women of the wall

10.22.12

Cash, But Not Criticism

I was 17 years old when I met Anat Hoffman in Jerusalem. She stood praying and singing at Robinson’s Arch, wearing a tallit and, along with the other Women of the Wall, reading from a Torah scroll in the crisp morning light. The service was peaceful, joyous and inspiring. These women were doing something I’d always been taught to believe was off-limits—and they were doing it proudly, unabashedly. I remember looking at Anat and thanking her inwardly for being brave enough to do what so many women in Israel would not.

And yet, last week, Anat was arrested for praying at the Western Wall. The American Jewish community’s swift and angry response, the strident pitch of its criticism, prompted Rabbi Jill Jacobs to ask in these pages: “Why are we so willing to criticize Israel on religious grounds, and so resistant to doing so on political grounds?” Implicit in her question was the assumption that, while criticizing Israel’s politics is often taboo in the organized American Jewish world, criticizing it on religious grounds is tolerated, even encouraged.

But in an email that went out Friday afternoon, Gerry Skolnik, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, proved her wrong. Stating his shared outrage over Anat’s arrest, he wrote:

Some, including the United Synagogue leadership are, as you have probably seen by now, calling for special attention to be focused on this incident during services this Shabbat, as well as a public demonstration next week here in New York.

I understand that motivation behind United Synagogue's call for action… Nonetheless, I do not agree that so public and concentrated a focus on the arrest, and on Women of the Wall's struggle, is what is called for right now.

We are facing a juncture in Israel's history when multiple threats, all of a serious nature and some existential, are challenging all of us who love Israel to consider how we support her during these times, even when we disagree… When Protestant groups are pushing for a total reconsideration of all American foreign aid to Israel and Iran is working hard to develop the capacity to go nuclear, we must be thoughtful as to how, and in what forums, we choose to address the very real issues that are of burning concern to us.

Translation: even though Anat’s arrest was abhorrent, and even though it was symptomatic of the broadly problematic Orthodox hegemony in Israel, we shouldn’t complain about it too loudly because, well, Israel’s got bigger fish to fry. The Jewish state has threats of an “existential” nature to worry about, threats like Iran. Apparently Orthodoxy’s stranglehold on the Knesset, and the impact of its exclusionary impulse on the question of who counts as Jewish and thus on the question of what it even means to be a Jewish state, isn’t existentially threatening enough.

But not to worry. Skolnik has his own ideas about how concerned American Jews can lend a helping hand:

If you really care about religious pluralism in Israel, and want to see substantive change come about in a systemic way, the very best thing that you can be doing right now is supporting our own Masorti movement… They don't always grab the headlines, but they are working tirelessly, and with much too little money and support, to create an indigenous and vibrant religious alternative. 

As a Conservative/Masorti rabbi and leader, every fiber of my being tells me that this is the time to redouble our efforts in support of Masorti. Yes, Israel must change. But those of us who love her must help her change, not hurt her through our good intentions.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Masorti. But how exactly will cash infusions to the Conservative movement do a better job of creating “systemic” change than intelligent and reasoned critique of Israel? Skolnik doesn’t say. And why should we assume that intelligent and reasoned critique of Israel will “hurt” the country rather than incentivizing it to change? Skolnik doesn’t say. And why are financial support and intellectual critique being posited as mutually exclusive here? Skolnik doesn’t say.

He doesn’t say, I suspect, because his missive is, at its core, just more of the same rhetoric we’re so used to hearing whenever there’s an attempt to criticize Israel on political grounds: ‘Israel gets enough bad press from the rest of the world; it doesn’t need more from us Jews.’ Only now, that rhetoric is being applied to criticism of Israel on religious grounds, too. Because apparently, these days, that’s not okay either.

Leaders like Anat Hoffman, whose battle over women’s rights and religious pluralism has inspired countless Jewish activists, deserve our sound support. They deserve “so public and concentrated a focus” as this arrest has garnered. And they deserve our determination to heap serious criticism—not just cash—on the establishment that has so mistreated them.