Opinion

Netanyahu Thinks Liberal U.S. Jews Are Expendable. That’s a Critical Miscalculation

Right-wingers thinks Israel can depend solely on conservative Christians and Trump. Good luck with that

A man prays at the men's section of the Western Wall, the most holy site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on June 27, 2017.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

Coalition math dictated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to ditch the Western Wall plan his government had previously adopted. He gave in to the threats from his ultra-Orthodox partners, because he values his continued tenure in office and his security and economic agendas more than good relations with American Jews.

Yet there is more to this than just the numbers in the Knesset that Netanyahu needs.

Most Israelis neither know nor care much about what motivates American Jews. But there is a growing feeling on the part of many Israelis that the views of their traditional partners in the United States are no longer worth lip service.

This is particularly true of the right, stemming from a belief that America’s non-Orthodox Jews are rapidly disappearing, as well as from the notion that President Trump’s greater sympathy towards their rightward positions means liberal Jewish support for Israel is expendable.

But the idea that Israel can write off Reform and Conservative Jews with impunity is profoundly mistaken.

Even if you forget about the vital obligations of the Israeli government to uphold the idea of Jewish unity, if you look at this purely through the prism of cold, hard politics: The Israeli right is foolish to think it doesn’t still need millions of American non-Orthodox Jews.

The demographic problems facing non-Orthodox Jews are real and shouldn’t be underestimated. But the idea that the Orthodox will soon be a majority and can be relied on to effectively replace disappearing Reform and Conservative Jews is divorced from reality.

Orthodoxy’s share of the U.S. Jewish population is growing, but since they are still only about ten percent of the total, they won’t dominate for a very long time. A significant chunk of the growth in the Orthodox population is also due to the high birth rates among the ultra-Orthodox. Like their counterparts in Israel, the vast numbers of young Satmar Hasidim in New York aren’t being raised as Zionists. They can’t fill the gap of lost pro-Israel liberal Jews.

The assumptions of many on the right about most Reform and Conservative Jews are also unjustified. Most liberal Jews are not fans of either Netanyahu or settlements. But as worrisome as deeply critical groups like J Street, and clearly pro-BDS and anti-Zionist organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace, may be to Israelis, whom does Netanyahu think it is that shows up for AIPAC conferences or fought against the Iran nuclear deal? The idea that Israel can or should depend solely on conservative Christians and Trump ignores the pivotal role that Reform and Conservative activists still play as opinion leaders that set the tone for the pro-Israel coalition.

Direct retaliation by the Reform and Conservative movements isn’t the issue. This is likely to further reduce the amount of money American Jews sent to Israel. Not only is a prosperous Israel less dependant on those donations than in the past, but Jewish federations have already been directing far less of their increasingly scarce resources to overseas causes. Nor will AIPAC simply fold up its tent.

But at this moment in time, when attacks from the BDS movement are growing and support for Israel is declining among young American Jews, for reasons that have more to do with demographics and a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood than opposition to Netanyahu, the prime minister just created one more largely unnecessary reason for Jews to distance themselves from the Zionist cause.

More importantly for Netanyahu, should the peace process somehow miraculously heat up, he’s going to have to call on those same Reform and Conservative Jews who are the backbone of pro-Israel groups to counteract pressure he might feel even from the Trump administration. As close as he is with Congressional Republicans, he shouldn’t be ignoring the possibility that a Democratic Party that is increasingly divided about support for Israel will win the 2018 midterms.

Trump’s uncertain future combined with Netanyahu’s plans to hold onto office indefinitely also should make it obvious that the need to nurture rather than dismiss American Jewish support ought to be something he cares about.

The implications of the Kotel decision for Jewish unity and the damage done by reinforcing ultra-Orthodox control over so many aspects of their society should alarm Israelis. But what Netanyahu has just done is a political error that both he and the right should regret rather than celebrate.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a Contributing Writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.