In the face of a growing perception that the Israeli government cares little about the views of diaspora Jewry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his cabinet said all the right things about their concern for us during a recent meeting in Jerusalem with two prominent American-Jewish leaders.
At a special June 24 cabinet session, Netanyahu told Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat, former U.S. ambassadors who co-chair the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), “we know we have a problem” with “non-Orthodox and progressives.” According to Ross and Eizenstat, the prime minister asserted that “contrary to popular opinion, I am not writing off liberals and non-Orthodox.”
He has been perceived as focusing on support from evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews, writing off members of the liberal Jewish denominations — the great majority of American Jewry — as on the decline and less of a political factor in the coming years.
JPPI is a Jerusalem-based think tank focusing on strengthening the link between world Jewry and the State of Israel. Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the president and founding director of JPPI, attended the session as well.
Aryeh Deri, the minister of interior and a founder of the charedi Shas party, told the JPPI leaders that “Conservative and Reform Jews are as much members of the Jewish people as I am,” an implicit response to several leading charedi Israeli rabbis who have marginalized the liberal denominations.
Notwithstanding such welcome comments from Netanyahu and Deri and other cabinet members, observers of the growing divide between Jerusalem and a significant swath of world Jewry no doubt will be looking for substantive improvements in the relationship to back up the embracing oratory.
Clearly, Netanyahu and his right-leaning coalition members are seeking to soothe the bitter feelings engendered by a major blow-up last year between Israeli and diaspora leaders after the government approved tougher conversion restrictions and reneged on an agreement on enhanced egalitarian prayer arrangements at the Kotel.
“The Kotel issue will be solved and we are very close to doing it,” the prime minister said at the JPPI meeting, “but the conversion issue is more complicated politically.”
The big question now is whether government leaders will act to placate diaspora Jewry, especially its youth, many of whom feel left out and more distanced from Israel. Such a decision would be based not only on the acknowledging of a moral imperative to strengthen the Israel-diaspora relationship, but also on a strategic recognition that Jerusalem needs to bolster political support for Israel in the U.S. and other countries. The alternative is for Israeli leaders to maintain a narrower path, responding to the domestic reality that diaspora Jews don’t cast votes in Israeli elections — and further distancing the Jewish state from world Jewry.
That was the setting for the face-to-face meeting in which Ross and Eizenstat, accompanied by Bar-Yosef, presented the group’s annual assessment of “the situation and dynamics of the Jewish People” to the cabinet, including specific recommendations.
Ross and Eizenstat said they did not hold back in describing what they believe to be a serious rift between Israel and world Jewry. But in separate phone interviews, they told me they were deeply impressed with the level of engagement and discourse at the meeting, which originally was scheduled for a half hour but went on for 90 minutes.
Ross’ task in the presentation was to assess the impact of geopolitical developments on Israel and world Jewry. “I spoke about good, bad, and uncertain trends,” noting that “in some ways the Trump administration embodies all three of those terms in regard to Israel and the diaspora.”
The good news: The “unprecedented … rhetorical, symbolic, and diplomatic support” of the Trump administration for Israel, from the embassy move to Jerusalem, to pressuring the Palestinians toward negotiations, to strong backing at the United Nations. But the JPPI chairs urged the cabinet to “stick to Mideast issues in supporting Trump and be careful not to endorse his incendiary statements,” Eizenstat said.
Iran was placed in the category of uncertain news — a plus that negating the 2015 agreement is causing internal stress on the mullahs, but uncertainty over what the result will be. Also uncertain is the content and timing of the much-discussed Mideast peace plan and whether the Palestinian Authority can be coaxed back to the table by a U.S. administration that clearly favors Israel. Other unknowns: Who will succeed Abbas to lead the Palestinian Authority? Will there be war with Hamas in Gaza?
The bad news: the U.S. appears to be “getting out of the Mideast,” Ross said, while Russia’s influence has increased, particularly in Syria; and growing nativist sentiments in Europe are leading to more signs of anti-Semitism.
Much of the discussion centered on Eizenstat’s presentation, which underscored the growing divide between Israel and world Jewry. “For the first time in its history, Israel is becoming a partisan political issue,” he told the cabinet. “This is not yet evident in the U.S. Congress, but it becomes increasingly evident among the general American public and dealing with this is a strategic imperative.”
Ross agreed: “The polarization and deep alienation” among Democrats, particularly progressives, in regard to Israel has set off “alarm bells” among those who recognize the vital importance of bipartisan support for Jerusalem, he said.
“We need Israel to be an American issue, not just a Republican issue,” Ross explained, cautioning that the current situation “is not in Israel’s long-term interest” and “has profound strategic consequences.”
Noting the dramatic growth of Orthodox Jewry in the U.S. and Israel, Bar-Yosef, JPPI’s president, called on Israeli leaders to “encourage the growing Orthodox public to engage in politics and public service on the national level because as they grow numerically, the burden of the Jewish future rests on their shoulders.”
Ross and Eizenstat, both seasoned veterans of Mideast politics, came away enthusiastic from the meeting. But time will tell whether they heard authentic pledges or empty rhetoric.