Tel Aviv Diary: Western Wall Decision Appalls American Jews

It was supposed to be a quick crisis, marked by the requisite hand-wringing and then everyone would go back to whatever they were doing.

At least that is clearly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expected when he agreed to the ultra-Orthodox demands and scuttled Israel's long-negotiated, good faith compromise agreement with diaspora Jewry on the Western Wall, and then capitulated to additional ultra-Orthodox demands. (See my previous Tel Aviv Diary entry for an explanation of details).

Netanyahu expected no sustained or lingering reaction, and frankly neither did I. However, Netanyahu was utterly wrong, as was I.

The Western Wall saga is not going away and after acquiescing to the requests of Israeli leaders since the time of Ben Gurion, American Jews have suddenly and emphatically said — NO!  This was one bridge too far.  

The day after the decision to indefinitely freeze the status-quo at the Western Wall, the newly elected head of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, Michael Siegel stated: “Support for Israel doesn't necessarily mean support for the Israeli government,” and the head of the Conservative Movement described a “decoupling” between American Jewry and Israel.

GettyImages-686795950 Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 22, 2017. RONEN ZVULUN/AFP/Getty

The Jewish Agency, which has almost never shown any independence from the government, took out ads against the Western Wall decision. While one would have expected this clash to be over at the end of one news cycle, the Israeli news is still covering the story extensively four days later.  

Even more surprising, has been strong position articulated by some American Jewish leaders. Dr. Daniel Gordis, an American who has been living in Israel for nearly two decades and is the Senior Vice President of the Shalem College (an arm of the Shalem Institute, a right-of-center think tank in Jerusalem) authored an article in the Jerusalem Post, entitled: “How to Make Israelis Car”.

Gordis called on American Jews to disinvite Netanyahu and other Knesset ministers from all meetings, and do the same with Israeli consulate officials; stop giving money to Israeli hospitals and stop traveling on El Al Israel’s flag carrier, all to put pressure on the Israeli government. According to Gordis, only once the average Israeli begins to feel the pain will the government take diaspora Jewry seriously.

The leadership of AIPAC, the primary lobby on behalf of Israel, (which receives much of its support from the Jewish community,) flew to Israel for an emergency meeting with Netanyahu on Thursday to discuss how much damage his recent actions had caused.

How can this sudden willingness of American Jewish leadership to confront the Israeli government be explained?

Three factors clarify much of it. The first and simplest answer: After the dispute over prayer at the Western War had gone on for decades and an agreement was reached, one requiring all sides to compromise, the fact that Netanyahu could unilaterally abrogate the agreement, upholding the position of the opposing side, was just too much.

The idea that after 30 years of fighting over a small but symbolic matter, all the time, effort and trust could all be thrown dismissively away was something American Jewish communal leaders could not countenance.  

There has always been a dispute on what role American Jews should have in Israeli policy — with many opposing the notion that diaspora Jews, who do not live here, and whose children do not go into the army, should make security decisions for Israel.

Thus, until now, there has been almost wall-to-wall support for AIPAC (who blindly backs whatever Israeli government is in power) with only a minority of American Jews supporting JStreet, (which takes a more critical approach to Israeli government policy)

While the accepted wisdom among the majority of Jews object to diaspora Jewry interjecting regarding security-related matters, it has always widely been accepted that when it came to issues concerning Jewish peoplehood or religious matters, diaspora Jews have an equal stake, and therefore must have a seat at the table.

As a result, to many diaspora Jews— including the modern-Orthodox — Netanyahu's decision to abrogate the Western Wall agreement was not so much about the agreement, but rather the disenfranchisement his actions caused.

American Jews received the message loud and clear from Netanyahu— You no longer have a seat at the table.

The second reason for this recent change in American Jewish attitudes toward Israeli government policies has to do with the ongoing gulf between American Jewry and Israel; a gulf that has been a challenge through most of the nearly 40 years (with short interruptions) of Likud rule in Israel.

American Jews are mostly liberal democrats. The Israeli government is clearly not. However, until the current government, the Likud coalition has always included other parties with whom American Jews could more easily identify — be it Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak or Shimon Peres.

With none of those figures in the current coalition, there are no fig leaves for what is a definitively right-wing government, one with which American Jews have difficulty identifying.

Yes, American Jews are still largely willing to defer to the Israeli government on items of security. However, now that items have come up regarding which they feel they have a right to express an opinion, they are focusing all of the energy that might have gone toward supporting other matters to fight a decision that they feel unquestionably entitled to fight.  

Finally, there is the “Trump factor”.  The election of President Donald Trump and the fact that Israel and Russia are the only two places in the world where polls show a preference for Trump over President Barack Obama, has highlighted the widening gulf between American Jews and Israel.

Netanyahu's blatant support of Republicans over Democrats — over the course of the entire last decade — has made most American Jews uncomfortable. Netanyahu's actions and attitudes have served to do two things: First, legitimize “interference” by US Jews in aspects of Israeli politics; and second, they have served to mobilize some of American Jews to become a counterforce.

However, it was Trump's election that convinced many more that an activist approach was necessary — i.e., the time for compromise on political issues, be they American politics or Jewish world issues, was over. Ironically, Trump’s election may have helped precipitate this current crisis by wrongly convincing ultra-Orthodox leaders that with him in the White House, Israel was no longer dependent on the “liberal” American Jews who supported Obama and Hillary Clinton.

In hindsight, and in light of the inconsolable, raging backlash, Netanyahu has realized how significantly he miscalculated regarding the Western Wall and conversion agreements, and is trying to change directions. It is not clear, however, whether he will be able to do so.

A meeting was held Friday morning with the leaders of all the parties in the coalition, during which they agreed to delay voting on the Conversion bill — yet, not to make any changes relating to the Western Wall.

It will be hard for Netanyahu to convince the ultra-Orthodox to back down. Will Netanyahu risk his government collapsing and going to new elections? Unlikely, but in this year, when the unlikely has become our reality ... anything is possible.

Marc Schulman is a Multimedia Historian.