By Douglas Bloomfield
Recently, my granddaughter wore a tallit and read from the Torah for her bat mitzvah at Ruach HaMaqom, the oldest synagogue in Vermont. It is in a neighborhood on the Old North End in Burlington that was once known as “Little Jerusalem.” If she tried that at the Western Wall in old Jerusalem she could have been stoned by ultra-Orthodox Jews or even arrested and hauled off by police.
Who Stands Up For Us?
The crisis created by Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to “freeze’ the 18-month-old agreement to create an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Kotel reminds us of the sad reality that Jews in America, particularly women, and in most other countries, have more freedom to practice their Judaism than their brothers and sisters in Israel.
The prime minister’s surrender to the extortionist ultra-religious establishment rather than standing up for the Jewish people — as he likes to boast he does—poses a far greater threat to Israel’s future than any foreign enemy.
He sold them out to protect this job, not to protect the Jewish people. Abandonment is a two-way street.
Erosion Of Diaspora Support
American Jewry is no longer reflexively pro-Israel. The recent decision is likely to accelerate the erosion of support. It is most pronounced among the younger and more progressive Jews. American Jewish college students are turning away from Israel in alarming numbers, many even leaning toward the Palestinian side, according a study by Brand Israel Group, which seeks to improve Israel’s image in the United States.
Under pressure from two ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism, Netanyahu froze the 2016 agreement with Reform, Conservative and other movements, which took three years to negotiate and which he had endorsed. UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman declared Netanyahu’s action means “The Reform do not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”
Cynical Political Ploy
Lesley Sachs, leader of Women of the Wall, a group seeking equal rights for women at the Kotel, wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Netanyahu’s broken promise is a disgrace and a betrayal of Israelis committed to religious liberty” and tells diaspora Jews “they don’t matter to the Jewish state.”
Next the ultra-religious are pushing for a law giving the chief rabbinate, which they control, a monopoly on conversions. Netanyahu backs it but temporarily delayed passage in the wake of the latest tsunami caused by his anti-pluralism action. The legislation would give state-run Haredi courts control of conversions, denying recognition to private Orthodox conversions in Israel as well as those by Conservative and Reform streams everywhere.
This has nothing to do with religion; it is purely cynical politics for the secular Netanyahu.
No Mistakes, No Responsibility
Netanyahu, like Donald Trump, never admits mistakes or takes responsibility when thing go wrong; both have credibility problems and wage war against the media. And like Trump, for Netanyahu “it’s all about me.”
Efforts to blame the crisis on Reform and Conservative movements for not giving the prime minister more time to find another way to appease the religious extremists were rebuffed.
This was another self-inflicted wound. Big machers from around the country were calling Israeli officials they knew in the U.S. and Israel, including the prime minister.
One well-placed diplomatic source told me the American Jewish reaction was “ferocious” and Jews were feeling betrayed “by an unreliable, dishonest, second-grade politician.” He said they were using words like “angry, abhorred, anguished, disgusted, alarmed, ashamed, and shocked.”
He said, “We’re pushing away the Jewish community in the U.S. instead of bringing it closer.”
PM Appears Surprised
The prime minister was surprised by the reaction to his “freeze,” which he had easily pushed through his Cabinet to appease the fundamentalist extortionists.
Big donors are pulling back, federations and others are talking of boycotting Israel Bonds, JNF and AIPAC. Some have estimated the outrage could cost Israel $1 billion a year.
Jewish leaders who are usually docile when speaking to power were uncharacteristically furious. They phoned or flew to Jerusalem to ask Netanyahu directly whether he’d considered the consequences of his actions. It’s about more than donors, they said, it is about political activism, grassroots connections to Members of Congress, and it is about the strategic relationship.
U.S. Weary Of Israel?
I’ve been meeting with Jewish groups and political activists around the country for most of the past 40 years and I’ve seen their interest and enthusiasm steadily waning. Lately that’s been accelerating. And as they go, so will the political leaders who look to them for guidance and support.
There is weariness with the Palestinian conflict, a frustration that blames both sides for the lack of progress. There is the feeling the diaspora is being told to shut up and keep sending your money and keep pressuring the Congress to do our bidding.
If American Jewry loses interest in Israel, so will the Congress.
Nearly 90 percent of American Jews are non-Orthodox, and they know what the religious extremists who have a strangle hold on this Israeli government think of them. And if they ever had any doubt, they know which side Netanyahu stands with.
Not A Growth Formula!
The Netanyahu era may be looked back upon as the turning point in the American alliance. In his plunge into partisan U.S. politics he backed candidates opposed by 75 percent of American Jewish voters. Now he is betraying the trust of Conservative and Reform movements, a large Jewish majority, on the issues of pluralism, conversion and their Jewish identity.
That is not a formula for growth.
Netanyahu’s future is in peril. The pluralism freeze may provide some short-term relief but the extortionist demands of the religious extremists won’t end there. On top of that, he is the target of three separate criminal investigations.
Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the New York Jewish Week, put it best when he wrote: “How can Prime Minister Netanyahu continue to call on American Jewry for unwavering support when he has so blatantly sold them out for personal politics?”