The Israeli government’s “holy places committee” is a powerful forum, controlling some of the most important historical sites to Israel and the Jewish people. Yet on Sunday not only did two of its members resign – Culture Minister Miri Regev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not get any Likud minister to volunteer to replace them. Eventually he had to press-gang Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel into joining the committee.
In the next few weeks, the panel will have to authorize the enlargement of the archaeological site at the southern end of the Western Wall and formally recognize the space as a site for egalitarian prayer. Should the panel fail to do so, the High Court of Justice is expected to rule that, absent a formal mixed-gender prayer space, women will be allowed to hold their own prayers as they see fit at the main Western Wall Plaza.
Over a year after Netanyahu dismayed progressive Jews around the world and froze the Kotel prayer space agreement, his ministers now have to authorize it. But even though it is clear they will be doing so under duress, none of them want to be seen as being involved.
It used to be that the main obstacle to any legislation or government policy that favored progressive Jews was the ultra-Orthodox parties who were crucial to the survival of most governing coalitions in Israel since 1977. Recently, however, it has become much more complex at every political level.
For Netanyahu, the demands of the majority of American-Jewish leaders compete not only with those of his ultra-Orthodox allies, but also to an increasing degree with the American constituencies he sees as much more useful to him.
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While the Orthodox element of American Jewry is a minority, Netanyahu can rely on it to both support his right-wing policies and create the echo chamber he is used to for his alliance with the Trump administration. And while the Jewish religious-right is a relatively small constituency, the same cannot be said for the pro-Israel evangelicals, whose beliefs and political positions are diametrically opposed to those of the majority of American Jews.
Previous Israeli prime ministers tried to balance the demands and aspirations of the various pro-Israel groups in the United States. Not so long ago, Netanyahu himself did so as well. But in recent years, his “With us or against us” attitude has hardened. And since Donald Trump’s election, he feels that not only can he afford to disregard the mainstream Jewish community, he actually has more to gain by openly dismissing its concerns and demonstrating his closeness to Trump.
But it’s not just the prime minister. Netanyahu’s attitude is now reflected in the policies and statements of the Likud politicians (it’s not all of them) who take their cues from him. And it’s not only about imitating Netanyahu: Representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties are not the only Haredim that Likud lawmakers have to placate. Over the last two decades, increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews have joined Likud as party members and organizing themselves into powerful voting blocs.
Nowadays, being seen as supportive of progressive Jews in any way carries a double penalty for Likud candidates in Knesset primaries. They will run afoul of ultra-Orthodox Likudniks, who see Reform Jews as dangerous heretics, and also the rank-and-file party members, who have learned from Netanyahu to view any liberal foreign Jew as a traitor to Israel.
Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, as Diaspora affairs minister, has tried more than anyone else in the government to solve the Western Wall crisis. But he has now fallen silent and his closest ally, Shaked, has bowed out of the committee. They also have a nationalist-Haredi component which hates the Reform movement with a passion matching that of the Haredim. They will also have to face their membership soon in party primaries.
Ironically, the weakness of the Haredi rabbis has not lessened anti-Reform sentiment, but instead allowed the virus of intra-Jewish hatred to spread through the Israeli body politic, encouraged by Netanyahu’s nationalist siege mentality. Unless they are prepared to vocally support any and every policy of Israel, Diaspora Jews – especially those who dare espouse their liberal beliefs – have now been cast as dangerous fifth columnists.
For any right-wing Israeli politician today, being anti-Reform – and by extension anti-Diaspora – isn’t a matter of ideology. It simply makes political sense.