Dmitri Shufutinsky
Dmitri Shufutinsky

Diaspora Jews are getting it all wrong on the Kotel

I am an American Jew, son to a Black Sephardic mother and a Russian Ashkenazi father. I’m relatively secular. I’m an ardent Zionist. And I’m also disappointed in the Likud government’s failure to implement a deal last year regarding a pluralistic and mixed-gender section of the Western Wall where women and men can pray together. I’m disturbed at the attempts of the ultra-Orthodox to gain more power in Israel’s government and exclude minorities, non-Orthodox Jews, the LGBT community, and women from positions of power and equality. I sincerely hope that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees the folly in all of this, and reverses course, particularly on the issue of a conversion bill that could change the status of many new olim and those considering making Aliyah. However, the way that Diaspora Jews are going about this crisis is wrong and likely to cause more tension. For that matter, I believe that the actions of many Diaspora Jews (particularly left-leaning ones in Western countries) have caused some within the Israeli government–and in Israeli society at large—to feel more comfortable with adopting measures and laws that make us feel uncomfortable. There are a multitude of reasons why this rift has opened in recent years, and in some cases, appears to be widening. To become united once more, there are a number of steps that the Diaspora can do to rebuild trust—starting with acknowledgement of what went wrong in the first place.

Hypocrisy & Arrogance:

Back in 2015, Bibi Netanyahu gave a speech in front of Congress, coming out against the impending nuclear deal that then-president Barack Obama had made with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Given that he wasn’t invited by the president to speak, many felt the speech was inappropriate, and numerous Democratic lawmakers boycotted the event, including the president and vice president at the time. Netanyahu had given similar speeches around the world, including at the United Nations, speaking from the heart about the concerns he held for Israel’s security and that of its allies throughout the world at the prospect of a nuclear radical government in Tehran that used the lifting of sanctions to fund the murderous Assad regime and terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. Netanyahu claimed he was speaking as a representative of the entire Jewish people regarding concerns about a nuclear Iran. From a certain point of view (to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi), this is understandable. It is backed up by the overwhelming support Israel has among Diaspora Jewry, gives weight to the urgency and threat faced by Israel and Jews from Iran and its state-sponsored terror networks, and brings genocide and the Holocaust (which an Iranian nuclear weapon dropped on Tel Aviv could accomplish) into the mind of the audience. And yet many American Jews were outraged and offended at his suggestion, as well as his appearance before Congress. This, too, may seem justified, as American Jews mainly vote for Democrats, and Netanyahu is a conservative politician who came at the behest of a Republican to back up Republican views on the nuclear deal. But to claim that Netanyahu is interfering in the internal politics of the US, giving a bad name to Jews, shouldn’t claim to represent us, and then circle back to the Palestinian issue—which was not the subject of the speech, or even the reason most of his critics objected to his appearance at Capitol Hill—is exemplary of the hypocrisy and arrogance held by many American Jews. First, it pays no heed to the fact that Bibi was respectful of Obama in the speech, and conducted himself in a professional way. Secondly, it ignores the obvious—that Bibi is a leader of a country under threat, and came to (in a diplomatic yet patriotic fashion) do all he could to prevent a deal from being passed that he saw as a possible existential threat to his country.

More importantly, though, is the glaring contradiction between American Jews’ reaction to Bibi’s congressional appearance and the Western Wall deal delay. So many Jewish activists are outraged over Bibi’s “interference” in American politics and his claim to represent Jews, yet are threatening to withhold donations and money that go to helping Israel when things don’t go their way, and claim that the Jewish state is rejecting them. It is acceptable to disagree with the Likud government (or any government, for that matter) and to have opinions on Israeli policy. But Israel is a sovereign and democratic country that elects its own leaders. Having a superior, patronizing attitude that suggests Israel can’t “make it” without Diaspora, or more specifically, American Jewish money, is only going to turn off Israeli Jews from listening to or engaging with their foreign counterparts. Moreover, is it not “interfering in Israeli politics” when the Diaspora threatens to withhold funding to Israel due to a political decision made that a foreigner doesn’t like? If we keep insulting Israel and trying to have our cake and eat it too, world Jewry will suffer collectively.

Matters of Identity: 

Another reason for the rift is the simple difference in identity and politics between Israelis and many Diaspora Jews. For American Jews (as well as Jews in places like Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and many parts of Europe), being Jewish is a religious identity. In Israel, being Jewish is a national identity, in the sense of the “Cherokee nation” or the “Apache nation”. Even the term “Am Yisrael Chai” means “the nation of Israel lives”, referring to the peoplehood of Judaism. This is partly the reason for the differing politics between Israelis and many American (and other Diaspora) Jews. In the US or Canada, Jews tend to vote for more liberal parties, seeing Jewish values of largely aligning with progressive causes like equality for all, racial justice, and giving money to the poor. While Jewish values are certainly a large part of politics in Israel as well, the divide often comes with foreign policy.

More and more Western Jews that politically lean left are uncomfortable with the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, especially among youth. Part of this stems from loyalty to leftist politics and politicians, who have taken a stronger stance in recent years “against the occupation”. But given that Jewish values seem to champion the underdog and call for equality, it seems to many (especially with limited knowledge of the conflict) that Israel isn’t “acting Jewish enough” towards Palestinians. Other accusations range from Israel being a racist state against its Arab minority to it not “doing enough to make peace”. It is perfectly fine to be a champion of a two-state solution and call out discrimination. But blanket statements like “Israel isn’t doing enough” or “Jews are being alienated or embarrassed over its policies towards Palestinians” or “we’re tired of making excuses for Israel” are patronizing, insulting, and alienating themselves. While some Diaspora Jews do serve in the IDF, or know someone close to them who has, many are unaware of the grave security implications for Israel regarding a two-state solution, the daily sacrifices and dangers Israelis have made and faced, the complexities of the conflict, and the fact that Israel has tried numerous times to make peace with enormous concessions. They have failed everytime because the Palestinian governments have chosen war over peace. The constant statements of “embarrassment” by Diaspora Jewry at Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians are viewed by lots of Israelis as insulting, no doubt leaving many wondering why Diaspora Jewry doesn’t do more to protest Palestinian terrorism and incitement (which targets all Jews, not just Israelis). Is this a crowd that Israel wants disseminating hasbara? Some aren’t so sure.

In Israel, however, the identity of the Jews as a people is rooted in history and the right to live in our native land. That means the people must protect our right to exist and live there at all costs. There are indeed large segments of Israeli society that align with the more critical voices of leftist Diaspora Jewry, including Arab Israelis. But to claim Israel doesn’t act with Jewish values at large when it comes to the Palestinians is a lie. The IDF drops leaflets in wars to allow civilians to escape from a target, knowing very well that terrorist may see it and escape as well. Injured Palestinians—including extremists—are treated in Israeli hospitals. And Israel provides massive amounts of aid to the impoverished Palestinian society. However, Jerusalem shouldn’t just be expected to roll over and take it when terrorists attack, nor should they concede everything the Palestinians want while under threats. That isn’t a peacemaking process, it’s being held hostage. Jewish values within Israel also mean protecting one’s own people. For a society that has known terror and war for decades, this is a no-brainer.

No Attempt At Understanding: 

Perhaps most troubling, as relates to what I wrote above, is the lack of understanding or even empathy that leftist Western Jews seem to have for Israelis. While many discuss the suffering of Palestinians, fewer seem to make an attempt to understand the concerns of Israeli Jews when it comes to withdrawing from Judea & Samaria (the West Bank). Israel withdrew from Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt, only for Salafist militants to be controlling the lawless desert peninsula now. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 due to international pressure and being tired of conflict with militants. It got rocket fire in 2006 from Hezbollah in exchange. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, only to be met with increased terrorism and wars. Israel has withdrawn from portions of Judea & Samaria, and offered the vast majority of it (including parcels of Jerusalem) to Palestinians. But rather than accepting the deals offered in 2000-01 and 2008, Israel had to go through the ordeal of the Second Intifada. None of this means there can’t or shouldn’t be an eventual two-state solution. But given the current Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel, and past bad experiences, isn’t it quite obvious why much of Israel is against another hasty withdrawal? The settlers are also met with a substantial amount of disdain within liberal Western Jewish circles. Just because much of Diaspora Jewry may not feel the same connection with the core of our historic homeland, or its religious significance, does not mean that others don’t, or that their feelings aren’t valid.

Moreover, much of the panicking over the “increasing unlikeliness of a two-state solution” seems to stem from the idea that a Palestinian state must be Judenrein, with all settlements in Judea & Samaria on the other side of the security barrier withdrawn. This, too, makes no sense. If Israel can (and should) have an Arab minority with equal rights, why should the Palestinian state that will be created be free of Jews? After all, other Muslim countries, such as Morocco, Turkey, and even Iran have Jewish populations, despite their animosity towards Israel. Moreover, multiple Palestinian leaders have claimed their problem “is not with Jews, but with Zionism”. If that is really true, then why could some of the settlements not remain in place after the conclusion of a peace deal?

Jewish values prize empathy, coexistence, and equality. If this is really the case, Diaspora Jews should start acting on it towards our coreligionists in Israel. If we are against the removal by President Trump of millions of illegal immigrants, and instead favor a naturalization process, then why are we not taking the same position towards many of the Jewish settlers regarding a peace deal? If we are against Donald Trump’s religion-based travel ban, why do we accept the “no Israelis allowed” roads in the Territories, or a ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount? If we are for inclusion, diversity, aboriginal rights, coexistence, and cooperation in Israel and the United States, why not encourage those very values for a new Palestinian state, a la a Jewish population remaining in the Territories (with either residency or citizenship)? If we are for peace and independence, building trust, and empathy, why aren’t we trying to understand the feelings of Jewish Israelis more? Why not more openly encourage Palestinians to try to understand the Israeli narrative, as many in the Diaspora have encouraged Israel to do towards them? Why are we not more openly condemning racist Palestinian incitement and terror, and calling for justice for Israeli children who have been victims of terror?

Playing the Role of Attack Dog: 

Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross, and Michael Oren, all esteemed politicians and experts who have been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, have all noted one thing when it comes to Bibi Netanyahu, conservative Israeli governments, and perhaps Israeli society at large. If you approach them in a friendly manner and show that you have their back, they are more likely to make concessions or take into consideration your viewpoints. However, when they are targeted with extreme and sometimes unfair criticism and feel like their back is against the wall, they will not budge. The United Nations and the European Union has yet to learn this lesson, despite their decades of following the same failed formula for peacemaking. But more shockingly, it seems that many Diaspora leaders have also ignored this advice. After the controversial rulings regarding conversion and the Western Wall, many religious Jews from the Diaspora cancelled their meetings with Netanyahu and made it known that Israeli politicians who disagreed with them on the Western Wall or conversion issues were unwelcome in their Jewish communities. This is a grave error that will probably stymie Jewish unity at a time when it is needed most.

It is understandable that many Diaspora Jews feel angry, hurt, and betrayed by the recent decisions. But alienating those who made the decisions will only cause them to double down on their decision. Rather, we should try and understand their position, even if we disagree. The more we view each other as family with disagreements, rather than staunch political adversaries, the more likely we are to come to some sort of compromise or agreement. Already, most Israelis want an egalitarian prayer site at the Kotel. Why cause unnecessary tensions and make blanket (and often emotionally-charged and untrue) statements about Israel given this information? Changing the status quo at the Kotel and in regards to Judaism’s role in politics in Israel means cooperation with Jewish Israelis, not making moves that could cause them, too, to feel abandoned and betrayed.

How to Change Israeli Politics: 

Already, Israel and the Jews face numerous threats. Whether it is the international left-wing’s increasing embrace of radical political correctness that alienates Jews and embraces radical Islamic narratives, or a resurgent neo-Nazi far-right; whether it is Hezbollah and Hamas, or Iran and Syria; whether it is Sunni jihadists or Arab governments that remain hostile; whether it is the extremist Turkish government or European attempts to distance Israel from the international community. This is not the time for us Jews to begin to divide and start infighting. And yet, that is both what the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate in Israel and many Diaspora Jews are doing—ultimately making it easier for our enemies to isolate or destroy us as a state and as a people. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t disagree or argue, as our people always have from the time of the Mishnah, or even before then. But it means we must come to more of an understanding of our differences, and try to build bridges. Many of the ultra-Orthodox feel as though Western Diaspora Jews are too eager to forget our roots, assimilate, and distance ourselves from Israel and its controversies if it brings us “privilege”, whether that means being seen as a “White Westerner” or as a “true liberal radical”. They claim that Diaspora Jews don’t understand what it is like to make huge sacrifices and fight for survival, as Israelis do (this is largely true), and that we are too soft and willing to turn our backs on our people for an acceptance from those who hate us, that will ultimately never come. We are seen by many of these demagogues as divisive, and materialistic. And with many liberal Jews in the Diaspora considering divesting from Israel or shunning politicians due to the recent rulings, we are playing right into their hands. But I believe that if we make more of an effort to understand the feelings, viewpoints, and emotions of Israeli Jews, and come out more strongly for Israel’s right to exist and against Palestinian racism and terror, no matter how uncomfortable things may be, we can achieve a great level of unity and repair the rift that has opened up between our two communities. We in the Diaspora need to stop judging and start living more by the Jewish values we claim to extol, and use them to stand with our brothers & sisters across the sea. Doing so, perhaps with a little bit of “tough love” on certain issues here and there, will likely result in them pressuring their government to reduce the power of the ultra-Orthodox in the government or make certain gestures for peace with the Palestinians.

Ultimately, though, if Diaspora Jews want to have a bigger effect on Israeli politics (whether liberalizing it or not), and get to understand Israeli society more, it would behoove more of us to make Aliyah or encourage future generations to join the IDF. There are numerous benefits that could be realized in the face of increased Aliyah. One would be the reduction of the possible “demographic threat” of Palestinians, which could force them to the negotiating table, as happened with Yasser Arafat after the Ethiopian and Soviet aliyot in the 1980s and 1990s. The numbers of the IDF would increase dramatically, serving as a deterrence against various armed forces or terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East that wish to attack or vanquish Israel. And a mostly skilled, learned Jewish population from other countries could help with expanding the Israeli economy, which can boost the country as it faces a decline in educational standards. It could also diminish the power of the radical Orthodox factions in Israel’s government today, and as many of these Jews would be for a two-state solution, could even incentivize the Palestinians to negotiate a peace deal and realize that Israeli and/or Jewish society is not inherently hostile towards them. It is understandable that not everyone is able or willing to make Aliyah. But even just living in Israel for a few years and attaining citizenship would allow many Diaspora Jews to participate in Israeli society, elections, and politics could allow for positive, meaningful change within Israel and in the Jewish World more broadly.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution. He is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. Dmitri currently lives in Kibbutz Erez, Israel as a Lone Soldier in the Garin Tzabar program, and is in the Givati Brigade.
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