Opinion

On the Kotel Swindle, U.S. Jews Can’t Count on the Israeli Left for Help

The 90% of U.S. Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative are angry with Netanyahu and looking for allies. But they could be waving or drowning – Israelis simply don't care enough to find out

Women of the Wall praying at the Western Wall. 27 February 2017
Emil Salman

It is possible many non-Orthodox American Jews thought they could depend on the Israeli left as reliable allies in their struggle to overturn the Netanyahu government’s betrayal of its Western Wall promises. But while some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opponents may sympathize with their criticisms regarding the Wall, the overall response from the Israeli public has left American liberals confused and isolated.

Instead of applauding efforts to ramp up pressure on the government, the left appears largely split between some - like Noam Sheizaf - who chide Americans for being more interested in pluralism than resisting settlements, others who are only too eager to craft their own alliance with the Haredim to oust Netanyahu, and many who are just indifferent.

Rather than bring Israeli and American liberals closer together, these contradictory responses are showing that the cultural and ideological chasm between these communities is far greater than their points of agreement.

For Israelis, Netanyahu’s surrender to blackmail from his Haredi partners was business as usual. The realities of coalition math are nothing new even if the secular majority views the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on the country’s religious life with dismay. That’s why so many on the Israeli left were surprised by the widespread and genuine anger on the part of the 90 percent of affiliated American Jews who identify with the Reform and Conservative movements.

Since they know Netanyahu and his policies are not popular with the overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish community, Israeli leftists remain befuddled by what they consider a disproportionate response on what it is to them, an issue that isn’t as important as opposing the Israeli presence in the West Bank.

This disagreement has provoked some interesting responses from the left. Unlike some of his colleagues who seem to have little understanding about how American Jews think, Mikhael Manekin (Lost in Translation: The Israeli-U.S. Jewish Anti-occupation Alliance Is Broken. Can It Be Fixed?) correctly acknowledges the cultural differences between the communities, especially on religion. But he, too, labors under the illusion that mainstream liberals can be enticed to join a popular front that would align American liberals and Israelis in a joint crusade against both Netanyahu and the Trump administration.

While the majority of Americans Jews are uncomfortable with Netanyahu and settlements, even many liberals are sympathetic to centrist Israelis who believe the Palestinians are just as, if not more responsible for the failure of peace efforts than the right. So long as that is true, most of the liberals who are up in arms about the Kotel are not going to be making common cause with Peace Now.

Protesters outside PM Netanyahu's residence against Western Wall deal freeze, July 1, 2017.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

But even more disappointing for American liberals is the reaction from secular Israelis like Irit Linur (Who Are We to Tell Religious Jews What to Do at the Western Wall?) whose contempt for religion causes them to dismiss pluralism. Linur sees the Orthodox, even the Haredim whom she clearly despises, as more 'authentic' than Reform and Conservative Judaism.

This is reminiscent of the way some secular American Jews contribute to Chabad because they see it as more 'authentic' than the liberal denominations. But unlike them, Linur is ready to hand over the Wall to the Haredim because she thinks religion is a contemptible business, rather than something important to all Jews. Her lack of interest in understanding why delegitimizing the non-Orthodox damages the Zionist cause is deeply disturbing.

Linur doesn’t speak for all secular Israelis but her views are more common than most Americans realize. They also are part of the context in which efforts to dethrone Netanyahu will inevitably hinge on his rivals attempting to woo the Haredim to switch sides, and back an alternative after the next election.

Manekin claims only a left-wing government will ultimately satisfy the demands for pluralism, but so long as the non-Orthodox have no Knesset seats to barter, the creation of a government led by one of the parties of the left will inevitably hinge on a sell-out of the non-Orthodox to win the same Haredi votes that Netanyahu bought.

Like the right, Israeli left-wingers will always prioritize the conflict with the Palestinians over one with a rabbinate busy concocting blacklists of American rabbis.

American Jews have been galvanized by Netanyahu’s Kotel swindle. But the lip service they’ve received from some of the government’s opponents notwithstanding, Reform and Conservative Jews need to realize they are largely on their own in the fight for religious pluralism in Israel.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a Contributing Writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin