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U.S. Jews can’t expect Israel to be liberal only where they want it to

Liberal American Jewry is up in arms after the Israeli government nixed a deal to allow men and women to pray together at Judaism’s holiest site. But if American Jews want their interests in Israel safeguarded, they must rid themselves of the fantasy of a nonexistent Jewish pluralism.

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)

The Netanyahu government created an uproar across the Jewish world on Sunday by rolling back an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall where men and women could pray together. The compromise would also have brought representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements into a committee meant to manage that space.

That arrangement was vetoed by the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government, parties that hold an almost king-maker role in Israeli politics. The ball will probably land in the court of Israel’s judiciary, once again, like most issues of religion and state that could not be resolved politically over the past few decades. But even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Reform and Conservative movements, the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel’s governing coalition will likely block implementation just as they did this week.

Much has already been written on the issue, including the ironic fact that until 1948 worshipers at the Kotel weren’t segregated at all, and that the current arrangement does not reflect a Jewish tradition, but rather an Israeli political tradition. But the important lesson has to do with the idea that the American Jewish community’s interests in Israel can exist in a plane that is separate from politics, and therefore shielded from the nativist and xenophobic ideological trends that have come to dominate Israel in recent years. Or put simply: the idea that the political unpopularity of liberal positions in Israel can by bypassed through back room deals made among the prime minister, his envoys, and the heads of the American Jewish community.

Ultra-Orthodox boys inside the women's section of the Western Wall try to prevent Conservative, Reform, and Women of the Wall movement members from praying with Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox boys inside the women’s section of the Western Wall try to prevent Conservative, Reform, and Women of the Wall movement members from praying with Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

This is a dangerous fantasy that led the American Jewish community to a bad place – holding liberal values at home and supporting illiberal policies in Israel as long as those policies were directed at Palestinians and did not affect the interests of the community itself. This in turn led to a cross-generational crisis in the community. The bottom line is that many times controversy is better than fake unity.

Since Sunday, some commentators have argued that the defeat suffered by the Conservative and Reform movements is the result of their lack of direct political power both in Israel and the U.S., following the election of Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress.

This is an obvious conclusion, but it’s only partly true. Jewish communities in the U.S. still have much leverage over the Israeli government. The problem –which is just as true today as it was in the past – is the American Jewish communities’ lack of willingness to use that leverage, especially in the larger battle for liberal values in Israel. Only a tiny minority of American Jews supports liberal causes and liberal institutions in Israel, certainly compared to the vast numbers who send their kids on Birthright tours, thereby delegating the Israeli-Jewish education of their own future generations to the Israeli government, its advocacy groups, and PR organizations. The fantasy that these two issues (and many similar ones) are somehow not connected is exactly the same fantasy that led to Sunday’s humiliating defeat.

If there is one clear lesson from the current political moment, and not just in Israel: the old arrangements have expired, and no institution or process can replace direct political action. There are no shortcuts, and if American Jews want their interests safeguarded (and it is their interest, since most Israeli Jews are neither Reform nor Conservative, and have learned to live with the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Judaism in the country) they must rid themselves of the fantasy of a nonexistent liberal pluralism, and start expending real political capital toward creating one. And not just on the issue of religious pluralism.

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    1. Grandpa Frost

      Most American Jews are assimilating. Only the Orthodox cling to their Jewish identity. Why should Israel worry about its a relationship with the doomed portion of the US Jewish community?

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Gramps: http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/next-gen-americans-pulling-away-from-israel/

        Israel has long enjoyed bipartisan backing in the U.S. based on the belief that the two democracies share the same core values. But that is changing, according to the study. “Without that connection, the future of the alliance is in jeopardy,” it asserts.

        Reply to Comment
        • Grandpa Frost

          I guess Israel will have to manage without the help of the liberal Jews.

          Reply to Comment
      • JDE

        Two hundred years of the same tired, triumphalist refrain from the Orthodox: “You’re assimilating out of existence! Another generation and you’ll be gone!” Meanwhile, it’s been two centuries, and we’re still here.

        By contrast, most of Orthodoxy is now Haredi, and Haredi society is succumbing to pressure from without and collapsing from within. They can no longer provide for their irresponsibly growing numbers, and they refuse to educate their children in a manner that would allow them to function in society.

        We’ll see who’s left standing at the end.

        Reply to Comment
        • Grandpa Frost

          JDE: Pretty much all Reform and Conservative Jews (except the “converts”) come from Orthodox Jews and not the other way around. If you’re a member of a liberal Jewish congregation, you are simply on your way out of Judaism. Numbers speak for themselves: http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/will-your-grandchild-be-jewish-chart-graph.htm
          You state: “…Haredi society is succumbing to pressure from without and collapsing from within.” I’d like to see the evidence of that. Then you go on to state: “They can no longer provide for their irresponsibly growing numbers…” That’ a bit of a contradiction, is it not? If their numbers keep growing, how are they collapsing? “…they refuse to educate their children in a manner that would allow them to function in society.” Employing stereotypes much?

          Reply to Comment
          • JDE

            “Numbers speak for themselves”

            You folks really have no sense of irony.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      Same topic over at the Forward: “How Bibi Just Gave Liberal Jews The Finger – And What We Can Do About It”:


      So Israel asked Diaspora Jews to ignore the half-century occupation of the Palestinians, to spend millions trying to defeat the Iran nuclear deal, to lobby for billions of American taxpayer dollars for Israel’s military, and to send many more billions of dollars its way to pay for every sort of charitable function imaginable….And in return, the American Jewish leadership — and the Jewish Agency speaking for the Diaspora — asked that non-Orthodox Jews be recognized as Jews, too.

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      Tempest in a teacup. There is a lot less here than meets the eye. There are many ironies.
      (1) When is the last time the writer, who is concerned about the Kotel here, has actually been to the Kotel?
      (2) Around 90% of the American Jews associated with the Reform movement voted for Obama. Have they forgotten that Obama passively supported the UN Security Council Resolution, speaking in the name of the entire humanity, that condemned all Jewish presence over the Green Line, thus making the Kotel just another “illegal settlement”. Why are they suddenly demanding a Jewish presence there?
      (3) The Palestinians have made it clear that the Jewish claim to the Kotel is a fraud…they say there never was a Beit HaMikdash and that the Kotel is a MUSLIM holy site called “Al-Buraq”. In any conceivable peace agreement with the Palestinians they will demand control of the site and so any changes the non-Orthodox will get will be nullified. Olmert recognized the Muslim claim and agreed to give up Israeli control of the Kotel to an “international body” which will consists of a majority of Muslims.
      (4) The non-Orthodox congregations sit empty most of the time. I live near the only non-O congregation in my town which is a suburb of Tel Aviv and they have prayer services only on Shabbat, so their building sits empty 6 day a week. It would be the same at their section of the Kotel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The idea that Jews would not have unfettered access to the Kotel in a future peace agreement is simply nonsense, pure deal-sabotaging negativism and fear-mongering. The issues of the Kotel are not what keeps Israel from entering into a fair 2SS and it is absurd to say that it is.

        “Nowhere in the UNESCO resolution is there any statement invalidating or denying Jews’ connection to Temple Mount: the Jewish connection isn’t discussed in any way, either positively or negatively. It is not mentioned because the resolution is about Israeli damage to a Muslim holy site – Al-Aqsa Mosque.  Beyond that there is no general assessment or rejection of any religion’s connection to the site, apart from an affirmation of “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions.”
        Could the resolution have preempted some of the negative reactions with a symbolic mention of the term “Temple Mount?” or by acknowledging that it is also a Jewish holy site? Perhaps, but that’s far from the point.
        Netanyahu produced the spin, but Israeli journalists of all stripes were eager to spread it….”

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          American “liberal Jews” are rapidly disappearing into oblivion. In a recent survey of reform, conservative and unaffiliated Jews under age 55:
          50% were unmarried
          29% were out-married
          21% are in-married and of these 16% had Jewish kids.

          Over the next 50 years, the the liberals will vanish. The opposite paradigm is occurring with Orthodox Jews. Bibi understands where the wind is blowing. Leftist cuckoos do not.

          Reply to Comment
    4. JL

      I fear that most U.S. Jews will become even more disengaged about what is happening in Israel and leave the field to the Right-Wing Orthodox and Evangelicals. What is that poem about the best lacking intensity, things falling apart and rough beast slouching towards Jeruslaem?

      Reply to Comment