The head of American Jewry’s main umbrella group urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rethink his approach to the suspended Western Wall compromise, and move to “restore the confidence” of US Jewry or risk broadening the “chasm” between many American Jews and Israel.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted that his group normally steers clear of such issues because “you cannot deal in consensus on religious issues, on issues of conviction like this.”
Nonetheless, Hoenlein said that the government’s unexpected decision 10 weeks ago to suspend an agreement negotiated over years with Diaspora leaders “hurt a lot of people” and exacerbated what he said were already some “troublesome and troubling aspects of the relationship” between US Jews and Israel.
Therefore, Hoenlein, speaking to The Times of Israel on Monday, urged Netanyahu to revisit the decision.
“If we care about the US-Israel relationship, if we care about the relationship of the Jewish community to Israel, the internal support, then we cannot afford to alienate and lose significant portions of the American Jewish community,” he said.
Events like the shocking display of racism and anti-Semitism in Charlottesville last month “underscore the need for us to be united and to stand together,” he said.
But, he went on, for American Jews “to stand with Israel, and to feel that they are wanted, and that their concerns are taken into account, will require somewhat of a different approach. And I do think that the prime minister has to look for a resolution [to the Western Wall prayer issue] that restores the confidence, that ends the controversy… I hope in the New Year, with Rosh Hashanah coming, that everybody does the introspection that they’re supposed to do, on all sides, and that we, instead of broadening the divide, can find the way to bridge it.”
Hoenlein said the bitter controversy over the government’s decision to freeze the deal — which would have ensured a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion in the Robinson’s Arch area of the Wall, with leaders of non-Orthodox Judaism given a formal role in its oversight — had been exacerbated by the way in which the move was presented. “People thought that Reform and Conservative Jews could not pray anywhere [at the Western Wall], whereas of course, the areas remained open, Robinson’s Arch is being expanded, etc.”
If Israel, God forbid, were in real peril, Hoenlein added, “American Jewry will rally behind it.” But, he warned, “we are seeing trends that are very troublesome. On the Democratic left, the support [for Israel] is weakening. We’re seeing a significant drop [of support for Israel] among young Jews… We have to do much more to reach out to those constituencies, to those that we can reach.”
He highlighted the contrast between the extensive dialogue between Israel and Diaspora representatives that enabled the deal to take shape, and the lack of dialogue when it was abrogated. “There was a lot done that should have dampened, diminished, if not eliminated the possibility of this explosion,” he said. And now “it’s very hard to put the cat back in the bag… There are a lot of hurt feelings, people feel disenfranchised… and [they feel there was a] lack of consideration about their feelings.”
If an Israeli government decision on an issue of such global Jewish sensitivity is “only going to be based on the political realities of the moment, and whose party you need for support for what, then it will broaden the chasm, ” he said. “American Jews don’t relate to Israel on a political basis. They don’t associate with a particular party or think in those terms.” They think, rather, that “Israel” did this to them.
Turning to US Jewry’s domestic challenges, Hoenlein said the reaction to Charlottesville of the American people generally and those in office in particular indicated “that racism and bigotry and anti-Semitism are rejected.”
“Every society has haters,” he pointed out. “The way you measure is by how those in authority respond to it.”
For too long we took for granted that our places are safe — our synagogues, our schools, our community centers. And we can no longer do that
Still, he warned, “We’re seeing not only more anti-Israel, but blatantly anti-Semitic attacks” in the US. “Not just the daubing of swastikas, which is serious enough, but physical assaults. There’s a heightened concern. Charlottesville is not the cause, it’s a symptom. It brought out into the public what we know.”
The American Jewish leadership is now working to enhance security at its institutions. “For too long we took for granted that our places are safe — our synagogues, our schools, our community centers. And we can no longer do that. We have an obligation to our constituents, to our communities, to invest much more in this area and to be more effective. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
On campus, he said, “we have to do more to stand with the students.” He cited “the lawsuit at San Francisco State University by the Lawfare Project” and the “actions against Students for Justice for Palestine at California Irvine” as important steps. “Because for too long people were reluctant to stand up and take a stand against it…. When Jewish interests are assaulted, Jewish speakers, pro-Israel speakers are interrupted or harassed, the fact that these things take place is one thing. The question is how we respond to them.”
Asked whether he considered Charlottesville an aberration or something wider, Hoenlein answered: “Both. The nature of it was somewhat of an aberration. It was shocking in the sense that people carried weapons and that the police were outgunned, literally, and therefore didn’t draw… The synagogue asking for protection didn’t get it. It had to hire an armed guard… So there were many aspects of this which were very dramatic and of great concern. But I still think that it’s contained in the United States. It’s not something that’s happening everywhere, all the time.” Still, he cautioned, “it is too frequent and I hope that Charlottesville will at least raise the level of response and awareness, of the need to stand up to it. We have to show that we will hold people to account for it.
US President Donald Trump’s initial response to Charlottesville, laying blame on both sides, “was very troublesome,” Hoenlein said. “But “our relationship with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI generally has been very good. They worked very closely with the local communities. We have to see how that is sustained. A lot comes from the message on top; that sets the tone. The haters have to be held to account.”