When push came to shove, when he had to pick between politics and principle, between personal power and Jewish unity, between his position and his people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved. He picked his position. He showed us his ultimate priority.
Surrendering to ultra-Orthodox pressure, Bibi reneged on a January 2016 agreement to ensure an official egalitarian presence at the Western Wall and, as if that weren’t enough, he supported an initiative to give total monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. The timing couldn’t have been worse — it happened right when the Jewish Agency was having its annual conference in Jerusalem, with global representatives of the Diaspora looking on.
The moves were so insulting that the Jewish Agency did something unprecedented — it cancelled its dinner invitation to the prime minister. Meanwhile, the moves were condemned virtually across the board. You know you’ve gone too far when a beloved hero like Natan Sharansky goes against you.
Sensing that he may have overplayed his hand, Bibi has tried to do some damage control, but it’s not helping much. I think there are two main reasons for that.
First, Bibi clearly reneged on an agreement. His calls for renegotiation now ring hollow. It took years of hard negotiating, under the leadership of Sharansky, to come up with the compromise that recognized a non-Orthodox presence at Judaism’s holiest site.
As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The Times of Israel, “It was a noble compromise: The liberal denominations accepted with humility a secondary place at the Wall, but that at least recognized their right to be part of Israel’s public space; while the Orthodox seemed to accept an organized non-Orthodox presence at the Wall for the sake of Jewish unity.”
For those who fought so hard to obtain that agreement, the thought of going back to the drawing board must be demoralizing. As the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said, “To spend four more years negotiating and then not have that implemented, either, is not credible.”
The second reason Bibi will have trouble spinning away from this crisis is that he’s associating himself with an institution with little credibility — the Chief Rabbinate. In the past year alone, two former chief rabbis, Yonah Metzger and Eliyahu Bashki Doron, have been convicted of felonies. And who is the politician leading the charge on these latest moves of intolerance? None other than Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who spent three years in jail for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Add it all up and there’s not much wiggle room for Bibi to repair the harm done to Israel-Diaspora relations. Until Bibi stands up to ultra-Orthodox forces for the sake of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish unity, they will continue to pressure him for their own divisive agenda, which puts a strict interpretation of halachah above all else.
The tragedy is that Bibi knows better. He’s a cosmopolitan Jew who understands the Diaspora and the importance of tolerance, pluralism and Jewish peoplehood. As the leader of the Jewish state, he knows he has a responsibility to make Israel a unifying force for all the Jews of the world. Once Israel becomes a divisive force that offends the majority of American Jews, what’s left? Startup Nation?
“I’m a Jew first and an Israeli second,” I remember him saying once at a Manhattan synagogue. Will he be able to say that next year at AIPAC, or at an American synagogue? Will anyone believe him? What American Jews are hearing today is that Bibi is an Israeli politician first and a Jew second. That is the price he is paying for appeasing intolerance.
What I find especially sad about this affair is that Bibi knows how to build bridges — with non-Jews. For the past few years, he has done a remarkable job opening up Israel to other countries hungry for Israeli expertise. He has traveled the world and received delegations from places like China, India, Africa and Eastern Europe in an effort to build economic and cultural bridges.
But while he built those bridges, he allowed another bridge to fray—the bridge between his government and the Jews of the world. So many of these Diaspora Jews are deeply in love with Israel and deeply attached to the Zionist miracle. I hate to think that they will now need some kind of financial “leverage” in order to be heard by the country they so love.
If the cause of Jewish unity is not enough leverage, what is?
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.