Several weeks have passed since “Black Sunday,” the day on which Israel’s cabinet decided to suspend the Western Wall agreement and hand total control over conversions in Israel to the ultra-Orthodox forces in the religious establishment. (The conversion decision was later delayed for 6 months.)
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In Israel, the attention of the press and public has turned to other things. But in America, an anguished debate continues throughout the Jewish community. Disbelief and dismay remain the dominant sentiments of U.S. Jewish activists. Community leaders who view themselves as Israel’s staunchest defenders now feel dismissed by an oblivious and uncaring Israeli Prime Minister.
Among engaged non-Orthodox Jews – and the non-Orthodox are 90% of the American Jewish community – the anger is virtually universal, but a consensus has not emerged on what to do with that anger.
How should we give expression to the resentment that we feel? How should we convince Israel that there are times when nurturing the Jewish world takes precedence over coalition politics? On these and other questions, there are as yet no clear answers.
Still, if you listen closely, responses are beginning to take shape. Based on conversations I have had and my own sense of the community, I suggest that American Jews have reached three conclusions about their recent trauma.
1. American Jews have given up on Benjamin Netanyahu as the leader of world Jewry, a role that usually belongs as a matter of course to Israel’s Prime Minister.
Netanyahu remains his country’s political leader, responsible for Israel’s economy, foreign relations, and defense. Diaspora Jews will recognize that fact whether they agree with him on these matters or not. But that is not true for other things that the prime minister of the Jewish state has always undertaken to do. As spokesman and defender of the Jewish people, unifier of the Jewish world, champion of Jewish interests, and advocate of Jewish values, Netanyahu is finished, forever.
There is a simple explanation for this. Diaspora Jews have concluded that Netanyahu views the Jewish world – or at least the non-Orthodox part of that world – with contempt.
And while the immediate reason is his suspension of the Kotel agreement, this was, in fact, only the last straw. Netanyahu never visits Reform or Conservative synagogues when travelling abroad and shuns Reform and Conservative institutions, rabbinic ordinations and conventions in Israel. And he stays away from major celebratory events that would suggest a public embrace of the Jewish world’s largest religious movements.
Terrified of offending Haredi sensibilities, the Prime Minister has spent four terms distancing himself from millions of Jews who care deeply about Israel and want only a modicum of respect in return. And now, finally, it can be said that his personal credibility on religious matters with those Jews has been dealt a blow from which he will never recover.
2. American Jews will not withhold financial donations to Israel as a means of influencing Israel’s government.
This issue has been raised by Daniel Gordis in a widely-discussed blog post. Gordis affirms the right of American Jews to be heard on religious issues and suggests that the time has come to "use the power of their purse" to force the government’s hand. At the same time, he expresses doubts that they will have "the unity and stomach to use it."
Rabbi Gordis is to be commended for his tough line, which some Diaspora donors have applauded. But most American Jewish leaders do not find it compelling. And it is not because they don’t have the stomach for it but because they know it won’t work.
Gordis talks of Diaspora "leverage," but it doesn’t exist.
Israel is a rich country, ranked 21st in per capita GDP, between Italy and Spain, on the OECD list. American Jews withholding contributions might hurt some institutions a bit but would cause barely a blip in Israel’s economy. It would also be seen by most Israelis as petulant and patronizing. And this too: Philanthropic giving, wisely done, is one of the few areas that builds real bridges between American and Israeli Jews, creating opportunities for cooperative projects and face-to-face interaction. Why fiddle with that?
Some American Jews will redirect some of their giving and offer greater support to projects that promote religious pluralism in Israel. That will be welcome, but that is as far as the donor rebellion will go.
3. American Jews will expect AIPAC to readjust its priorities and become an advocate for religious freedom in Israel.
The only organization in America that has the clout to change religious realities in Israel is AIPAC, and American Jews are beginning to understand that. AIPAC, after all, is responsible not for the relatively piddling sums that are donated by charitable groups to Israel but for the massive amounts of American military aid that are essential for Israel’s survival.
Traditionally, of course, AIPAC steers clear of Israel’s internal concerns. But that is certain to change. Immediately after the Cabinet decisions on the Kotel and conversion, AIPAC leaders arrived in Jerusalem to warn Netanyahu of a "crisis of faith" between Israeli and American Jews. These leaders denied, of course, that they were exerting pressure. They were there, they insisted, only to offer the Prime Minister their "analysis."
But the fact is that AIPAC was feeling the heat from their grassroots activists, most of whom are non-Orthodox Jews who are as furious as everyone else at decisions that they see as foolish and gratuitous. And not only that. AIPAC’s leaders know that American support for Israel is not automatic but rests on the values that America and Israel are seen to share.
Every religious crisis in Israel strengthens America’s growing sense that Israel is an ultra-religious place, filled with extremists and fanatics. Religious fanatics are in fact a small minority in Israel, but as a recent survey has demonstrated, most Americans do not know that. And when they think of Israel’s brand of Judaism, it is the Ayatollah brand that comes to mind.
This is unfair, but it is the reality of the moment. And it is also very dangerous for Israel’s cause. And AIPAC members, locally and nationally, understand this very well.
Right now, what is going on in AIPAC is mostly behind-the-scenes whispering. But I am betting that the actions of Mr. Netanyahu will change AIPAC’s culture. And the day will come, very soon, when AIPAC leaders will arrive in Jerusalem not with "analysis" but with demands - for religious freedom, religious change and religious sanity.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie