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The Reform and Conservative Movements’ Jerusalem Problem

If you oppose moving the embassy to the holy city to avoid offending the world, and oppose Jews praying on Temple Mount to avoid offending the Palestinians, you may also want to consider the feelings of Orthodox Jews

Avi Shafran
December 07, 2017
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
A member of 'Women of the Wall' wearing tefilin and a tallis at the Kotel on April 11, 2013.Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
A member of 'Women of the Wall' wearing tefilin and a tallis at the Kotel on April 11, 2013.Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Many in the broader Jewish world, the one, that is, beyond my cloistered Orthodox environs, have voiced criticism of President Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of his plan to move our embassy there.

The critics include the Union for Reform Judaism, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Women’s Rabbinic Network, J Street and The New Israel Fund.

Some of my fellow Orthos may feel that those critics are anti-Israel or, at best, deeply misguided. I don’t agree. Not only am I heartened to see Jewish passion, civilly communicated, about an important Jewish issue, but I understand the latter groups’ concerns. In some ways, I even share them.

The goal of us all, however deep our theological or political differences may be, is that peace reign in Israel, and none of us can know whether Mr. Trump’s announcement will bring that desideratum closer or, God forbid, push it even farther away.

While the president’s action was a simple recognition of reality—not to mention a reflection of long-standing American law, i.e. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995—I am sensitive, as are the president’s critics, to the impact of his move on the deep-seated, sincere feelings of Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas, many of whom have characterized the new American policy as an ugly, callous affront to their sensibilities.

But zoom in with me, please, to a small part of modern Jerusalem, a parcel that sits in its Old City: The Temple Mount. It is a place, incidentally, where Israel shows respect for Muslim Arabs’ feelings, where two large mosques have functioned unhindered even after Israel conquered the area in 1967, despite the fact that the site in antiquity served as the worship-locus of all Jews’ ancestors.

Now zoom in just a bit more, to the plaza constructed in front of the surviving segment of the Second Temple courtyard’s retaining barrier, the Kotel Maaravi, or Western Wall. Since 1967, the Wall has been the must-pray place for Jews of every stripe–indeed, for all visitors, whatever their faiths.

To avoid balkanization of the plaza, Israeli authorities decided that, while supplicants of any religion or sect would be welcome at the Kotel, vocal group services conducted at the site should follow traditional Jewish norms, and there should be a separation between men and women near the wall, as was the practice during Temple times on its other side.

That policy was, and is, an embodiment of respect for the tradition-focused Jews who make up the vast majority of the Kotel’s regular and frequent visitors.

In recent years, spurred by the feminist group Women of the Wall, American non-Orthodox leaders have mounted a full court press to change the decades-old status quo at the Kotel, trying to force the issue with threats, protests and legal briefs.

The feminist group has conducted loud prayers in the Kotel’s women’s section, with photographers and reporters in tow, the better to record any pushback from the haredim and other Orthodox Jews who comprise the regular Kotel crowd.

The uglier a small number of those regulars’ reactions to what they regard as an unholy invasion of a holy space, the more triumphant have been the feminist group’s instant press releases. And Western reporters, a group not known for exquisite sensitivity to traditional religion, have dutifully described the valiant blows the women have struck for civil rights, and laud the noble sufferers of haredi harassment.

In 2004, an area abutting the Kotel just south of the original plaza and known as Robinson’s Arch was set aside for the use of non-Orthodox groups. But, bolstered by an Israeli High Court decision this year, those groups have launched a campaign to establish themselves in the regular Kotel plaza, precisely where their services most deeply distress the regulars.

The question practically shouts itself: Why are the feelings of traditional Israeli Orthodox Jews of less concern to liberal American ones that those of Arabs? I don’t want to think that it’s because Orthodox Jews aren’t really violent while some Arabs are. I want to believe that liberal Jews have genuine empathy, a laudable and very Jewish value, for Israel’s Arab population.

Why not, then, for its Orthodox one? Why the ignoring of Orthodox sensibilities and vilification of the Orthodox community?

Is it because the non-Orthodox movements have not succeeded in inspiring their followers or in remaining relevant to their young, and outrage and anger are proven motivators?

Or because, as Professors Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen have noted, a mere 11 percent of American Jewish adults are members of Conservative synagogues, and only 14 percent belong to Reform temples?

Is it out of umbrage over the fact that the American Orthodox community percentage of American Jewry—at present, estimated at ten percent—has, in a mere two generations, more than quintupled, and continues to grow? And is the only part of American Jewry that is growing, both in absolute numbers and in percentage of the American Jewish community? Not to mention the most Jewishly engaged segment of American Jewry, and the most personally connected to Israel?

The impetus for the assault on the Kotel status quo, though, really makes no difference in the end. What does is that the battle to change it gravely insults the sincere sensibilities of hundreds of thousands of heartfelt religious Jews.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at

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