American and Israeli flags.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Recent government decisions have led to expected warnings that Israel is alienating Diaspora Jewry, the loss of which will have severe consequences.
With all due respect to Diaspora Jewry and the impact it has on Israel, the real tragedy is being overlooked.
MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party responded to criticism of a government decision against egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall with the common assertion that Israeli democracy is supposed to represent Israeli interests, not foreign ones. About that he is right.
The government’s decision is problematic not because foreign elements oppose it, but because neither it, nor Gafni, represent the Israeli public, the majority of which supports religious freedom and opposes the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) monopoly on religious life. Many critics, though, including Israeli politicians, have referenced Israel-Diaspora relations while ignoring the non-haredi majority’s right to religious freedom and the needs of Israeli democracy. If religious freedom on its own is not enough of a reason for Israeli politicians to support egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall then Israel is in trouble.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced support for non-haredi religious rights. Many commentators have pointed out that since the governing coalition would lack a majority without the 13 haredi votes in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu’s hands appear tied.
I do not absolve Netanyahu so easily. He has had opportunities to bring the Zionist Union Party into the coalition. Were he to do so he would no longer need to rely on religious parties. He would, though, have to take steps regarding the Palestinians, such as freezing Jewish building in Judea and Samaria. Regardless of Netanyahu’s stated support for a two-state solution and for US President Donald Trump’s efforts to achieve one, which might seem to make such steps consistent with Netanyahu’s stated goals, the haredim control religious life in Israel because when given the choice between religious coercion and overtures to the Palestinians, Netanyahu chooses coercion.
It is important to recognize that Netanyahu is not the only prime minister to rely on haredim for a parliamentary majority. Parties on the Left who state their support for religious freedom also sacrifice that value when it is politically expedient.
Regardless of their religious beliefs, Israelis consistently vote out of consideration for the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s security, to the exclusion of other issues. Their political identities tend to develop around the idea of being on the brink of annihilation, and they tend to think of themselves as having more to worry about than religious rights. This makes it less costly for prime ministers to sacrifice religious freedom than to compromise on diplomatic or security-related platforms.
The way for religious freedom to overcome coercion is to increase the political cost of relying on haredi Knesset votes.
If Diaspora Jewry wants to contribute to that effort, protests focused on Israel-Diaspora relations have already demonstrated their failure to accomplish that.
Instead, the focus needs to be on the negative impact of haredi religious coercion, on the positive importance of religious freedom, and on the value of a wide spectrum of multi-denominational Jewish practices.
Many Israelis view ultra-Orthodoxy as “the real Judaism.” Either you believe in it or not. Other denominations are viewed as new-age inventions that misrepresent Jewish practices and values. For religious freedom to overcome haredi political clout Israelis need to come to a more nuanced understanding of Judaism.
If Diaspora Jewry wants to contribute to the development of a pluralistic religious spectrum in Israel they should contribute to the development of non-haredi religious communities, outreach and education. They should contribute to non-haredi religious institutions such as Ein Prat, Bina, Alma, The Schechter Institute and many others (I have no personal connection to any of these organizations).
By doing so, Diaspora Jewry will influence Israelis to identify in ways that are religiously engaged but decidedly pluralistic.
Then Israelis themselves will come to value and fight for their own religious freedom in ways they never have.
Contributing to organizations working to develop a pluralistic religious environment is a more effective way to create that environment than protesting the fact that no one else has developed it already. The enormous sums Diaspora Jewry contribute to Israel are greatly appreciated, but to influence the makeup of Israeli society contributions need to be more focused on clear objectives.
The author grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Jerusalem. Previous columns of his have appeared in media outlets in both the United States and Israel.