On the Western Wall Deal, Will Netanyahu Be a Hero or the Great Betrayer?

Israel's prime minister hopes to escape a major confrontation with Diaspora Jewry over the Western Wall deal by using the same tactics that he always uses: Delay and deceit.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
A member of Women of the Wall prays during the Jewish holiday of Passover at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel, May 17, 2016.
A member of Women of the Wall prays during the Jewish holiday of Passover at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel, May 17, 2016.Credit: Olivia Pitusi
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Let’s imagine that Israel had a prime minister with some principles. I am talking about a prime minister who cared about keeping his word; who had genuine respect for all of Judaism’s religious streams; who knew that the only way to deal with Jewish religious bullies and blackmailers is to call their bluff; and who understood that Israel’s task is to strengthen all Jews, whatever their religious outlook, who are fighting to keep the idea of Torah alive.

If Israel had such a prime minister, we might imagine him saying in a statement, following his meeting last week with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, that enough is enough: The compromise that his government had endorsed on prayer arrangements at the Western Wall would be implemented immediately and in its entirety.

This compromise, he would note, had required difficult concessions from all sides. Nonetheless, after lengthy negotiations, all parties had put the unity of the Jewish people ahead of their own narrow interests and had endorsed the agreement. When the Haredi parties later rescinded their acceptance of the deal, he had hoped that a new arrangement, agreeable to everyone, might be found. Since it was now clear that a revised agreement was not possible, the original compromise, previously embraced by all sides, would become official government policy.

These words would rally the great majority of Diaspora Jewry to his side. For the first time in his long political career, Mr. Netanyahu would actually be the hero of world Jewry. Furthermore, the political outcome would probably be positive for him. The likeliest scenario would be that the Haredi parties would fuss, pout, kvetch, and threaten, and then, bought off with more money, would quietly accept what they had agreed to in the first place.

Most important, the increasingly ridiculous, long-running Kotel saga that has agitated world Jewry for years would finally come to an end. And both sides would be winners. The non-Orthodox movements would have the right to organize egalitarian prayer at the southern Wall, and by virtue of a single entrance to the Wall’s plaza, north and south, could claim a modest but real measure of recognition by the State of Israel. At the same time, Haredi authorities would retain control of the women’s section of the Wall, an arrangement that was their primary goal all along.

Of course, the Haredim might actually carry out their threat to bolt the coalition. But this is wildly unlikely, given their insatiable need for government funding. And even if it were to happen, Netanyahu might very well be able to entice the Zionist Union to replace them. In the worst case scenario, if elections were called, Mr. Netanyahu would go into those elections for once as a man of conviction and principle, who faced down the forces of division and united the Jewish world.

But none of this is likely. Mr. Netanyahu is not generally known for his adherence to principle, other than the principle of self-preservation. And in the realm of religious pluralism and tolerance, he has no principles whatsoever.

After more than a decade as Israel’s prime minister, he cannot point to a single instance of advancing religious freedom in the State of Israel. For every step forward he has taken, he has taken two steps backward. Every promise he has made on religious issues has been broken, and every assurance he has given has been rescinded. This is true on matters of concern to all Israelis, and not just Reform and Conservative Jews; on marriage, conversion, and army service for religious youth, his record is abominable. What this means is that the chances that he will deliver on the already promised Western Wall agreement are very slight.

How, in this case, does he hope to escape without a major confrontation with Diaspora Jewry? The answer is that he will use the same tactics that he always uses: Delay and deceit. He will delay a decision as long as he can, confident that American Jews have short memories. And he will shamelessly lie and deceive, saying that he did not promise what he promised and it’s not important anyway.

His subordinates are now playing that game on the question of a single entrance to the Wall, claiming that it can’t be done, too much is being made of it, and there are other alternatives. But the single entrance is the key to the whole package. If there is a single entrance, and Jews can turn one way for traditional prayer and another way for pluralistic prayer, then religious freedom is affirmed and recognition is accorded to all. But if the pluralistic area has a separate entry way, it will be the equivalent of a servants’ entrance and will consign the non-Orthodox to back-of-the-bus status. And all that has been fought for up to now will have been for naught.

The good news is that this time, the prime minister may not get away with his game-playing. Non-Orthodox leaders have handled the negotiations masterfully. They have been principled, consistent, and united. And they have made clear to Netanyahu that he cannot sweet talk them, bribe them, or guilt trip them into abandoning the principles of the already-concluded agreement.

In the final analysis, of course, Netanyahu, and Netanyahu alone, will decide. He will have to choose between currying favor with the Haredi parties and keeping faith with non-Orthodox movements of the Diaspora to whom he has made specific and solemn commitments.

If he chooses the latter, he will become the Diaspora’s champion, a pioneer in a long-overdue effort to shake up Israel’s religious status quo.

And if he chooses the former, a choice that now seems more likely? Well, Diaspora Jewry will not abandon Israel — not now, not ever. Relations between world Jewry and the State of Israel will not be permanently impacted, even if, for a while, they will take an angry turn.

But Netanyahu’s personal fate will be sealed. He will go down in the annals of the Jewish state as the great betrayer; as the prevaricator who promised at a critical moment to bring Jews together and didn’t deliver; as a timid, cowardly politician, who, time and again, buckled to Haredi pressure the minute it was applied; and as the leader of Israel who blew a once-in-a-generation chance to replace a Judaism of division and hatred with a Judaism of tolerance and freedom.

It is your choice, Mr. Netanyahu. Your choice.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.



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