Non-Orthodox Jews Lauded Netanyahu at AIPAC. Will That Harm Their Fight for Religious Pluralism in Israel?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes the stage to speak at the AIPAC conference in Washington,  March 6, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes the stage to speak at the AIPAC conference in Washington, March 6, 2018.Credit: Brian Snyder / Reuters

WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was received this week at the annual AIPAC conference like a rock star. His speech drew a raft of standing ovations and was interrupted at one point with shouts of “we love you, Bibi.” Only one other speaker, Donald Trump’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley, was embraced so warmly by the thousands of Israel supporters gathered at the Walter Washington Convention Center in downtown D.C.

This reception stood in stark contrast to the warnings just months ago by virtually the entire senior leadership of the American Jewish community, after the Netanyahu government promoted a string of decisions that deepened discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. The most memorable was the retraction of the Western Wall agreement on an egalitarian prayer space that had been reached with the Reform and Conservative movements.

Back in the summer and fall of last year, Jewish-American leaders – from senior rabbis to heads of mainstream national organizations – all warned Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians of an “unprecedented crisis” with American Jewry. One common theme was that even avid Israel-supporting, AIPAC-going Jews from Reform and Conservative communities were angry and insulted over the government’s policies, to the point where some would no longer support the Netanyahu government.

Israeli opposition leaders, eager to adopt a new line of attack against the prime minister, accused Netanyahu of “endangering our strategic relationship with the American Jewish community.” But that line looked a bit ridiculous this week when well over 10,000 American Jews – the majority of them Conservative and Reform – gave Netanyahu that hero’s treatment at AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. If Israel indeed goes to new elections soon, any attempt by the opposition to blame Netanyahu for a crisis with American Jewry will be immediately refuted by his campaign with images from AIPAC.

AIPAC has a clear policy of not intervening in Israeli politics. The group doesn’t comment on internal Israeli matters and insists that it will support any elected government. This explains why the group was happy to welcome Netanyahu and give him a prominent speaking slot, the same way it gave one to opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Labor Party head Avi Gabbay.

But this doesn’t explain the warm reception Netanyahu received from the crowd. While AIPAC as an organization has a strict policy on internal Israeli politics, the thousands of Reform and Conservative Jews in the crowd weren’t bound to welcome Netanyahu as King Bibi. They freely chose to do so. In fact, Netanyahu received stronger applause than other Israeli politicians such as Gabbay, who actually criticized the government for backtracking on the Western Wall agreement.

‘Colossal mistake’

Does this mean religious pluralism in Israel isn’t truly an urgent priority for Reform and Conservative Jews in America? Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties will surely make that argument, using the AIPAC applause as evidence that the alleged crisis was actually fake news pushed by the media. But U.S. Reform and Conservative leaders told Haaretz that this is a wrong conclusion.

“It will be a colossal mistake for Israelis to reach that conclusion,” says Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an umbrella group of the Conservative movement. Wernick warns that Netanyahu and his Israeli supporters are badly misreading the situation “if they think the reception Netanyahu received at AIPAC means you can take Jewish-American support for granted.”

As Wernick puts it, “When people come to AIPAC, they have one thing on their mind: the security of the State of Israel. I’ve been coming to AIPAC conferences since 1988. The Israeli prime minister always receives an enthusiastic reception. People who come to AIPAC have the ability to differentiate between our support for Israel’s security and the strategic U.S.-Israel relationship, and for our criticism of specific polices taken by the government, whether it’s on conversions, asylum seekers or the two-state solution.”

On Twitter, Wernick criticized Netanyahu’s speech for totally ignoring religious-pluralism issues. “Nothing from Netanyahu about Diaspora Israel relationship,” he wrote, reminding the prime minister that more than half the people gathered at AIPAC were either Conservative or Reform Jews. “We care about Israel beyond strategic. Israel’s soul essential to prosperity too.”

A similar message was expressed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “At AIPAC, it’s very clear that issues 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the agenda are, respectively – security, security, security and security,” he told Haaretz. “Many of those who listened to Netanyahu’s speech are Reform and Conservative Jews who are angry over some of his policies, but when they go to AIPAC, they focus on security and put aside the mindset of lobbying for issues like religious pluralism.”

Jacobs says that it would have been a mistake for Reform and Conservative Jews at the conference to protest Netanyahu’s speech in any way. “We know how to do a protest and where and when to do it,” he said. “A protest at AIPAC would have been harshly received. It would have been a foolish place to demonstrate.”

New challenges

Both Jacobs and Wernick strongly praised AIPAC’s leaders for their effort to make progressive and liberal Jews feel welcome at the D.C. conference this year. From the stage, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr expressed support for a two-state solution, while other speakers emphasized “the progressive case for Israel” on issues like health care, LGBT rights and environmental policy. Bipartisanship was arguably the strongest theme of the conference.

“They did a good job of emphasizing that,” Jacobs says. “It was the right kind of approach,” Wernick adds.

But both also acknowledge that despite AIPAC’s efforts to keep its grip on all parts of the Jewish community, the events of the past year – from the Western Wall debacle to Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump – have created new challenges for their movements.

“If you look outside of the AIPAC conference, there is a lot of discomfort, and people are talking about it,” Jacobs says. As Wernick puts it, “The real story isn’t the reaction Netanyahu gets at the convention center, it’s what people are saying outside of it.”

Haaretz independently contacted two rabbis – one Reform and one Conservative – who attended national AIPAC events in the past but skipped this year’s conference. Both said issues like Israel’s policies on conversions, the Western Wall and asylum seekers played a role in their decision, as did Netanyahu’s constant praise for Trump over the past year. Speaking to Haaretz, both rabbis asked to remain anonymous so as not to widen divisions in their congregations.

“I like AIPAC’s staffers in my region, many of whom are good, open-minded people. But I can’t accept the monolithic, ‘Israel-is-perfect’ approach at the their conferences,” one of the rabbis says. As the other puts it, “I have no doubt Netanyahu will use his speech at the conference to convince ordinary Israelis that American Jews love his government and have no problem with his policies. I don’t want to be part of that.”

These two rabbis don’t necessarily represent a national trend; this year’s conference actually saw a slight uptick in registration from Conservative rabbis and a very small decrease on the Reform side, which could be linked to nonpolitical factors such as a large conference of Reform rabbis scheduled for March 18 in California.

An AIPAC official told Haaretz that the lobby group has “excellent relationships with each of the Jewish religious movements,” but added that “the thrust of our work happens at the grass roots in relationship with each individual congregation. This approach is important given the different demographics of each congressional district.”

The AIPAC official added in an email that “a total of 378 congregational delegations attended this year led by rabbis from across the religious spectrum. Also, our approach was evidenced on the main stage when we featured rabbis Brigitte Rosenberg (Reform), Debra Newman Kamin (Conservative) and Elezar Muskin (Orthodox).” In general, the official noted, the 2018 conference was set to be AIPAC’s largest ever, but some participants never showed up because of the bad weather that battered the East Coast.

“To me as a participant at this year’s conference, it was clear that AIPAC is making an effort to regain the progressive community, which is a good thing,” Wernick concludes. “The fact that this effort is necessary explains why the prime minister’s advisers are giving him bad advice if they tell him that the reaction he got at AIPAC represents the entire Jewish community.”

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