For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, keeping power matters more than preserving his country’s relationship with Jews in the United States.
Last week, Netanyahu rejected the plan to allow mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall. Under rules set by Orthodox rabbis, who control religious policy in Israel, men and women must pray separately. Reform and Conservative Jewish groups in the U.S. and an Israeli feminist group had pushed for the change.
The government approved the $9 million, mixed-gender prayer center 18 months ago. Negotiations had taken four years. But two small ultra-Orthodox parties said they would bolt Netanyahu’s coalition if the plan went ahead. Faced with calling elections or alienating Israel’s most important outside constituency — Jews that make up the Diaspora — Netanyahu said the government would seek an alternative over the next six months. No details.
For good measure, the government also advanced legislation that would restore Orthodox control of conversions within Israel. The rule would not apply outside Israel, but leaders in this country of the Reform and Conservative branches — to which more than half of American Jews belong — worry that the rule would undermine their standing within the faith.
A delegation from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) met with the prime minister to express the group’s displeasure. AIPAC criticizes the Israeli government about as often as the Vatican newspaper criticizes the pope. One AIPAC official, however, told The Jerusalem Post, “Part of the support for Israel on Capitol Hill is based on the idea that Israel is a democracy and safeguards peoples’ freedom and rights. The cabinet decision sends a different message.”
In addition, AIPAC board member Isaac Fisher, a principal in Coral Gables-based Capital Realty Services and a major fundraiser for Israel, said he would suspend his philanthropy work until Israel restored the Western Wall compromise. The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aronoth quoted from Fisher’s letter:
“It is not a matter of Reform and Conservative. What has happened here is a serious act of contempt toward the rabbis and leaders of our communities. They are saying to them, ‘You are irrelevant.’ They are saying to our women, ‘Your Judaism isn’t Judaism.’ This is intolerable, and we must put an end to it.”
Though American Jews celebrate Israel’s democracy, Israel is becoming more theocratic. The current government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history, formed out of the 2015 election in which Netanyahu falsely claimed that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”
Though the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox dominate in Israel, the opposite is true here. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of Jews in America identify as Reform — the liberal branch of Judaism — and 18 percent identify as Conservative — the moderate branch, despite its name. Only 10 percent identify as Orthodox, while 30 percent are secular or don’t identify with any branch.
Two months ago, demographers reported that Israel is home to roughly 6.5 million Jews. Nearly that many live in the United States. Combined, the two countries account for almost 85 percent of the world’s Jewish population. Last March, AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus stressed the importance of that relationship at the group’s annual convention in Washington. Israel, she warned, cannot become a partisan issue like health care and immigration.
“We will not allow — frankly, we cannot allow — support for Israel to fall victim to this same divisiveness …” Pinkus said. “We will work harder than ever before to hold the ideological center, preserving support for the Jewish state as a bipartisan cause both parties champion.”
Yet Netanyahu, like President Trump, plays to his ideological base at the expense of the majority and national interest. One Israeli commentator called the two decisions “a strategic earthquake” that gave half of American Jews no reason to support Israel.
A former Israeli Foreign Ministry official recalled a similar decision three decades ago. In trying to form a government, new Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed to an ultra-Orthodox demand that Israel recognize only Orthodox conversions. After a similar outcry, Shamir dropped the idea and formed a coalition that didn’t rely on ultra-Orthodox parties.
So there’s precedent for Netanyahu changing his mind. Doing so, however, would require him to place his country first.
Randy Schultz’s email address is [email protected].