There is no more accurate barometer with which to measure Israel-US relations than AIPAC. This veteran pro-Israel lobby, which is so skilled and influential in American politics, immediately felt that the Israeli cabinet decisions taken earlier this week were tantamount to an earthquake, and could upend the Israel-US Jewish community/US Congress relationship.
AIPAC leaders rushed to Israel on Wednesday night for a round of meetings in an effort to put an end to the avalanche.
On Tuesday night, the members of the Jewish Agency for Israel's Board of Governors all left Israel. They dispersed quietly following 48 hours of stormy deliberations – perhaps the stormiest the veteran organization has ever experienced, since they touched on the most sensitive topic: the relationship between Israel and world Jewry.
The drama that developed following the government decisions regarding the Kotel and conversions came to a head at the board meeting, and pushed this conflict, which poses a real challenge for this relationship, up out of the shadows and into the sunlight. We cannot run away from these issues any longer.
The government's decisions, which had been taken two days earlier and had come as a strange and ill timed surprise, were shocking news for Jewish Agency officials, most of whom live outside of Israel. World Jewry is very sensitive about both the Kotel and conversion issues, and has been heavily involved in negotiations with the government. In fact, some of the matters have already reached the Supreme Court.
It's inconceivable that these decisions were made quickly and secretly without first informing the Jewish Agency or the Jewish world at large. The Board of Governors’ angry reaction, the cancellation of the dinner with the prime minister, and the public campaign in the media in protest of these decisions, were the last thing the prime minister needed these days.
All the parties in the government coalition are squeezing Benjamin Netanyahu in an effort to extract as much juice as they can, and the volume keeps growing. Coalition crises are a daily occurrence, but this time Diaspora Jews were the ones who ended up paying the price for the coalition to remain intact and survive. Generally, the leaders of world Jewry ignore internal Knesset squabbles. They usually say – and justifiably so – that any democratically elected Israeli government is acceptable to them. But it is okay, and even desirable, that world Jewry be invited to voice its disagreement with certain decisions.
The sentiments that were expressed by world Jewry leaders, by the way, were unprecedented in their intensity. One suggested that they reevaluate their relationship with the government, while another proposed a full boycott and the cutting off all monetary contributions to Israel. Israeli consulates in the US were inundated with angry reactions, and the Foreign Ministry tried, in vain, to minimize the damage. From meetings I held with Jewish leaders – especially the fascinating discussion with the Knesset Caucus for US-Israeli Relations, which I head, and which 25 MKs from a number of political parties attended, it became clear just how disastrous the cabinet decisions had been.
Even the MKs from the coalition were having a hard time accepting the government decisions. The guests from abroad, including the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements, did not try to hide their anger and frustration. Regarding the Kotel controversy, for example, they had already compromised by agreeing to the earlier cabinet decision, and then Israel threw the agreement away. Regarding the conversion controversy, a compromise had finally been reached that was acceptable to world Jewry, but then the government reneged on that promise, too.
Israel takes Diaspora Jews for granted. They are expected to be supportive at all times and during every crisis. They are involved in our decisions every single day of the year, and Israelis are confident that Diaspora Jews will always have our back and be at the ready to offer Israel political, economic and cultural assistance. There will always be influential Jews around the world who wield power in their local communities.
And what about the generous contributions – billions of dollars every year – these Jews make to Israel, both communally and individually? I have yet to hear of them being given something in return.
The portentous events that took place this week are a clear reminder of the imbalance between the two largest Jewish communities in the world: Israel and the US. It was the prime minister who once said, “You don’t give without receiving in return.” Another time he said, “If they want it, they’ll get it. If they don’t want it, they won’t get it.” It’s clear that the prime minister understands the situation, and the time has come for world Jewry to understand it, too. The State of Israel wants and needs their help – all the time.
Therefore, they are entitled to express their views and be involved in Israeli affairs. Granted, regarding questions of war and peace, the Israeli public should have exclusive control over decisions, since they involve the life and death of citizens, but when it comes to issues that affect the Jewish people as a whole, the opinion of world Jewry needs to be heard. It is also legitimate for them to direct their activities in accordance with the extent that Israel respects them, consults with them, and integrates them into the decision-making process.
Israel is not the boss of world Jewry or of the Jewish religion.
In politics, everyone talks in “political speak.” It’s true there is no “Diaspora Jews Party” in the Knesset, and the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have extremely limited power, but this doesn’t mean that we can exclude them from the conversation and ignore their concerns. I expect that a storm will erupt if future discourse is carried out in this tone.
This, at least, is my understanding gleaned from this week’s events.
World Jewry is not Israel’s servant, but neither is the opposite true, of course. Consequently, the government must internalize that the strength of all the Jewish communities worldwide is at its disposal, provided that world Jewry’s concerns, interests and status are taken into consideration and become an integral part of the Israeli government’s decision-making process on issues that concern both partners.
Say it in Hebrew, say it in “political speak.”
The writer is an MK from the Zionist Union, chairmen of the Knesset Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish World, and Chairmen of the Knesset Caucus for US-Israeli Relations.