A rejection of Diaspora Jewry

Netanyahu’s decision was purely political.

July 4, 2017 23:02
3 minute read.
Western Wall

The Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Ike Fisher, who may have been well known to some a few days ago, is now a household name to North American Jews.

An AIPAC board member, philanthropist and fundraiser for Jewish and Israel-related causes, it seems that he’s an all-around pretty influential guy, particularly in Miami, where he resides.

Ike is angry, as are many North American Jews. He is angry because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quite spectacularly capitulated last week, caving to the ultimatum presented by the leaders of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) bloc in the Knesset.

“If you continue with plans to allow egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall,” they threatened, “then we will leave the government coalition.”

And the prime minister said, “OK. Then I’ll cancel the plans.”

And these weren’t just any plans. They had been negotiated, painstakingly, for the past five years, by Natan Sharansky, Jewish activist icon who also happens to be the head of the Jewish Agency. On the day all this went down, Sharansky was hosting Jewish Federation and Jewish Agency executives in Jerusalem at their annual general meeting. Harshly worded statements, unprecedentedly so, were issued. A dinner event at the Knesset with the prime minister was canceled. And for the first time since its founding, the Jewish Agency, which reports to the prime minister, strongly criticized a government decision publicly.

And, for good measure, the prime minister also agreed with the haredi bloc to continue to refuse to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions.

Together, that’s a mega-swipe at millions of Jews.

Ike was reported in the media to have said that he will “suspend” his philanthropic and other activities until the decision is reversed. That creates a standoff, because the likelihood of a reversal is highly unlikely.

Netanyahu’s decision was purely political. His priority is to hold his coalition together and remain in power. The haredi bloc plays the hardest of hardball politics. At 10% of the population they wield wildly disproportionate power as king-makers in the coalition.

To North American Jews, however, this decision was a bullseye, in the worst way. This issue encompasses the core relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

And, what North American Jews heard last week, with brutal clarity, is this: “We don’t care what you think. If you want a ‘say’ then come and live here and participate in the political process. We have unique challenges in Israel that you clearly don’t understand.”

And the North Americans say: “Balderdash. You want our support when it suits you.

We do not ask for much. We do not meddle in your internal affairs. In fact, many think we – Jewish institutions – are overly deferential and that perhaps this historical reticence to criticize you has caused some of the backlash among Jewish millennials. But never mind that, for now.

“What matters most is this: we are, overwhelmingly, not haredi. We live in a different society and every aspect of our lives is imbued with progressivism, in the best way. We treat women equally. We work hard to promote tolerance in our own society, one that has accepted us, Jews, so openly. To us, setting aside a small space at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer is a metaphor. A very important metaphor. It says that we are a respected part of the Jewish family.

“That the haredim are so threatened by this gesture is alarming. The Wall, historically, has not been a place of gender-segregated prayer. Nevertheless, today, the men, for all sorts of reasons, have a much larger area in which to pray. The small egalitarian section was far, far away. And tiny. A speck. We don’t want to pray or live as they do. They don’t want to live or pray as we do, or don’t.”

This issue, though, has virtually no traction with the broader Israeli public. They are much more concerned with the cost of housing and the next, inevitable, war.

Reform, Conservative – for the most part, these denominational nomenclatures are meaningless in Israel. Either you’re religious or you’re not. To most Israelis, it’s a lot of fuss about nothing.

To me, and to Ike, It’s a rejection of the Diaspora’s legitimacy in the Jewish world. We understand how important Israel is for Jewish peoplehood and work hard to contribute to the betterment of this community.

In Israel, this is all just crass politics.

In the Diaspora, the rejection of the Western Wall compromise is a rejection of us.

The author was the ambassador of Canada to Israel (2014-16) and is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). She resides in Tel Aviv.

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