Israel’s Politics, America’s Jews

As I write, the government of Israel is literally in the process of dissolving itself, as a vote taken in the Knesset mandated that it do. New elections will be held this coming March. Metaphorically, Israel's government has been dissolving itself without benefit of Knesset action, slowly and tortuously, step by painstaking step, over the past few weeks.

I am, as a rule, loathe to publicly criticize decisions taken by Israel's government. I certainly have, through the years, been outspoken on issues relating to religious pluralism and equity in funding, for they go to the core of who I am and how the Jewish State relates to me as a rabbi and a Jewish leader. Whenever I have done so, I have endeavored to make clear that I am trying to speak on issues that concern me without losing sight of the larger picture.

Even in my moments of greatest frustration with Israel's institutionalized religious power base, I have never preached, and would never preach, that my existential, baseline support for Israel and what it represents to Jews in today's world is in any way contingent on its policies. And while I have often found myself in disagreement with Israel's political policies and strategies, I have also tried my hardest to remember that I live here, in New York, and not in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Israel's hard decisions about security and territorial compromise need to be made, ultimately, by the people who must live with their consequences.

That said, I am, sadly, obliged to admit that, in all my years of intense identification with Israel, including two years as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, when I intereacted with Israel's government at the highest level, I have never been quite as frustrated with it, and particularly with Prime Minister Netanyahu, as I have been during the events leading up to where we are today.

Because recent sociological studies have shown a steadily weakening connection between younger Jews in America and the State of Israel, the government of Israel, over the past few years, has invested a great deal of time, money and effort to change those attitudes. Intensive conferences bringing together the best and brightest minds in Jewish education have been held, new websites have been created and all kinds of ideas have been floated to make younger American Jews feel more invested in the reality and potential of Israel.

But at the same time, one would be hard-pressed to imagine a government that could do more to alienate precisely those younger North American Jews that it is trying so hard to attract. Ever reluctant to alienate the Ultra-Orthodox parties that he might need to build a new coalition in the event of early elections (exactly what it happening as I write), Prime Minister Netanyahu has shown little if any inclination to either moderate or significantly change those policies that are most troubling to so many American Jews.

Having seemingly decided that, with the American Congress as supportive as it is of Israel, he can essentially thumb his nose at President Obama, particularly in the delicate matter of new housing in the territories, the Prime Minister has been no less guilty than President Obama in bringing relations between Jerusalem and Washington to new and dangerous lows.

Years of painstaking negotiations on the status of egalitarian prayer opportunities at the Kotel are now in jeopardy, particularly if a new government includes Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties. After years of paying lip service to the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Prime Minister has shown no inclination to seriously pursue any kind of diplomatic initiative that might force the Palestinian side to take greater responsibility for its own duplicity and irresponsibility.

And for all that Netanyahu has expressed anger with Ministers Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni for publicly protesting government policies, I heard not a word from him when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett published an op-ed in the New York Times saying that the two-state solution was no longer viable, and essentially advocating a policy far to the right of what the government allegedly stands for.

When all is said and done, Prime Minister Netanyahu is a fiercely political animal. Like most politicians, particularly in a parliamentary political system like Israel's, he is understandably concerned with staying in power, and he would not long survive in office were he not politically astute. But with all the threats that Israel is facing, and there are many, and all the concerns about the weakening connection between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, one longs for there to be at least a modicum of principle involved in his decision-making.

The threat of a nuclear Iran is real, and there is more than enough reason to find fault with America's foreign policy as it affects Israel. But I cannot help but have the feeling that with Netanyahu, it's mostly about staying in power, and besides questions concerning Israel's security, which he is fixated on, what is right and called for and ultimately in the best long-term interests of Israel is entirely secondary to political expediency.

As a Diaspora Jew who is involved, and is connected and cares deeply about Israel and its security, I long for more visionary leadership for Israel.

The Book of Proverbs teaches us that without vision, a people comes apart. It is, sadly, still true.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

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