Will a Trump Presidency Give Israel a Long-sought Excuse to Ditch non-Orthodox Jews?

U.S. Jewish community leaders warn Israelis against distancing themselves Reform and Conservative Jews.

Rabbis at the march at the Western Wall being held back by an usher, November 3, 2016.
Emil Salman

Interior Minister Arye Dery was among the first Israeli politicians to breathe a sigh of relief after the United States election. That’s it, observed the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, no need any longer to make nice to America’s Reform and Conservative Jews. After all, as he explained, the candidate most of these Jews supported – a woman of their own progressive bent – got whipped.

Addressing a closed meeting of a local religious council a day after the results came in, Dery thanked his Creator that “all the deniers of religion and all those who imitate Judaism and thought they could take control of Israel to implement their destructive reforms” had been beaten along with Hillary Clinton.

Writing a few days later in Yated Ne’eman, Israel’s leading ultra-Orthodox newspaper, neither could columnist A. Barzilay contain his glee. “Now that these heretics have lost their influence in the U.S.,” he wrote, referring to Reform and Conservative Jews, “their political power, including the leverage they wield over decision-makers in Israel, has been enormously reduced, and there is nothing better for God and his Torah, for the people of Israel and for our future existence.”

Getting his two cents in as well, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus described Trump’s victory, in a column he penned for a popular Haredi portal, as “great tidings for us all.” Considering Trump’s campaign pledge to refrain from exerting pressure on Israel, Pindrus concluded, “The ability of Reform Jews to harm us is naturally weakened.” A U.S. citizen and member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Pindrus had announced publicly several weeks earlier that he would be voting for the Republican candidate.

There would seem to be good reason for ultra-Orthodox Israelis to celebrate Trump’s victory. In recent years, they’ve watched, almost in horror, as the Israeli government made several key concessions to the Conservative and Reform movements. State funding – albeit small change, but nonetheless, Israeli taxpayers’ money – was suddenly being used to support projects and organizations that promote Jewish pluralism. More significantly, the government earlier this year passed a resolution providing Reform and Conservative Jews with their own slice of the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, where men and women would be able to pray together. 

Never mind that the decision has yet to be implemented. The fact that the Israeli government was willing to grant official state recognition to the non-Orthodox movements at this most sacred of Jewish sites remains a thorn in their side. As Orthodox Jews in Israel see things, their government was willing to bow to pressure from the Reform and Conservative movements in the U.S. because Reform and Conservative Jews – who comprise the overwhelming majority of affiliated Jews in the country – have long been aligned with the Democratic Party. So long as the Democrats were in power, in follows, Reform and Conservative Jews had the upper hand. 

As recent exit polls have shown, only about 25 percent of the American Jewish vote in last week’s election went to Trump, and a disproportionately large share of those who supported the Republican candidate were Orthodox. Now that the party favored by Reform and Conservative Jews is no longer in power, Orthodox Jews in Israel – and particularly the ultra-Orthodox – are hopeful that any concessions offered them in recent years will be rescinded. 

Professor Steven Cohen, an expert on Jewish-American demography, tends to agree that American Jews are losing their clout in Israel, but he doesn’t think it’s connected to last week’s election results. “The Reform and Conservative movements don’t bring immigrants to Israel, they don’t lend the government political support in the U.S., and their monetary contributions are relatively small,” he observes. “So what we have is a situation of ‘no people, no power, no purse.’ Why in the world would Netanyahu listen to them when about one-third of those who voted for his coalition are Orthodox?”

Had Clinton been elected, Cohen believes, it would not have made a difference. “At this point, no matter who had won, there was little motivation or hope that the prime minister would fulfill his commitment to open the Western Wall for non-Orthodox prayer,” he says. “This was an issue that already headed for defeat, primarily because Israel’s Orthodox leaders had mobilized against it.”

(On Tuesday, Netanyahu told participants at the annual convention of the Jewish Federations of North America that he is still committed to the Western Wall deal and begged them for more time.)

Not all share Cohen’s pessimism. A case in point is Nir Barkan, a Reform rabbi from the city of Modi’in and the director of a brand new project that teams up Reform congregations in Israel with their counterparts around the world, but mainly in North America. The DOMIN-aLike Initiative received 600,000 shekels from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry during its first pilot year, which just ended, and is about to sign a contract to more than double the level of funding.

“When the Israeli government throws money into a project like this,” says Barkin, “it is not in order to gain favor with the powers that be in Washington. The purpose is to connect Jews who live in the Diaspora to Zionism and the State of Israel. When the original contract was signed with us, government representatives understood clearly that the majority of Jews living outside Israel are progressive, and that in order to connect with these Jews they have to be open to Reform and Conservative Judaism.”

Despite recent declarations indicating that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews may ride on the Trump presidency to settle old scores, Jay Ruderman, whose family foundation works to foster ties between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, is not overly concerned. “Many of the comments we’ve been hearing in recent days are made for internal political consumption,” he says. 

Those Israelis who are rushing to celebrate Trump’s victory, according to Ruderman, do not understand the dynamics of Israel’s relationship with American Jewry. “The overwhelming majority of Jews in America are Reform and Conservative, and that is not about to change,” he notes. “Their relationship with Israel is a direct one – and it is not dependent on who is president of the United States.” 

Mickey Gitzin, a prominent advocate for religious freedom in Israel, actually sees an upside in the recent election outcome for progressive Jews on both sides of the Atlantic. “Civil society organizations and donors in America are going to feel freer not to have to defend every single action of Israel’s,” predicts Gitzin, the executive director of Be Free Israel. “Many will find themselves in political and ideological conflict with the new administration, and this will allow them to be in even greater political and ideological conflict with the government of Israel. That means that even if they don’t have the president’s ear, we’ll be hearing their voices much louder.”

Those Orthodox Jews in Israel anxiously awaiting the moment for Trump to assume office may be in for an unpleasant surprise, he adds. “If anyone in Israel thinks that because of one election, they can cut off 80 percent of American Jews, they are dreaming. These people represent the bulk of American Jewry and they fill the most influential positions. Whoever goes after them will be making a very strategic mistake.”

Orthodox Jews in Israel, he says, should also be mindful of the fact that their Orthodox counterparts in the U.S. are not their ideological clones. “When conservative-minded Jews in America perceive something as a threat to Jewish unity, they are not likely to support it. So the Israeli government needs to understand that any extreme measures taken at this time against the non-Orthodox movements would likely be seen by Orthodox Jews in America as well as an act of betrayal.”

MK Nachman Shai, a member of the opposition Zionist Union, takes a similar view. “To conclude that everything is hunky dory now that Trump is president and that we don’t need Reform and Conservative Jews and that we don’t need the Western Wall deal would be a fatal error,” he says. “American Jews, who are largely progressive, may have a bit less political power today, but they still have an incredible amount of influence all over the place. Netanyahu should know better than anyone that when you want to garner support for Israel, you need to go both to the Democrats and the Republicans. And do you need Reform and Conservative Jews with you when you go to the Democrats? Of course you do.”

In an email, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in the U.S., indicated that he and his constituents have no intention of letting up their pressure on the Israeli government just because a new president had been elected. “It is certainly too early to make any predictions about the actions of the incoming U.S. administration,” said Jacobs, “but as for relations between American Reform Jewry and the state of Israel, we continue not only to love Israel but to express our concern and demand that the Israeli political space be inclusive to all forms of Jewry, and especially to those who represent the largest Jewish community in North America.”