Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Lighting Hanukkah candles at the Kotel.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Once again Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to decide on the cardinal question of “Who is a Jew?” He also froze implementation of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall.
It is no coincidence that indecision and procrastination abound when it comes to issues of religion and state.
Netanyahu knows from at least two decades of experience – dating back to his very first term as prime minister – that there are no easy choices. If he decides to back the positions of Shas and United Torah Judaism, he sets himself on a head-on collision with North American Jewry’s Reform and Conservative movements, which represent the majority of affiliated American Jews. He also risks losing coalition partner Yisrael Beytenu, which represents a large swath of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not Jewish according to Halacha and oppose Orthodox hegemony.
If on the other hand he supports a more pluralistic Jewish approach, he risks losing his stable coalition, which rests on Shas and UTJ, two parties that are blissfully indifferent to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are, therefore, such convenient political partners in his right-wing government.
The solution he found was eminently pragmatic. With regard to a bill which seeks to consolidate the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversions, Netanyahu allowed it to be brought before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday where it passed. But Yisrael Beytenu appealed the bill, which forces the prime minister to address Yisrael Beytenu’s concerns before it is allowed to advance. Since Netanyahu has no intention of doing so, the bill has a chance of being buried until the end of the term of this government unless he again caves in to Haredi pressure.
And with the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, Netanyahu employed a similar tactic. He froze the plan that was approved by the cabinet in January 2016. In its place, Netanyahu said a new plan would be hammered out. That is doubtful. What’s more likely is that this plan will also never happen under the current government.
Politically speaking, this makes sense: the haredi parties get to brag to their constituency. Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, meanwhile, can tell his voters that the conversion bill will be buried. Netanyahu also gets to tell Diaspora Jewry that he is still working on a Kotel plan.
But not everything can just be about politics. By deciding not to decide, Netanyahu is shirking his duty as leader. He is also forcing the High Court to rule on highly controversial matters that risk further undermining its standing in the public’s eye.
For decades, consecutive governments – many of which were headed by Netanyahu – purposely sidestepped religion and state issues so as not to alienate Diaspora Jews, many of whom belong to liberal streams of Judaism.
During his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu faced a similar crisis when legislation was presented seeking to consolidate the power to determine who is a Jew in the hands of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Outcry from North American Jewry forced Netanyahu to trash the bill. The Jews of America rightly argued that the world’s only Jewish state could not exclude the Conservative and Reform movements from the Zionist project by delegitimizing their very claim to Jewishness.
At the height of the crisis, in November 1997, in a speech before the Council of Jewish Federations in Indianapolis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sagaciously noted that legislation would never solve the “Who is a Jew?” controversy.
He hoped that by bringing together Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders under the aegis of the Ne’eman Commission, the three streams would settle their differences. It did not happen due, primarily to the Chief Rabbinate’s intransigence.
Two decades later, Netanyahu’s observation still rings true: Legislation is not the solution. The failure of the Ne’eman Commission proves dialogue doesn’t work either.
Instead, the question “Who is a Jew?” – and matters such as how one worships to God in public places – should be left open to the competing definitions of the major recognized streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
The State of Israel should be home to all Jews, whether they be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated.
Israel is a Jewish state and it should remain that way. But the means of Jewish expression are many and varied. These diverse means of expression should be encouraged and fostered not restricted and legislated.