North American Jewish leaders say they are shocked that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has canceled the Kotel compromise and agreed to promote the Orthodox conversion bill.
I’m surprised that you are surprised. After all, Netanyahu has provided us with ample proof that he is a shameless demagogue who will do anything to stay in power.
Netanyahu regularly claims to be king of the Jews, but he shows no shame when he flipped the finger to a majority of his purported subjects, denying you the right to pray at the Kotel according to your values and beliefs.
Netanyahu may claim to care for the Jewish people, but he reveals little concern for Jews. He allied himself with Donald Trump even though less than a quarter of U.S. Jews voted for him. He actively seeks out the support of the Evangelical Christians and far-right—no matter that their illiberal stands fly in the face of all that liberal Jews believe in and hold dear.
And he didn’t even seem to get the irony when, after he had capitulated to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox zealots, he told a group of Birthright participants that Israel “will be here long after the ayatollahs’ regime in Iran had gone” and “long after their theocratic tyranny is just a part of history.”
In 2015, Netanyahu told thousands of cheering delegates to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, “As Prime Minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel—Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews…and that his government would finalize a “long-overdue understanding that will ensure the Kotel will be a source of unity for the Jewish people.”
Did you really think that he would uphold that promise if it didn’t serve his political needs?
To put it bluntly, as you now know, Netanyahu sold you out for a mess of pottage—or, in more specific terms, for political expedience. The ultra-Orthodox have 13 votes. You, his loyal “subjects” abroad, don’t have any.
We, the citizens of the State of Israel, have experienced Netanyahu’s betrayal so many times that we’re—almost, but not quite—used to it. And now he has cooked up yet another trief deal, betraying you over a symbol that you regard as the epicenter of Jewish identity and the essence of Jewish unity.
And you are shocked and appalled.
Or maybe, at some level, you, too, have known who Netanyahu is and what he (doesn’t) stand for. But you haven’t wanted to admit it because, you’ve often told us, you don’t want to get involved in Israeli politics. That, you have explained, would be divisive to the Jewish people. And so, in the name of Jewish unity, you have been tolerant as Israel under Netanyahu becomes increasingly intolerant. You have stayed silent as Israeli politicians have spouted the most horrific xenophobic and racist prattle, and applauded politely because they are “representatives of Israel.” You have shown respect to politicians who show no respect for what you or we, progressive Jews in Israel, believe in. When you don’t actively oppose this government, you betray your own beliefs and ours. You certainly would not tolerate these stands in your own country.
In the name of “Jewish unity,” you have drawn a strict distinction between what is Israeli and what is Jewish. As if treatment of foreign workers, the occupation, poverty, inequality, the treatment of minorities and racism are all internal Israeli, and not Jewish, issues. You have deluded yourself into believing that supporting the status quo isn’t a political statement.
But now Netanyahu has used the Israeli political system to defile one of the most sacred Jews sites, a place that matters to you the most. And so you have no choice but to admit it: In Israel, even the spiritual is political.
To some, that realization may be yet another reason to give up on Israel; that, at least, is what some of the most cited studies would predict. But there are other studies, that tell us that you do care, deeply.
And your response to the current situation is even more telling: The North American Jewish community is upset. Netanyahu may not care about you, but you do care. You don’t get upset about things you don’t care about.
Israelis care, too—although perhaps less about the Kotel itself. Indeed, few Israelis, even those deeply committed to progressive, liberal Judaism, see the Kotel as a major casus belli. Not because we don’t care about liberalism or pluralism or Jewish renewal—but because we are busy struggling for those causes in our synagogues, our schools, the army, our city streets. Or maybe because we’re so used to banging our heads against political walls that we don’t want to pray to Retaining Walls, no matter how historically sacred.
And because we know—and I believe that you do, too—that pluralism at the Kotel, no matter how important that is, will not, in itself, create a pluralistic, democratic and just society.
The Jews of the Diaspora don’t vote in Israeli elections. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have power. We hope you understand that if you care about the Kotel—and the moral fiber of the State of Israel—you have no choice other than to be politically involved.
And we hope you will use your power strongly and proudly to fight for more than “merely” egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.
Use your power to let Israeli political leaders know what you think of them. As Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago told the Times of Israel, “We’re past the time when we’re standing and applauding and being nice because they’re members of Knesset or because they hold this position or that position. People who don’t have the understanding of what this bill means to the Jewish people…[are] not welcome in our community. Period.”
Come to Israel as often as you can, and demand that official missions and tours take you to meet with civil society activists, including some in the ultra-Orthodox world, who are devoting their lives to just causes.
Use your money as strategically as the right-wing does. You know your funding is crucial for our survival here, so give your support, financial and otherwise, to causes that will help Israel become the society we all believe in. Casino Magnate Sheldon Adelson, who already invests millions of dollars a year to publish the Netanyahu mouthpiece, the freebie Hebrew daily newspaper Israel Hayom, has given another $20 million to Ariel University in the West Bank.
Imagine what that kind of money would do for progressive causes in Israel.
And above all, support liberal Jewish congregations here and throughout the world. Visit us, learn about us, share with us. Support our synagogues and our schools and our youth movements. That would be true Jewish unity.
Help us help make progressive Israel into a light unto the nations—and a political force at home.