Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to speak broadly about his long-term goal of Jewish unity. But his recent assertions with respect to Diaspora Jewry raise serious questions about his real commitment to that goal. Indeed, rather than leading as a unifier, Netanyahu is coming across as a cynical politician who will say anything to please the haredi Orthodox parties in his fragile governing coalition.
How else does one explain Netanyahu’s offensive assertion that the Reform and Conservative movements are trying to get recognition “via the backdoor, secretly, under the pretext” of their partnership in the Western Wall agreement? That slap at Israel’s small liberal Jewish population and the much larger Diaspora one is as offensive as it is untrue.
In making accusations of trickery and subterfuge, Netanyahu must have forgotten that it was his government that negotiated the creation of a pluralistic prayer space near the Kotel, and that it was his government that approved it in 2016. And while there is no question that the agreement upset the haredi leadership that controls a segment of Netanyahu’s coalition government, there was no secrecy. But now, Netanyahu needs to find someone to blame (other than himself) for the mess his own government helped to create.
The issue of religious pluralism goes to the heart of the identity of the vast majority of American Jews, whose ongoing support of Israel is considered crucial. But the festering impasse over religious pluralism is increasing tension with many liberal Jews whose Jewish bona fides are being questioned, and who feel devalued and insulted by the Jewish state.
Even before Netanyahu’s comments, seven Jewish U.S. senators took the unprecedented step of voicing their concern to Netanyahu over Israel’s freezing of plans for the pluralistic prayer area. “Given all the challenges Israel faces on the international stage, we urge you not to alienate committed Zionists,” wrote Sens. Wyden, Feinstein, Sanders, Franken, Blumenthal, Cardin and Schatz. And the senators have a valid point.
Pluralism at the Kotel has become a wedge issue within the Diaspora Jewish community and beyond, and Netanyahu and his government need to pay careful attention to the outraged voices of the Reform and Conservative movements. These movements continue to stand with Israel in the public sphere despite disagreeing with her government on a host of vital issues. But how long can Israel expect such active and loyal supporters to continue to stand with her, when they and their religious observances are insulted, belittled, discredited and rejected?
This year, a number of Reform and Conservative congregations suspended their annual Yom Kippur Israel Bond fundraising drive in an effort to send a message that their support for an Israel that disrespects them should not be taken for granted. We hope that things improve, because an Israel without the active and engaged support of Diaspora Jewry will be a very lonely place.