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July 3, 2017 12:51 am

Why Netanyahu Did It: The Brutal Truth on Israel and the Diaspora

avatar by Jonathan S. Tobin /

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO. – Non-Orthodox Jews are angry about the Israeli government’s decision to go back on its word, and reject the idea of a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders says that the move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet will damage Jewish unity and undermine support for Israel in the US.

But while those affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements have every right to be upset, what most of them don’t understand is why Netanyahu did it. It’s not because he doesn’t care about the diaspora. Rather, the decision was the result of a cynical political struggle in which one side has power and the other does not.

As critics of Netanyahu’s decision attempt to make their voices heard in Israel, they need to understand the context of this controversy and other religious pluralism issues that are further widening the divide between American Jews and Israel.

Those Israelis who wish to rationalize the government’s decision may think that Israel should actively ignore and disdain the views of the overwhelming majority of religiously affiliated American Jews, who identify as non-Orthodox. Many Israelis, especially those on the right — who see liberal Americans as sympathetic to the Israeli left — wrongly link pluralism to the debate about the conflict with the Palestinians. Others think that the non-Orthodox are rapidly assimilating into American society, and should be written off.

Both of these excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny. Netanyahu and the Israeli right are unpopular among American Jews. But even those Jews who oppose Netanyahu and the Israeli right still represent the backbone of pro-Israel groups like AIPAC. Though support for Israel from conservative Christians is very important, ignoring all American Jews except the Orthodox minority undermines support for Israel in the US.

Concerns about the demographic implosion of American Jewry are entirely justified. But those who think that the Orthodox community will soon dominate American Judaism don’t understand that it will still take many years for that reversal to come about; and even if this happens, it will still create problems for American support for Israel. Rather than ignoring Reform and Conservative Judaism, Israelis should be thinking about how to reinforce efforts to keep those movements viable.

Moreover, Israelis also need to connect their own justified concerns about the impact that the haredi monopoly on religious issues is having on the Jewish state with their pluralistic concerns. The Kotel is a place that belongs to all of the Jewish people. Accommodations for the non-Orthodox are neither a provocation, nor an insult to the Orthodox.

But American Jews need to understand something else. Israel is a country where there is no separation between religion and state. In such a place, debates on religion are political, not religious. Israel’s political system allows parties like those of the haredi community to obtain a disproportionate amount of power. One can’t be surprised when they exercise that power, both to undermine a historic compromise at the Kotel that was first proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, and to exclude other rabbis, including the modern Orthodox, from control of conversions and other policies.

Netanyahu explained his decision to go back on his word by saying that any of his rivals would have done the same. It’s no excuse, but it’s true; it has happened before with Israeli governments on the left, as well as the right. Netanyahu’s left-wing opponents would also sell the non-Orthodox out if they had the chance. No prime minister would let his government fall in order to satisfy the Reform and Conservative movements in America.

An Israeli government truly willing to live up to its mandate to safeguard the interests of the entire Jewish people wouldn’t let this happen. But until a day in which the political stars are aligned to make this a reality, don’t be surprised when similar situations repeat themselves — both on the Kotel and with respect to other pluralism issues.

The challenge for non-Orthodox Jews is obvious. Until their message is heard and understood by more Israelis — and translated into political power — nothing is likely to change. The message that Netanyahu sent them last week hurts, but whatever their views about the Israeli government might be, Reform and Conservative Jews must not let their frustration cause them to give up engaging with the Jewish state — regardless of politics.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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  • Rena Cohen

    Before making aliyah I was more a part of conservative than observant Jewish life. In all my trips to Israel during that time, I had no problem visiting the Western Wall and going to the women’s section. It was the same each time I also visited an observant synagogue where I sat separately from the men. It was not a problem. So I really don’t know what all of this fuss is really about. Those who want to pray in a mixed service have a place to do it. Most of those both Jewish and Non Jewish who come to the Wall, have no problems with the current situation. Why some do speaks loudly of their desire to be in control rather than do what God wants us to do. That’s my take on in anyway.

  • George Curtis

    I am currently a non observant American Jew who had years age spent a few years in Israel. I much prefer that orthodox Jews maintain control over the Jewish religious places in Israel. There is something very special about these places, especially the Kotel. If the current breed of reform and conservative Jews, especially American Jews are allowed any control over these area they will do all they can to dilute the very special Jewishness of these places and in a way Christianize them. I do not want to return to Israel and find the Jewishness gone from these places. I am not observant and take responsibility for my choices, but I do not want the traditions and customs of Jewishness to be diluted or compromised by liberal conservative and reformed American Jews who have little emotional investment in Israel and a minimal investment in their Judaism. I don’t want to one day find guitar playing reformed Jews with their choir singing at the Wall. I think the Haredi who choose to live in Israel and attempt to be observant of the Torah are the best guardians of the Kotel. I don’t agree or like some of what the Haredi do, but better than most they are the keepers of Judaism.

  • The administration of the Kotel is an internal Israeli matter, ipso facto.

  • StanleyTee

    This column starts with a mistake. It’s one that just about everyone who has anything to say about this issue seems to be making. It says that Netanyahu has rejected the idea of a new egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. This simply isn’t true. There IS an egalitarian prayer space there and has been for years. The agreement was to expand it somewhat and create a new access route. It was also to be controlled by non orthodox bodies. To insinuate that there is no egalitarian prayer allowed at the Kotel inflames feelings way beyond what is justified. The least these writers can do is get their facts right!

  • Paul

    “whatever their views about the Israeli government might be, Reform and Conservative Jews must not let their frustration cause them to give up engaging with the Jewish state — regardless of politics.”


    NOR should they allow small-minded politicians buy their political survival by betraying the majority of Jews in the world. Israel was founded by secular Jews to be the JEWISH homeland. Not the just the ORTHODOX JEWISH homeland. Most of the orthodox Jews here are live off the secular taxpayers and do not share army service. (The tora, which they regard as their own private property, stated who is exempt from military service – and wanting to learn tora is NOT listed as a valid reason). This extreme minority impose their extreme wishes on the majority by ruthless political blackmail. The fact that they live in Israel may give them more say than american Jews on local laws, taxes etc – but NOT on those religious aspects that are shared by all jews. Do christians who live in ROME have more say on the content of Roman Catholicism than OTHER Roman Catholics ? Do Jewish Holy sites belong only to the minority of Orthodox Jews ?
    American Jews should be MORE forthright in fighting for universal Jewish goals in Israel, no matter where they live. They should stop being so apologetic. The issue has become political – so US Jewry should fight back politically and stop taking a passive stance when Bibi sells international Jewish interests to extremist political blackmailers, with God on THEIR side, for his narrow political goals. The tail should no longer be allowed to wag the dog. US Jews should start demanding that no religious party should be allowed in the knesset – to seperate religion from national government.
    The religious political groups should be warned that their time in government will pass, as happens from time to time. If they declare war on all non-orthodox jewry because they enjoy a temporary position of political power, they must be warned they may well come a time when they will be at the mercy of non-orthodox jewry and there will be a reckoning.

  • Human Man

    This article is very telling. Some Reform and Conservative Jews have their priorities very skewed. They care so much about egalitarian services that having been rebuffed they might not want to “engage” with Israel? The issue of mixed-gender prayer is just not that important in the scheme of things.

  • Lisa Kamins

    I think you got it all wrong. I think the following article states it far more clearly, with a far better understanding of the situation:

  • Hyam Pinczewski

    What a load of non-sense. The Kotel today represents our ultimate connection to the Creator. It is our connection to the most holy of places in our history a place that will be rebuilt very soon in our times and to suggest that a place be provided for egalitarian prayer is totally contrary to its very essence. It will never happen.

  • HaLeviSHmuel

    Full of beans. Reform people are semi assimilated cultists at best while a high number of them are not Jewish at all. We lived in a South West State in the US and have extensive knowledge about such “congregations” including their rites and Sunday School… practices.

    As to Israeli political realities. We, Israeli citizens FREELY elect our MK’s. The Religious Parties control 25 mandates. Many in the Likud are also identified as religious. That is about 1/4 of the Knesset membership at least. No other block can counter that.

    Options for the US reform cult adherents: They can indeed come on over if they are actually Jews, settle here and later vote on behalf of their beliefs. Until such time and until when they have an elected representatives core here, they have no rights to determine Israeli policies on anything. None.
    Maybe the reform elements are adept to try to force themselves where they are not legally entitled to be as the trash has been trying to do after the US voters slammed them for the US Presidency and five times on further elections after that.
    That is failing in the US and will be smashed here as well.
    Them in their vast majority are committed parties of the Obamatoid cult itself. They solidly helped elect and re elect a nemesis of Israel, Obama and fully support the ghastly Clintonite attempt to continue on that direction.

    The Temple and that includes the Temple’s walls, were never the province of “egalitarian”, whatever that means cults.
    Non Jews were welcomed to VISIT during King Solomon times. Later some unJews willing to be part of the Greek and Roman Empires invited those mortal enemies in.
    We all know the results.
    It will not happen again…

  • Bernhard Rosenberg
  • Thag