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November 1, 2019 by

What Jews Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Jews. And Who Does the Talking.

By Diana Bletter

The same morning that the “Judaism, Israel and Diaspora” Conference was set to begin at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on Wednesday, October 31 – with a roster of speakers about to examine diverging definitions of Judaism, world Jewry and Jewish identity – Israeli police stopped women from bringing into the Kotel, or Western Wall, Torah scrolls to pray with at Rosh Hodesh services for the start of the Jewish month of Heshvan.

The two events happened almost simultaneously, almost as if there were two sets of people replying to the same question about who owns Judaism, who gets to authorize it, and who serves as its gatekeepers. One set of people was exploring these queries in an academic forum sponsored by Haaretz newspaper, The Jewish Agency for Israel, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Ruderman Family Foundation; the other set was comprised of more than two hundred women trying to claim the right to their own interpretation of Judaism, attempting to change the facts on the ground, in real time. 

Nashot haKotel, or Women of the Wall, has worked since 1988 to enable women to be allowed to pray together (out loud) and read from a Torah scroll at the Kotel while the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox Israeli group recognized by the government as the Kotel’s guardians, prevented the women from practicing their vision of Judaism, saying that the women with the Torah scrolls were behaving in a “provocative and political” way. 

So what do Jews talk about when they get together at a conference to talk about being Jews? Mostly how Jewish men stake their Jewish identity. Except for author Deborah Lipstadt, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, the third female rabbi in France and co-leader of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France, Batya Ungar-Sargon, Opinion Editor of The Forward, and a few other notable women, most of the Conference speakers were men. President Reuven Rivlin gave the opening remarks, and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog and former chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, were among the men who spoke to a crowd of more than two thousand people. Some of the panelists spoke in Hebrew, others in English, and all grappled with crucial questions about anti-Semitism, Israeli-Diaspora relations, Judaism and Jewish identity. 

But if the vision of a conference is to broaden the Jewish tent so that it be more inclusive, it was poignantly ironic that it was mostly men talking about what Judaism could and should be. Who could have spoken? As a start, Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center director and founding member of Nashot HaKotel, could have spoken, or Michal Gera Margoliot, Executive Director of the Israel Women’s Network (IWN), an organization trying to stop the trend of invisibilizing women in public spheres of Israeli society. The sidelining of women’s issues within Judaism and Israel, and the freeze-out of half a population is not just a feminist idea, echoing Talmud scholar Rabbi Judith Hauptman’s comment that nobody would ever suggest that people of color “wanting equality is a passing fad. It’s a social truth.”

Israel is poised, perhaps, to have a new leader, with Benny Gantz of the Blue-and-White Party at the helm, if he is able to form a new government. Gantz has pledged that he will implement the agreement for a designated space at the Wall for non-Orthodox prayer services––the agreement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted on and then reneged on, bowing down to pressure from his Orthodox supporters in order to save his coalition. The need for religious pluralism at Judaism’s holiest site is crucial for Diaspora Jewry, and for Israelis, too.

The panels that ran throughout the day included “What is Judaism? Religion, Nation, Culture, Peoplehood,” and two sessions on the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. At the panel “Judaism’s Gatekeepers,” Pnina Tamano-Shata, an Ethiopian member of the Knesset from the Blue-and White Party, said, “In Israel there is a powerful tiny minority of religious leaders with a hegemony on defining Jews and Judaism. . .Today’s situation is intolerable and must change.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, who said that “the role of women in Judaism is crucial, not just for feminists.” She said that a system that “does not accept women does not accept the other.”

At the panel on “Common Fate? Does Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century Unite or Divide Jews?” Deborah Lipstadt argued that Jews should be the subjects of their identity and not the objects, never building “our identity as a reaction to anti-Semitism.” She said that Jews must not cede to anti-Semitism the power to use our own agency. 

When the talk moved to whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, Professor Manuela Consonni, Director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explained that if anti-Zionism “sits on a trope of a ‘Jewish conspiracy’, then it’s anti-Semitism.”

“I criticize America, but I’m not anti-American,” explained Lipstadt. “But saying that Jews don’t have a right to their own country is anti-Semitic.”

Richard Schneider, Editor-at-Large of ARD German TV, who grew up in Germany and now lives in Tel Aviv, said that it was taboo for Europeans to express anti-Semitism for the past seventy years, and they used “the tool of anti-Zionism” to hide it. That taboo has now expired and “Europe has gone back to what it always was: anti-Semitic.” Schneider related that during a recent conference, French intellectuals expressed surprise that anti-Semites stripped them of their French identity and called them out as Jews. 

“Welcome to the real world,” Schneider told them. However, he and Consigni went on to criticize Israel for giving legitimacy to anti-Semitic governments in Poland and Hungary. 

“We can’t relieve Poland of its responsibility during the Holocaust,” Consonni said, arguing that what is good on the diplomatic front for Israel should not undermine what is right for worldwide Jewry.

Much of the conversation focused on the divergent way that American Jews and Israeli Jews see one another. Panelists said that liberal American Jews want Israelis to acknowledge the threat of anti-Semitism on the right and often feel slighted by the willingness of the Israeli government to partner with right-wing coalitions such as evangelical Christians. And Israelis do not understand American Jewish liberals’ willingness to overlook or justify Arab terrorism and to dismiss Arab extremists’ threats to the country’s existence. 

What was clear from the panelists and the participants was that Israel is no longer just a philanthropic project to Diaspora Jews. As Mirit Sulema, a member of the Educators’ Kibbutz, an urban kibbutz in the city of Acre, in the Western Galilee, and a member of the audience, said, “We can’t just receive from American Jews. We also have to be responsible for Jews worldwide and invite young Jews to see Israel on a grassroots level, in an intimate light, to be true partners.”

Many of the speakers expressed desire for a deeper partnership between Israel and American Jews, exploring the ways both communities could learn from the other. Yet as Jonathan Tobin points out in his recent Commentary magazine review of Daniel Gordis’s book We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel, the two communities are products of “experiences and beliefs that are radically different from each other.” 

How Diaspora Jews and Israelis will cross that divide is something that the panelists just began to explore. These are vital issues that impact Jews around the world. I can only hope that next time there will be more women’s voices.

 

Diana Bletter is the author of several books, including a novel, A Remarkable Kindness (HarperCollins) and The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, which was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award.Since 1991, she has lived with her family in Shavei Zion, a small beach village in the Western Galilee, writing for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Tabletmag, Times of Israel, and a wide variety of publications.  


  • Amalia Singer

    I really enjoyed reading Mrs. Bletter’s article. It saddens me that most of the speakers were men (most likely all white , what happened to Ethiopian Jewry?) These issues are very important to be addressed- Judaism belonging to all- women that are trying to create a new form of Judaism to accommodate them as well.

  • Shoshana

    Very interesting article. Thanks Bletter the opportunity to hear a sharp woman’s perspective on the conference. Be’ezrat Hashem more feminine voices will be heard and the gap between sexes within our religion will finally be bridged.