From the moment Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a coalition in 2015 that was highly dependent on ultra-Orthodox parties, he has – with great effort – walked a tightrope. On one side, there was his political survival. On the other, a desire to not to anger the Reform and Conservative movements and their powerful allies, and to preserve “Jewish peoplehood” by embracing pluralism.
On Sunday, he dropped off that tightrope into the welcoming arms of the ultra-Orthodox on two major issues: leaving those with hopes for an egalitarian and pluralistic vision for Israel bruised and bleeding.
The two initiatives by the ultra-Orthodox are both designed as roadblocks to Supreme Court decisions which would harm their control over matters of religion and state. Both involve subjects that have been fiercely debated for decades: the ability to dictate the nature of prayer at Western Wall, and who can perform recognized conversion to Judaism in Israel. On both measures, the two ultra-Orthodox parties on which Netanyahu’s governing coalition depends, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have indicated a willingness to cripple Netanyahu’s government by pulling out if they don’t get their way.
Netanyahu’s concession in both cases is, first and foremost, a cold calculation of political survival. But the consequences of his actions are far less acute than they would have been a year ago. The government’s acquiescence to ultra-Orthodox hardball represents a slap in the face to liberal American Jews, in what may reflect the changed political map in the United States. Under President Obama and his Democratic allies, U.S. Jews committed to Reform and Conservative movements held far greater political sway than President Donald Trump, whose Jewish ties – familial, political and professional – are with Orthodox Jewry. Netanyahu has significantly less to lose now in the White House and other U.S. corridors of power by angering non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewish leaders than he did over the past eight years.
First, the government announced Sunday it was suspending the plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall that had taken years to negotiate and which Netanyahu has repeatedly assured Diaspora Jewish leaders would come to pass, even as he refused to take action on it for fear of angering the ultra-Orthodox. But ultimately, the fear of losing support from the ultra-Orthodox parties took precedence and political survival trumped his promises.
The push from the parties pressuring the government to scrap the plan came because if it remained in place, unexecuted, the courts would soon intervene. The parties to the plan for the egalitarian space – the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, along with Women of the Wall – filed a petition last fall with the Supreme Court that threatened to force the government’s hand. The petition said that if an egalitarian space was not created, it must change the existing gender-segregated prayer plazas to make room for non-Orthodox, mixed-gender prayer.
The Wall decision flies in the face of multiple promises and reassurances Netanyahu has made to Diaspora Jewish leaders. In November 2015, in an attempt to smooth over the rift between Israel and liberal Diaspora leaders following the bruising Iran nuclear deal battle, he vowed in front of a cheering audience at the General Assembly in 2015: “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews.”
PM pleaded with Diaspora for 'time and patience'
But in the ensuing months and years, in the face of steadfast ultra-Orthodox opposition to the plan, he did his best to kick the can down the road, begging Diaspora Jewish leaders for “patience and tolerance.” “We have one people and one wall — it’s our wall,” he told the Jewish Agency in November 2016. “The less publicly we talk about it, the better chance we have to resolve it. The last thing we need is more friction, as that will make a solution more difficult.”
The second blow to pluralism came in a bill – pushed by the ultra-Orthodox onto the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and passed – that guarantees a monopoly for the Chief Rabbinate on conversions to Judaism. The legislation invalidates conversions performed in Israel outside the Orthodox-sanctioned state system, denying citizenship under the Law of Return to Jews converted in Israel by Conservative, Reform or privately-run Orthodox rabbinical courts.
The bill is designed to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling handed down in March 2016 recognizing private Orthodox conversions undertaken in Israel, thus rejecting the position of the Interior Ministry and Chief Rabbinate. Following that ruling, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the Supreme Court to recognize their conversions as well, and the ultra-Orthodox parties fear the court will rule against them. The ruling declared that granting the Rabbinate a monopoly over conversion violates fundamental rights.
The new bill would nix recognition of the private Orthodox courts in order to prevent recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.
Opposition to the move came not only, as expected, from the Reform and Conservative movements, but from Yisrael Beiteinu as well, representing immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, is fiercely opposed to the move, and managed to postpone its debate once in the Committee for Legislation. While it got past the committee this time, it may well stall soon afterwards, based on Lieberman’s party’s objections.
The timing of the twin moves couldn’t be worse for Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. They took place on the same day that Diaspora leaders are gathered for their annual board meetings, giving them a forum to voice their anger and frustration on both counts. Sharansky has publicly denounced both measures, expressing “deep disappointment” in a decision that he said “will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”
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