Tel Aviv — Now that the fury has eased, for the time being, over the Israeli government’s decision to renege on a compromise on prayer at the Western Wall, diaspora Jewry must decide what they’re going to do about it.
The cabinet’s vote last week to freeze a plan to expand and upgrade a prayer area for pluralistic and egalitarian worship at the Western Wall — retreating from an 18-month-old deal between diaspora Jews and the government — raises questions about how North American Jews should express their displeasure with Israel and what leverage, if any, they have to force Israel’s government to change course.
The cabinet’s plan to put forward a Knesset vote that would give the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversions has also caused an outcry in the diaspora.
Since the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors cancelled a meeting last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jews in North America have been calling up consulates and embassies to express their disappointment.
Holding signs saying “Bibi, don’t divide the Jewish People,” some 1,000 protestors gathered outside of Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem at a Saturday evening protest organized by the Reform and Conservative movements.
And a prominent member of AIPAC, Isaac Fisher of Miami, said that he would freeze his considerable donations to the pro-Israel lobby and Jewish federations to protest what he told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot amounted to “disrespect” toward non-Orthodox Jews.
In an unusually strong column in The Times of Israel, author and educator Daniel Gordis asserted that if American Jews really want to change Israel’s position on issues like the Kotel and conversion, they can use their clout by refusing to fly El Al, and withholding invitations to Israeli officials and donations to Israeli hospitals as long as charedi Minister of Health Yakov Litzman is in office. “The question is whether American Jews have the unity and stomach to do it,” Gordis wrote.
“Now the time is to direct our relationship and investments with those programs that further a vision of Judaism in the Jewish state that is authentic and dynamic.” – Rabbi Wernick
But some leaders of the campaign for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall cautioned against a disengagement from Israel.
“Now is the time to deepen our engagement in Israel, and not withdraw,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, told The Jewish Week. “Now the time is to direct our relationship and investments with those programs that further a vision of Judaism in the Jewish state that is authentic and dynamic” and promotes pluralistic values, he said.
A wholesale cut in financial support for Israel would “punish the people of Israel for the sins of the government,” Rabbi Wernick said.
Instead, Jews in the diaspora and in Israel should focus on working together to remove what Rabbi Wernick called an “ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist monopoly on Jewish identity in the Jewish state” that threatens to alienate Jews on both sides of the sea.
Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Woman of the Wall group and of the Reform movement in Israel, expressed a similar sentiment that financial protests and boycotts are not the solution to the crisis.
“The idea of disengaging and divesting is exactly the wrong thing to do,” she said. “The thing to do is to invest in those Israelis who are expressing your values. … The worst thing is apathy. In order to reach full equality, we need patience and resilience.”
Others have suggested a more aggressive and high-profile tactic. Gideon Meir, a former ambassador and the director of Israel-diaspora affairs at the Foreign Ministry, said that he joined an anti-government protest for the first time outside the prime minister’s residence on Saturday evening.
“The thing to do is to invest in those Israelis who are expressing your values. … The worst thing is apathy. In order to reach full equality, we need patience and resilience.” – Anat Hoffman
The former diplomat said that American Jews should come to Israel in large numbers to bolster the protests against the government. And if they can’t reach Israel, Meir said, North American Jews should hold demonstrations outside of consulates and embassies near where they live.
“Israel is a joint venture of world Jewry,” said Meir. “Israel doesn’t only belong to the Israeli Jews. It belongs to world Jewry and the [Arab] minority. American Jews have a right to tell the Israeli government what they think.”
Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American polling expert, said that the government has shown “disrespect” by denigrating the Judaism of diaspora Jews who fight for the country in Washington, D.C., and on college campuses.
“It’s time for them to show some tough love, and that means fighting,” he said. “They shouldn’t stand by while we disrespect them. They’ve got to fight back, and if that means curtailing donations or cancelling dinners, or boycotting the prime minister when he visits the U.S., that’s fair game.”
On Wednesday, Labor Party parliament member Nachman Shai introduced a bill in the Israeli parliament to enshrine the original compromise on prayer at the Western Wall in a law, but it was rejected by the plenum.
The move was aimed at forcing Israeli lawmakers to take a stand on the issue, and is perhaps aimed at pressuring moderate members of Netanyahu’s coalition who sympathize with the plight of non-Orthodox Jewry. But it was highly unlikely that the ultra-Orthodox in Netanyahu’s coalition, after just having the compromise frozen, will permit the legislation to advance in the parliament.
“Israel doesn’t only belong to the Israeli Jews. It belongs to world Jewry and the [Arab] minority. American Jews have a right to tell the Israeli government what they think.” – Gideon Meir
“This is a weak government that is being run by a messianic minority that is dividing the Jewish People, and institutionalizing discrimination of [Jewish] denominations in Israeli territory,” Shai said in a statement before the vote. “A stupid, irresponsible and impulsive act was taken, which must be revoked. This is the opportunity.”
Though Prime Minister Netanyahu has been tight-lipped in the week after the decision, at a July 4 celebration he vowed to ensure that Israel constitutes a “warm home for all Jews, including at the Western Wall. I only ask that you be patient.”
Perhaps emboldened by their efforts, the ultra-Orthodox parties in the decision stepped up pressure on the government to shut down Sabbath construction work on Israel Railways lines and to push a bill to force cities like Tel Aviv to shut down convenience stores on Saturday.
Political analysts have noted that the charedi parties have been a reliable ally and a key stabilizer in Netanyahu’s coalitions for years. In return for Netanyahu’s deference to charedi wishes on issues of religion and state, the ultra-Orthodox support the government’s right-wing agenda regarding the West Bank, even though their approach to Judaism doesn’t place a premium on holding onto land.
Despite the freeze of the compromise, interdenominational tensions are likely to rise throughout the month ahead of a July 30 Supreme Court hearing. The court is due to take up a petition by the Women of the Wall to force the government to reallocate the space at the existing Western Wall plaza so Jewish egalitarian worship can be allowed. In past discussions, the justices have expressed reservations about the imposition of the Orthodox prayer restrictions on all worshippers.
Diaspora Jews in the early part of the last century used their financial clout to pursue policies or causes that were different from the policies of the Jewish leadership, said David Barak Gorodetsky, a professor of Jewish history at Haifa University.
“The question is — does that equation still apply today?” he wrote in an email. “Will Jewish donors who do not support the current regime move back from donating to social causes as well?”
While financial contributions account for only a small fraction of Israel’s economy, a rollback in giving could affect lobbying groups like AIPAC and Israel’s neediest groups, he said.
“Even prior to the current crisis, the word on the street among Israeli NGOs was that American Jews are withdrawing contributions on account of the need to support pro-democracy work in the U.S. in response to the rise of Trump,” Gorodetsky wrote. “The fact that U.S. Jews have bigger problems at home these days is a compounding factor to a potential donation withdrawal.”