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The lie at the heart of the Jewish American consensus

By choosing to engage on specific issues of Israeli policy while ignoring the fate of Palestinians, the Jewish American establishment has effectively sided with perpetuating the occupation.

Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold torah scrolls during a mixed prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, Jerusalem's Old City, May 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold torah scrolls during a mixed prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, Jerusalem’s Old City, May 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For years, the Jewish American establishment has been able to convince the world, and itself, that it does not directly meddle in internal Israeli affairs — a declaration most commonly used to justify not commenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if anyone still has any faith in that notion, the volatile events of the past week should put it to bed.

The outcry from across the Jewish American political spectrum was nearly universal. Prime Minister Netanyahu surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government, reneging on a compromise with Reform and Conservative Jewish groups to create a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall, and as if to pour salt on the wound, his government pledged to support a highly controversial conversion bill the same day. The Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency, and even AIPAC — some of the largest Jewish political institutions in the United States — immediately went into crisis mode.

The Reform movement scrapped a previously planned meeting with the prime minister, the Conservative movement vowed to show up at Netanyahu’s home in protest, the Jewish Agency held an emergency session to excoriate the government for the move, and leaders of AIPAC — known for their unconditional support for Israeli policies — announced an impromptu meeting with Netanyahu to discuss the fallout.

The crisis over an egalitarian praying space at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, is not new. For years it has been simmering among the American Jewish community, bursting forth whenever liberal groups such as Women of the Wall are attacked by ultra-Orthodox Jews for attempting to pray there same way millions of Jews do every day across the United States. The government’s decision to support a bill that would recognize the Israeli rabbinate as the sole arbiter of certain conversions in Israel — thus delegitimizing Conservative and Reform religious courts and conversions in the country — was too much to bear.

Moreover, it exposed yet again the underlying schisms between American Jews — the majority of whom are social and political liberals — and the ultra-Orthodox populations in Israel, many of whom view Reform and Conservative Jews basically as heretics. The swift and unequivocal response by the American Jewish establishment is a reminder that when its own interests are at stake, it is willing to exert pressure on Israel’s leadership.

The Jewish American establishment’s fury with the Israeli government this week was well placed; there is no reason ultra-Orthodox men should be the sole arbiters of who is considered a Jew, who gets to pray where, and how prayer can be conducted. There is certainly no reason that any state, let alone a Jewish state, should legislate such matters. And it is unquestioningly objectionable to legislate which streams of Judaism are “legitimate” and which are not.

However, as my colleague Noam Sheizaf wrote earlier this week, despite the leverage American Jews have over Israeli politics, they refuse to apply it when it comes to the “larger battle for liberal values in Israel.”

Case in point: while the Jewish Agency was busy holding its emergency session, Palestinians in Gaza were living on 2.5 hours of electricity a day, after Israel acceded to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ demand to drastically cut the Strip’s power supply. Why didn’t the Reform movement, the most liberal of the organizations present at the meeting, demand a discussion of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

Palestinian boys study by candlelight during a power outage in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip on March 14, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

Palestinian boys study by candlelight during a power outage in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip on March 14, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

The answer is that the Jewish American establishment simply does not consider ending Israel’s 50-year-long military dictatorship over the Palestinians to be a long-term Jewish interest. American Jews, after all, were raised to see Israel as an extension of their identity, and Palestinians as an obstacle to achieving full liberation. Even Reform Jews, who regularly pay lip service to the two-state solution, are not willing to take even the most basic acts of protest (canceling a meeting with the prime minister, for example) to exert pressure on the government to end the occupation.

For years, the Jewish establishment was able to convince itself that lip service was enough: establishing a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group here, publishing a statement in support of the two-state solution there. But any action that might put it at odds with Israeli policy vis-à-vis Palestinians is a Rubicon no American Jewish organization dares cross. By choosing to stay on the sidelines, the establishment has effectively sided with endless occupation.

The Jewish establishment refuses to recognize its own role in maintaining the status quo. But the siege on Gaza and the occupation are Jewish issues, and bringing an end to Israeli military control is in the establishment’s long-term interest. Grassroots Jewish groups such as IfNotNow are slowly chipping away at that edifice, but they won’t be able to do it alone. The establishment has a choice to make, and no amount of inter-Jewish issues or struggles for egalitarian prayer spaces will absolve it of its responsibility. The question remains: which side will American Jews be on?

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    COMMENTS

    1. Grandpa Frost

      For a millionth time, there is no such thing as the “occupation.” As far the “Women of the Wall” is concerned it’s a fringe group that nobody really cares about. This line made me laugh: “…attacked by ultra-Orthodox Jews for attempting to pray there same way millions of Jews do every day across the United States…” Are you serious? You think the Reform and the Conservatives pray every day?

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Gramps: 1,000,001: https://www.ochaopt.org/

        “50 Years of Occupation”

        Reply to Comment
        • Grandpa Frost

          Bruce, the United Nations! Haha! Now that is surely an unbiased organization! Pray tell, how does their site make a case for the existence of the occupation? I’d like anyone, and I mean ANYONE to make a coherent case for its existence. Otherwise, it’s another leftist/anti-semitic dogma that we are expected to believe without ever questioning it. Just like climate change! We are required to believe it despite the fact that every climate model that predicted gloom and doom failed miserably.

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        People who put “occupation” in quotes are not serious. Frost is at it again. Like a creationist trying to insert “teaching the controversy” into the science curriculum when there is no genuine controversy.

        I might have told him he sounds rather like a climate change denier except he beat me to it. (Climate change is the wrong analogy, anyway. (Climate change is about what we can say within scientific confidence limits about the present and future; the occupation is about the obvious past and present right in front of our eyes–no statistical or scientific sophistication is needed.)) What Frost really sounds like is the guy who says “I’d like anyone, and I mean ANYONE to make a coherent case for the existence of evolution by natural selection. Otherwise, it’s another leftist dogma that we are expected to believe without ever questioning it.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Grandpa Frost

          Ben, once again:
          https://972mag.com/how-netanyahu-rewrote-israeli-history-with-one-viral-video/122378/#comment_form_wrap

          The ball is in your court. You must prove the existence of the occupation. As the link above clearly shows, your last try failed miserably, and that’s why you don’t even attempt to tackle the issue anymore. You argument now basically is: “well, if you don’t believe it, then you are a lunatic!” In the Middle Ages they would have used the term “heretic.” All your verbiage proves absolutely nothing. As far as climate change, see my comment about climate models. Let’s see ANY proof to the contrary.

          Reply to Comment
      • duh

        There’s two ways to go about this. One could mention the Palestinian civilians in the West Bank are frequently arrested by military personnel and subjected to military courts and then ask how that’s not an occupation. Or one could point out Palestine from river to sea is occupied by the Zionist movement, whose political founder (Herzl) premeditated a violent invasion of the country and indeed would most likely have not accomplished a “Jewish” state without as much. Only the British knocked out that step for them.

        What certainly never existed was a peaceful Zionist movement.

        Reply to Comment
        • Grandpa Frost

          Duh,
          You’re wrong on so many levels. First of all, the fact that civilians are subjected to military rule does NOT in any way constitute occupation, because it doesn’t meet the definition of occupation. Judea and Samaria do not belong to any sovereign. The Arabs are fortunate to have civilized Jews controlling the area and not their own kind, because it reduces the level of violence significantly compared to other countries in the region. Second, the Zionist I’d like to see ANY proof that the Zionist movement was intended to be violent either by Herzl, or anyone else. The Jews (and other minorities) of the area have been subjected to Muslim violence long before the Zionist movement and any militancy on the part of the Zionist movement was only a response to the violence the Jews were experiencing.

          Reply to Comment
          • duh

            it doesn’t meet the definition of occupation. Judea and Samaria do not belong to any sovereign

            Germany, Turkey and Zionism by Isaiah Friedmann details Herzl’s dealings with the Germans about a protectorate over Palestine. Even though Germany would only have done so with Ottoman assent, it almost certainly would have resulted in de-facto German rule much as Austria-Hungary de-facto ruled Bosnia from 1878-1908 before formally annexing it.

            Herzl was a wanna-be occupier when Palestine was under existing sovereignty. He attempted to conspire with the Germans to hijack the post-Ottoman order, so the fact there was no “sovereign” for his followers to capture territory from in 1948 (nevermind 1967) doesn’t make them any less occupiers. It was merely a convenient situation the British handed to them on a platter. Otherwise there would have been an independent entity and a much higher barrier to a colonialist takeover.

            https://books.google.com/books?id=iv1DADhI6h4C&pg=PA68

            Second, I’d like to see ANY proof that the Zionist movement was intended to be violent either by Herzl, or anyone else

            That a nation-state was the whole point ought to make any proof redundant. Of course there’s one of Herzl’s most infamous lines in Der Judenstaat, “If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” 100% of the people who used this kind of rhetoric in Herzl’s time were involved in a violent enterprise.

            Reply to Comment
          • Grandpa Frost

            Duh,

            You can invent a million conspiracy theories about Herzl or anyone else, however, my point still stands. Judea and Samaria do not belong to any sovereign therefore the Israeli control thereof does not constitute an occupation.

            Whatever rhetoric Herzl used, it does not negate the fact that the Zionist movement has always been peaceful and was only forced to act violently when faced with the kind of attacks we are seeing today around the world.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The “ball” is not in my court. The game ended nine months ago. My arguments on 4th and 5th October on the page you link to dismantled your mantra about sovereignty. Thank you for recalling me to it, Frost. It was like a refresher course. You are relentless. In belaboring this you are to me indeed like a creationist who has things patiently explained to him in full but insists on teaching a “controversy” that does not genuinely exist. There are way better things to expend energy on than a pseudo-debate about whether the occupation “exists.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Grandpa Frost

            Ben,

            This is beyond pitiful. Anyone with the slightest ability to employ critical thinking can see that you 1. provided an incomplete definition of the occupation (and did so dishonestly I might add), 2. failed to explain how the situation in Judea and Samaria falls under that definition. Ever since that debate, you have simple refused to tackle the issue, instead opting for pathetic attempts to ridicule facts. It’s time to admit your defeat and move on with your life.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Firentis

      The “siege” of Gaza and the “occupation” are Israeli issues, not Jewish issues. Most American Jews barely know where Israel is, have no idea where Gaza is and have a vague understanding of what the “occupation” is. When they do come to Israel they visit the Western Wall, Tzfat and Tel Aviv. They have no clue where the West Bank starts and ends, what is and what is not a settlement, where the green line is, or who the Palestinians are. Likewise they don’t know the difference between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, don’t know what Religious Zionists are, don’t speak any Hebrew, can’t tell the difference between Hebrew and Arabic, etc, etc, etc..

      You only know all these things because you are here and these are *your* issues. For the overwhelming majority of American Jews these are foreign issues. The only ones that intersect with their own interests are those that intersect with the things they are likely to do while in Israel for their short and infrequent visits – and that is pretty much limited to the Western Wall.

      And frankly, this shouldn’t be that hard for you to grasp. Most Israelis don’t know much about the “siege” of Gaza either. All they know about Gaza is: It is a crappy place, it is full of Arabs, “we” left, and they shoot rockets at “us” from there. I really can’t imagine how you would expect the American Jews to take much of a position on Gaza when Israeli Jews don’t care about it at all and they are the ones on whom this might actually have an impact.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      These American Jews involved in this issue have set some kind of world record for hypocrisy here by getting all high and mighty and righteously angry about their clueless little self-absorbed western wall prayer issue–as if Israel is their playground, their precious cultural theme park–all supposedly in the name of religious freedom–freedom!–while for fifty years cheering on Israel’s brutally repressive occupation–a massive denial of freedom. Unbelievable.

      Reply to Comment
      • Susan

        The two issues are connected. If you can’t see that, you are clueless.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          I agree with Susan.
          The Cuckoo Leftists-/ progressive feminists who are not having Jewish children are the same people who want to appease the PLO terrorists.

          Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Then connect them, Susan! That’s the whole point. Hypocritical and self-absorbed American Jews don’t connect them! All the while treating Israel as their Disneyland cultural theme park where the ugly stuff going on is hidden and ignored. As Simone Zimmerman has said, “From the Israeli perspective, this protest is absurd. It reinforces the image that American Jews come to Israel to experience it as our personal playground but not to be in genuine solidarity with the real-life issues facing most of the people who actually live here…. For me, every day that diaspora Jews come to Israel to paint ourselves as victims of the Jewish state while actively aiding and supporting that same state’s denial of millions of Palestinians’ rights, our cause is hypocritical. Every day that we demand a voice for ourselves as non-citizens, while remaining silent as Israel controls the lives of millions of non-citizens against their will, we are participating in a nationalist project that presupposes we Jews deserve more privileges than anyone else who lives here.”

          Reply to Comment
          • Susan

            What about the Israeli left? You have failed again and again, but you want American Jews to support you. The connection is that there is a religious left in America, but not in Israel. The Israeli left has left Judaism to the right-wing and that’s one of the reasons why you fail. There is a religious argument that can be made against the occupation, but I’ve never seen any discussion of this on 972 Magazine. You don’t have to be completely secular or religious and right-wing. There are other choices. The Women of the Wall are a good example of this. It is not possible for one person to do everything. Protesting at the Wall is just one way to break the hold of the religious right. Nor is it selfish to care about Women’s Equality. That is what the Women of the Wall are asking for. How dare you call that selfish.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            It’s not selfish to demand equality for women. You cannot hide behind the righteousness of feminism on this one however and tell me that that settles the issue. It is selfish to reserve one’s anger and righteousness and the tremendous energy these liberals are all of a sudden rousing themselves to for this issue when on every other issue of justice in Israel-Palestine they are either apathetic or serve as cheerleaders for the Israeli right wing. Gideon Levy: “What is causing American Jews to be so furious at Israel, the apple of their eye and a source of pride until now? Is it the antidemocratic legislation passed here in recent years, which shames Israel and casts doubt on its democracy? The witch hunt against left-wing civil society organizations? Its shameful treatment of African asylum seekers? Its withholding of electricity from two million people who’ve been caged up for 10 years? The massacre of civilians during Operation Protective Edge? The massacre of civilians in Operation Cast Lead? The executions of knife-wielding girls? The 50 years of occupation? None of these has ever provoked any real anger from American Jews. They adored Israel blindly, even when it committed all this….
            American Jews must stop talking high and mighty. To provoke this turmoil in the name of freedom while supporting, directly or indirectly, one of the most repressive enterprises in the world, sets a new record for hypocrisy. American Jews applauded Israel for everything. They saluted Israel automatically and sickeningly even when it committed far worse actions than blocking women wearing colorful scarves from praying alongside men. Let them continue to cheer. They have no right to oppose the government in the name of a rule of conscience….”

            You say there is a religious argument that can be made against the occupation. Ok, then why aren’t these so-passionate seekers of religious rights at the Wall for themselves making it? Why don’t you make it? Sketch for us the religious argument against the occupation, please. Instead of pointing to others’ failure to make that argument, make the argument.

            Reply to Comment
          • Susan

            They have. You’re not listening. I’m not talking about mainstream American Jewish institutions. I am talking about Progressive rabbis who have been opposing the settlements for a long time. I can’t vote in Israeli elections. It’s up to Israelis themselves to end the occupation.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Susan: “It’s up to Israelis themselves to end the occupation” sounds to me like the usual American Jewish pass on the matter, the same excusing, the same deference, the same looking away, the same enabling that is at issue here. Then why isn’t it up to the Israelis themselves to decide on women in the western wall space? What’s the difference?–except in one case some mostly foreign Jews are disadvantaged while in the other indigenous Palestinians are severely disadvantaged and deprived of basic human rights? Why is the one issue up to the Israelis themselves but not the other issue?

            I am indeed talking about mainstream Jewish organizations because I’m talking about things that matter, not a few exceptional but inconsequential rabbis. Are you proposing that the way to get the masses of Israeli voters to change their voting patterns is to bank on a religiously-based argument about the evil of the occupation? Arguments that these progressive American rabbis have been completely unable to sell to the Aipac crowd on their own American turf they are going to sell to masses of tough, cynical Israelis? Tell me what incredibly powerful and revolutionary religious tenets of Judaism will, after all else has failed, persuade secular Israelis and Israel’s national religious? (The latter being as sure as they can be that HaShem is their avenger and their real estate agent, as sure as they can be of their nonsense about the sanctity of the land and “You have chosen us from all peoples” as basis for ruling over another people? Are as sure as they can be that this is inscribed in the Torah and that anything to the contrary is heretical.) What are these amazing and heretofore unappreciated religious tenets? What amazing religious revival and deliverance awaits us? What hidden revolutionary power of Judaism had I missed and that all the religious nationalists have missed and will open their hearts to? I really don’t think we should hold our breath while we wait for this miraculous religious transformation, this deliverance from evil. Much better to come down to earth and place our faith in economic sanctions and other nonviolent means of increasing the price of the occupation. The price is currently being subsidized by the United States. That has to change. Noam Sheizaf has made a persuasive case that, left to their own devices, Israeli voters will not end the occupation.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Lewis from Afula

      The Jewish American Establishment is a vanishing community that has no future. In a recent survey of US Jews (Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated) under age 55.
      50% are unmarried
      29% have married out
      21% are married in
      16% are in-married and have kids.

      So Reform, Conservative and Unaffiliated Jews in America are rapidly assimilating away. They will not be around in 30 years time. On the other hand, Orthodox Jews in America are having lots of kids. Bibi understands this, Leftists do not.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mark

      If there were not an “occupation” these women (and everybody else) would not have a wall to pray at, would they?

      Reply to Comment
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