You can almost feel sorry for Reform and Conservative Jews. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bamboozled them, led them up the garden path and took them for a ride. He once waxed lyrical about how important they are to him, how critical the relationship between Israel and American Jews is, how he has their best interests at heart and so forth and blah blah. But when push came to shove and Netanyahu was forced to choose between endangering Israel’s strategically important ties to U.S. Jewry and risking his own seat ever so slightly, the great Israeli patriot made his obvious choice. He caved to the extortion of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and told American Jews, in the words of the famous 1975 New York Daily News front page about Gerald Ford and a federal bailout of New York City: Drop dead.
Thirty years of demonstrating, protesting and agitating for egalitarian prayers at the Western Wall went down the drain. Years of lobbying, cajoling, persuading, negotiating and agreeing were all for naught. Valiant efforts by Reform and Conservative leaders to assure their flocks that things were moving ahead, that Netanyahu was determined to recognize them as equal human beings deserving of dignity and respect, that in 2017 it’s simply inconceivable that medieval Jewish fundamentalists would continue to dictate terms to the government of the modern state of Israel, all turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Bubkes. Nada. Gornisht mit gornisht, nothing with nothing.
Theoretically, things might have turned out differently if Hillary Clinton had been elected president in 2016 instead of Donald Trump. Over the summer, when Netanyahu, like the rest of the world, was convinced that Clinton would win, he intended to try to win back the hearts of liberal American Jews that he had alienated because of his hostility toward Obama. He would have courted Reform and Conservative Jews as if they were his heart’s desire. But when Trump was elected, Netanyahu realized he doesn’t need liberal Jews any more, at least not for the next four years. And once they became expendable, their fate was sealed. From dear and neglected allies whose justified grievances must be addressed, Reform Jews turned virtually overnight to lefty zealots who don’t know their place. Even as he was sticking a knife in their backs at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu was already complaining that those damned American Jews had been too active, too nosy, too pushy. If they continue to protest too much, it will only be a matter of time before they’ll be branded as liberals who have forgotten what it means to be Jews, like all the rest of Netanyahu’s rivals.
Netanyahu, after all, has come to identify the well-being of the State of Israel with his own personal fortune. It doesn’t matter if Israel reneges on promises, if it doesn’t keep agreements, if the government shows the world that it is beholden to extreme religious kooks, as long as Netanyahu keeps himself in power just a little bit longer. That’s worth any price in the world.
Reform Jews may have thought that supporting the State of Israel and working behind the scenes and showing patience for years on end while Netanyahu got his political act together would earn them brownie points with the prime minister, at the very least. They can now join the club of the multitudes who have naively played footsie with Netanyahu only to have him cut them off at the knees the moment it suited him.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to really feel sorry for our dear brethren in the Jewish Diaspora. First of all, because, with all due respect, neither I nor any Israeli that I know of care one way or another whether women are allowed to pray with men at the Western Wall. It is a cause that Israelis find curious, if not bizarre, a sign of how detached Reform Jews are from the realities of Israeli life. Even as a symbol, it’s rather weak when compared to religious coercion and state-sanctioned discrimination against women and other minorities. The issue of state recognition of private conversions, for example, seems much more significant, but wait: Netanyahu has just surrendered to the Haredim on that issue as well.
But the real reason that it’s hard to feel sorry for Reform and Conservative Jews is that they should have known better. Many of them love Israel dearly and follow it closely, so they cannot claim to be disappointed or surprised. They may have lauded Netanyahu in their synagogues, but they should have known, like most world leaders do, that he can’t be trusted to keep this word, that he would jump ship at the first hint of troubled waters. They may have extolled Israeli democracy in their fundraising drives for their Jewish Federation or Israel Bonds, but they should have known that on issues of freedom of religion and conscience, even the flawed democracy Israel maintains inside the Green Line is concurrently a stifling theocracy rivaled only by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Many Reform and Conservative Jews read Haaretz or the New York Times or any other mainstream medium, so they know all too well that Netanyahu is the greatest enemy of their cherished ideals of pluralism and equality and liberal values. For pretending otherwise, they should not be forgiven.
Some commentators predict that the cabinet’s decision to “freeze” the Western Wall deal will cause irreparable harm to Israel’s ties with Reform and Conservative Jews. That is regrettable, but hopefully not inevitable. Here’s an alternative suggestion: Instead of supporting the Israel that kicks you in the face, perhaps Reform and Conservative Jews should back the dwindling minority of Israelis who actually agree with their views and who would welcome them to Israel with open arms, if they only could. Instead of kowtowing to Netanyahu and pledging their support for his policies, no questions asked, perhaps U.S. Jews will finally realize that they are betraying their own beliefs when they support a government they would find abhorrent under any other circumstances. Rather than tacitly acquiescing to Israel’s continuing slide towards darkness and intolerance, perhaps Reform Jews could assume a historic role of trying to bring light unto the nation they once hoped Israel would be, before it’s too late.
Even if the Kotel deal had been kept, it would have done nothing to steer Israel off the dangerous course it is now accelerating on, with Netanyahu at the helm. Reform and Conservative Jews would do well to forget women at the wall and to concentrate on saving Israel from itself instead.
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