Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a new 61-seat coalition government.
Pundits have emphasized Israel’s move to the political Right, and the likely impact on negotiations with the Palestinians, its relationship with the US government, and an Israeli response if a bad deal is signed with Iran.
My concern is more nuanced. How does the formation of this new coalition government, which empowered Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority, affect Israel’s relationship with the majority of American Diaspora Jews? Coalition governments in Israel come and go. In the moment, some mistakenly lose perspective, and define the whole Zionist enterprise as less than worthy of support because of rigid or controversial positions taken by haredim (ultra-Orthodox) in positions of religious power. Their choices reverberate throughout the Jewish world because their decisions affect the most sensitive of personal issues, including marriage, conversion, divorce, burials, and, the most basic of all, “Who is a Jew?” The ascendancy of the ultra-Orthodox to control of the Chief Rabbinate in the past 25 years, replacing more mainstream Orthodox leadership, has needlessly strained the relationship of American Jewry with Israel.
This is not just a theological division; it can have profound and long-lasting national security consequences for Israel. Yes, for Israel. If American Jews begin to question their support of Israel because of decisions of the ultra-Orthodox in control of religious issues in Israel and beyond, that breeds a national security problem, not just a religious issue.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the flagship Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue of New York recently observed that with the return of haredim in control of key Israeli ministries, it is inevitable that friction will be created, while American and Israeli Jewry are heading in opposite directions.
With the ascendancy of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the new coalition, official Israeli Judaism emanating from the ministries under haredi control is moving toward a more centralized, less inclusive form. Meanwhile, organized mainstream American liberal Judaism is moving towards more inclusivity, outreach and pluralism in large part as a response to the PEW survey of American Jews that revealed a 70 percent intermarriage rate within the non-Orthodox community. This is incredibly important for the longevity and sustainability of American Jewry, but its impact on national security also deserves attention.
If the majority of American Jews hear from their rabbis that they are now more marginalized and disenfranchised than ever by those in control of religious issues in the new government, American Diaspora Jewry, who instinctively want to support Israel, may now feel disrespected, or certainly confused.
Israeli leaders who have taken for granted the support of mainstream American Jewry need to understand how their new government’s makeup and shift to religious inflexibility will be perceived in the US. These are the people who elect members of Congress, lobby politicians to support Israel, contribute financially to the Jewish state and send their children on Birthright trips.
Israel has one great friend in the world, the unipolar superpower, the United States of America. American Jewry has been and is still overwhelmingly supportive of the Jewish state; they appreciate the security issues Israel faces daily. However, the durability of that bond will be tested if American Jewry feels the Jewish state has somehow morphed into a state with fundamental values different than theirs.
Anything that diminishes that bond is a security issue for Israel.
I am not speaking about the minority of progressive American Jews and their rabbis who seem to revel in siding with Israel’s enemies, and look for opportunities to justify their support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Without diminishing the influence of those detractors, I am speaking about the majority of American Jews who are affiliated with religious movements, who may view Israel’s new coalition government as a backtrack on prior promises. From the continuing contentious fight of “Who is a Jew?” to who can marry or convert a proselyte, American mainstream Jewry is more liberal and may find it harder to defend the state when they feel its ultra-Orthodox leadership does not respect them. It must be remembered that American Modern Orthodoxy is also at odds with the ultra-Orthodox, whose motto seems to be a “my way or the highway” Judaism.
Israeli leaders must remember that American Jewish support is not God-given, nor is it inevitable. America is not only a supporter of Israel’s military needs, but also is its diplomatic shield at international organizations.
These are core security interests.
As I wrote in my past column, America needs Israel, but Israel also needs a strong relationship with America.
Prime Minister Netanyahu must realize that in 2015 Israeli security interests are intimately involved with the pulse of the American Jewish community.
Groups like AIPAC, the iconic pro-Israel organization, rely on mainstream American Jewry foot soldiers from the liberal American Jewish movements.
Some Jewish philanthropic organizations already have stopped giving funds to Israel because of contentious issues in the past. A hard shift against religious pluralism in Israel can add fuel to this fire.
My advice for the secular leadership of the new Likud government: Find a way to embrace and legitimize the American liberal religious movements.
Do it for your own national security interests.
The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders. He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.