Opinion |

The One Speech Netanyahu Will Never Make to Diaspora Jews

Imagine if PM Benjamin Netanyahu, as he begins his remarks to The General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America next week in Tel Aviv, decided to honor true dialogue - and not the tele-prompter

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on October 14, 2018
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on October 14, 2018Credit: AFP

It’s truly a gift to see so many of you here for this dialogue between our two Jewish communities, North American and Israeli Jewry. I realize that things have been tense recently between our communities. In the spirit of Yom Kippur, lingering after the gates have closed, I want to acknowledge my responsibility here.

Let’s start with the Kotel, a place that should unite - not divide - all Jews. Several key leaders here today met with me for four years. The agreement we reached at that time reflected compromise on all sides.

But change is hard, and the Kotel, which symbolizes so much, both religiously and historically, took on the weight of the very definition of Jewishness.

American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray adjacent to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city. Feb. 25, 2016Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Today I am announcing that my government will institute the negotiated agreement, as approved by my cabinet. The message is simple: Let there be "One Wall for One People."

I cherish my political brit with the Haredi parties. They have been my political partners and I hope that relationship will continue, but I believe we reached a fair compromise regarding the Kotel - and I believe the Haredi parties will accept my decision, if I remain firm in its implementation.

A prayer space along the southern part of the Wall will be fully accessible and visible to all. A pluralistic oversight council will ensure all Jews will be able to pray there, and rejoice in a Jerusalem that lives in all our hearts.

We will work closely with our Reform and Conservative partners, the Federations, and the Jewish Agency. And we won’t stop there. Conversion, freedom to marry, and equitable funding for all the streams of Judaism will be next.

It simply makes no sense that the only nation disenfranchising the largest segment of practicing Jewry in the world is the Jewish state.

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Perhaps we have something to learn from the religious streams, and from you. Let’s not forget that halakhah itself was refined in the ancient, revered academies in Babylon at a time when Jewish life in the Diaspora thrived.

Contrary to, shall we say, the ill-advised pronouncements of members of my cabinet, Jewish life in the Diaspora is thriving today, especially in North America.

Now, on to the issue of democracy. I realize that many in this room are concerned about the new nation-state law that I proudly passed in the last Knesset.

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I believe this law is an important one that expresses the recognition by all of us that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. I also know, however, that there are many concerns among Israelis, North American Jews, and other friends and allies. Let’s re-examine the law and clearly anchor the principle of equality in the basic laws of Israel, recalling our own Declaration of Independence that guarantees minority rights.

And, let me say something about BDS. We are a strong enough people to handle criticism and open dialogue. In this spirit, I’ve ordered security forces to prevent entrance to Israel only when a security threat is clearly present. Our open borders are the best answer to the evil trend of BDS.

Thank you for your partnership in the struggle against this movement and against its delegitimization of the Zionist ideal. [Loud applause.]

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 26, 2018 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General AssemblyCredit: AFP

Meanwhile, I am awaiting the Trump peace plan. I have confidence in President Trump, perhaps, more than many of you. What can I say? I like the guy. [Scattered nervous laughter.]

But, I am not myopic. I know that we cannot have a secure Israel unless and until we have a viable Palestinian state by our side. There, I said it. [Some light applause.]

My criticism of the Palestinian Authority and its president is no secret; and, although I will never compromise Israel’s security, I must respond to any historic opportunity to bring peace to our children’s future.

[Turning aside, he jokingly yells to his aides: "Have Bennett and Shaked texted you yet?"]

If my current government can't stay intact, I am confident I can create a stable coalition that will support peace efforts.

Over 100 rabbis and Jewish activists, including prominent Reform leaders, demonstrate in support of DACA at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, January 2018Credit: Ralph Alswang

My friends, my country’s security is intimately tied to the friendship of the United States of America. I pledge that I will do everything possible to rebuild bipartisan consensus in Washington, so vital to Israel.

I will never sacrifice the deep bonds that exist between Israel and North American Jewry, including among progressive Jews who love Israel as dearly as I do. Yes, you [pointing to someone on stage who looks confused] heard me correctly.

In closing, I want to say you are welcome here as our dear partners and that I will continue to work tirelessly to create an Israel of which we can all be proud. Thank you.

[Standing ovation as the cell phones of Bibi and his aides go wild.]

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Gilad Kariv is president and CEO of the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism.

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