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.
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.
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.