With Israeli election looming, liberal US Jews set their ire on Netanyahu
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Netanyahu 'bends the knee in deference' to ultra-Orthodox

With Israeli election looming, liberal US Jews set their ire on Netanyahu

After Blue and White backs Western Wall agreement, American Jewish leaders hope the issue can get some election-fueled momentum to help close the Israel-Diaspora gap

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks during a candle lighting ceremony marking the Hanukkah festival at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on December 6, 2018. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks during a candle lighting ceremony marking the Hanukkah festival at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on December 6, 2018. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP)

WASHINGTON — With Benjamin Netanyahu in the middle of his toughest reelection contest to date, many liberal American Jews want Israelis to know that they hold a grudge against their prime minister — and that they should take it seriously.

There’s been a widening gulf between Israel and the American Diaspora for years now, but with voters heading to the polls on Tuesday, left-leaning US Jewish leaders want to impart a message: The damage Netanyahu is inflicting on Israel’s relationship with US Jews will have lasting consequences on Israel’s security.

“It’s a security issue for Israel, because it’s clearly important that American Jews continue to feel connected to Israel,” said Susie Gelman, who chairs the Israel Policy Forum. “You need as wide a group as possible to advocate for US funding.”

In other words, if Israel alienates the US Jewish community, it may lose one of its biggest champions in Washington. (Under an agreement forged during the Obama administration, the US government gives Israel $3.8 billion in aid every year.)

And with Netanyahu at Israel’s helm, multiple American Jewish leaders told The Times of Israel that American Jews feel increasingly estranged from the Jewish state. There’s a key reason why, they argued.

People walk near election campaign poster showing Israeli Prime Minister and Head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 2, 2019, prior to the Israeli general elections which will be held next week. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While these American Jews have many stated grievances — Netanyahu’s lack of initiative toward pursuing a peace deal with the Palestinians, his role in making Israel a partisan issue on Capitol Hill — there’s one issue they want to see elevated during the election: the nixed plan to create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

“To the extent that North American Jews feel denigrated — or that our religious practices are not viewed as legitimate by official government policy — that doesn’t bode well for Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora,” Gelman told The Times of Israel.

American Jewish leaders have made these concerns known to would-be prime ministers for years now — and it seems, at least with one faction, to have been working.

The Blue and White party vowed last month to implement the frozen deal to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion as part of its campaign platform.

What’s more, in his address to the AIPAC Policy Conference, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz put a distinctive emphasis that this was a priority for him. “Unity: That is the secret weapon of the Jewish nation,” Gantz said. “I can tell you with confidence that the Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone. Everyone!”

Prominent US leaders of liberal Judaism are hoping that the agreement, which would also establish a body of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to oversee the site, will gain momentum if a new government replaces Netanyahu’s.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (Mike Diamond Photography)

“What’s heartening is that it represents the first time you’ve seen that kind of an agenda as part of the official party platform for an Israeli election,” said Steven Wernick, the former CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “I’m very, very pleased that the issue is so high up on the agenda that Blue and White put it on the platform.”

Still, Wernick allowed, the next government will probably include a faction antithetical to the proposal, no matter who wins the election. “I try not to jump out of my chair,” he told The Times of Israel. “I know that, because of the nature of Israeli politics, the [ultra-Orthodox] Haredi parties are likely to be part of any coalition in the future.”

The original decision to build a new pavilion dates back to January 2016, when Netanyahu’s government approved the so-called Western Wall compromise. After decades of high-profile activism by the feminist group Women of the Wall, and four years of formal negotiations between representatives of Liberal Judaism and the government, a definitive agreement was reached. But, in June 2017, Netanyahu, under intense pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, suspended the compromise.

Netanyahu’s decision ignited an immediate crisis, with US Jewish leaders castigating the move. There was already growing divisions between Israel and the American Diaspora before the Western Wall agreement was scuttled, but several US Jewish leaders told The Times of Israel that this episode made that crisis much worse.

Fully implementing the deal that Netanyahu struck — and then froze — is a prerequisite for resolving the tension, said one such leader.

“That plank is very welcome and we’re very excited about it,” said Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi at New York City’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and the former executive director of ARZA, the Zionist wing of the Reform Jewish movement.

“Israel’s relationship with American Jews has deteriorated significantly during the premiership of Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he added. “That sent a message that no matter what we do, the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over religious life is too powerful to overcome. Even the very long-serving and powerful prime minister of Israel bends the knee in deference to their desires.”

Ultra-Orthodox men protest against the Women of the Wall’s start of the month prayer gathering at the Western Wall on Sunday, June 9 (photo credit: FLash90)

Blue and White, the alliance headed by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and centrist leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, said the reason for supporting the plan was to repair relations with American Jews.

The proposal was part of a “specific commitment to rehabilitating the relationship with the Diaspora, born out of a sensitivity to the specific needs and views of Diaspora Jewry,” a Blue and White source told The Times of Israel at the time of the platform’s launch.

One of Netanyahu’s most vehement detractors in the United States said that the premier’s reneging on the Western Wall is part of a larger blunder he’s made while managing US-Israel relations.

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)

“The greatest damage that Netanyahu and his team have done is they took the Israeli government to a place where they felt the future of the American-Israel relationship rested with Republicans and evangelicals,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, a liberal Mideast advocacy group.

After aligning himself with Republicans in Congress to thwart former president Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and then forging a close relationship with the intensely divisive Donald Trump, Netanyahu made clear through abandoning the Western Wall deal that American Jews are not a constituency he feels compelled to cultivate, Ben-Ami said.

“The writing off of non-Orthodox, more liberal Jews in the country is a real strategic mistake for Israel,” Ben-Ami told The Times of Israel.

While American Jewish leaders generally want to avoid the appearance of trying to interfere in the Israeli election, many do want the voters to know how much this deal matters to them.

“Israeli citizens elect their representatives, not American Jews,” Hirsch told The Times of Israel. “That being said, it’s important for the Israeli electorate to know how strongly we feel about certain issues.”

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