Trying to ward off next diaspora-Israel crisis

Trying to ward off next diaspora-Israel crisis

Despite a warning to the Knesset from Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky on Tuesday that another crisis with diaspora Jewry over conversion policies and prayer at the Western Wall is on the horizon, there was no indication that the Israeli parliament is working to prevent another showdown.

Sharansky spoke to a crowded special Knesset session on diaspora concerns, with more than 100 Jewish leaders from around the world in attendance. (They were in Jerusalem for Jewish Agency board meetings.) He reminded the legislators that the six-month “ceasefire” between the Israeli government and diaspora leaders will expire in two months with no visible progress on the horizon. The initial clash took place in June when diaspora leaders charged that the government reneged on its promise to accommodate egalitarian prayer at the main area of the Western Wall. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time that he was being held political hostage by members of his charedi coalition, who threatened to bring the government down if the long-agreed-upon plan were enacted. (Critics noted that it was Netanyahu who formed the coalition.)

As Sharansky noted in an interview in the New York Times, “the problem is not just that the prime minister gave in to political pressure” from the charedi parties in his coalition. “The ministers feel they don’t have to pay a political price, and that’s because there’s not that much awareness” of the interests and concerns of the great majority of American Jews, who are not Orthodox.

It comes down to this: Diaspora Jews have financial clout in Israel and political importance in Washington, but they don’t vote in Israeli elections. And thus Reform and Conservative leaders, who are backed by support from the Jewish Agency, come away frustrated when their calls for greater religious equality are largely ignored.

Now, the Jewish Agency is set to launch “our biggest lobbying effort ever,” according to Sharansky, aimed not at Israeli officials, but at the Israeli man and woman in the street. There will also be advertising, media, and educational campaigns to inform Israelis about religiously liberal Jews and their desire to be recognized as the heart of the diaspora community.

There is a difference in strategy between the leaders of the Israeli and American groups seeking a greater voice for non-Orthodox Jews. Some Israelis say the battle over the Kotel is lost — only minor accommodations will be made — and the focus should be on conversions and marriage in Israel. The U.S. Conservative and Reform leaders feel “the Kotel is too important to move on” and give up, as Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement asserted. 

Hopefully they will come to a consensus about how best to focus their efforts. After decades of frustration in seeking an equal footing on religious issues from Israeli officials, it makes sense to try a new approach based on working up from the grassroots. But it will be a difficult battle because the gap between diaspora and Israeli Jews remains all too wide.

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