Regev Responds

Rather than acknowledge responsibility, Netanyahu shifts blame to Diaspora

It’s time for American Jewry to speak up and act

A few days ago PM Netanyahu, in NY to deliver a forceful speech at the UN and meet with world leaders, also met with a small group of top level American Jewish leaders. The little that we know about the meeting gives us reason to urge American Jewish leaders that it’s high time to change course and take a far more proactive approach in dealing with the critically important Israel-Diaspora bridge.

Benjamin Netanyahu, source: WikipediaBenjamin Netanyahu, source: Wikipedia

Netanyahu’s own press release following the meeting says that he “explained the importance of the Nation-State Law and also discussed other issues regarding the USA and Diaspora communities.” One media account was more explicit, and revealed more of what Netanyahu really thinks of American Jewry, as he shared with the press corps.

Clearly, Netanyahu is aware and concerned about “Israel’s troubled relationship with Diaspora Jews.” But rather than acknowledge any responsibility, he shifts the blame to Diaspora Jews. He quoted an article by Elliott Abrams1, which argues that the problem is that “they [American Jews] were drifting away from Judaism.” Incidentally, Netanyahu is prone to shifting the blame when briefing the media2.

Diaspora Jewry is indeed struggling with existential challenges, attempting to reconcile tradition with modernity, particularism with universalism. Maintaining Jewish identity in an open, inclusive, secular society is not a simple task. With that in mind, neither Netanyahu nor his religious cabinet members and coalition partners are the ones to set a model for relevant, contemporary Judaism. They do not even set an inspiring model of Judaism for Israeli Jews. Actually, Israeli Jews would prefer the pluralistic Judaism of America than the religious coercion imposed by Israeli politicians. 66%, for instance, want Israel to grant equal status to all three major religious streams in Judaism.

Israel is the only Western democracy that denies its citizens the right to marry and imposes Orthodox Jewish law on all Jews. This is a non-starter for world Jewry. It is also an anathema in the eyes of the majority of Israelis (as can be seen in numerous polls, including those conducted by Hiddush). In the name of “Judaism”, Israeli politicians grant mass exemption for Yeshivah students from shouldering their share of the civic burden in defending the country, forbid public transportation on the Sabbath, give the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over Kashrut, and tolerate exclusion and segregation of women in the public sphere. Hiddush’s 2018 Israel Religion & State Index provides numerous examples of the rift between Netanyahu’s government policies and the public on all matters involving it’s religion-state policies. (We are proud that the article describing the meeting saw fit to include a link to Hiddush’s Index).

How can Netanyahu seriously expect the next generation of American Jewry to maintain a high level of solidarity if Israel repeatedly tells them that they are second class Jews, delegitimizing their Jewish choices? Placing the blame on American Jewry and shirking any responsibility is disingenuous and irresponsible.

According to the report, he “sought to reassure them over their concerns regarding religious freedom and democratic rights in the Jewish state.” How can anyone take that seriously when at the same time, he made it clear that he defers to the ultra-Orthodox on these matters, and the legislation his coalition is deliberating on conversion is merely between fully recognizing only Orthodox conversions acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate or also including more lenient Orthodox initiatives?

Netanyahu spent time explaining why it was necessary to pass the Nation-State Law and why it should not be deemed as discriminatory towards minorities. But I doubt that much was discussed regarding the significance of the articles regarding Diaspora Jewry as they appear in the law; The text describes a one-sided relationship: "The state will operate in the Diaspora to preserve the bond between

the state and the Jewish people", excluding a commitment to work in Israel to strengthen the bonds of Israelis with the pluralistic and diverse Jewish People. It further says, "The state will operate to preserve the cultural, historical, and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Diaspora Jewry," excluding the teaching of the pluralistic religious heritage of Diaspora Jewry among Israeli Jews! The intention behind these provisions should be amply clear when we look at how the Minister of the Diaspora, Naftali Bennett (Head of the Orthodox “Jewish Home” party), is implementing them. He has invested tens of millions of dollars primarily in the work of ultra-Orthodox organizations on North American campuses! Needless to say, he also ensures that Israeli schools mostly inculcate “Torah True” Judaism and not Jewish pluralism in his role as Education Minister.

Netanyahu was likely sincere in promising American Jewish leadership in the past that he would ensure that “all Jews feel at home in Israel, whether Conservative, Orthodox, or Reform,” but he continues to defer to his anti-non-Orthodox Judaism partners and like-minded others in his leadership circle.

There is no way to heal the Israel/Diaspora rift so long as Israeli politicians discriminate against the major streams of world Jewry; so long as Israel refuses to accord equality to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants denied the right to marry; so long as non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox converts are treated as gentiles. The suspension of the Kotel agreement is merely an additional example of the refusal to respect religious freedom and uphold equality.

Netanyahu was likely sincere in promising American Jewish leadership in the past that he would ensure that “all Jews feel at home in Israel, whether Conservative, Orthodox, or Reform,” but he continues to defer to his anti-non-Orthodox Judaism partners and like-minded others in his leadership circle. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) said publicly that the Reform community would not exist in two or three generations. MK Dudi Amsalem (the Coalition Whip) echoed this, saying that Diaspora Jewry wouldn’t “be there in 20-30 years” and further dismissed American Jewry: “if American Jews are going to be insulted, that’s ok.”

So what is American Jewish leadership to do about this?

  1. View the future of Jewish unity and Israel-Diaspora interdependency as having paramount importance, which should not be left for Israeli politicians to shape according to political convenience.
  2. Develop a policy that is predicated upon [including rewards and sanctions] the principles of inclusiveness, equality, and religious freedom, which are at the core of Israel’s own founding promises, as well as comprising the backbone of Diaspora Jewry.
  3. Realize that the above is shared by the majority of Israeli Jews, who are ready and eager to see Diaspora Jewish leadership engage with Israeli activists and civil society in advancing religious freedom and equality (68% of adult Jewish Israelis support it, according to the 2018 Israel Religion & State Index).
  4. Embrace a new paradigm on matters of religion in Israel, which is in keeping with Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the clear desire of the majority of both American and Israeli Jews. Such new paradigm can be found in the Vision Statement on Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State, the support for which already cuts across religious and political lines.
  5. Speak up and implement communal policies and philanthropic priorities that reflect the above. The JFNA adoption of the Israel Religious Expression Platform [IREP] initiative and the AJC’s JREC initiative are important beginnings. They should be expanded and multiplied and find more prominent expression already in the upcoming GA of the JFNA, scheduled to convene in Israel at the end of the month.



    • Matters involving pluralism and religious freedom in Israel do not seem to be of great concern to Elliott Abrams. While Abrams was the Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Israel chapter of the report was practically void of reference to the fact that in Israel non-Orthodox Judaism is denied equal recognition. Neither did it mention that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the basic human right of marriage, because sole authority has been vested in Orthodox rabbinic hands.
    • . This was evidenced when he briefed media reps during his visit to NYC for the UN Assembly in 2017. He stated (in an attempt to justify his retreat from the Kotel agreement) that: the Reform and Conservative movements wanted to get recognition “via the backdoor, secretly, under the pretext of a technical clause of joint administration of the Western Wall.”

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