Israel’s unifying mission
‘Divisive and damaging” were the adjectives used by the Jewish Federations of North America to describe the Israeli government’s reneging on a plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall Plaza.
But you do not need the JFNA’s resolution to know that all is not well among the members of the tribe. A divide has always separated Israelis from Diaspora Jews, particularly those living in America. But we are now in the midst of crisis.
The time has come for Israeli political leadership to ask itself whether its responsibility is restricted solely to the six million or so Jews living in Israel or whether the Jewish state has a broader mission of striving to be the nation-state for the entire Jewish people.
We believe Israelis and internal Israeli politics should not be the final arbiter of issues such as the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. Rather, policies impacting Jewish geographic symbols, which have meaning far beyond Israeli society, should be determined by more broader considerations of Jewish unity and inclusiveness.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the JFNA, argued similarly during his speech earlier this week at the General Assembly in Los Angeles. Israel is responsible not just for the Jews who live there, it also has an obligation to make good on its undertaking to be a place in which every Jew – regardless of affiliation or denomination – should be made to feel at home.
Of course, there are situations in which Israel will pursue policies that are at odds with the majority opinion of US Jewry. Netanyahu’s decision to publicly clash with former US president Barack Obama on settlements and the Iran nuclear deal are one sign of how different the two largest Jewish communities are. Many US Jews undoubtedly felt uncomfortable when in March, 2015 Netanyahu addressed the US Congress against Obama’s Iran deal. The direct attack on Obama, who enjoyed about 70% of the US Jewish vote, emphasized the divergent political sensibilities held by Israelis and US Jewry.
Netanyahu’s natural affinity with Republicans and his strong ties with US President Donald Trump, who enjoys an approval rating of 30% among US Jews but is more popular among Israelis, have further fleshed out the stark differences of approach between American and Israeli Jews.
But Netanyahu’s suspension of the Western Wall deal, which was the result of years of sensitive negotiating and compromise, and his seeming willingness to cede more powers to an Orthodox Chief Rabbinate that openly and unabashedly serves the narrow political interests of a minority of Israeli Jews, are an unjustifiable departure from his previous stance which saw the fostering of relations with Diaspora Jewry as not just a strategic goal but also a moral obligation.
It was Netanyahu who, during his first stint as prime minister between 1996 and 1999, created the Neeman Commission on conversions. Representatives of Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism from Israel and from the Diaspora came together in an attempt to hammer out their differences and avoid a total breakdown in Israel-Diaspora relations.
Admittedly, today from a purely political calculation of profit vs. loss, there is little reason for Netanyahu to be forthcoming with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in the Diaspora. He enjoys good relations with the Trump administration regardless of the Jewish lobby in the US, and in Israeli society there is no significant political support for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Even Avi Gabbay, the new leader of the Zionist Union, the nation’s largest left-of-center party, is now attempting – so far successfully according to polls – to reach out to more voters by steering the party in a more right-wing and religiously Orthodox direction by claiming “the Left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish” [read Orthodox].
But there are ideals that stand above political survival. One of them is maintaining Israel’s position as a nationstate for all Jews throughout the world. And this means taking steps to make sure that every Jew, regardless of his or her affiliation, feels at home in the State of Israel.