Israel to American Jews: You Just Don’t Matter

To the casual observer, Israel has never looked more secure and prosperous. Look again

Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times
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IllustrationCredit: Masha Manapov, The New York Times
Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times

To the casual observer, Israel has never looked more secure and prosperous. Its Arab neighbors are in disarray. Iran’s nuclear program has been mothballed for a while. The Trump team could not be friendlier and the Palestinians could not be weaker. All’s quiet on the Tel Aviv front.

Look again. In fact, the foundations of Israel’s long-term national security are cracking.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Israel is overstretching itself by simultaneously erasing the line between itself and the Palestinians — essentially absorbing 2.5 million Palestinians, which could turn Israel into a de facto Jewish-Arab binational state — and drawing a line between itself and the Jewish diaspora, particularly the U.S. Jewish community that has been so vital for Israel’s security, diplomatic standing and remarkable economic growth.

Netanyahu is setting himself up to be a pivotal figure in Jewish history — the leader who burned the bridges to a two-state solution and to the Jewish diaspora at the same time.

I won’t waste much time on Bibi’s deft manipulation of President Trump to shift all the blame onto the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas for the absence of progress in the peace process. Bibi masterfully distracted Trump with a shiny object — a video of extreme statements by Abbas (with no mention of extremist actions by Israeli settlers).

It worked perfectly to deflect the U.S. president from pressing the relevant questions: “Bibi, you win every debate, but meanwhile every day the separation of Israel from the Palestinians grows less likely, putting Israel on a ‘slippery slope toward apartheid,’ as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently warned. Where is your map? What are you going to do with 420,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank? Where is your imagination for how to reverse this trend that will inevitably lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish democratic state?”

But now an even bigger threat looms. In recent weeks, Netanyahu collaborated with the Orthodox Jewish parties in his right-wing ruling coalition to deal a double blow to the non-Orthodox Jewish diaspora living around the world, particularly in America. There are roughly six million Jews in Israel, six million in the U.S. and four million spread elsewhere. About 75 percent of the 10 million diaspora Jews are non-Orthodox, mostly followers of the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.

First, in order not to risk his hold on power, Netanyahu bowed to the demands of the Orthodox parties and canceled a 2016 agreement to create a distinct egalitarian prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem — the holiest site of the Jewish faith — where men and women of the non-Orthodox movements could pray together. The Orthodox rabbis who control the Western Wall insist that men pray in one area and women in a separate, smaller area.

At the same time, Bibi caved and endorsed an Orthodox party bill in the Knesset that handed the ultra-Orthodox what amounts to a monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel “by pulling government recognition for private conversions” — basically those done by non-Orthodox rabbis, The Times of Israel reported. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency pointed out that Israel’s Orthodox parties and Chief Rabbinate essentially control “all Jewish marriage in Israel, and immigrants who wish to wed there must first prove they are Jewish according to Orthodox law. The Chief Rabbinate’s antipathy to Reform and Conservative rabbis is well documented.”

As an editorial in The Forward in New York put it, Netanyahu “just gave the finger to a huge chunk of American Jews and, by doing so, dangerously upset the already precarious relationship between the Israeli government and the diaspora.”

After an outcry led by the American pro-Israel lobby Aipac, Bibi negotiated a six-month freeze on putting the conversion legislation in effect. But it is a time bomb.

How could this have happened? I asked Gidi Grinstein, founder of the Reut Group, a leading Israeli public policy research/strategy institute, and the author of “Flexigidity,” a really smart book about the sources of Jewish survival and the relationship between Israel and world Jewry today.

“This is a moment of truth for Israel’s national security and ethos,” said Grinstein. “Does Israel view itself as the nation-state of Israelis or as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people — nearly 60 percent of whom live outside of Israel? Is the purpose of Israel to serve the continuing resilience, prosperity and existence of the Jewish people, as the founders of Zionism envisioned, or just its own well-being? That is the question at stake now.”

If you think it’s the latter, you’d better speak out. Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren did not mince words about this moment, telling The Jerusalem Post that the machinations of Bibi and the Orthodox parties constituted an “abandonment of Zionism. The [Western Wall] belongs to the Jewish people as a whole.”

For years, said Grinstein, “many non-Orthodox, including myself, tried to plaster over the tension on this issue, thinking pragmatism would prevail.” While complaining about the Orthodox rabbis, “we pointed out that a couple can have a civil marriage abroad, which will be recognized in Israel,” and that Reform and Conservative rabbis were always de facto respected in Israel. That’s why “the recent government decision is like a punch in the stomach to so many,” he added.

Now many diaspora Jews are seeing the true double standard by which the Israeli state and society view them, Grinstein noted: “For years the diaspora’s rabbis were not recognized by Israel’s government, but their political support was sought and their congregants’ money was requested. Israeli politicians who voted against the diaspora’s interests in the Israeli Parliament begged for the stage at the Aipac convention in Washington, with all its perks. Well, that game may be over, and the recent government decision may turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Israelis have long taken for granted the fact that America — the world’s greatest superpower — is a steadfast supporter of Israel in the U.N., looks the other way on settlements, secures Israel’s technological edge over its enemies through defense systems like the Iron Dome, and just promised Israel $38 billion in security aid over 10 years. Most Israelis, said Grinstein, “are ignorant of the fact that this astonishing reality is the outcome of tireless work by hundreds of thousands of Jews — Democrats and Republicans, most of them non-Orthodox — who are passionately mobilized to enhance Israel’s security and prosperity with their money, time and talent.”

Today, Israel’s very identity is at a crossroad: Runaway Jewish nationalism threatens to meld Israel with the Palestinians in the West Bank, while runaway Orthodox politics threatens to disconnect Israel from its most committed supporters.

A double blow to Israel’s future, undermining the national security of the Jewish state, is unfolding before our eyes.

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