As Israel Prepares To Vote …

Those of us living in America- particularly residents of the so-called “swing states” so desperately coveted by presidential candidates- might still fairly be classified as “recovering” from the recent November election. After all, it’s been only a relatively few weeks since the election itself, and the weeks and months leading up to Election Day were nothing short of brutal. Relentless commercials, coupled with endless debates, countless talking heads, and a twenty-four hour news cycle, combined to make us all want to scream “please stop!”

Now that the election is over, the so-called “fiscal cliff” deliberations have taken over the airwaves and print media. Once again, it is oh so tempting to, like that tortured character in the movie “Network,” stick our collective heads out the window and scream “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”

But at least the election is over, right?

Well… right. But for those of us who love Israel and compulsively follow what’s going on over there, there is very little space for recovery. Israel is voting for a new Knesset, and Prime Minister, at the end of January. And insofar as Israel-related media outlets are concerned, it’s all elections, all the time.

I returned barely a week ago from a four-day trip to Israel, devoted to strengthening the connection between the Conservative movement’s rabbis here in America and our sister, Masorti movement in Israel. In addition to visiting Masorti synagogues and institutions, we met with many leading Israeli political figures. The purpose of those meetings was always the same: to further the cause of greater equity in funding, and opportunity for religious expression of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, by sensitizing the political leadership of Israel to the issues involved.

Under any circumstances, meetings like that are rarely particularly gratifying. The standard response tends to center around the importance of maintaining the status quo, no mater how unsatisfactory or dated that status quo might be. Change in this regard– if and when it happens– tends to happen in small and often undetectable increments.

Having these kinds of discussions during a heated electoral campaign tends to add a fascinating element of the surreal to the conversations. On the one hand, it is true that candidates are always campaigning, and political leaders are always in political mode. So one might fairly imagine that, in the interests of ultimately gaining support (and down the road, votes from those they might influence in Israel) from a group of prominent rabbis who have access to a major block of American Jews, meeting during an electoral campaign might elicit some significant “takeaways,” if you will. Not an unreasonable thought.

But then reality sets in- a political reality that is operative in Israel as it is in America, and, I would imagine, wherever there are free elections. In an election season, and particularly when a campaign is in its closing weeks, politicians will do or say almost anything to gain votes and get elected. The promises made don’t necessarily mean all that much, and there is absolutely no guarantee that, if made, they will translate into any kind of reality after the campaign is over and the election decided. “Campaign promises” are not worth all that much no matter in what country they are made

And on a related subject…

We returned from our brief trip to discover significant, strong differences of opinion here in the US over the recent vote at the UN granting non-member observer status to the Palestinian Authority, and even more so about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response to it. Some have called the Prime Minister’s intention to begin new housing construction in a disputed area of the West Bank an over-reaction and an obstacle to peace, and others have defended it as an appropriate response to a direct violation of the Oslo Accords.

From where I sit, both responses have merit, but I also think they are both missing the point. Its an election season in Israel! Any action or reaction emanating from Israel right now needs to be understood in the context of the forthcoming election. Whatever the Prime Minster is doing or not doing has (not at all necessarily for the better) as much to do with his coalition partners as with the greater interests of Israel. That sounds like a harsh statement, but it is realpolitik. I’m not at all sure that it would be any different if a left-of-center political leader were at the helm right now.

So, memo to American Jews: don’t assume that everything that you’re hearing out of Israel right now is policy, or necessarily will be. Filter everything said by both those in power and those aspiring to it through an election year lens. A healthy dose of skepticism is in order. We’ll all have a better sense of where Israeli policy is really headed soon enough…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.