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Want to Resolve the Kotel Controversy? Here’s a Wild Idea: Try Politics

American Jews deserve better leaders who share their priorities and their sensibilities

Liel Leibovitz
June 30, 2017
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men yell at a member of the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall, during a demonstration against the liberal group, on February 27, 2017.Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men yell at a member of the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall, during a demonstration against the liberal group, on February 27, 2017.Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Why do bad things keep happening to good people? That, it seems, is the question on everybody’s lips these days: The moderates watching with astonishment as Donald Trump assumes the highest office in the land, the liberals weeping for the fall of the decent Jon Ossoff in Georgia, and now the majority of American Jews, witnessing Bibi Netanyahu kill a deal that would’ve allowed anyone to pray at the Kotel in whichever way they wished.

So why do these good guys keep losing? In the aftermath of every defeat, plenty of pundits pop up to explain that the problem is not enough hate: If the good guys ever want to win anything, goes this logic, they need to adopt the nefarious ways of their enemies and become better at bile; unless they master the dark arts of spewing obscenities and shutting down debate, they’ll never amount to much. Yet others argue that the problem is with the truth itself: The other side lies, and because the good guys are always too honest, they always lose, a preexisting condition they can undo only if they learn to fib boldly.

Here’s the problem with these explanations, which you hear every day on TV and read in newspapers and on news websites and catch in conversations over Chablis on the Upper West Side or in Silver Lake: They’re utter nonsense. The so-called good guys lie all the time and, on all sides, there’s no shortage of seething hate these days. What, then, are we supposed to do—and by we I mean normative, ordinary people who aren’t too ideological one way or another and who want decency and courtesy and civility to once again be the way of the land? It’s not a rhetorical question. The answer lies in an ancient art form whose meaning has been lately obscured, but which remains one of the best beacons a human being can turn to in times of darkness, and which is an essential companion in our life-long process of learning and maturation. That art form? It’s called politics.

For a rudimentary introduction to its true splendor, just look at what happened this week in Jerusalem. When their bid to force the Israeli government into a compromise failed this week—to the surprise of precisely no one—the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements reacted much as the Democrats do these days, by declaring the defeat a moral victory and vowing more outrage. The setback, Reform and Conservative movements exclaimed, was nothing less than a “betrayal,” a blow so cataclysmic after which any further conversation was futile: The Reform movement, thundered its head, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, was no longer interested in negotiating with the Jewish state.

That’s a shame. While many of us in Poughkeepsie and Phoenix and Portland don’t particularly care for Bibi, we care even less for leaders who spend almost all of their time advancing fashionable progressive causes and almost none of it doing what to us comes naturally, which is to recognize that when real and present dangers abound, we ought to set our priorities accordingly. And when we see a leadership that time after time after time lectures the democratically elected government in Jerusalem on its imperfections while, say, praising the leader of an Israeli-Arab party whose colleagues have smuggled cellphones to convicted terrorists and compared the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, we may feel a little unsure about the wisdom of our leadership.

How, then, should we proceed if we are people who are both deeply committed to egalitarian access to the Kotel but not interested in torching our entire relationship to the state of Israel over it?

This is where the art of politics comes in, and it offers us three weapons with which to wage our wars: our bucks, our butts, and our words.

The first’s the easiest: Start giving money, and give it only to organizations that do work you find both essential and essentially Jewish. It’s a deeply personal decision, but here’s a good rule of thumb: When someone tells you they’re really committed to “tikkun olam,” ask precisely what that means. If the answer strikes you as vague, walk away and send a check to Meals on Wheels instead. Or Chabad, which can arrange for everything from a Shabbat meal to an emergency rescue in the aftermath of an earthquake in a remote corner of the world.

If you’re displeased with leaders who have little interest in the fine and exhausting art of politics, the answer is to do it yourself and take your butt to Israel. When you get there, don’t stage media-friendly protests or schedule meetings with senior officials just to cancel them. Instead, just chat up a few folks, and you’ll soon see surprising coalitions taking shape. Here’s one: Imagine that the same people who argue so passionately about the right of all Jews to pray anywhere would extend the same universal principle to Jews wishing to pray on the Temple Mount, just a few feet away. Imagine that those who are perfectly comfortable offending the rigid sensibilities of pious Jews felt the same way about the equally rigid sensibilities of pious Muslims, and informed both that if you believe in freedom of religion, well, you believe in it everywhere and for everyone. Do that, and you wouldn’t just make a logically and morally sound argument, you’d also open up a dialogue with a large swath of religious Israelis who may support you because they would come to see you not only as a leftist social-justice warrior but as a principled person committed to grown-up politics.

And, finally, there are our words, which still matter a great deal, even if too many of us constrict ourselves to 140 characters or fewer. If you’re upset by the compromise’s collapse, speak up. Not on Facebook or Twitter—at shul and in a letter to the editor and in a phone call to your local rabbi. Tell them you’re furious at Bibi for folding so predictably under Haredi pressure. Tell them you’re also exasperated with the Reform and Conservative leaders for handling this crisis so poorly. Tell them you refuse to be held hostage by two obdurate parties, neither of which seems to offer you much of a vision for the future. Tell them we’ve tried this sort of zero-sum thinking here in America, and it hasn’t worked quite well. There’s no reason to try and replicate it when it comes to our relationship with Israel. Instead, we need a new way of thinking and talking and feeling, one that begins where the grandstanding ends.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.