Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just gave the finger to a huge chunk of American Jews and, by doing so, dangerously upset the already precarious relationship between the Israeli government and the Diaspora.
There is no other way to interpret the Israeli Cabinet’s spineless decision yesterday to accede to the ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition government and renege on a landmark agreement to provide a proper egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall known as the Kotel.
The agreement — a compromise of a compromise — was hammered out in January 2016 with Reform and Conservative Jews, the Jewish federation leadership, the approval of mainstream organizations like the Jewish Agency, and with the invaluable leadership of a true Jewish hero, Natan Sharansky. After a year and a half of stalling and prevaricating, Netanyahu showed his true colors by essentially dismissing non-Orthodox Jews the world over.
Even Michael Oren, who steadfastly defended the Netanyahu government as ambassador in Washington and now serves as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s office, was scathing in his reaction. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the abandonment of Zionism,” he said in a statement.
That’s because Oren understands what this “despicable decision” — his words — actually means. Netanyahu has turned his back on pluralistic Judaism and pluralistic Jews, and that fundamentally changes the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
Until now, that relationship was largely guided by a simple quid pro quo. Diaspora Jews — most of whom are not Orthodox — would integrate love and support of Israel into their religious, cultural, political and philanthropic lives. In return, the Israeli government would worry about the safety and security of the Jewish state — and by extension, the Jewish people.
Recognize our more progressive, egalitarian form of Judaism, said the Diaspora, and we’ll have your back on military, defense and geopolitical concerns, even if that might violate our liberal values or put us in conflict with natural allies.
So Israel asked Diaspora Jews to ignore the half-century occupation of the Palestinians, to spend millions trying to defeat the Iran nuclear deal, to lobby for billions of American taxpayer dollars for Israel’s military, and to send many more billions of dollars its way to pay for every sort of charitable function imaginable.
And in return, the American Jewish leadership — and the Jewish Agency speaking for the Diaspora — asked that non-Orthodox Jews be recognized as Jews, too.
The Kotel is merely a symbol of that recognition. Most Israelis have little interest in what happens there, but the extreme, often vicious, administration of this sacred space is a living expression of the dictatorial power of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, which controls conversion, marriage, divorce, burial, transportation — the most basic aspects of everyday life.
The Kotel was supposed to belong to everyone. That’s what Sharansky said when he unveiled the agreement. Now it belongs only to the ultra-Orthodox minority that has a stranglehold on a prime minister more interested in staying in power than actually representing the Jewish people, as he claims to do.
Netanyahu’s “decision to say ‘no’ to his previous ‘yes’ is an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who as president of the Union for Reform Judaism represents the largest American Jewish denomination.
Jacobs said he is assessing next steps. All American Jews need to do so. We shouldn’t turn our backs on Israel — that would only imitate the childish, selfish actions of the prime minister himself. We absolutely must strengthen the religious and political opposition to the Orthodox status quo inside Israel and beyond.
And we have to write new rules for this relationship, because the old ones were just rudely tossed away. This time, the pen is in our hands.
Contact Jane Eisner at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.