Thursday, June 29, 2017


Shmuel Rosner, columnist in the Jewish Journal, has offered consistent advice to the North American Jewish communities upon Prime Minister Netanyahu's determination to breach the Agreement he entered into to create an egalitarian prayer space at/near the Kotel -- and that advice can be restated in two words: "shut up." His latest Op-Ed stated:
"For Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, the story of the Kotel compromise – the agreement that was buried by the government on Sunday – was a story of arithmetical probabilities. He had no joy in canceling the arrangement that would have given non-Orthodox Jews, the majority of the Jewish people, a small piece of real-estate near the place most holy for all Jews. He drew no satisfaction from feeling that he had to cave under Charedi pressure. And yet, his cold calculation of probabilities made him break his promise to many Jewish leaders, especially from the US. It made him pass a government decision that he does not like."
I guess that's one point of view: I reject that argument out of hand. We should all understand that the PM breached his own agreement because coalition politics trump the unity of the Jewish People and always will it appears; and, in doing so, threatened a rupture in our long held belief that Israel is the central address of the Jewish People -- all of the Jewish People.

The loud and public reaction to the Government decision to breach the Agreement to create a significant egalitarian prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall and to the very threatening first reading of Knesset legislation that would obviate the GOI's recognition of conversions by Rabbis other than the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has been wholly appropriate -- be it Jerry Silverman's general condemnation while praising the PM's "incredibly respectful..." posture at a meeting with federation leaders, Steve Nasatir's public blast at those Knesset members who would vote to overturn the established conversion process ("The Federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill..."), and Natan Sharansky's very direct criticism of both the Prime Minister's pulling the rug of support for the Kotel deal right out from under Sharanky's and the Jewish People's feet, among other critics.

But, as all of us know, most, if not all, of the Haredi Knesset and Cabinet members and, certainly, the Chief Rabbinate, could care not a whit about visits to federations or the reactions or pressure from Diaspora Jewry...they just don't and never have and, clearly, never will. World Jewry had come to rely upon a succession of Prime Ministers to assure continued respect for and support of the unity of the Jewish People. In the past, and most evident in the parallel crisis to the present one (and it is a crisis) were the 1988 and mid-90's explosions over "Who Is a Jew?," reason prevailed over division, Prime Ministers stepped up and backed the minorities in their coalitions down from the precipice they would have created. Today? That's a different story.

In a brilliant op-ed in The Forward, J.J. Goldberg explores the issues and their implications today. Simply stated, the religious political parties want a theocracy in Israel and coalition-building has given them and their patrons in the Israeli  Chief Rabbinate total hegemony in matters that bear on non-secular matters and the only way forward, a new coalition built upon the Likud, Israel Beiteinu, Labor and its adjuncts and Yesh Atid, seems to be but a dream (or nightmare) of getting politicians with competing dreams and aspirations into a working government. And the Prime Minister seems perfectly happy with his current political partners...until he isn't.

In an interview on the subject in JTA, a source within the Prime Minister's office defends the cancellation"suspension" as nothing more than a strategy to allow the prayer space to be completed, the "only change" being the elimination of a multi-party governance vehicle that would have included Conservative and Reform representatives. As if to reassure World Jewry, the unnamed source concluded: “The prime minister takes Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry very seriously.” Sure. 

At the same time Minister of the Diaspora, Naftali Bennett, who had already kidnapped the World Jewry-State of Israel Initiative into a captive of his vision of Israel-Diaspora relations excluding JAFI and JFNA, sent out a You Tube video explaining how everything is just great, the egalitarian prayer space will be built out (at least in the same location more or less) as he, Bennett, originally envisioned it.

It would take a tectonic explosion to dislodge the Haredi parties from their influence within this Government...and that's just not going to happen. Many friends have pointed out in the press and in dialogue that Jews in the Diaspora should be marching in lockstep with whatever government is in power in Israel, that debate or challenge even on matters impacting on the relationship of Israel to the Diaspora, we, Diaspora Jews, should be silent or supportive. Why? As Steve Flatow wrote:
"Jerry Silverman does not live on the Golan Heights, and Rick Jacobs does not reside in Sha'ar Hanegev, and the American leaders of Conservative Judaism do not live in towns along the Israel-Lebanon border."
It appears that Flatow and others conflate legitimate concerns about the impact of theocratic decisions by the GOI to the level of questioning, even undermining, or failing to support Israel's security. And those condemnations are just wrong. All of us want Israel to be secure and we believe that a united World Jewish polity supports that security in so many ways. It is not JFNA, nor the Reform or Conservative Movements that have threatened world Jewish unity, it is the Prime Minister of Israel and the ultra-Orthodox Rabbis and politicians who have conspired to do so and continue to.

Yet, North American, all of Diaspora Jewry confront the Government's decision on the Kotel issue and the Conversion legislation at a time of our great weakness. American federation Campaigns, for example, that in 1988 raised $720 million
 from over 1,000,000 donors,
challenged.html?and sent almost 50% of those campaigns
 to the Jewish Agency and JDC, today we send a a little over 10% 
of the net raised from less than 200,000 to
JAFI/JDC, still the best evidence of our collective support for "Israel."
And over the same period,
while there have been important gains, the Reform Movement in Israel 
has really just begun to gain traction, the Conservative Movement
almost none.  Aipac, whose leaders rushed to Bibi's side as the 
threatening nature of the fire he ignited became clear,
has seen its influence weakened. 

And the data and anecdotal information suggest that the generations
of American Jews who have followed ours have grown less 
and less attached to Israel's centrality and decisions like those of the 
Israel Cabinet on Sunday and the conversion legislation now supported 
by that Cabinet threaten that vital attachment even more.

Those who care, and the leadership of our institutions and federations 
clearly do so with passion, need to come together with those
in Israel who share that caring and passion, and create a "New Zionism," 
one that ties us together and spreads our passion to our generation
and to the generations to come. All those who know
"It is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness" 
must come together now.

Who can take us there?



paul jeser said...

Since you share the links to the other pieces you cite I think in only fair that the link to S.Rosner's piece also be shared. I don't think he says 'shut up' at all.

S.Rosner: Fight or flee? A post-Kotel Jewish American dilemma

I do agree that JJ Goldberg's piece is the best written about this sad situation.

Anonymous said...

So the question is, what are the alternatives available to the US Jewish community to the policy decisions of the Netanyahu administration? Hubris won’t work. And who among the current leadership has the strategic where with all to galvanize a consensus around what will need to be a zero sum approach to the problem. I can assure you that threats will not succeed for he has already succumbed to the political elixir of maintaining power regardless of the outcome. Remind me, how many votes in the Knesset do the movements have?
It will take magic not sleight of hand to change the decisions and sadly those who knew the secret magic trick are no longer involved.

Bob Hyfler said...

The living theatre that is Benjamin Netanyahu will make all of us, American Jews, Israelis, non-Orthodox, Orthodox and Haredi look like naive fools before this latest chapter is fully written. Fortunately, Israeli police investigations are closing in on the man. Note to Jewish community leaders: get your photo ops in now.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that so many Jewish Federations, including my own, have come out with strong and clear statements on the wall and conversion issues. Even JFNA came out with a good statement and have been busy. It's a shame that there's not a word from JNF or AIPAC.

paul jeser said...

Anon 8:39 is mistaken about AIPAC. All one has to do is to google AIPAC KOTEL to see what AIPAC has been doing, which, buy the way, is the appropriate process (unlike other organizations which decided not to meet with the PM).

Anonymous said...

8:39 here. Not what I said. I didn't say that they're not doing anything (fine, they met with Bibi. Anything actually substantive?) -- rather that they haven't said a word. Where is the AIPAC statement? Where is the JNF statement? No courage.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with Paul. I heard that my Exec and others refused to meet with the PM. Frankly I think that was the right decision. After you get slapped in the face, it's ok to refuse to come back for more. Sure, we'll have to get back to dialogue with the government soon. But it was very appropriate to say, this time, no thanks. We represent something bigger than your Haredi MKs.

Anonymous said...

I just googled "AIPAC KOTEL" and the first link that came up was "Why AIPAC chose to remain silent on the Western Wall debate." Wow. What leadership.

Anonymous said...

AIPAC Kotel? Are you kidding? Where have they been all week? One meeting with the PM for two people is a joke.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. Paul I just googled AIPAC Kotel. Not really as impressive as what even my mid-size federation is doing

Anonymous said...

My Exec was on the ground in Jerusalem this week with videos and lobbying in the Knesset. He told me that JFNA and JAFI were surprisingly useful and well-coordinated.

Anonymous said...

This is a week in which I think we've seen the value of our Federations.

Anonymous said...

I agree. We had a large delegation to the JAFI Board and heard nothing from the usual suspects - AIPAC, JNF. But the Federation was out there from the start.

RWEX said...

We have always said and written that if JFNA did not exist we would have create it. If the action of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was to take place, it was good for all of us that it was done at a time that a number of Federation CEOs and lay leaders and JFNA leaders were in Jerusalem and could take appropriate action.

Now, of course, comes the more difficult time. When all of the communal and organizational leaders have returned to their homes
in North America and the Diaspora, what will be the next steps. Will JFNA and the Federations plan for and execute a series of missions/visits to the Knesset and with the Prime Minister by recognized Jewish influentials for as long as it may take; is JFNA capable of leading such an effort? Or will just be a one-off as in the recent past, photos in the Israeli media; and now it's in the hands of Sharansky?

We should soon know the answers.

Anonymous said...

Wise words, Richard. Very well-said.
But this won't be measured in photo-ops and ingratiating missions to see the PM for five minutes. JNF will do that just fine and then claim credit for activism (without really showing the courage to represent their donors).

Anonymous said...

Can I posit a different point of view. On inspection, this appears to be a heavily fabricated issue. Or, as some in Washington peers like to term it, "Fake News". This seems to be a controversy driven by parties with strictly partisan agendas. They have drawn the Federations and the Reform leadership fortuitously available in Jerusalem into their parochial agenda on the basis of false premises.

There is already a third plaza at the Kotel for ecumenical prayer. It exists to the South of the existing Men and Women's section. So what if it a tad small or unfinished. The government is committed to finishing it. What did Netanyahu really renege on from a practical point of view?

All women, Reform and Conservative can already pray freely at the Third Plaza as they can at the Southern Wall, where I have attended multiple Reform Bnai Mitzvot. So, what was lost? A common entrance to all three plazas? Big Deal! Absolute segregated control over that third plaza by "as yet not named non-orthodox parties" for a plaza which is already operating fine today for all women and non-Orthodox?

Meanwhile, it seemed like the protest of the proposed Conversion Law is a complete afterthought to the Federation/JAFI types. After all, the Kotel agreement was a surprise move at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting. The Conversion Law was known to be up for a Ministerial first vote for weeks in advance. So, where were all these JAFI and Federation leaders for the weeks leading up to the Ministerial vote, which was known to be a fait accompli in advance?

Nor does the proposed conversion law create any changes in the way Reform and Conservative are treated in Israel, though a few argue that it might prejudice a law suit the Reform litigation arm in Israel would like to promote.

And why should American Reform or Conservative Jews care about these issues any more than secular Israeli's who make up 80% of the Jewish electorate. Isn't this their issue to prosecute without foreign interference, even for a non-voting, not-tax paying, and non-Army serving cousin from the diaspora?

This just seems to be an issue that was contrived between Natan Sharansky, who is looking for Federation stipends post his mandated retirement next year, and Haaretz, which hates Netanyahu far more than MSNBC hates Trump.

So, please don't let well meaning but duped JFNA leadership drag us into this battle, especially without knowing the nuances of the issues. The battle is a PR fight between the left wing, Sharansky and the ruling coalition. It offers nothing incremental for Americans or Federations that actually take the trouble to study the issue.

Now that the issue has been made moot for another six months, hopefully things will quiet down. But, if not, ask what is really being protested. Is it the status quo of the Chief Rabbinate for which there was nary a peep for decades or something new.

If the latter, there is nothing new.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised and quite overwhelmed by one salient point

Israel, and its Jewish electorate, are primarily secular

In fact, 75% - 80% of the electorate is secular and a large number view the Haredim as some form of parasites that live on the public dole and don't serve in the Army.

Yet, these two issues of the Kotel and Conversion law don't seem to drive the secular Israeli electorate a fraction as much as it drives Sharansky, Jerry Silverman and his loyal Federation leaders (that strongly believe in the strength and vitality of JFNA), And, despite diaspora's great interest in these issues, they are essentially issues of domestic politics.

Now, we can all have our own views of participation by diaspora Jews in Israeli domestic politics.

But, clearly, it is absolutely not the role of JFNA or the Federations to participate institutionally in Israeli politics. Nor be duped into being the tools of either the left wing or the retiring JAFI leadership looking for long term pension income from Federation speaking engagements.

And it is absolutely not their role to publicly poison the well of Israel support in their communities as the more harsh statements are clearly doing.

Anonymous said...

Please note the much more appropriate and positive approach of the IAC, an organization that has replaced the Federations for the several hundred thousand Israeli's in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, SF Bay Area and elsewhere.

Principles Guiding the Israeli-American Council on Israeli Government Policy in Connection with Non-Orthodox Conversions and Jewish Observance at the Western Wall

The IAC's mission is to strengthen the ties between the Jewish-American and Israeli-American communities and inspire and empower those communities to support the unbreakable bond with the State of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people.

We strive to be a "living bridge", which fosters a united Jewish community in America that stands with the State of Israel.

Given the IAC’s mission, we have heard and acknowledged the concerns and frustrations of our community members and partner organizations in response to the policy discussions within Israel’s government regarding recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel and Jewish observance at the Western Wall.

We reaffirmed, that this week, more than ever, we are tirelessly working to advance our mission to foster Jewish unity.

There are three principles guiding our organization at this time.

First, we must continue to encourage open, honest, and meaningful dialogue between Israel’s leaders and Jewish people around the world.

Second, Israel is the Jewish state, and the homeland for all Jews, no matter where they live. Zionism is rooted in the idea that Israel should be an open and welcoming place for global Jewry.

Third, we respect Israel’s democracy. After an open discussion that takes into consideration the views of all stakeholders, final decisions about Israel's public policy are – and should be – made by Israel’s democratically elected institutions and leaders.

The IAC has decided to dedicate an entire track of our Fourth National Conference in Washington, DC this November to issues surrounding the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

By bringing together top policymakers, key communal leaders, and respected thinkers, we hope to broaden understanding and engagement on this critical subject, building bridges between Jews in Israel, America, and around the world.

Shoham Nicolet Adam Milstein
IAC CEO IAC Chairman

Anonymous said...

My tour guide friends in Jerusalem also tell me that there is a third plaza at the Kotel today, just south of the Women's section and on the other side of the path to the mosques, where any sort of prayer is allowed. It is just that the formal control of this plaza is not in the hands of the Reform and Conservative movements. And, it isn't clear whether this "third plaza" will have significant construction dollars thrown at it to beautify it.

So, I don't understand the "sky is falling" problem at the Kotel. The women at the wall and all others, including nudists I suppose, could all go to the Third Plaza.

My suspicion is that Sharansky made this the political problem it is. The Kotel issue is very minor in comparison with the Conversion Bill. From all the commentary, it seems like the Conversion Bill was a bit of an after thought to both them and JAFI in their public activities this past week. After all, Sharansky acted out like this when he was a member of the ruling coalition. Isn't this why he was removed from politics by his coalition partners and given the JAFI job?

The conversion bill simply seems to be a legislative end-run around a High Court ruling allowing alternative religious courts. In this regards, it is of great concern to those of the centrist Orthodox camps that were supporting these alternative conversion forums such as Tzohar.

The High Court did not allow for reform and conservative conversion in Israel to be recognized, so in no way changed the status quo. Now, I admit my Hebrew is rusty, but my reading of the draft of the new bill doesn't indicate that there is any change in this status quo as regards reform and conservative converts.

Those that converted outside Israel could still immigrate under the Law of Return.

Meanwhile, wouldn't one expect the High Court to once again throw out this affront to its authority when the new bill is challenged as it most certainly will be?

This may not be the optimal end solution, but it doesn't represent a change for the American Reform and Conservative Movements. It is up to the left and centrist legislators, along with electoral motivation, to create a better permanent solution. So, I struggle to understand what is new and why there is such a hullabaloo in the media and with the Americans in Jerusalem for the JAFI meetings.

The only thing I can find new is the nasty rhetoric from some in the religious camp directed at the Reform and Conservative movements in the US. So, where is the universal condemnation of this hate speech?

So, why is this now such a cause celebre? Where were the same JFNA/Federation types up in arms about all the terrible things the Chief Rabbinate has done over the past 30 years?

This seems to be a very much made blown out of proportion news story. I understand why Israeli media, especially Haaretz which detests Netanyahu more than anything would want to create a crisis for Netanyahu. I understand why a Sharansksy would now look to burnish his bona fides with his American supporters in anticipation of his retirement. I just cannot understand why the American Federation heads are willingly serving as dupes to the causes of others and helping to create a problem with American Jews where none existed before.

This seems to be just another story in the long soap opera of Haredim trying to exert political control. Both sides of the political aisle in Israel are guilty for accommodating the Haredim. This fabricated crisis doesn't seem to address the true issues of pushing back Haredi political demands. Instead, it is promoting divisions between Israeli's and Americans and damaging American love for Israel.

Anonymous said...

"The IAC has replaced the federations". With what? With Adelson's money? Wow. Good job.

Anonymous said...

So the IAC is doing ... nothing.

Anonymous said...

Funny how you'd never hear Federations being so rude about IAC.

Anonymous said...

IAC strives to be a "living bridge"? Hahahaha. That's hilarious. On what planet?

Anonymous said...

I've never cared for Rosner's articles. Always full of snark when talking about American Jews and he always thinks he's smarter than us.

In any event, Bibi lost most of us way, way before this week's events. Something that Rosner doesn't get. And probably sides with Bibi there, too.

RWEX said...

I am not going to print any further snark about the IAC.

Anonymous said...

The issue at play here is that Israel needs separation of religion and state. It should be a Jewish national homeland where all religious streams of Judaism and also all other religions enjoy religious freedom.
The issue is that issues of religion should not be part of political platforms and coalition politics.
The issue is that until this change is made large parts of the Jewish People - both in Israel and in the Diaspora - will continue to be held hostage by a minority of extremists that believe that it is their duty to force their narrow definitions of religion and religious practice on all the rest of us - including many modern Orthodox parts of out People.
That is what all of the noise is about and that is why this is a really existential issue for Jewish People both in Israel and around the world.

Anonymous said...

Natan Sharansky is a true leader of the Jewish People.
To claim that his positions on these issues are influenced by a need or a desire to line up his own future economic security is absolutely ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

The Kotel compromise is not really the issue but the new Conversion Law must be stopped immediately.
I would expect any government - right or left - to simply refuse to be coerced into passing such damaging legislation due to threats and ultimatums of the extreme religious political parties. Call their bluff. And if it turns out that it is not a bluff, let them leave and suffer the consequences - the lost of all the cash payoffs that they receive for their normal every day coercion. Enough is enough!

Paul jeser said...

So sad to see the criticisms of the IAC, AIPAC, and JNF. I guess that when you can not defend what is going on in one's backyard, or are not willing to do anything serious to fix the problems, the next best thing to do is to criticize other organizations.

Anonymous said...

I think the whole point of these criticisms is that it's precisely these organizations -- IAC, AIPAC and JNF -- that claim to be doing so much and frequently make reference to the irrelevance of the Federations that have been exposed this week as irrelevant and cowardly.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Anon at 12:46. And that's a shame. These great organizations -- JNF, AIPAC -- have shown their spinelessness this last week. Where were their statements, their real action plans? Don't bother to answer. Same reason that Chabad, Israel Bonds, were all silent. Cowardice, fear of losing major donors and seats with the PM, you name it. This week was a test, and our Federations (and yes, dare I say it, even JFNA) passed the test. But let's not forget the ones that failed it.

Anonymous said...

I'm the anon at 6:10 who laughed heartily at IAC's ridiculous claims to be a living bridge. But that doesn't mean I can't defend what's going on in my backyard. My Federation President made videos, lobbied the Knesset, worked with JAFI and JFNA this week, sent us updates, and made us proud. Where was IAC? Where was JNF and AIPAC? What "serious" things were they doing "to fix the problems?"

Anonymous said...

Maybe all these organizations you criticize realize that this entire event was fabricated to the benefit of those with specific personal agendas.

There was no crisis. There was nothing new. The Kotel still has a third plaza available for ecumenical services and the Reform and Conservative cannot convert in Israel under either the existing High Court decision or the pending legislation.

As someone in Israel among the common secular folk, they barely heard about these two issues burning up the front pages of American Jewish Media.

Sometimes, folks in America just have no perspective.

All the videos and press releases and cries heavenward of "hosanna, we are being disrespected" came at the expense of those wavering American Jewish supporters of Israel. It certainly had no influence on the Haredim. (Try and get their entry Visas to the US revoked to achieve that.). And likely had no influence on Likud leadership.

Sometimes, Americans just don't realize their role. Imagine some Israeli or French community leader bewailing the lack of respect for life in Chicago because of corrupt police and inept local politicians. You might suggest they learn their place.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to see what goes on in JNF's backyard. You know, how much their overhead is. That kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

Yes there was a crisis. Just because you don't agree with what happened doesn't make it less of one. And ignorance is no excuse.

By the way, it's late night in Jerusalem and I'm no American.

The Kotel issue may be symbolic and less about the third plaza (although in truth it was more about negotiation and decent human behavior), but the conversion issue is about a massive injustice to hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Jews around the world.

What a pathetic shame that you think this is about rude American Jews. It never was. It was and is about the soul of the Jewish People and who we are.

Anonymous said...

The conversion crisis is more about the terrible damage done to Modern Orthodoxy. Or have you missed the point altogether?

Anonymous said...

"As someone in Israel among the common secular folk, they barely heard about these two issues burning up the front pages of American Jewish Media". That's right. Except in every newspaper, every radio show, and every TV news show. Close, but no cigar, genius.

Anonymous said...

Richard, Anonymous 1:32 expresses an opinion that insults the intelligence of those in our communities who love Israel and believe, as you have written, that Israel must remain at the center of Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish unity. If those like this person, who assert "nothing to see here" then they are blind to the realities of what just took place.

Thanks for inspiring this dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Schonfeld of the Masorti movement summed it up well: "There’s a notion that there’s this group of Reform and Conservative Jews who you can deride and insult all you want, and that there’s some other group called Israel’s base of American Jewish support that is part of American support [for Israel], and that those are two separate groups."

Anonymous said...

To Anon 2:07 PM

Just google the terms "JNF or Karen Kayemet and accounting": and you will see how many times the Israeli Ministry of Finance have censured JNF for opaque accounting and very poor disclosure.

It is regularly the treatment of Israeli news documentaries for corruption.

JNF, along with the two other pre-state Enterprises that Ben Gurion chose not to consolidate into the government so he had independent sources of financial support for his Mapai Party, should finally be consolidated into the government.

JNF USA is far easier as they file a 990 with the IRS.

JNF US spends close to $30 million annually on administrative expenses yet remits about $22 million a year for programs run by Keren Kayemet. Then, it puts between $20 - $50 mill annually in its bank accounts which are well over $200 million.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:56

You are entirely correct. It is only about the power struggle between the Haredim who seem to play much tougher ball than Rabbanei Tzohar (and Itim).

However legitimate the claims of the Conservative and Reform movements are, they really weren't addressed by this latest crisis and the proposed legislation. (Haaretz which is struggling financially, just gets more support when they help create a crisis for US readers. As an aside, I can still recall the emails I used to receive from Jerry Silverman requesting I spend $79 a year to subscribe to Haaretz because the media I received for free like the Times of Israel didn't carry his water enough.)

Maybe all these American organizations should look into Itim and help the organization, much as UJA-Federation of NY has made them a prime targeted beneficiary in Israel.

Anonymous said...

To those who attacked earlier commentators with a different point of view, I woke up to this editorial in the Jerusalem Post

"For its part, the Jewish Agency, ostensibly responsible for promoting immigration to Israel, but which has over the past years expanded its mandate to include the promotion of Jewish values globally, has been intricately involved in negotiating the Western Wall deal. The organization has led the choir of condemnations in the wake of the agreement’s suspension, employing the harshest, undiplomatic language in denouncing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move as “deplor[able].” Agency chief Natan Sharansky further castigated the Israeli premier for making a promise he could not keep (no doubt lost on Sharansky is the irony that Ben-Gurion himself devised Israel’s “status quo” while leading the Jewish Agency in 1947).

But while Sharansky is right in respect to Netanyahu’s handling of the issue, he is wrong on the substance of the debate. The truth is that Netanyahu’s decision neither changes (rather, it reinforces) Israel’s longstanding religious tradition, nor does it alter the existing definition of “who is a Jew?” It cannot therefore be considered “shameful” unless all of Israel’s history – along with traditional Judaism – is also besmirched by the same allegation.

The claim that the move will “lead to a greater divide between Israel and the Diaspora” is likewise flawed, as it attributes erroneously a motivation that is almost universally lacking among secular American Jews. The landmark 2013 Pew Research Center study, “A Portrait of American Jews,” found that only 15% of US Jewry (which includes the Orthodox population) believes that being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, whereas 62% of respondents said that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.

Accordingly, the vast majority of American Jews does not go to the Western Wall for purposes of prayer but, rather, out of personal connection to its historical significance. The presence, or lack thereof, of an egalitarian prayer section at the Wall should thus, in practice, be immaterial to most American Jews, thereby invalidating the assertion by another prominent Israeli writer – “Netanyahu to millions of Jews: We don’t really want you.” Aside from the potential effect of self-fulfilling doomsday articles and widespread institutional denunciations, Netanyahu’s move should, substantively, have virtually no impact on the average American Jew

It is thus hard to understand how the present “crisis” could have any significant negative effect on Israel-Diaspora relations. In this respect, it is noteworthy that the Pew study showed almost no change in the level of support of American Jewry for Israel between 2000 and 2013, albeit it does not break the figures down by denomination. It is therefore hard to deduce whether Conservative or Reform Jews are, in fact, distancing themselves from Israel, which, in any event, would certainly be attributable in most cases to political rather than religious reasons.

Anonymous said...

This week the High Court is scheduled to hear the latest petition against the government’s failure to carry out its historic decision some 18 months ago establishing a section for egalitarian worship at the Kotel.

Whatever the court decides – there is a possibility the case will be delayed – about the constitutionality of religious pluralism, the government’s true effectiveness is stymied by two coalition partners whose ministers refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the majority of Jews to whom the Kotel deal applies.

All the fulsome blather about the unity of the Jewish people cannot change the attitude of fundamentalist ministers toward the evolution of Judaism in the modern world. They can never accept the reformation of shtetl Judaism into anything other than stringent Orthodoxy.

There can be no change as long as there are ministers who deem Conservative and Reform Judaism illegitimate movements, who insult their adherents publicly, and who are capable of blackmailing the government by threatening to bring it down should it give them official recognition.

All Jews have equal rights in Israel’s so-called democracy, but it seems that for some politicians, there are some Jews who are more equal than others. The underlying cause of today’s turmoil is the fear of those who have acquired their undeserved monopoly on official religion.

As Prof. Gil Troy noted in these pages recently, “A healthy democracy has majority rule while respecting minority rights; [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] democracy has marginal minority rulers violating majority rights.” In Israeli democracy, the haredi tail wags the secular dog.

Similarly, nothing much will change until the great mass of secular Israelis is educated to the values of religious freedom that can only be expressed when politics is separated from religion. Nothing can change unless and until the average Israeli citizen understands that religious freedom is no less fundamental a value than freedom of speech.

The average Israeli doesn’t care about the strictures of religious law, but could be brought to understand the importance of mutual respect and tolerance of religious beliefs.

This requires sufficient motivation by a leader who cannot be held hostage by 13 ultra-Orthodox MKs who profess love for Jewish unity while doing everything to alienate more than half of the Jewish people.

The Western Wall compromise of 18 months ago was an important act of Zionist statesmanship that could have sealed Netanyahu’s historical reputation as an Israeli leader.

In the absence of such leadership, the Western Wall situation continues to fester as an open wound. There are no easy solutions. Hundreds of thousands of Reform and Conservative Zionists are not going to make aliya, although such a miracle is humanly possible and could result in a government coalition worthy of the Jewish people.

It is not up to Diaspora Jewry to fix our malfunctioning electoral system. Non-Orthodox Jews abroad who rightfully complain about being taxed for their Zionist commitment without representation in the Knesset can correct this injustice by joining the Zionist experience.

The problem is that small parties – like those led by the haredim – control the majority. They have the ability to blackmail the prime minister and millions of Israelis who deserve the freedom to express their Judaism as they believe it to be. Whatever their fears, it is not the purview of haredi MKs to decide who is a Jew.

What happened last week is proof of the need to change our electoral system. Governments need to be able to govern and the majority deserves to have its policies enacted.

Minorities deserve representation but what is happening in Israel is taking that to an extreme.