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Friday, June 5, 2020

Klal Yisrael is an Israeli Strategic Asset

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When the Kotel compromise was reached two years ago, I celebrated as a Jew and as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.  But most of all, I was excited as a father.

My wife and I have raised our three daughters to love Jewish tradition, prayer, and values.  I taught them to read Torah and lead Tefilot when they became Banot Mitzvah, which they did with deep kavana.  We are members of Conservative synagogues in both Washington and Israel, where we pray every Shabbat.  In our home, Shabbat is observed with joy and love.

So the Kotel compromise was a source of great excitement in our home. For us to pray as a family, in our style of prayer, at a new recognized egalitarian section, is a dream come true.

As a Jew, I was moved by the wisdom and creativity of the agreement.

The compromise was very elegant.  Each side got something, and each side gave up something.  But importantly, it did not change or disturb traditional prayer at the Kotel in the men’s or women’s section in any way.  The solution came through addition: a new section — Ezrat Israel — for egalitarian prayer, would be added, and the Reform and Conservative Movements, and Women of the Wall, would be among the recognized managers of the site.

The Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, worked hard to bring this agreement about in the interest of Jewish unity.  And Prime Minister Netanyahu was right to praise it as an agreement that guaranteed “one wall for one people”.

So the decision this week to freeze the compromise is baffling, unwise, and hurtful.  So is the new bill calling into question all non-Orthodox conversions, which began advancing this week.

These initiatives hurt many diaspora Jews, who are left with the feeling that the State of Israel, which they love, does not respect their Judaism.

American Jews are frequently asked to stand with Israel.  They go out to defend Israel against BDS and delegitimization.  But now they feel that Israel is directing delegitimization against them.  I heard anger and sadness from many American Jewish friends this week, people who love and have stood by Israel for many years.  But most of all, I heard pain.  After years of supporting Israel, they don’t know if they have a place here.

But of course, it is not only Jews in the diaspora.  These decisions hurt many Israeli Jews, as well.  They harm the principle of Klal Yisrael.

During my term as U.S. Ambassador, I was regularly updated by the negotiators and then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit about the progress of the Kotel talks.  The United States government did not take a formal position, but I saw strategic significance to what they were trying to achieve, and welcomed the result.

I did so because of the critical role that American Jews’ support for Israel plays in the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship.  I discussed the matter with many ministers, and told them that anything that weakens the strong bond between American Jews and Israel, which is a key pillar of the ties between our countries, is not in Israel’s interest, and not in the interest of the bilateral relationship.  Most of them told me they agreed.

The pain and anger many American Jews are feeling now could accelerate trends that, over time, threaten to erode the connection American Jews feel toward Israel, and the support they are willing to lend to it.

Strategically, it would be wiser for Israel to demonstrate more respect for the Judaism of American Jews.  And in the case of the Kotel compromise, the Israeli government should keep its word, and implement the agreement it signed and hailed when it was reached.  From time to time, Israel asks diaspora Jews to vouch for its commitments.  If it intends to do so in the future, it should keep its commitments to those same communities.  Otherwise, fewer advocates are likely come to its aid.

I understand that leaders face political pressures.  And I understand that there are strong feelings in the Haredi community.  I greatly respect the Haredim.  As Ambassador, I worked with their leaders and rabbis, and with the ministers of their parties.  I visited their communities and synagogues and yeshivot.  I worked hard to build bridges between Haredi communities and other Israelis, and to help them advance economically and in education.

So I have no need to criticize the players.  My concern is focused on the substance of these decisions.  And the decisions are very damaging. 

The solutions are actually very simple  Since the Kotel compromise was only frozen, not canceled, it should be possible to immediately unfreeze it, and begin to implement the original plan.  In the worst case, a new, very similar compromise, that keeps the essential elements but perhaps adds a face-saving fix, should be reached and implemented quickly.  The conversion legislation should not proceed any further.  And the Israeli government and public should open a new, more respectful dialogue with diaspora communities. 


Daniel Shapiro is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.  He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel during the Obama Administration. This piece was originally published in Hebrew by Walla News.

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