While a segment of the Jewish community is organizing to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran, it is missing the main threat to Israel’s existence and ignoring the self-centered actions of Israel’s prime minister.
My thoughts in this regard commenced after a conversation with the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who had attended Jewish Agency meetings in Israel and had been confronted by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who asked why the Reform movement had not expressed its opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. Rabbi Jacobs properly responded that since the terms of the deal were not (then) yet known, it was premature to comment.
But Rabbi Jacobs continued and made a superb suggestion to the prime minister, urging him to have left-wing members of the Knesset take lead roles in expressing Israel’s opposition to the deal, should the final terms prove objectionable. The point was to make clear to the United States that the Iranian nuclear program is not a right-wing vs. left-wing issue in Israel; virtually all of the Jewish population of Israel deplores the thought of an Iran that is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. (As of this week, the Reform movement is continuing its review of the proposed treaty.)
Even better than Rabbi Jacobs’ suggestion would have been the formation of a unity government after the most recent elections so that a broad-based Israeli government could express its opinions to the White House and Congress. I believe that many American elected officials think that Israel is expressing the “right-wing” views of “obstructionist” Netanyahu who is opposed to the Iranian deal, but that the more “liberal” elements of Israeli society are not so vehemently opposed. A coalition government expressing its opposition to the proposed treaty at this time would readily have gotten that point across. But Netanyahu preferred to retain exclusive power even though that action now undermines the ability of the State of Israel to speak more forcefully, with a unified voice on this one issue that the prime minister believes to be the most important issue on Israel’s agenda.
Instead, not only is Israel in a weaker position to express its opposition to the Iranian deal, but instead by forming the government that Netanyahu did, the key danger to Israel’s existence — the internal one — has increased. In order to continue governing alone, Netanyahu entered into a coalition with the religious parties. The result is that two of the biggest internal concerns facing Israel have been exacerbated. The last Knesset had started to deal with making conversions to Judaism easier and had also begun the process of bringing the ultra-Orthodox (charedi) population into the mainstream. The clawing back of the reforms of the last Knesset has already begun, and that is the greater threat to the future of the State of Israel.
The conversion issue and the behavior of the Chief Rabbinate in this regard have alienated many American Jews and the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews (and their manifold sympathizers) whose status as Jews is questioned.
More important is that 30 percent of all kindergarten students in Israel are charedi. That means that we are quickly approaching a point where a diminishing majority of the population will be called upon to support an ever growing minority of the population, and that minority will have even more electoral clout in the future because of its growing numbers. Ultimately, this will lead to economic collapse and emigration from Israel as Israelis refuse to put up with the tax rates that will be necessary to support such a large ultra-Orthodox population.
While I do not believe Iran to be the rational actor that President Obama hopes it will be, I do hope that there will be a Mideast nuclear standoff, similar to the one that existed during the Cold War, and which continues to the present day in relations between the United States and Russia. The premise is that neither side will attack the other with a nuclear weapon because it will lead to mutual assured destruction (with the apt acronym of MAD). Israel should not have trouble, when Iran finally becomes a nuclear power, in convincing the Iranians that it has the ability to wipe Iran in its entirety off of the map if Iran ever undertakes a nuclear first strike.
Yet I am not assured that the Israeli political system will be able to cope with the economic burden that the charedim are imposing on the country. I have no objections to charedim leading the lives they wish to choose, but I do object to their asking for someone else to pay for it. And I do object to the lack of a willingness to undertake the civic burdens they should undertake in serving the nation that is protecting its lifestyle. This may not necessarily mean service in the army, but it could be service in hospitals and other ways that do not threaten the charedi way of life.
Iran worries me, but the threat of the charedim scares me even more. The present Israeli governing coalition is the sure threat to Israeli’s future. As the famous cartoonist Walt Kelly expressed it in his Pogo comic strip in the 1960s, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Joseph R. Rackman is a partner in the New York office of the international law firm of Hogan Lovells US LLP. His e-book, “Why be Moral?” is available on Amazon.