Washington Watch: Netanyahu vs. the Jews

“Mr. Netanyahu’s broken promise is a disgrace and a betrayal of Israelis committed to religious liberty.”

THE AUTHOR’S granddaughter reading from the Torah at her bat mitzvah. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE AUTHOR’S granddaughter reading from the Torah at her bat mitzvah.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last Shabbat my granddaughter wore a tallit and read from the Torah for her bat mitzva at Ruach HaMaqom, the oldest synagogue in Vermont. It is in a neighborhood on the Old North End in Burlington that was once known as “Little Jerusalem.” If she tried that at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem she could have been stoned by ultra-Orthodox Jews or even arrested and hauled off by police.
The crisis created by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to “freeze’ the 18-month-old agreement to create an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Kotel reminds us of the sad reality that Jews in America and in most other countries, especially women, have more freedom to practice their Judaism than their brothers and sisters in Israel.
The prime minister’s surrender to the extortionist ultra-religious establishment rather than standing up for the Jewish People – as he likes to boast – poses a far greater threat to Israel’s future than any foreign enemy.
He sold them out to protect this job, not to protect the Jewish People. Abandonment is a two-way street.
American Jewry is no longer reflexively pro-Israel.
Last week’s decision is likely to accelerate the erosion of support. It is most pronounced among the younger and more progressive Jews. American Jewish college students are turning away from Israel in alarming numbers, many even leaning toward the Palestinian side, according a study by Brand Israel Group, which seeks to improve Israel’s image in the US.
Under pressure from two ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism, Netanyahu froze the 2016 agreement with Reform, Conservative and other movements, which took three years to negotiate and which he had endorsed. UTJ leader Ya’acov Litzman declared Netanyahu’s action means “the Reform do not and will not have access [to] or recognition at the Western Wall.”
Lesley Sachs, leader of Women of the Wall, a group seeking equal rights for women at the Kotel, wrote in The New York Times this week: “Mr. Netanyahu’s broken promise is a disgrace and a betrayal of Israelis committed to religious liberty” and tells Diaspora Jews “they don’t matter to the Jewish state.”
Next the ultra-religious are pushing for a law giving the Chief Rabbinate, which they control, a monopoly on conversions. Netanyahu backs it but temporarily delayed passage in the wake of the latest tsunami caused by his anti-pluralism action. The legislation would give state-run ultra-Orthodox courts control of conversions, denying recognition to private Orthodox conversions in Israel as well as those by Conservative and Reform streams everywhere.
This has nothing to do with religion; it is purely cynical politics for the secular Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, like US President Donald Trump, never admits mistakes or takes responsibility when thing go wrong; both have credibility problems and wage war against the media. And like Trump, for Netanyahu “it’s all about me.”
That helps explain why a top Netanyahu aide was rebuffed when, in a teleconference with Israeli diplomats in the United States, he suggested blaming the crisis on Reform and Conservative movements for not giving the prime minister more time to find another way to appease the religious extremists.
No one was buying. This was another self-inflicted wound. Big machers from around the country were calling Israeli officials they knew in the US and Israel, including the prime minister himself.
One well-placed diplomatic source told me the American Jewish reaction was “ferocious” and Jews were feeling betrayed “by an unreliable, dishonest, second-grade politician.” He said they were using words like “angry, abhorred, anguished, disgusted, alarmed, ashamed, shocked.”
He said, “We’re pushing away the Jewish community in the US instead of bringing it closer.”
The prime minister was surprised by the reaction to his “freeze,” which he’d easily pushed through his cabinet to appease the fundamentalist extortionists.
Big donors are pulling back, federations and others are talking of boycotting Israel Bonds, JNF and AIPAC.
Some have estimated the outrage could cost Israel $1 billion a year.
Jewish leaders who are usually docile when speaking to power were uncharacteristically furious. They phoned or flew to Jerusalem to ask Netanyahu directly whether he’d considered the consequences of his actions. It’s about more than donors, they said, it is about political activism, grassroots connections to members of Congress, and it is about the strategic relationship.
I’ve been meeting with Jewish groups and political activists around the country for most of the past 40 years and I’ve seen their interest and enthusiasm steadily waning. Lately that’s been accelerating. And as they go, so will the political leaders who look to them for guidance and support.
There is a weariness with the Palestinian conflict, a frustration that blames both sides for the lack of progress.
There is the feeling the Diaspora is being told to shut up and keep sending your money and keep pressuring the Congress to do our bidding.
If American Jewry loses interest in Israel, so will the Congress.
Nearly 90% of American Jews are non-Orthodox, and they know what the religious extremists who have a stranglehold on this Israeli government think of them.
And if they ever had any doubt, they know which side Netanyahu stands with.
The Netanyahu era may be looked back upon as the turning point in the American alliance. In his plunge into partisan politics he backed candidates opposed by 75% of American Jewish voters. Now he is betraying the trust of Conservative and Reform movements, a large Jewish majority, on the issues of pluralism, conversion and their Jewish identity.
That is not a formula for growth.
Netanyahu’s future is in peril. The pluralism freeze may provide some short-term relief but the extortionist demands of the religious extremists won’t end there. On top of that, he is the target of three separate criminal investigations.
Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, put it best when he wrote: “How can Prime Minister Netanyahu continue to call on American Jewry for unwavering support when he has so blatantly sold them out for personal politics?”