Ofer Bavly

Israel-Diaspora Relations On a Dangerous Path

The Israeli government reached two decisions on Sunday that are far more important for world Jewry than they are to Israelis. One decision was to suspend the Western Wall compromise agreement that had taken four years of negotiations and was agreed to by all sides — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, is credited with having reached a historic solution that would allow all Jews to pray at the Kotel, with a section specifically for non-Orthodox prayer. The second decision was to push through a bill that would recognize only Orthodox conversions to Judaism, under the auspices of the Rabbinate, thereby providing it with a monopoly on conversions to the exclusion of all other conversions.

In essence, the two decisions are nothing short of a huge slap in the face of Diaspora Jews, most of whom are not Orthodox and see themselves as being discriminated by these two decisions. Although the prime minister had promised to do all within his power to implement the Western Wall compromise, the pressure from Orthodox circles trumped his own promises — and the government’s previous decision. Thirteen members of Knesset from two ultra-Orthodox parties, representing slightly over ten percent of voters, were able to wield an inordinate influence over the Prime Minister, weary of losing his parliamentary majority and seeing his government collapse. Egged on by a few loud journalists from the Orthodox community, they threatened to quit the government if the agreement (to which they had previously agreed) is implemented.

On the very same day, the Orthodox establishment scored a double whammy, by getting the government to pass a decision that would outlaw all conversions to Judaism – except for conversions made by the Orthodox Rabbinate.

With one fell swoop, the government dealt a huge blow to world Jewry, the majority of which identifies as Reform or Conservative. Diaspora Jews, who had applauded the Western Wall compromise, are rightfully offended by a decision which essentially tells them that they are considered second-class Jews (at best) by the Israeli government. The same government that constantly relies on world Jewry for financial, moral and political support, is now telling Diaspora Jews that they are good enough when Israel needs support but not quite good enough when it comes to recognizing their right to pray at Judaism’s holiest site, or when it comes to conversion by their Rabbis, now considered invalid.
It’s not that Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t understand the problem this poses for world Jewry – he gets it. Probably no previous Prime Minister understood American Jewry better than Netanyahu. It’s just that when it comes to the delicate balancing act between doing what is morally right and doing what is politically imperative, Netanyahu chose to protect his Knesset majority at the cost of offending millions of Jews around the world.

In the first decades of Israel’s existence, world Jewry and American Jewry in particular looked at Israel as a poor charity case in need of handouts. The Six Day War, exactly half a century ago, started a change in Israel-Diaspora relations. In this context, Israel began to be seen as a regional superpower, a force to be reckoned with, and later as an economic powerhouse of invention and innovation. American Jews began to view Israel as a source of pride and (rightfully) as the twin pillar of the Jewish people. Israel defined itself from day one as the homeland of the Jewish people, and assumed responsibility towards the people as a whole – far beyond its responsibility towards its citizens. In that two-way relationship, Israel has a responsibility towards all Jews living outside its borders. It is the protector of the holy sites, the bearer of the historic torch of a people as well as a religion. Today, the Israeli government told almost half the Jewish people that they are second-class members of the tribe, whose religious rights are no longer given to them by virtue of birth but rather dependent on the good will of the minority Orthodox establishment in Israel.

This is the same government which, just earlier this month, proudly hosted a global video-conference (with participation in all 50 states) celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem and rallying Diaspora Jews to fight to keep the city united and undivided, has now added a cynical and sinister exception: the Kotel itself.

The long-term effects of this slap across the face may not be noted tomorrow or next week, but they will certainly be clear in the coming months. As a growing number of Jews across the world feel alienated and discriminated against by the Israeli government, they will feel less attachment to this country and less pride in the Zionist success story, by which they now feel shunned. Non ultra-Orthodox Israelis share the views of the majority of Diaspora Jews on these issues, but unfortunately have never prioritized them in the voting booth. Such Israelis have essentially shrugged their shoulders as if these issues cannot change the political calculus in the country. They may be right, but their resignation is often seen as indifference by their cousins in the Diaspora. This too is not a healthy dynamic for Diaspora-Israel relations.

These governmental decisions risk a drop in Jewish tourism to Israel as more and more Jews feel that this is not, after all, their homeland. They also risk a drop in charitable dollars sent to Israel from communities and individuals abroad as more and more of them begin to feel that they are supporting a society that does not respect them. At risk too is enthusiasm for defending Israel on campuses (remember BDS?) as growing numbers of young Jews will find it difficult to identify with the state of Israel. And might support for pro-Israeli elected officials, especially in the US, be at risk as more and more prominent Jews who used to make Israel their single-item issue in supporting their candidates now give a higher priority to other issues?

Were the material, moral and political support of world Jewry to diminish, Israel will survive – but it will no longer be the same Israel. It will become a country just like all other countries, separate from its expatriates. It will no longer be the State of the Jewish people, becoming instead a state of its citizens, with only marginal relations with Jews in the Diaspora. Ultimately, Israel will become weaker, less unique, and less representative of the Jewish people.

Unless the decisions made this week by the Israeli government are quickly overturned by legislation or by the courts, Israel will have embarked on a slippery slope which ultimately weakens the Jewish people – and Israel itself. That is a direction presumably no one – other than our enemies – seeks. But the proverbial train left the station today. It’s now a runaway train. Together, Diaspora Jewry and concerned Israelis need to steer it quickly back onto track.

About the Author
Ofer Bavly was a diplomat with the Israeli Foreign Service from 1991 to 2014, serving in Israel's Embassies in Madrid and Rome. He was Policy Advisor to two Foreign Ministers and was Israel's Consul General to Florida and Puerto Rico. He currently heads the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Chicago / Jewish United Fund