2017, the Worst Year Ever for Relations Between Israel and the Jewish World

From the Wall to Trump to the Palestinians to populism, this year Israel's leadership ended all pretense that it respects mainstream Diaspora concerns and opinions. But that distance between Israel and the Jewish world could have a silver lining

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Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium. Dec. 11, 2017
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium. Dec. 11, 2017Credit: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Twenty-nine years ago this week, Yitzhak Shamir, the most right-wing prime minister in Israel’s history, inaugurated a centrist government. Two months earlier, Likud had narrowly won the elections and its "natural" coalition of nationalist and religious parties held a small Knesset majority.

But after long weeks of wrangling with his potential coalition partners, Shamir astonished his supporters, and the pundits, by turning to Labor’s Shimon Peres and forming a national unity government.

At the time, many believed that Shamir’s main motivation had been his reluctance to give his rivals within Likud (David Levy and Ariel Sharon) key ministerial posts, which he would have been forced to do in a narrow right-wing government.

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. May 23, 2017Credit: Debbie Hill/AP

But years later, Shamir gave a very different reason for his surprising decision. He explained that in the coalition negotiations, the three ultra-Orthodox parties he needed to form a coalition, Agudath Yisrael, Shas and Degel HaTorah, demanded a major change to the Law of Return. As a condition of their joining, the law would have to stipulate that the only converts to Judaism that Israel could accept as immigrant-citizens would be those who had undergone an Orthodox conversion.

The secular Shamir rarely took much interest in state and religion issues, but he balked at accepting the Haredi demand. He had been warned privately by American Jewish leaders that delegitimizing conversions performed by the Reform and Conservative movements would drive a wedge between Israel and the largest Jewish community in the world. Rather than do that, he preferred to form a government with his ideological opponents.

I only recently read that detail in Shamir’s overlooked memoirs, and what struck me was that this was probably the single most significant intervention by the Diaspora in Israeli politics. Assuming Shamir was telling the truth, and I don’t see any reason for him to have made it up, he essentially gave non-Israeli Jewish leaders a veto over the composition of his coalition.

The next thing that struck me was that such a development would have been unthinkable today.

Could you imagine in 2017 an Israeli prime minister changing the make-up of his government to assuage the concerns of American Jews? This year, the opposite happened, when Benjamin Netanyahu threw out the agreement to establish an "egalitarian" prayer space by the Western Wall, an agreement that had been heralded by the leaders of the largest American Jewish organizations as "historic", just to appease his Haredi ministers who couldn’t countenance a challenge to the ultra-Orthodox hegemony over the Kotel.

The anti-Trump resistance in Israel: Protesters gather in Tel Aviv, opposite the American embassy on Friday, November 11, 2016Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In isolation, this monumental screw-you by Netanyahu to the majority of American Jews would be bad enough, but it is emblematic of so much that has happened this year in the Israel-Diaspora nexus.

The American Jewish horror at the embrace by the Israeli establishment of Donald Trump and Netanyahu’s silence at the emergence of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi white supremacists, rising in Trump’s wake, was mirrored by the anguish of Jews in Hungary and Austria, at his courtship of populist pro-Israel politicians, who are at the same time in bed with racists and Jew-baiters, in total disregard of their express wishes.

Single-handedly, Netanyahu has made 2017 the worst year ever in Jewish-Israeli relations.

Netanyahu is of course not the first Israeli prime minister to prefer Israel’s interests as they perceive them, to the feelings of Diaspora Jews. And of course, it is the duty of Israeli prime ministers to put their citizens first.

Activists from the Egyutt (Together) party tear down an ad by the Hungarian government against George Soros, Budapest, July 12, 2017.Credit: Pablo Gorondi / AP

But 2017 was the year that all the pretenses ended. The Israeli leadership has made it quite clear that they are not bothered with the opinions and concerns of the mainstream of the Diaspora. Indeed, they are gambling on the current right-wing and religious minorities within Jewish communities to become the dominant majority before long.

It’s difficult at the end of a year like this to distinguish between Netanyahu’s disdain for non-Israeli Jews and the broader issue of the chasm which has been opening for years between the two halves of the Jewish people. But it’s important to emphasize that even without Bibi doing everything to aggravate tensions, the differences between Israelis and Jews have never been greater.

Nearly every bit of empirical research and anecdotal evidence we have points to a divergence between the majority of Diaspora Jews who are progressive-minded, concerned with issues such as human rights, equality and multiculturalism, and their cousins in the Middle East, who are increasingly leaning towards a narrow-minded parochialism. And I’m not even going to begin with the difference of views on the Palestinian issue.

There is no black and white here. In many ways, Jews and Israelis are still close. At the most basic level, more Diaspora Jews have physically been to Israel and have some level of acquaintance with it than ever before. Surveys continue to show a very high level of attachment and empathy for Israel in the Diaspora. But as they get to know Israelis better, it also becomes clearer that they don’t like much of what they see.

Is a parting of ways between Israel and the Diaspora necessarily a bad thing? Keeping things in perspective is important. As bad as the relations may have become, a real split in the Jewish people simply isn’t on the cards. There not enough Jews in the world and those that are, have too many family and emotional ties to Israel, for a true divide to take place.

A connection to Israel will remain an element of nearly every Jews’ identity, no matter how they feel about its politics. Even those Jews who describe themselves as non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, define much of their identity in relation to Israel. But some distance between Zion and the Diaspora could actually be beneficial, for both sides.

The Diaspora’s effect hasn’t always been good for Israelis. Too often, they have dutifully supplied Israeli politicians an echo chamber for bad policies, rather than some much-needed criticism. And while the financial support of the Diaspora was important in Israel’s early years, it also had a corrupting influence on Israeli politicians and today, with Israel’s economy booming, is neither needed or useful. Jewish philanthropy would be better spent on strengthening Jewish education and culture in Diaspora communities.

And those communities would do well to focus less on Israel and more on themselves. Diaspora Jews are not just Israeli proxies, they have major challenges in their home countries, as citizens facing the rise of populist governments and the rekindling of xenophobia in many places. And as Jews, they have the challenge of articulating a more self-aware and independent identity, instead of subcontracting that identity to Israel.

Netanyahu and his cohorts are unintentionally doing us all a favor by tearing away the outdated foundations of Israel-Diaspora ties. Both Israelis and Jews could do with a separation period during which they work out, for themselves who they are and what values they stand for.