Washington Watch: Cracks in the foundation

Israel is facing tough choices on issues that will resonate far beyond its own borders.

Haredi anti-Tal Law protest no-no-no 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi anti-Tal Law protest no-no-no 390
(photo credit: 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 ideas.
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.
Resentment is 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 thousands.
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 manpower.
Amar has said drafting yeshiva students is the work of the devil.
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 settlements.
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.
The few 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 money.
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 Jewish state.”
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 leaders.
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.
A group 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.
The group 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.
And Israel’s 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 US.