Daniel Goldman’s recent op-ed urging American Jews to drop peace with the Palestinians from their agenda in order to better advance the fight for religious pluralism in Israel (American Jews: If You Really Want Pluralism in Israel, Drop the Palestinians) is both intriguing and driven by the best intentions. Ultimately, however, it rests on a number of fallacies and miscalculations.
Abandoning the quest for a reasonable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not result in a victory on the religious pluralism front. It will instead leave American Jews feeling even more marginalized and disconnected from Israel, and lead to failure across the board.
The biggest problem with Goldman’s argument is that his assumption that a win on religious pluralism is achievable if only a left-of-center political agenda is abandoned contains a fallacy of enormous proportions. It assumes that Israelis and their elected representatives are deaf to American Jewish entreaties over social issues because of their accumulated anger over American Jewish pressure on political issues. The evidence for this is slim if it even exists at all.
Israelis are not supportive of many non-Orthodox social and religious policy agendas, and their sneering contempt for 'reformim' is not because of the Reform movement's political preferences.
While many secular Israelis would like to see different policies on conversion, they tend not to care about access to the Western Wall, and they do not view recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism as impacting their lives even one bit.
The disparaging of Conservative and Reform Jews is not because Israelis don’t share their politics, but because non-Orthodox Israeli Judaism is a completely different variety from non-Orthodox American Judaism. Israelis look down upon non-Orthodox movements for a host of complex religious and sociological reasons that are not driven by American calls for Israel to end the occupation.
Furthermore, the fact that Israel’s political leaders use American Jewish political views to question the authenticity of American Jews’ Zionism and devotion to Israel is distinct from Israeli political leaders ignoring American Jewish requests on religious and social pluralism.
Those political differences did not prevent the Israeli government from negotiating a deal over a mixed gender Western Wall prayer space to be overseen by non-Orthodox authorities, and they were not the driving force behind the government turning on a dime and pulling out of the agreement. Prime Minister Netanyahu remains in thrall to his Haredi coalition partners, and Aryeh Deri and Yaakov Litzman are not going to drop their top policy priority of maintaining a Haredi stranglehold on religious issues in Israel even if Rabbi Rick Jacobs becomes a settlements supporter.
The unfortunate fact is that there is little to gain in Israeli domestic politics by supporting the Conservative and Reform religious and social agendas, and that is a standalone problem that will not be affected by American Jewish silence on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
Goldman also makes a critical mistake in his overview of the American Jewish landscape. He is correct in his assessment that American Jews have not met with success in convincing the Israeli government to adopt their priorities on either recognizing non-Orthodox movements or recalibrating Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.
Where he is incorrect is in assuming that the problem is a lack of focus. These twin desires are not interchangeable, and subsuming the Palestinian issue to the religious pluralism issue will not result in the energies from one automatically transferring to the other.
To take a relevant example, Goldman’s organization – Gesher – is engaged in the important fight for greater social unity in Israel, but Gesher would not automatically transform itself into a group fighting for greater unity between Israel and its neighbors if it were forced to drop its current mission. Similarly, my own organization – Israel Policy Forum – has as its mission finding a way to get to a two-state solution consistent with Israel’s security, but it would not turn into a group advocating for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall if a two-state solution materialized tomorrow.
It is true that some organizations, such as the Union for Reform Judaism, have broader policy agendas that can encompass both of these things, but the majority of American Jewish organizations do not. Shuttering the ones that focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not lead to greater strength emanating from the ones that focus on religious pluralism.
Indeed, Goldman has an odd view of American Jewish priorities writ large, treating liberal American Jews as monolithic and assuming that because they support one liberal cause, they will be content to shift their energies to a different liberal cause.
People tend to care most strongly about what is specifically passionate and meaningful to them. And asking them to shift course for strategic reasons would be a mistake, because even if Goldman’s assumption is correct and abandoning the cause of peace will lead to victory on recognizing liberal streams of Judaism, it will engender resentment over the quid pro quo that was required.
Forcing a child of divorcing parents to choose between the two does not create greater love for or a better relationship with the parent who emerges as the winner. Success on religious pluralism that has as its explicit cost the hardening of Israeli policies in the West Bank will feel like a hollow and bitter victory, and create greater American distance from Israel rather than narrowing the gap.
Both the religious pluralism and Israeli-Palestinian issues are crucially important, and one cannot be sacrificed to the other. To paraphrase David Ben-Gurion, they each need to be fought for as if the other does not exist, since to do otherwise will only ensure that they both sink.
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