Ministers were debating ‘the future of the Jewish people’
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'I have never heard a meeting with more emotion,' says JPPI co-chair Stuart Eizenstat, who now urges Diaspora Jews to start on-the-ground lobbying

Ministers were debating ‘the future of the Jewish people’

An inside account of the fateful cabinet session at which the Western Wall pluralistic prayer plan was cast aside

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

At the same charged meeting Sunday in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the freeze of the January 31, 2016, government decision to build a pluralistic prayer pavilion, the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) gave its annual assessment to the cabinet with a clear warning that not implementing the plan could have dire consequences on the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel.

In spite of JPPI’s warning — and indeed those of other leading Israeli think tanks which have drawn similar conclusions — Netanyahu announced in a terse three-pronged statement Sunday that that government decision is now on hold. Additionally, Minister Tzachi Hanegbi of Netanyahu’s Likud party and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman have been appointed as government representatives for negotiations toward a new deal, and — puzzlingly — the preparation of the southern edge of the Western Wall pavilion, which is currently an archaeological park with a makeshift prayer platform, would “continue.”

Speaking with The Times of Israel on Monday, JPPI co-chair Stuart Eizenstat said of Sunday’s cabinet meeting: “It was as if they were debating the future of the Jewish people — and in a way they were.”

Initially scheduled as a 45-minute debriefing, the meeting stretched into an additional hour of emotional debate as, in the wake of Netanyahu’s announcement of the freeze, almost every cabinet member spoke.

“I have never heard a meeting with more emotion,” said Eizenstat, who has served the United States in a number of diplomatic and government roles, including as ambassador to the European Union from 1993 to 1996 and deputy secretary of the Treasury from 1999 to 2001.

Jewish People Policy Institute co-chair former ambassador Stuart Eizenstat (courtesy JPPI)
Jewish People Policy Institute co-chair former ambassador Stuart Eizenstat (courtesy JPPI)

“My ultimate point was Israel is the Jewish state, but, as the prime minister articulates better than anyone, that it is also the state of the Jewish people. But it cannot be [the state of the Jewish people] if it is only for some of the Jewish people. It cannot be only for the ultra-Orthodox in the world,” said Eizenstat.

At the meeting, according to Eizenstat, who has known and worked with Netanyahu for decades, the prime minister said he “understood the emotions of the Diaspora and very much sympathized, but he also understood how the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] community felt and that the best he could come up with was a compromise.”

Eizenstat said Netanyahu emphasized that he was “not rescinding and not implementing, but freezing, hoping that a compromise could later be found.”

Netanyahu said “he hoped he could play a role in mediating and helping catalyze another compromise,” said Eizenstat.

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Eizenstat warned of what he called a “double polarization” taking place in the US, which could affect the American-Israeli relationship.

The first is the polarization in American politics in which the center has collapsed, he said, creating a danger that Israel is, or will soon become, a partisan issue. He cited a recent poll in which only 50 percent of self-identified Democrats support Israel over the Palestinian Authority, whereas 80% of Republicans do.

Prime Minister Netanyahu with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Chairman Stephen M. Greenberg (center) and Executive Vice Chairman/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein at the opening of the organization’s 42nd Leadership Mission, February 14, 2016. (Avi Hayoun)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left)with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Chairman Stephen M. Greenberg (center) and Executive Vice Chairman/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein at the opening of the organization’s 42nd Leadership Mission, February 14, 2016. (Avi Hayoun)

The second polarization is in the predominantly politically and religiously left-of-center American Jewish community, in which some 65%-70% feel increasingly estranged from Israel, “a country that seemed to be moving further and further to the right.”

Eizenstat said that he warned the cabinet that soon Israel is “not going to have the same religious and community ties to sustain and support it.” He further advised the politicians to “look at the American Jewish community as a major strategic asset for Israel.” However, “when these kinds of actions occur [the Western Wall freeze, as well as the announcement of a stringent conversion bill], they can potentially erode that strategic asset of support which is so vital.”

The JPPI’s findings of a “slow erosion” of ties are not unique among Israeli think tanks.

MK Yohanan Plesner (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Former MK Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said on Monday that “the longer we fail to give equal rights and recognition to the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, the deeper the fissure between Israel and Jews of the Diaspora will become. If we expect Jews abroad to support the state of Israel, we must also ensure their religious equality. Israel’s national security is at stake.”

The IDI is an independent, nonpartisan “think-and-do tank” which attempts to use research to influence government policy and public opinion. It is very active on the issue of religion and state, among others.

“The decision not to decide, and leave the situation in limbo, widens the gap that has been opening up in the strategic and all-important relationship between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” said Plesner, who chastised the government for its inability to “make a minor decision, such as the approval of the Western Wall deal that had already been approved by the ultra-Orthodox parties.”

This is creating an “absurd reality,” said Plesner. “The time has come for courageous decision making: to advance religious freedom so as to allow everyone to exercise their right to freedom of worship.”

Another independent think tank, the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, was almost prescient in its March 2017 research paper on the State of Israel’s role as the nation state of the Jewish people in which it warned that “2017 is likely to be the site of renewed conflict around the status of Progressive Judaism in Israel. In 2017, this conflict will reach new heights due to the Israeli government’s failure to deliver on its promised ‘Kotel Compromise.’”

Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Institute (photo credit: Courtesy of the Reut Institute)
Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Institute (Courtesy of the Reut Institute)

Additionally, the report warned, “Conflicts such as these negatively affect the ability of a growing number of individuals, as well as Jewish communal organizations, to maintain a meaningful connection to Israel.” This lack of connection to Israel, in turn, causes a lessening of Jewish identity in the Diaspora, according to Reut.

“The time has come for Israel to ask itself: What does it really mean to be the nation state of the entire Jewish People? What obligations does this role entail? How can Israel strengthen and protect the cohesion of the entire Jewish People?” asked Reut in a statement following the freeze of the Western Wall plan.

However, according to Eizenstat, the time has also come for the Diaspora to ask itself several soul-searching questions.

‘Diaspora voices are heard, but not listened to on issues which conflict with the political process’

“At the end of the day, decisions are not made based on what the Diaspora thinks, but what on what is politically viable,” he said. “Diaspora voices are heard but not listened to on issues which conflict with the political process.”

The only ways to truly inluence the political process would be to either immigrate to Israel and become a voter, or have a continuous on-the-ground presence lobbying for niche Diaspora issues.

“Don’t make press statements saying you’re disappointed — become a player in the system,” he said. “If the Diaspora is not willing to do that, this is the kind of the result they’ll see.”

Instead of making “wishy washy” statements, he said, it’s time to put the “shoulder to the wheel” and become an effective player within domestic Israeli politics.

At the same time, all three think tanks contend that there is still much to be done to prevent an utter schism between Israel and the Diaspora. Foremost appears to be implementation of the pluralistic prayer pavilion plan.

“The person who can do the most to heal this wound is the prime minister himself; he is very cognizant of it… I like to think that had there been a different coalition, the result would have been different. I don’t think this was a happy decision for him,” said Eizenstat.

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