Over the last few weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a painstakingly negotiated compromise to allow an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, which the Israeli government has placed under sole control of the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. The same day, members of Netanyahu’s coalition proposed a now-postponed bill that would award the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate exclusive authority over conversion to Judaism. Now Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has released a “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis, including 65 Americans, who it does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities, conversions to Judaism, and marital status of immigrants to Israel. (No women appeared on the list; the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize women as rabbis is so taken for granted that this has barely been mentioned, and only highlights Israel’s failure to support full religious freedom for Jews within and without Israel.)
Many have described these latest affronts to non-Orthodox as well as Modern Orthodox Jews as disastrous both to Zionism as well as to the relationship between Israel and Jews in the diaspora. While both are true, this most recent move to privilege Ultra-Orthodox Jews over all other Israeli Jews (not to mention non-Jews) and throwing the Jewish identities of thousands into limbo also lifts the veil on how the prime minister’s actions represent not only a disaster for the Jewish character of Israel, but a fundamental threat to Israeli democracy itself.
There’s nothing new in the current Israeli government trading away the religious freedom of non-Orthodox Jews to retain support of its most extreme Ultra-Orthodox coalition members. The response of American Jewish leadership to the Kotel betrayal, the conversion bill and the blacklist has been strikingly unequivocal.
But the abandonment of the Kotel compromise and the reversal on conversion do not only insult much of Diaspora Jewry; they represent a frontal assault on Israeli democracy itself. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents. Under this right-wing government, we have witnessed a steady and alarming corrosion of Israel’s fundamental democratic principles. Passionate advocates for egalitarian access to the Kotel as well as those who consider that issue a distraction from essential human rights issues – including ending the occupation — should recognize that both crises are different aspects of the same problem. So while these latest crises of religious freedom have ignited North American Jewry’s outrage, they should sound an alarm waking us to the increasing precariousness of Israeli democracy.
Over the past several years, increasing state and partisan control of Israeli media has damaged freedom of the press. Prime Minister Netanyahu has personally retained the portfolio of Minister of Communication, interfered with Israel’s public broadcasting networks, and is under investigation for secretly negotiating a sweetheart regulatory deal with Israel’s second-largest daily newspaper in exchange for more favorable coverage of his government. Israel’s largest daily newspaper with the widest circulation is intimately aligned with the right-wing government and circulated for free thanks to its American financer—Republican billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Last year, all of these elements caused Freedom House to lower its ranking of press freedom in Israel to “mostly free.”
The current government has also increased its assault on freedom of expression and speech. Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev has used her position to threaten artists who don’t match her political agenda and theater companies who refuse to perform in West Bank settlements. Ministers and members of Knesset, along with extra-governmental organizations with strong ties to the Israeli government, have branded human rights organizations like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem as traitorous; Prime Minister Netanyahu is now promising a new bill intended to shut down the NGOs most critical of his policies. And a new law bans entry into Israel to those who have publicly called for a boycott of goods produced in Israeli settlements.
This government is working to delegitimize the High Court of Justice while at the same time packing the courts with right wing judges. And it has made it clear to Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, from racist rhetoric on Election Day to advancing a bill that would remove Arabic as a national language, that this government’s intention is to enshrine their status as second-class citizens.
For too long, the American Jewish establishment has been complicit in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s anti-democratic actions by embracing him regardless of how he has strengthened anti-democratic elements in Israeli society, particularly by pandering to ultra-nationalist and Ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. But this time, for the first time I can remember, leaders of major mainstream Jewish organizations are refusing to thank Netanyahu for these insults. The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors and the Reform Movement’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs cancelled a high profile dinner with the Prime Minister. Blacklisted rabbis are speaking out with pride. This time, Netanyahu’s insults felt personal, and American Jews have taken notice.
Those who love Israel must take every step towards dismantling Israeli democracy as personally as the broken Kotel compromise and the status of conversions. They must support and partner with Israel’s robust civil society sector, made up of veteran and emerging Israeli activists working tirelessly to stop the destruction of democracy and protect the human rights of all Israelis and all who live under Israeli rule. The battle for Israeli democracy is being fought on many fronts. There is plenty of room at the table for those who want to strengthen Israeli democracy by advocating for fundamental freedoms. If Netanyahu continues to privilege his own power at the expense of democracy, he had better get used to eating alone.
Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen is Senior Director of the New Israel Fund in New York and is the author of Changing Lives, Making History: Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the First Forty Years. She serves on the board of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights