israel", wrote the Israeli rabbi Noam Pearl in Maariv daily after reading the Pew report. That is, Israel is still the only safe haven for Jews.

The attention given to the fact that American Jews still care in great numbers about Israel (Ynet News: Israel “in their hearts"; Haaretz's headline: "broad support for Israel") reveals Israelis' apprehension. Most Israelis believe they share a destiny with American Jews, and are fearful of any hint of possible disengagement between these two main global Jewish communities (Jewish Israelis and Americans make up more than 80% of the world's Jewish population). The fact that American Jews still care about Israel is something for them to hold on to.

Yet the realities of increasing interfaith marriage rates might presage an eventual decline in the American Jewish community’s affinity for Israel. Hence, the apprehension. In a discussion last week at a Knesset committee on Diaspora Affairs the director general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, Dvir Kahane, said that dealing with American Jewry serves as a “strategic” objective, similar to Israel dealing with the question of nuclear Iran – namely, it’s a subject of possibly grave consequences. Knesset Committee Chairman Yoel Razbozov, who ran the meeting, said that "not enough has been done" by Israel to "strengthen the Jews living in different countries."

At the committee meeting, Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement, put a positive spin on the Pew findings, calling it a "victory of Zionism." Kariv is hardly a hawkish nationalist, and has close relations to Reform communities in North America. Nevertheless, he said that the findings prove that "the future of Jewish demographics depends on the Jewish state."

If he is right, Israelis yet again have a reason to feel vindicated, to feel that their nationalistic conception of the future of Judaism is winning; but also a reason to worry, as the burden of the Jewish future rests squarely on their shoulders.

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