President Isaac Herzog used his address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv on Sunday night to announce plans for “a first-of-its-kind global council for Jewish dialogue” — a place, as he put it, “where we can engage in serious, sensitive, and strategic discussions on the most complex and pressing issues facing our people.”
The idea is admirable and long overdue — provided, that is, that such a forum is not merely a place for people to talk with no prospect of actually getting anything done.
As Herzog noted, Israel and the Diaspora Jewish communities are growing more distant from each other, increasingly disconnected, unable to agree on essential questions, unable even to properly discuss them.
As I’ve written in the past, some of this may be partially unavoidable: 75 years after Israel’s founding, generations of Jews have now had a choice over whether to live here, and the priorities of the state and of world Jewry are manifestly not always going to be the same.
What’s more, even the most effective forum for dialogue will have its limitations: Diaspora Jewry should not be prescribing Israeli security and diplomatic policy. The government of Israel should not be the arbiter in matters of the Jewish faith.
But Herzog is right to highlight that the Jewish nation worldwide should be pooling its combined wisdom and enterprise far more effectively than is currently the case, and that this applies especially to those issues that are least consensual.
The most serious question about Herzog’s initiative, however, is whether it is being introduced too late. Until the recent past, a global Jewish council’s discussions might have focused on such vital matters as the implications for Diaspora Jews of Israel’s attempts to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism in a critical, often antisemitic global environment, and the rights and roles of pluralistic and non-Orthodox Judaism in an Israel dominated at a national political level by an increasingly intolerant and would-be coercive religious leadership.
Today, though, Israel is grappling with what Herzog has himself described as “the most serious internal crisis in the country’s history” — the bid by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition to remake Israel as a kind of tyranny of the elected majority, and steer it away from its foundational principles as a democratic and tolerantly Jewish state.
Advancing a package of legislation to remove the only brake on coalition excess by politicizing and neutering the judiciary, Netanyahu first ignored a plea by Herzog to abandon the bills in question, and then brusquely rejected the president’s alternative framework for genuine judicial reform. The prime minister only suspended his drastic package of legislation, late last month, after nationwide protests and widespread strike action erupted when he fired his defense minister for publicly criticizing the overhaul process and it was no longer clear he had the votes to enact it. He agreed to talks under Herzog’s aegis that have yet to yield tangible evidence of a genuine desire for compromise, even as the core legislation, giving the coalition almost complete control over the appointment of Israel’s judges, is locked and loaded at the Knesset, ready for its final readings with potentially just a few hours’ notice.
The national rift over this looming revolution in Israel’s governance and nature is so clouding the preparations for this week’s 75th anniversary of independence that even Tuesday’s Memorial Day ceremonies for our fallen soldiers have been dragged deep into the argument. Some families are insisting that coalition politicians stay away from the ceremonies, others are demanding that they participate, and the IDF is left pleading for at least this one solemn day’s respite from a terrible domestic divide that, again in Herzog’s own past words, has brought Israel to the edge of the abyss.
Netanyahu was himself scheduled to speak at Sunday’s opening phase of the General Assembly, but opted to stay away, implausibly citing scheduling difficulties, when it was clear that opponents of his power grab intended to try to stop him from reaching the event and to disrupt his address if he made it.
All of this underlines Herzog’s laudable focus on rectifying the worldwide Jewish people’s growing inability to talk through its differences, and to identify and encourage young Jewish leaders of the future to involve themselves in shaping the global Jewish future. But it also highlights the urgency of the hour in Israel — where a duly elected leadership embarked on a radical remake of the very essence of Israel within days of taking office, blitzed the core legislation down most of the path to its enactment within weeks while ignoring the anguished pleas for dialogue from much of the nation, and even now has only temporarily suspended it.
A call for dialogue and plans for a mechanism to enable it, in other words, are only as useful and valuable as the readiness to truly engage, and change direction, among those who actually hold power.
The Jewish people needs “a place where we can come together to hear each other,” said the president on Sunday night. “There is no greater existential threat to our people than the one that comes from within.” Wherever he was, one can only hope that the prime minister was listening.
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