Staff incompetence meets Diaspora inconstancy

Let’s try turning this mess into a leadership opportunity that heals the Jewish People – and prods other Western democracies to heal themselves.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Western Wall in Jerusalem
Friday’s compromise deferring the Kotel (Western Wall) and conversion bill did not clear the fallout from last week’s falling out over religious freedom in Israel. As the enmity lingers, my frustration with the boobs in the Prime Minister’s Office who should have prevented this debacle grows.
Much as it is convenient for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to blame American Jews for his mishandling American Jews, a prime ministerial house-cleaning is necessary. Everyone who advises him about Diaspora relations should offer to resign unless they specifically warned Netanyahu not to cave in last week. Anyone who knows anything about Israel-Diaspora relations could have predicted this storm. Those who dismissed the obvious warning signs are no better than meteorologists who cannot predict sunshine during the Israeli summer.
The schedulers and strategists who failed to notice that the prime minister was planning on betraying Diaspora Jews just as the Jewish Agency board of governors was meeting and a day before Netanyahu was scheduled to attend a banquet with them should be fired. A staffer should know instinctively what I will self-promotingly label the Trojan corollary to the physician’s Hippocratic oath: yes, first do no harm – and always protect the boss from embarrassment. The timing essentially gave opponents of Netanyahu’s decision added weaponry – to insult the prime minister at dinner or insult him by canceling the dinner. Such sloppy staff work is inexcusable.
A central challenge for a democratic leader – and for the leader’s staff – is to know when politics should intrude on governance, and when it shouldn’t. A leader who only governs through short-term political considerations is like a driver who only knows how to make right turns – you end up going in circles. As the heir to the Jabotinsky-Begin school of revisionist Zionism, Netanyahu should be fighting the Kotel question to protect religious freedom and Jewish peoplehood, refusing to allow a minority sector to monopolize the state’s religious power, especially because it polarizes our people. And as a Jewish nationalist, he should be fighting the conversion question as one of Zionist pride, refusing to allow anti-Zionists to dominate a state institution, the Chief Rabbinate.
Despite these staff stumbles, eventually Netanyahu and his government listened. By Friday they backpedaled, then conceded, in essence suspending their suspension of the decision. Such statesmanship, albeit reluctant and easily abandoned at any moment, showed that the Diaspora voice does count and that the constructive critics, led by Natan Sharansky, prevailed.
That mature spirit of compromise exposes the sophomoric calls by some to boycott Federation or Israel Bonds or Hadassah Hospital or El Al as foolish and self-destructive. When enraged we need to get more engaged, not become disengaged. Hurting poor kids, torturing suffering patients or even inconveniencing comfortable frequent flyers represents a blind lashing out, not a strategic thrust. It offers a gift from Jewish patriots to the forces of delegitimization that still menace Israel, even when we are squabbling. If anyone from the Left had made such harebrained suggestions they would have been pilloried as traitors. Such calls actually reinforce those in Israel who say that Diaspora Jews are non-citizens and don’t count.
The effective response by the Jewish Agency, the liberal denominations, AIPAC, the Federations, the American Jewish Committee and others reminded Netanyahu and his key ministers that these non-citizens are nevertheless members of the Jewish community and that the Zionist mission involves taking them – and their anger – seriously. By contrast, the vengeful boycotters are acting like fair-weather friends who not only are non-citizens of Israel but are not even loyal, reliable members of the voluntary Jewish community. You don’t abandon your family during a fight. and you don’t suspend your membership in the Jewish People or support of key Israeli institutions when annoyed with the government. Turning away at this critical moment is as cowardly as Netanyahu’s craven cave-in to ultra-Orthodox blackmailers.
We, the people of the Jewish center, will lose if the Kotel and conversion cave-ins continue pitting one gang of blackmailers against the others, the haredi my-way-or-the-highway bullies against the Diaspora-based take-my-marbles-and-go-home boycotters. This dynamic is a microcosm of the dynamic plaguing many democracies today, whereby the extremists yell and scream and act out – and the majority watching the polarizing crossfire withdraws into resigned silence.
Two-thirds of Israelis polled disapproved of Netanyahu’s decision last week. With 85% of Diaspora Jews defining themselves as non-Orthodox, and many Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora equally infuriated with the Kotel and conversion cave-ins, it is time to override the small ultra-Orthodox minority holding the Jewish People hostage.
A writer named Benjamin Netanyahu, in his book A Durable Peace, wrote that if Israel succeeds in the world, that glorious Zionist story will “surely give meaning and hope to all of humanity.” In this Trump-Brexit era of democratic crankiness and stalemate, having the Jewish supra-state, the Jewish community that transcends Israel’s sovereign borders, demonstrate a model of constructive consensus building, could be inspiring. It would help remind us all that the progressive educator John Dewey was half right. Democracy, he said, begins in conversation.
True, but another Trojan corollary kicks in: it thrives through compromise, hewing to the golden mean, not playing to the shrill extremes. Let’s try turning this mess into a leadership opportunity that heals the Jewish People – and prods other Western democracies to heal themselves.
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.