This “summer of disharmony,” as World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald Lauder describes the current state of Israel-diaspora relations, could well lead to a fall and winter of further disruption and disengagement.
The influential cosmetics heir, a former major supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was one of three prominent American-Jewish advocates for Israel — all former U.S. ambassadors — who have voiced disappointment, if not betrayal, in recent days over recent actions by the Jerusalem government, a worrisome signal that should not be ignored.
Lauder took to the op-ed pages of The New York Times for the second time in six months on Aug. 14 to voice his deep concerns about the rightward direction of the Jerusalem government.
And though both Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat are steeped in the art of diplomatic parlance, each of them was quite clear in expressing to me this week their frustration with Netanyahu and his coalition members. They noted that just two months ago the prime minister and his cabinet pledged to them to be more responsive to liberal American Jews who are feeling increasingly frustrated with the Jerusalem government’s rightward moves.
In late June, Ross and Eizenstat, who co-chair the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a Jerusalem-based think tank, explained in an NJJN interview that after engaging in a 90-minute dialogue with Netanyahu and his cabinet, they came away optimistic that their cautionary words about the growing alienation many American Jews feel toward Israel was taken to heart (“Bibi to world Jewry: We do hear your concerns,” Between the Lines, July 12).
“We know we have a problem…with non-Orthodox and progressives,” Netanyahu told them at the meeting, adding: “I believe it is important to reach out to them.” A number of cabinet members expressed similar sentiments.
A few days later, though, as a result of political pressure from the charedi parties, two cabinet ministers — Ayelet Shaked (Justice) and Miri Regev (Culture and Sports) — resigned from the Ministerial Committee on Holy Places, whose task is to work out a compromise on the contentious Kotel prayer issue. And in recent days, the Knesset passed a controversial nation-state bill and detained both a Conservative Israeli rabbi for performing a non-Orthodox wedding and a liberal Zionist American journalist, Peter Beinart, for his criticism of Israeli policy on Palestinians.
In a phone interview on Sunday, Eizenstat said the optimism he had coming out of the June meeting “was belied” by the passage of the nation-state bill and other government actions that “undercut” efforts to bridge the Israel-diaspora gap.
“The nation-state law was in direct contradiction to the advice Dennis and I gave at our meeting with the cabinet,” Eizenstat said, noting that he and Ross stressed at the time that Israel was losing support from Democrats — at a time when minorities are becoming the majority population in California, as they soon will in other states — and from younger American Jews.
A few minutes after we spoke, Eizenstat called me back to emphasize that “Israel has a special responsibility to make all Jews feel welcome and comfortable, regardless of their political or religious affiliations.” Instead, he said, the government’s conduct “only encourages greater disaffection and disengagement” on the part of liberal American Jews.
Israeli politicians in power are “doing what’s best for themselves,” Eizenstat said, implying that diaspora Jews are not a serious factor.
Ross wrote in an e-mail that he and Eizenstat expressed their “disquiet” to the Israeli leadership, and he called on others to “explain to Israelis the cost and consequence in the diaspora” of Jerusalem’s actions. He noted that the new nation-state law “dropped references to democracy and equality” and that “detaining Peter Beinart and someone like Reza Aslan [an Iranian-American author] makes it appear that a critic of Israeli policies is treated like a real security threat — and that is not only not defensible, it is not smart.”
Ross added that “Israel faces real security threats, and actions that seem to imply that critics are treated as threats will be used by the Israel-haters to divert attention away from the real threats and Israel’s right of self-defense.”
Lauder’s Aug. 14 op-ed in the Times (“Israel, This Is Not Who We Are”) called on Israel’s leaders to “rethink their destructive actions.” He focused on the passage of the nation-state bill, which in reaffirming the centrality of the Jewish identity of Israel, offended the country’s minorities and, as a result, many liberal Jews in the diaspora.
The caustic essay charged the coalition with appearing to turn its back “on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos, and the Israeli spirit,” and asserted that Israel’s new politics will weaken the country internationally and, most importantly, in terms of a shared future with world Jewry.
Whether one agrees with the three ambassadors or not — some Lauder critics say he is an embarrassment to the American-Jewish community and are calling for his resignation from the WJC — it’s clear we are witnessing the world’s two largest Jewish communities moving in opposite directions for reasons that make perfect sense to themselves, but not to their increasingly distant cousins across the ocean.
American Democrats, Israeli Republicans
To put it in familiar terms, the majority of American Jews are Democrats and the majority of Israeli Jews would be Republicans.
In the U.S., American Jews have voted strongly Democratic for almost a century, and President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine or undo some of the foundational elements of U.S. society — the judiciary, the press, environmental standards, etc. — have only solidified that trend. The one major exception has been the administration’s exemplary support of Israel, a major factor for the Orthodox community and a minority of other Jews who place Israel at or near the top of the list when casting their votes.
In Israel, the government is on a rightward trajectory that, in the short term, seems certain to hold fast and even sharpen. Fresh from the passage of the nation-state bill that gave Netanyahu’s Likud Party a significant victory in the Knesset, and taking advantage of the Trump administration’s uniquely outspoken support for Israel, the prime minister is almost certain to call for early elections in the fall. A decisive victory would not only give him a new four-year term but also would make an indictment against him in a range of corruption scandals that much less likely. A future Netanyahu coalition could be emboldened to further the cause of Jewish communities in the West Bank, widening the gap with much of diaspora Jewry.
As unpopular as Netanyahu is personally in Israeli society, widely seen as arrogant and bullying, there is no one on the political horizon who seems close to winning the confidence of a populace that most values a strong economy and national security. The prime minister’s diplomatic skills in managing to keep Israel out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war for years, maintaining strong ties with and support from both Trump and Russia’s President Putin, have been remarkable. And for all of Netanyahu’s tough talk, he has been most cautious and restrained on the military front. In his more than a decade as prime minister, serving twice (1996-1999, and since 2009), he has not gone to war.
Most Israelis don’t appreciate diaspora Jewry weighing in on matters of national security, from the Palestinian conflict to the Iran nuclear threat. And since the majority of Israelis are secular, they don’t relate to liberal American Jewry’s complaints about equal access to the Western Wall for prayer or other concerns related to Jewish identity. Israelis wonder why non-Orthodox American Jews care so much about prayer at the Kotel when statistics show they don’t attend synagogue often and that intermarriage and assimilation in the U.S. are increasing at an alarming rate. It’s hard to explain to Israelis that for liberal American Jews, the issue is equality — parity and the right to pray or not to pray, and recognition by the Chief Rabbinate. So it’s not surprising that Israelis, enjoying a strong economy and feeling relatively protected, are not anxious to make a change at the ballot box.
The language of ‘freedom’
The reality today is that a confident Israel does not feel the need to rely on the support of diaspora Jewry, though it is certainly welcome. Politics, as legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, is local, and Israeli politicians are focused on their voting constituents, not on us. Further, the Jerusalem government wants to take advantage of strengthening its positions at a moment when it appears the U.S. administration will not interfere.
But as Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat warned the Israeli cabinet in June, political cycles are in constant motion and Jerusalem must prepare to deal with a future America that looks and acts very differently than today’s, a reality that certainly applies to a changing American Jewry as well.
It’s also true, as Eizenstat told me, that “the nation-state law, for all of its imperfections, is more declaratory and symbolic” than substantive, and “Israel remains a very viable democracy.”
Israel’s Declaration of Independence includes the language of “freedom, justice, and peace…complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex” and a guarantee of “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.”
It’s more than a shame such phrases were dropped from the nation-state law. Many diaspora Jews would welcome Jerusalem adding these noble sentiments in some form and, most importantly, reaffirming the commitment to uphold them.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.