Why Netanyahu Did It: The Brutal Truth on Israel and the Diaspora

By Jon Tobin


July 2, 2017


Non-Orthodox Jews are angry about the Israeli governmentís decision to go back on its word, and reject the idea of a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders says that the move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet will damage Jewish unity and undermine support for Israel in the US.

But while those affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements have every right to be upset, what most of them donít understand is why Netanyahu did it. Itís not because he doesnít care about the diaspora. Rather, the decision was the result of a cynical political struggle in which one side has power and the other does not.

As critics of Netanyahuís decision attempt to make their voices heard in Israel, they need to understand the context of this controversy and other religious pluralism issues that are further widening the divide between American Jews and Israel.

Those Israelis who wish to rationalize the governmentís decision may think that Israel should actively ignore and disdain the views of the overwhelming majority of religiously affiliated American Jews, who identify as non-Orthodox. Many Israelis, especially those on the right ó who see liberal Americans as sympathetic to the Israeli left ó wrongly link pluralism to the debate about the conflict with the Palestinians. Others think that the non-Orthodox are rapidly assimilating into American society, and should be written off.

Both of these excuses donít stand up to scrutiny. Netanyahu and the Israeli right are unpopular among American Jews. But even those Jews who oppose Netanyahu and the Israeli right still represent the backbone of pro-Israel groups like AIPAC. Though support for Israel from conservative Christians is very important, ignoring all American Jews except the Orthodox minority undermines support for Israel in the US.

Concerns about the demographic implosion of American Jewry are entirely justified. But those who think that the Orthodox community will soon dominate American Judaism donít understand that it will still take many years for that reversal to come about; and even if this happens, it will still create problems for American support for Israel. Rather than ignoring Reform and Conservative Judaism, Israelis should be thinking about how to reinforce efforts to keep those movements viable.

Moreover, Israelis also need to connect their own justified concerns about the impact that the haredi monopoly on religious issues is having on the Jewish state with their pluralistic concerns. The Kotel is a place that belongs to all of the Jewish people. Accommodations for the non-Orthodox are neither a provocation, nor an insult to the Orthodox.

But American Jews need to understand something else. Israel is a country where there is no separation between religion and state. In such a place, debates on religion are political, not religious. Israelís political system allows parties like those of the haredi community to obtain a disproportionate amount of power. One canít be surprised when they exercise that power, both to undermine a historic compromise at the Kotel that was first proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, and to exclude other rabbis, including the modern Orthodox, from control of conversions and other policies.

Netanyahu explained his decision to go back on his word by saying that any of his rivals would have done the same. Itís no excuse, but itís true; it has happened before with Israeli governments on the left, as well as the right. Netanyahuís left-wing opponents would also sell the non-Orthodox out if they had the chance. No prime minister would let his government fall in order to satisfy the Reform and Conservative movements in America.

An Israeli government truly willing to live up to its mandate to safeguard the interests of the entire Jewish people wouldnít let this happen. But until a day in which the political stars are aligned to make this a reality, donít be surprised when similar situations repeat themselves ó both on the Kotel and with respect to other pluralism issues.

The challenge for non-Orthodox Jews is obvious. Until their message is heard and understood by more Israelis ó and translated into political power ó nothing is likely to change. The message that Netanyahu sent them last week hurts, but whatever their views about the Israeli government might be, Reform and Conservative Jews must not let their frustration cause them to give up engaging with the Jewish state ó regardless of politics.