Opinion

American Jews Obviously Never Saw Netanyahu’s Betrayal Coming. But Why?

U.S. Reform and Conservative Jews were enamored by an idealized vision of Israel and thus were waylaid by the decision to deny them a space at the Western Wall

Women of the Wall pray with a Torah scroll for the first time at the Western Wall, Jerusalem. 11 February 2016
Michal Fattal

Stop the presses: Israel has committed an act of religious intolerance.

Shocker, right? But the American Jewish community continues to lament Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to nix the plan to build an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Actually, it seems the only shocking thing is how shocked American Jews are about the country constantly updating its decades-old system designed to protect the dominance of one group over others.

So who’s to blame for this debacle? Is it Netanyahu who “betrayed” and “insulted” Reform and Conservative Jews by capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox parties in his governing coalition? Is it the Ultra-Orthodox themselves, with their self-proclaimed monopoly over all things Jewish?

The answer is yes — to both. But let’s be frank here: American Jews would have been far less shocked if they hadn’t become so extraordinarily detached to begin with. As the inflamed rhetoric of American Jews in the last 10 days makes clear, many were truly expecting the Western Wall plan to be implemented. Which begs the question: Why would they ever expect such a thing?

Any Israeli, after all, could have told American Jews, who hoped that the Western Wall would somehow become an island of religious pluralism, that expecting any sort of religious freedom in Israel’s sea of intolerance is a pipe dream. Many Israelis in fact said as much.

But American Jews didn’t want to listen, enamored as they were with an idealized vision of Israel that only ever existed in propaganda videos.

If American Jews should be angry about anything, it’s not that the Western Wall plan was canceled, but that they’ve been led to believe by pro-Israel propagandists that there is a version of Israel where such a plan could work.

Deep disconnect

To be clear, American Jews are right to be upset. The Western Wall is sacred to all Jews, and all should be able to practice their faith. Israel has also been double-dealing American Jews for decades, pandering to them to win political support and donations, while excluding and disparaging Reform and Conservative Jews. In that regard, it’s hard not to see the cancellation of the Western Wall plan as a hurtful exclamation point.

But the expectation of many American Jews that this would somehow be resolved in today’s Israel reveals a deep disconnect from what Israel has become and in many ways what it has always been: a theocracy where anyone who isn’t Orthodox Jewish (or at least willing to adhere to Jewish Orthodox customs) is a second-class citizen.

Israel, after all, really only recognizes one brand of Jewish faith. Nearly every aspect of day-to-day life — marriage, burials, religious conversions, public transportation, food — is subservient to the dictates of monopolistic religious establishments, chief of them the Orthodox Rabbinate. While non-Orthodox Jews aren't persecuted, they are also not recognized in any official capacity, and the tenets of Orthodox Judaism dominate the public space.

Expecting that this would somehow change, and that religious pluralism would suddenly be allowed at a site so symbolic and sensitive as the Western Wall, meant ignoring a 69-year-old status quo based on Jewish-Orthodox domination that’s as much part of Israel’s national character as anything. It also meant ignoring that Israel hasn’t exactly become more liberal in recent years, instead withdrawing deeper and deeper into nationalist and religious narrow-mindedness.

Many American Jews, of course, knew this, and surveys show they have become increasingly alienated from Israel as a result. But as the Western Wall outrage shows, many still believed in Moshe Dayan’s famous 1960 dictum that Israel represents “not only its Jewish citizens, but all Jews.”

The far-right, Orthodox alliance

The truth is, the Western Wall plan was never going to be implemented. For one thing, the ultra-Orthodox would never allow it, and an Israeli government that isn’t completely dependent on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties is as common as a total eclipse of the sun. More importantly, this would never have happened because it’s not in line with the nationalist trends that drive Israeli politics and the very narrow definition of Jewish upon which they rely.

Still, one can’t fault American Jews entirely for expecting some reciprocity for the crucial support they’ve given Israel over the years. Israeli politicians were never paragons of religious tolerance, but in the past at least they used to respect Reform and Conservative Jews, even if domestically they maintained Israel’s self-proclaimed monopoly on the Jewish faith. In recent years, however, Israeli politics has grown more and more belligerent toward anyone not Orthodox Jewish and right-wing. That includes ethnic and religious minorities, human rights groups, LGBT people and, yes, Reform Jews.

Much of this has been based on a tightening alliance between the far-right and the ultra-Orthodox parties that relies on political expediency and, more importantly, notions built around a very limited understanding of what constitutes a Jew. Diaspora Jews are somewhat suspect to both sides of this alliance: The far-right is uncomfortable with their liberalism, while the ultra-Orthodox don’t even consider them real Jews.

The reactions to the Western Wall controversy on both sides of this alliance are a case in point. While the leader of religious-Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett, tried to assuage American Jews, party member Bezalel Smotrich referred to Israel’s Reform movement as “irresponsible provocateurs.”

In the right-wing press, the leaders of the Reform movement are depicted as anti-Israeli pro-BDS extremists. Ronen Shoval, founder of the far-right Im Tirtzu movement, tweeted in Hebrew last week: “When diaspora Jews threaten to stop supporting Israel, just take into account that we don’t respond well to threats, and they could lose our support as well. American Jews will become gentiles within one generation without Israel. Don’t threaten us with severing ties. They need us far more than we need them.”

Likewise, veteran ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said this week he’d be in the same governing coalition with a Palestinian before he’d be in one with a Reform Jew.

The American Jewish community largely ignored these developments, focusing instead on fighting the so-called “delegitimization” of Israel. While many of them were busy fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement by helping Israel disseminate an idealized, false image of itself, Netanyahu’s government and its political allies increasingly attacked everyone who didn’t conform to their messianic, isolationist vision.

Some American Jews thought this state of affairs wouldn't apply to other Jews, thinking perhaps that their donations and political support — so essential to Israel’s existence — would afford them some special privileges. But that just shows they haven’t been paying enough attention — not even when prominent Israeli politicians, including Israel’s religious services minister, accused them of being religious traitors “stabbing the Torah in the back.”

If there’s a silver lining to the Western Wall fiasco, however thin, it’s that the disconnect between American Jewry and Israeli reality might finally begin to narrow. And knowledge is always better than ignorance, even when the truth really, really hurts.