Sheldon Kirshner
Sheldon Kirshner

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Spineless Leadership

Has Benjamin Netanyahu no principles?

This would appear to be the case following his spineless decision on June 25 to freeze a plan to create a non-Orthodox prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Finalized a year-and-a-half ago by the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall, the agreement was long overdue, designed to institutionalize the hallowed principle that the three major streams of Judaism are on an equal footing and that the Western Wall belongs to all Jews, regardless of their beliefs.

Netanyahu himself referred to that injunction in November 2015, a good two months before the agreement was signed. “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews,” he said in a speech in Washington.

The Western Wall, he hastened to add, should “be a source of unity for the Jewish people, not a point of division.”

Netanyahu, a secular Jew, probably would have kept faith with the agreement had the exigencies of domestic politics not interfered. Having learned that two religious parties in his coalition government vehemently opposed it, he had a change of heart. With the United Torah Judaism Party and the Shas Party pressuring Netanyahu to scrap it, he caved in.

These parties hold a total of 13 seats in the Knesset, and without their support, Netanyahu would be a dead duck politically. He would be forced to quit or call a new election. Facing this unpalatable reality, he chose political survival over his obligation to solemnly honor the agreement and be inclusive.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, put it best when he said that Netanyahu’s rank opportunism, rooted in the whims of Israeli coalition politics, signals “a very serious rupture in the relationship between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.”

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, expressed disappointment as well. As he said:

“Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, ‘one wall for one people.’ After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities. Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”

At a time when Israel needs the moral, political and economic support of Jews in the Diaspora more than ever, Netanyahu has conducted himself badly, kowtowing to the unreasonable demands of parochial Israeli politicians who have nothing but contempt for Jews outside the framework of Orthodox Judaism.

Since joining Netanyahu’s right-wing government two years ago, ultra-Orthodox politicians have been in the forefront of sabotaging efforts to reform the outmoded relationship between state and synagogue in Israel. In the waning months of 2015, the Knesset diluted a law that would have required most haredi men to be subject to military conscription. Last summer, Education Minister Naftali Bennett declined to enforce legislation which cuts government funding for haredi schools that leave secular subjects like mathematics and English off the curriculum.

By cravenly bowing to haredi demands, Netanyahu, much to his discredit, has chosen to damage the integrally important connection between Israel and the Diaspora. “This is a sad and shameful move that capitulates to the pressure of the haredi parties,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

To add insult to injury, Netanyahu’s cabinet has approved a bill that would require Israel to recognize only conversions performed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The bill was submitted by none other than Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the former leader of the Shas Party.

Taken together, these developments represent a huge setback to the cause of religious freedom and pluralism in Israel.

Sadly, Israel is gradually transforming itself into an intolerant theocratic state that pays no heed or respect to the diversity of the Jewish people. As a result, the day is approaching when increasing numbers of open-minded and progressive Jews will no longer be able to relate to Israel. Some Jews may even distance or cut themselves off from Israel all together. These trends are already manifesting themselves among young liberal Jews in North America and Europe.

Being blinkered and opportunistic, Netanyahu and his associates show little or no regard for Jews outside the Orthodox wing of Judaism. Their unforgivable betrayal of Reform and Conservative Jews should have consequences. Netanyahu and his ministers should not be allowed to get away with this unscathed.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,