Washington Watch: Cracks in the foundation
Israel is facing tough choices on issues that will resonate far beyond its own borders.
Haredi Jews protest Tal Law. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Several recent developments threaten to erode Israel’s support among American
Jews and its political base on Capitol Hill. The government is grappling with
questions involving conscription of ultra-religious Jews, recognition of
non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, Israel’s control of the West Bank and the
future of the settler enterprise.
Some might argue that these are local
issues to be decided by Israelis for Israelis, and to some extent that is true,
but they also impact how the Diaspora sees Israel. And a Diaspora told to mind
its own business and just do as it’s told and make sure your government keeps
sending us billions of dollars and top-of-the-line weapons might have different
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox-dominated religious establishment wields
disproportionate power as it seeks to impose its will on government and society
and plunges its hands deep into the national cookie jar.
widespread but governments of both the Right and the Left let them get away with
it because they want those votes to build their coalitions, and usually the
religious parties stay out of most issues that don’t directly affect them, such
as national defense. But not when it looks like their yeshiva students might be
subject to the same draft as all other Israelis.
The High Court of
Justice ruled the “Tal Law,” which exempts haredim from conscription, is
unconstitutional and needs to be replaced.
Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu, who is very responsive to the religious establishment, wants to keep
the rabbis happy but faces a revolt from secular coalition partners demanding
that yeshiva students share the burden of defending the state. They have largely
been exempt from the draft since the founding of the state; an agreement that
was once meant to cover about 300 to 400 young scholars now exempts tens of
President Shimon Peres told Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar,
the leading opponent of drafting haredim, that everyone who can serve in the IDF
should, and that in all seven of Israel’s wars there had been a shortage of
Amar has said drafting yeshiva students is the work of the
A major concern about drafting haredim is whether their first
loyalty will be to the state and the army or to their rabbis. A number of rabbis
have ordered their followers in the IDF to disobey any order to dismantle
After years of trying, the non-Orthodox got the High Court
to recognize and pay the salaries for a handful of Conservative and Reform
rabbis. The Netanyahu government agreed to recognize them as “rabbis of a non-
Orthodox community,” but even that was too much for the haredim.
non-Orthodox rabbis will have no authority over Jewish law or marriage and
divorce ceremonies, and – a particularly egregious slap in the face – their
salaries will be paid by the Culture and Sports Ministry, not the Religious
Services Ministry, whose minister said he would quit before paying their
salaries but that first he had to get permission from the rabbi who dominates
his Shas Party, Ovadia Yosef.
Shelly Yecimovich, head of the Labor Party,
said the decision to recognize the rabbis “advances pluralism and tightens the
ties between Israel and the Jews of the world, particularly American Jews.” That
is a point that seems lost on most Israeli leaders.
The response from
Rabbis Amar and Yosef and other haredi leaders has been particularly incendiary,
calling the non-Orthodox “destroyers of Judaism,” “evil,” “haters of the Lord,”
“enemies of God, wicked,” “heretics” and “curses.” That tells the 80 percent or
more of American Jews who are not Orthodox that they are not real Jews in the
eyes of Israel’s dominant religious establishment. It says, this is not your
Israel and you’re not welcome here, so just shut up and send more
Their invective further widens the gap between religious and
secular in Israel but, more so between Israel and the Diaspora, where it could
have serious political impact.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the
Jewish Federations of North America, said statements such as those of Rabbi Amar
“only serve to alienate our fellow Jews from our religion, our people and the
A recent survey for the Workmen’s Circle reported an
increased affinity for Israel among non-Orthodox American Jews under age 35, but
it found that attachment dropped steadily for those over 45. More important, it
discovered that attachment does not translate to trust in Israeli leaders, and
that means they will be less inclined to work to support the policies of those
A major disconnect regards settlements. Historically, there has
been little support for them among the majority of American Jews, and support
has eroded further as the settler movement is perceived as the primary obstacle
to peace with the Palestinians and the two-state solution, which enjoys wide
support in the US. The widespread perception that Netanyahu would rather build
settlements than make peace will erode support among all but the hardliners, not
just in the Jewish community but in the rest of the US as well.
of 40 American Jewish leaders wrote to Netanyahu this month saying they were
“deeply concerned” about a report from a committee headed by retired Supreme
Court justice Edmund Levy that declares the West Bank is not occupied territory
“under international law,” and thus all settlements are legal.
warned Netanyahu that his endorsement of the report “will place the two-state
solution, and the prestige of Israel” as a democracy, in peril, and add fuel to
those who seek to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist.
future as a Jewish state would also be threatened, because the Levy report
implies that Israel would have to decide whether to grant Palestinians living
the West Bank full citizenship rights, or disenfranchise them and relegate them
to selected enclaves.
The choices Prime Minister Netanyahu and his
government make on these issues will resonate far beyond Israel’s borders. They
have the potential to redefine the relationship between Israel and American
Jewry, and Israel’s broader standing in the