In the face of a growing perception that the Israeli government cares little about the views of diaspora Jewry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his cabinet said all the right things about their concern for us during a recent meeting in Jerusalem with two prominent American Jewish leaders.
At a special June 24 cabinet session, Netanyahu told Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat, former U.S. ambassadors who co-chair the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), “we know we have a problem” with “non-Orthodox and progressives.” According to Ross and Eizenstat, the prime minister asserted that “contrary to popular opinion, I am not writing off liberals and non-Orthodox. I believe it is important to reach out to them.”
He has been perceived as focusing on support from evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews, writing off members of the liberal Jewish denominations — the great majority of American Jewry — as on the decline and less of a political factor in the coming years.
JPPI is a Jerusalem-based think tank focusing on strengthening the link between world Jewry and the state of Israel. Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the president and founding director of JPPI, attended the session as well.
Aryeh Deri, the minister of the interior and a founder of the charedi Shas party, told the JPPI leaders that “Conservative and Reform Jews are as much members of the Jewish people as I am,” an implicit response to several leading charedi Israeli rabbis who have marginalized the liberal denominations.
Notwithstanding such welcome comments from Netanyahu and Deri and other cabinet members, observers of the growing divide between Jerusalem and a significant swath of world Jewry no doubt will be looking for substantive improvements in the relationship to back up the embracing oratory.
Clearly, Netanyahu and his right-leaning coalition members are seeking to soothe the bitter feelings engendered by a major blow-up last year between Israeli and diaspora leaders after the government approved tougher conversion restrictions and reneged on an agreement on enhanced egalitarian prayer arrangements at the Kotel.
“The Kotel issue will be solved and we are very close to doing it,” the prime minister said at the JPPI meeting, “but the conversion issue is more complicated politically.”
The big question now is whether government leaders will act to placate diaspora Jewry, especially its youth, many of whom feel left out and more distanced from Israel. Such a decision would be based not only on the acknowledging of a moral imperative to strengthen the Israel-diaspora relationship, but also on a strategic recognition that Jerusalem needs to bolster political support for Israel in the U.S. and other countries. The alternative is for Israeli leaders to maintain a narrower path, responding to the domestic reality that diaspora Jews don’t cast votes in Israeli elections — and further distancing the Jewish state from world Jewry.
That was the setting for the face-to-face meeting in which Ross and Eizenstat, accompanied by Bar-Yosef, presented the group’s annual assessment of “the situation and dynamics of the Jewish People” to the cabinet, including specific recommendations.
Ross and Eizenstat said they did not hold back in describing what they believe to be a serious rift between Israel and world Jewry. But in separate phone interviews, they told me they were deeply impressed with the level of engagement and discourse at the meeting, which originally was scheduled for a half hour but went on for 90 minutes.
“They didn’t just listen, there was real engagement,” Eizenstat said a few days later.
Ross agreed, noting that “they were genuinely interested, asking us questions and voicing real concerns. The environment was very much one of give and take.”
Ross’ task in the presentation was to assess the impact of geopolitical developments on Israel and world Jewry. “I spoke about good, bad and uncertain trends,” noting that “in some ways the Trump administration embodies all three of those terms in regard to Israel and the diaspora.”
The good news: The “unprecedented … rhetorical, symbolic and diplomatic support” of the Trump administration for Israel, from the embassy move to Jerusalem, to pressuring the Palestinians toward negotiations, to strong backing at the United Nations. But the JPPI chairs urged the cabinet to “stick to Mideast issues in supporting Trump and be careful not to endorse his incendiary statements,” Eizenstat said.
Iran was placed in the category of uncertain news — a plus that negating the 2015 agreement is causing internal stress on the mullahs, but uncertainty what the result will be. Also uncertain is the content and timing of the much-discussed Mideast peace plan and whether the Palestinian Authority can be coaxed back to the table by a U.S. administration that clearly favors Israel. Other unknowns: Who will succeed Mahmoud Abbas to lead the Palestinian Authority? Will there be war with Hamas in Gaza?
The bad news: the U.S. appears to be “getting out of the Mideast,” Ross said, while Russia’s influence has increased, particularly in Syria; and growing nativist sentiments in Europe are leading to more signs of anti-Semitism.
Much of the discussion centered on Eizenstat’s presentation, which underscored the growing divide between Israel and world Jewry. “For the first time in its history, Israel is becoming a partisan political issue,” he told the cabinet. “This is not yet evident in the U.S. Congress, but it becomes increasingly evident among the general American public and dealing with this is a strategic imperative.”
We need Israel to be an American issue, not just a Republican issue.
Ross agreed: “The polarization and deep alienation” among Democrats, particularly progressives, in regard to Israel has set off “alarm bells” among those who recognize the vital importance of bipartisan support for Jerusalem, he said.
“We need Israel to be an American issue, not just a Republican issue,” Ross explained, cautioning that the current situation “is not in Israel’s long-term interest” and “has profound strategic consequences.”
In addition, Eizenstat said he “pointed to the partisan divide as stark, troubling and unprecedented” and urged the Israelis to note major demographic changes in the U.S., pointing out that whites now are a minority in California, part of a national trend. That calls for greater and more targeted outreach to Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans.
Noting the dramatic growth of Orthodox Jewry in the U.S. and Israel, Bar-Yosef, JPPI’s president, called on Israeli leaders to “encourage the growing Orthodox public to engage in politics and public service on the national level because as they grow numerically, the burden of the Jewish future rests on their shoulders.”
Other JPPI suggestions included emphasizing Israel’s major investment in Arab communities, placing Ethiopian Jewish diplomats in key international posts in Israel and around the world, and reaching out to governors and state legislators in the U.S. — not just members of Congress — to show them “the true face of Israel.”
‘Endangered Jewish Unity’
One troubling update in the wake of the meeting: As a result of political pressure from the charedi parties, two cabinet ministers — Ayelet Shaked (Justice) and Miri Regev (Culture and Sports) — resigned last week from the Ministerial Committee on Holy Places, whose task is to work out a compromise on the Kotel prayer issue. In an unusually pointed criticism, the Israel Democracy Institute issued a press release, “Calling On Our Leaders To Lead,” which said that although “the committee’s proposal is a pale imitation of a just and equal agreement,” Shaked, “who is supposed to defend equality,” and Regev, the committee chair and “a self-proclaimed champion of multi-culturalism … failed to fulfill their responsibility to enable every Jew the opportunity to pray in accordance with their worldview and beliefs at the holiest Jewish site.
“These ministers have also turned their backs on millions of Jews around the world,” the statement asserted, “and endangered the unity of the Jewish people.”
The ministers’ refusal to take part in the Kotel discussions and stand up to charedi pressure makes one wonder whether the cabinet’s reassurances to the JPPI leaders had any lasting meaning. Ross and Eizenstat, both seasoned veterans of Mideast politics, came away enthusiastic from the meeting. But time will tell whether they heard authentic pledges or empty rhetoric.