Joanne Palmer
Joanne Palmer

Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise

In November 2015, in front of a roaring, massive roomful of Jewish professionals and professional volunteers at the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was making progress on a compromise between all streams of Judaism, from the most liberal to the most charedi, about access to the Kotel. It was of top importance to him, he said; he was working on it because he knew how much it mattered. He promised that if Diaspora Jews were patient, he would make it all work out.

He has said similar things often; I note that one in particular because I was there. He was throwing red meat to that crowd, who ate it up and waited for more, but it was clear even then that he was pandering.

Now, Mr. Netanyahu has pulled back from the agreement he was advocating then, which would have given non-Orthodox Jews more space close to (although not at) the Western Wall. The liberal movement had given up far more than it was going to get already in agreement, which seemed unlikely to work anyway, given the opposition from both the Waqf and the Antiquities Commission.

Still, this decision is upsetting, and should be upsetting to everyone who cares about the continuing relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel. As we all know, younger Jews are disengaging from Israel at a shocking rate — it’s hard to support a country that the rest of the world, for motives ranging from perhaps disinterested concern for the downtrodden to a quite clear loathing of Jews, hatred of Zionists because they are Jews, and a willingness to demonize both Israel and Jews, has turned into a pariah state.

It’s wrong, but it’s easy to understand.

It’s fascinating if unnerving to watch what’s going on around the world as leaders in liberal democracies try to make the kind of compromises that allow them to stay in power. In the United States, Mitch McConnell has tried — and for now failed, but he’s a remarkably shrewd politician, so stay tuned — to push through a remarkably and deservedly unpopular health care bill by leaning on politicians from his party; he has a Republican majority in the Senate, and for complicated reasons needs only 50 votes to get the legislation through.

In the UK, Theresa May, less than a year after taking office as the result of the Brexit vote and a huge kerfuffle in the Conservative Party, miscalculated by calling for a unnecessary election. She hoped to strengthen her party but instead weakened it, and herself. For us here, though, it is so very interesting to watch how those elections work. Only her own constituency had the chance to vote for or against Ms. May directly. All the rest of it, like the machinations that brought her to the premiership in the first place, was indirect. That, of course, is the way the parliamentary system works.

Similarly in Israel — which takes Britain’s parliamentary system and adds another layer of crazy by removing any mooring to any particular place — Mr. Netanyahu’s politicking leaves his actual constituency far behind. Eventually, he has to answer to his voters, but well before that, he has to bargain with his own coalition partners, who keep him in power, but could topple him should they chose.

American Jews have no power in Israel. There is a strong argument that we have no right to any power there. We live here. There is also a strong argument that we give Israel enormous amounts of money. Beyond that, if we are all one people — and we always are told that we are, huge differences in theology, life choices, and worldview notwithstanding — we all must be recognized. We are all Jews; Israel has a powerful meaning for each one of us.

Liberal Jews are not asking for equality. They’ve given up on that long ago. They are not trying to change the nature of the worship at the main part of the Kotel. They are more like Oliver Twist, asking for scraps. Those scraps are being denied. Still, they — we — are asked for money, and beyond that, for unswerving allegiance.

That won’t work forever.

We join much of the rest of the American Jewish world — including the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Jason Shames, who we quote on page 23 — in hoping that Mr. Netanyahu changes his mind and lives up to the promises he has been quoted many times as making.

Truth matters. Promise-keeping matters. There doesn’t seem to be much of it going on here.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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