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Netanyahu's Unforgivable Scuffle With Liberal American Jews

Lack of outrage at the manhandling of Reform leader Rick Jacobs at the Western Wall shows how quickly one gets used to an ongoing disaster

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Netanyahu at the Western wall in Jerusalem's old city, February 9 2009.
Netanyahu at the Western wall in Jerusalem's old city, February 9 2009.Credit: Daniel Bar On / JINI
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Last week, Rick Jacobs was pushed, shoved and, according to eyewitnesses, threatened with mace near Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Jacobs is the head of America’s largest Jewish denomination, the Union for Reform Judaism. The fact the altercation between security guards sanctioned by the Israeli government and a group of Reform Jews led by Jacobs did not merit a media sensation or public opinion maelstrom is testament to how desensitized we have become to the ongoing clash between Israel and a large segment of liberal American Jews – Reform, Conservative and nonpracticing alike. It shows how quickly one can get used to living with an ongoing disaster.

Most American Jews I’ve met recently cannot hide their anger or anguish. They may not be a representative sample of American Jewry per se, but they certainly represent involved Jews who would have never dared talk about Israel and its leaders the resentful way they do today.

Years of pent-up criticism of Israeli policies and lack of pluralism burst out into the open following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision in June to renege on the Kotel deal that would have expanded egalitarian prayers at the wall and given American Jews a role in running the place. A dam that had been holding back feelings and frustrations burst out, so a crisis took hold.

Though five months have passed, many Reform and Conservative leaders haven’t completely come to terms with Netanyahu’s capitulation to an ultra-Orthodox demand to “freeze” the January 2016 Kotel deal.

As if the government going back on its word wasn’t bad enough, Reform and Conservative leaders were flabbergasted by Netanyahu’s initial indifference to the controversy he had created, and by his chutzpah in trying to blame them for the ensuing crisis.

Many were still incensed last week when Netanyahu suggested – in a video appearance at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Los Angeles – that a modest physical upgrade of the current small and isolated area designated for egalitarian prayer near the Western Wall would suffice to cool the crisis and calm the restless Jews of liberal America.

Many Israelis wonder why Reform Jews get so worked up about women praying together with men in the first place, given that they don’t do so in almost all Israeli shuls, which are predominately Orthodox.

But they miss two crucial points. The first is that for Reform leaders to now accept the exclusion of egalitarian prayers from the Kotel is tantamount to collaborating with the Israeli/Orthodox establishment’s designation of them as “second-class Jews,” whose rituals do not deserve a place near Judaism’s holiest site.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, in an altercation with security guards at the Western Wall, November 16, 2017.Credit: Israel Religious Action Center

The second is that while many of them have been bending over backwards to try and maintain a semblance of unified support for Israel, despite widespread reservations over its government’s policies, Netanyahu made fools of them by reneging on a deal that took years to hammer out and in which they invested their personal prestige. And then he has the temerity to lash out at the movement’s leaders for feeling betrayed.

Netanyahu’s disdain exacerbated an already difficult situation. Reform and Conservative Jews in particular, and liberal and progressive American Jews who want to support Israel in general, have for years been having a tough time clinging to the old Israel right-or-wrong philosophy of organized American Jewry.

In addition to dealing with the denial of recognition of Reform and Conservative Jews since the state’s inception, liberal Jews have also had to rationalize Israel’s right-wing/Orthodox government; its nationalist/populist crackdown on dissent; the Netanyahu corruption allegations and his governing coalition’s assault on the rule of law; and, perhaps first and foremost, 50 years of occupation.

If you add to this mix widespread liberal anger at Netanyahu’s defiant March 2015 speech to Congress and the far more intense mortification of his enthusiastic embrace of U.S. President Donald Trump – who most, though far from all, American Jews despise – you get a powder keg ready to explode. Netanyahu then turning his back on a deal he negotiated and that his cabinet approved was like him lighting a match right near the fuse.

There is a direct correlation, of course, between the ups and downs of Netanyahu’s maneuvers around the Kotel deal and his analyses of the political winds in the United States.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is silhouetted against a facade of San Martin Palace at the Argentine foreign ministry in Buenos Aires, Argentina, September 2017.Credit: Victor R. Caivano/AP

When he originally concluded the Kotel deal in January 2016, Netanyahu was acutely aware of his need to patch up relations with liberal Jews in the wake of his bad relations with then-President Barack Obama and his Iran deal speech. Given the plausibility that Hillary Clinton would succeed Obama, Netanyahu had to quickly mollify potential-supporters-in-time-of-crisis in the Jewish community, so he could mobilize them to lobby Congress against a hostile Clinton administration, when it became necessary.

When it became clear on November 8, 2016 that it wasn’t Clinton but Trump who was being elected, and that it isn’t liberal Jews who are going to have the president’s ear but devout evangelicals, the Kotel deal’s fate was sealed.

If Clinton had been elected, Netanyahu would have either faced down ultra-Orthodox demands to nix the Kotel deal or found other ways to appease them. With Trump in the White House and Netanyahu’s hubris reigning supreme, Reform and Conservative Jews suddenly became expendable. From that point onward, their protests and criticism melded in with the chorus of all those Netanyahu views as his personal enemies.

Through the warped prism of his paranoia, Netanyahu probably saw the demand that he stand up to the Haredi parties on the Western Wall issue as part of a conspiracy aimed at destabilizing his coalition and toppling his government. Critical American Jews were inducted, in absentia, into Netanyahu’s version of the deep state that’s out to get him – which already includes lefties, journalists, intellectuals, artsy types, police investigators, state prosecutors, Supreme Court judges, Obama, George Soros and, lest we forget, the New Israel Fund.

Some of the damage done to the ties between Israel and liberal American Jews in recent years is irreparable. In households that are already struggling with progressive young Jews either flocking to non- or anti-Zionist groups, or simply distancing themselves from Israel altogether, the disenchantment with Netanyahu’s Israel – before and after the Kotel deal – translates into a lack of pushback.

By placing Israel in direct confrontation with the most basic liberal tenets of most American Jews, Netanyahu is depleting their energy to defend Israel to their surroundings. The parents may still rally around in time of need, but their children are so far away by now, they will probably never return.

If we cling to the political yardstick, perhaps there is room for some optimism about a potential and at least partial reconciliation in the near future – if one assumes that Netanyahu, who fancies himself a savant on U.S. politics, has internalized the results of the recent elections in Virginia and elsewhere.

Placing all your eggs in the Steve Bannon basket, as evidenced by the report that Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer feted the former White House adviser at his official residence, does not sound like such a great idea if the Democrats are about to stage a congressional coup in next year’s elections and take control of the House of Representatives.

The danger may not be clear and present just yet, but it should certainly give Netanyahu second thoughts about burning all his bridges to his potential defenders.

Most of the Jews I speak to would like nothing better than to put all of this behind them. Netanyahu has painted himself into a corner now and may very well be unable to defrost the frozen Kotel deal altogether – but he could certainly do more to thaw relations with American Jews and to acknowledge their grievances.

But if there is to be any hope of slowing or reversing the growing gap between Israel and a big chunk of the largest Jewish Diaspora community, Netanyahu is probably not the man to realize it. Between reneging on the Kotel deal and fawning over Trump, the bad impression Netanyahu has left on many American Jews in recent months is one that will never go away.

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