I propose a spelling change for the current prime minister’s English nickname. Just as Benjamin Netanyahu’s abandonment of the Western Wall compromise and rejection of fairer, more open conversion policies put a mark of Cain on the majority of Jews who are not haredim (ultra-Orthodox), he should be singled out and censured. Change “Bibi” to “Bebe” because Netanyahu betrayed the Israeli majority, the Jewish People, Zionism – and himself.
When a leader breaks out of the box for a principle, we call that courage; when a leader breaks principle for expedience, we call that cowardice.
Tragically, the Western Wall compromise represented an important act of statesmanship that would have enhanced Netanyahu’s historical reputation. The egalitarian prayer question is a complicated issue, requiring compromise.
I see the ultra-Orthodox point, partially. Religious Jews have rights in Israel’s democracy too – and particular sensibilities. Despite ignoring the Wall’s nationalist importance, haredim cherish its religious significance.
They therefore guard the site’s sanctity zealously.
Visit most other tourist sites worldwide – especially such busy ones. If not for the haredim, we might approach the Western Wall through a gauntlet of drink kiosks, falafel stands and souvenir shops. The Wall would have people dressed sloppily, provocatively, shouting, cussing, monkeying around, snapping silly selfies. The Wall’s base would be strewn with Coke cans and water bottles, plastic bags and sandwich wrappers.
The plaza would be used for loud Jewish pep rallies by every passing tour group.
The Wall should remain a sacred space – evoking the Holy Temple’s holiness.
Moreover, just as the haredim should acknowledge that most Jews pray in egalitarian synagogues today – if they bother praying at all – the non-Orthodox should acknowledge that gender segregation is a foundation of Orthodoxy. To Orthodox Jews, “Jewish” law doesn’t mean “it’s not really law because it’s not enacted by a government,” it means “it’s really, really binding.”
At the same time, imagine, in 2017, that a democracy would dare outlaw Jews praying, reading Torah, wearing tallitot, at a Jewish holy site. When the Greeks-Romans- Persians-Muslims-Germans-Russians committed such crimes we called it antisemitism. How could it be that our Jewish democracy is the only democracy criminalizing Jewish ritual life today? For that reason, the compromise that the Jewish Agency’s Natan Sharansky brokered over four painstaking years – representing the prime minister – made so much sense. The historic deal respected the status quo, while creating a new prayer space legitimizing the egalitarian majority. I revere the Robinson’s Arch part of the Wall. My oldest daughter had her bat mitzva there. We should start selling postcards and celebrating it as equally historic and holy so egalitarian Jews will feel like first-class Jews when praying there.
Given all that, when Bebe allowed the 13 MKs holding him hostage to blow up this Kotel Kompromise – and decree an haredi rabbinate monopoly on conversion – he betrayed his true bosses, the citizens of Israel.
Most Israelis are not haredi. They don’t want their country defined by an unapologetically unpatriotic minority.
A healthy democracy has majority rule while respecting minority rights; Bebe’s democracy has marginal minority rulers violating majority rights.
Bebe betrayed the idea of Jewish peoplehood, our solidarity without sameness, the notion that we have our differences but also look out for one another, seeking Sharanskyite compromises, not Bebe-esque betrayals.
Many now feel that the vast global Jewish majority has neither a strong voice nor a welcoming home in the Jewish state.
Bebe speaks to Diaspora delegations about Israel as the Jewish People’s home – then abruptly makes as many Jewish people as he can not feel at home here.
Before he endorses another law labeling Israel “the nation-state of one people – the Jewish People,” Netanyahu should treat Israel as all the Jewish people’s nation-state, not just “Haredistan.”
Bebe betrayed Zionism, by granting Kotel Kompromise vetos and conversion monopolies to the anti-Zionists who already monopolize Israel’s rabbinate.
Anti-Zionist rabbis who never served in the army may continue lording over army veterans, even heroes, who seek proper conversion, not giving them the benefit of the doubt. A supposedly nationalist prime minister bullied by non-Zionists and anti-Zionists violated Zionist commitments to ingathering exiles, to uniting Jews, to making Israel an inspiring center. Those of us who labor daily to unite the Jewish People, to bridge gaps between the Diaspora and Israel, to revitalize Zionism, have been personally betrayed.
And Bebe betrayed himself. He is the one who told Sharansky he wants “one wall for one people.” He is the one who could have been praised for his leadership and instead, again, acted like a Chicago ward heeler – tending his coalition, not doing what’s right. How long does he need to serve before he starts to lead? Beware, however, the Big Bebe Bash. If more secular Israelis spoke up to denounce the haredi monopoly and defend Diaspora Jewish sensibilities here, Netanyahu’s pollsters would have warned him to resist his haredi blackmailers. And if fewer American Jews threatened to cut all ties every time a crisis erupts, perhaps more Israelis would take their views seriously as true partners, not bratty fair-weather friends.
The Western Wall and conversion issues, then, are tests. So far, Bebe has failed them. But will we, too? Let’s turn this mess into an opportunity to create a broad centrist coalition, powered by Jewish peoplehood, including secular and nationalist-religious Israelis, working with most Diaspora Jews, to forge Sharanskyite compromises while demanding a more expansive, effective, approach to Israeli governance overall.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018.He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.