A time to stand down, not double down

What will American Jews do when a chasm opens up between the policies of the Israeli and American administrations?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speeks at the Conference of Presidents in Jerusalem, February 16, 2015 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speeks at the Conference of Presidents in Jerusalem, February 16, 2015
Ever since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation from Representative John Boehner to speak to Congress without the blessing of President Barack Obama, the American Jewish community has been thrust into a terribly uncomfortable position. Whether Prime Minister Netanyahu is acting out of principle – to urgently state his case against a nuclear Iran, or out of political expediency – to score points at home in the run-up to the Israeli election – the effect on American Jewry is one and the same.
For the first time in a very long time, American Jews are being asked to choose between a visibly upset White House and an unyielding leader of the Jewish state.
How is it possible, we ask behind closed doors, that the prime minister does not understand the effect his actions are having on American Jewry? After all, Mr. Prime Minister, to side with you means to side with the person who has caused offense to my president. With the stakes so high, is this really the moment you want Israel’s most vocal supporters to be rendered silent for fear of choosing between impossible options? Ever since the December call for new elections, American Jewry has been watching the events in Israel unfold with great trepidation. The political climate wrought by coalition politics has served to undercut the possibility of a two-state solution anytime in the foreseeable future. To be sure, a two-state solution can and should only happen when doing so does not undermine Israel’s security. Israel need make no apologies for her refusal to allow a fundamentalist Gaza-like state to emerge in the West Bank. But when Israel’s settlement practices preclude the possibility of a two-state outcome, when Israel’s own policies run counter to the policies of the American administration and for that matter Israel’s own stated positions – again – American Jewry is thrust into a difficult position.
Just imagine an electoral outcome next month whereby an Israeli coalition is formed that either explicitly or implicitly disavows a two-state solution.
What will American Jews do when a chasm opens up between the policies of the Israeli and American administrations? What exactly will it mean to support an Israeli government whose policies run counter to the conscience of much of American Jewry? The fault lines between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, however, exist not just in the sphere of geopolitics, but at the very heart of Jewish identity. Due to Israel’s system of coalition politics, whoever the next prime minister is, odds are he or she will partner with the haredi or ultra-Orthodox parties in order to form a governing coalition. In a story that dates back to the founding of Israel, while the religious parties readily defer to the prime minister on matters of political borders, they do so only insofar as the prime minister defers to them when it comes to defining the boundaries of Judaism and the Jewish people. It is because all matters of personal status in Israel (marriage, divorce, burial, conversion) are in the hands of an ultra-Orthodox Israeli chief rabbinate that all non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism are stymied. As the politics in Israel become more, not less, fractious – the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox community on religious life will increase not decrease.
The government of Israel cannot claim to speak on behalf of world Jewry and then alienate that very Jewry. The “haredization” of Israeli religious life is not just the concern of a few liberally minded American rabbis – it is a concern for anyone invested in the future of the global Jewish people.
Distressing as the situation may be to American Jewry, what Israeli leadership needs to understand is that it is a state of affairs that will ultimately serve to undercut Israel’s security. Why? Because if in the next election the ultra-Orthodox community is further emboldened, then the vast majority of American Jewry will wake up to find themselves alienated from the Israel we have been taught to love so much. If American Jewry is disenfranchised from Israel then it is not just we who have the problem, but Israel itself. American Jewry plays a critical role in securing Israel’s position on the world stage. To what degree will the American Congress, Republican or Democrat, care about Israel if American Jewry no longer understands itself to be a vested stakeholder in the destiny of the Jewish state? The temperature and tone of the conversation needs to be dialed down immediately.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu is as concerned about Iran as he purports to be then surely he and his advisors can find a way to state the case without alienating the leader of the free world. This is the time stand down, not double down. The urgent message regarding the Iranian threat will be less politicized and thus delivered far more effectively if spoken by the prime minister, whoever that may be, after the election, not before. As for President Obama, who coined the notion of “beer diplomacy,” maybe this is the moment to drink some of his own brew. Invite the prime minister over on his upcoming trip, not a state visit, no fanfare needed, and show the world, to paraphrase the rabbis, that in the place where there are no men, you are the man! The only beneficiary to the present political spectacle is Iran – the very country that we all agree sits at the heart of the problem. Support for Israel must be swiftly returned to its bipartisan status. The intended speech before Congress is wrongheaded and it is the responsibility of American Jewry to forewarn the prime minister of the consequences of his intended project.
Diaspora Jewry and Israel can make for strange bedfellows. We do not vote in each other’s elections, our culture and concerns are far from one and the same, but by a blessed and occasionally awkward twist of fate, we are bound to one another. Like two siblings who share a family of origin yet walk this world at a distance, Israel and Diaspora Jewry must be ever vigilant to care for each other, protect each other, correct each other when we step out of line, and always do so in a way that bespeaks our enduring loyalty.
After all, if we can’t say these things to each other with love, then who can? Let’s have the dialogue that only siblings can, filled with mutual concern, acknowledging our differences – all the while gently nudging each other towards a shared destiny.
The author is rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.