Gershon Baskin claims that when he first visited the Western Wall for his bar mitzva in 1969, he touched the Wall and even placed a note between its cracks, but was not moved.
I am a classic old-fashioned Zionist. I came of age in Young Judaea, the pluralistic Zionist American youth movement founded by Hadassah. After years of Zionist activism and leadership, I made aliya to Jerusalem, fulfilling Zionism’s ultimate goal, nearly 40 years ago. I chose Jerusalem as my lifelong home because of its mosaic-like social-cultural-ethnic-religious- national nature. My own personal Zionist fulfillment (or hagshama as we called it in Hebrew) was to dedicate my life to working to build peaceful relations between Israel and its neighbors and within Israel between its Jewish and Palestinian citizens.
My Zionism has always been based on a very strong connection to the Jewish People, history, heritage and culture. I fell in love with the Hebrew language and became enthralled by the expansion of my Jewish identity through the miraculous achievements of the development of Israeli cultural expressions in literature, music, theater, cinema and even journalism. I am a secular Jew. I am very secular and very Jewish. As such I have always struggled to find meaning in many of the religious symbols of the State of Israel.
I cherish our flag even though it is based on the tallit – a religious symbol. I identify with the menorah – the official symbol of the State of Israel, even though its roots come from the Temple, which as a secular Jew I hope will never be rebuilt. I still get chills when we sing “Hatikva” at national ceremonies and occasions, even though it too is based on religious symbolism.
I have never, though, been moved or identified with the Western Wall. I sang the famous song as a youth, “there are people with hearts of stone, and stones with hearts of people,” but other than liking the tune, the words never really became part of my identity.
When I first visited the Western Wall for my bar mitzva in 1969, I touched the Wall and even placed a note between its cracks, but was not moved. I did not have a religious moment of awakening and every time I have visited the Wall since, even at the swearing-in ceremony after completing basic training in the IDF, I did not feel the connection. I grew up with the version of Judaism which taught me that Moses was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel also because God did not want to create a sacred physical place of burial which would turn into a shrine.
That is what the Western Wall has become – a physical shrine where Judaism has turned into a pagan, ritualistic form of Temple fetishism. I don’t go to the Western Wall and don’t care about it. I understand that it is very important to a lot of Jews, but not to me.
What I do care about is that Israel is supposed to be the democratic nation-state of the Jewish People.
Herzl’s book Der Judenstaat is not “The Jewish State” but rather “The State of the Jews.” That is the basis of Zionism and of establishing the State of Israel in the Land of Israel. The State of Israel is supposed to be the state of all Jews – if they identify and want to be part of it. How is it that the State of Israel is the only democratic state in the world where non-Orthodox rabbis are not allowed to officiate at weddings or funerals? Kind of absurd! In Jewish law, the presence of a rabbi is not even required, yet there is a monopoly on Judaism in the hands of an institution that was created by foreigners before Israel was even born.
I am angered by the decision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to drop the development of a non-Orthodox prayer plaza at the Western Wall not because it angers American Jewry, but rather because it is a symbol of the continued control and monopolization of Jewish expression in the democratic state of the Jewish People. The message is a clear slap in the face of millions of non-Israeli Jews, but it is a bigger slap in the face of those of us Israelis who continue to express our Judaism with non-religious identities. Our space within the State of Israel is on a sharp decline and it is an existential threat to me, my family, my community and a large part of Israeli society.
This threat is attacking our educational system. It is pushing its ugly face into cultural avenues of expression – in theater, music, the print media, television and radio. It is trying to close down the few successes in providing public transportation on Shabbat for those in our society who need it most – those who cannot afford to own a private car. The threat against us is also expressed against those who seek alternative kashrut certification, removing the monopoly of the Orthodox corrupt kashrut authorities.
Netanyahu and his government have taken a stand against a large part of the Jewish People, in Israel and around the world. He may have pleased my great-grandfather Rabbi Yehuda Rosenblatt, who is buried in Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv – an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist who sent his children to America but wished to die in the Holy Land. His great-grandsons reversed history and made aliya and raised the next generation of Zionist, Israel-loving Jews in the State of Israel. In order to survive politically, Netanyahu rejects the present and the future by appealing to the past. This is too much to accept and for me signals the much-needed coming of the end of Netanyahu’s reign over the State of Israel.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.