Netanyahu, Don’t Surrender to ultra-Orthodox Ultimatums
Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for your speech to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington. Your comments on your support for religious freedom in the Jewish state were remarkable and exhilarating. We have never heard anything quite like that from any prime minister of Israel.
But now the non-Orthodox religious movements in North America and their counterparts in Israel need you to deliver on those words.
And we are worried that you won’t.
We are worried that you will return to the over-heated politics of Israel and your one-vote majority in the Knesset, and you will buckle, yet again, to the ultimatums of your hate-spewing ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
We are worried that, once more, with the Middle East in its usual state of turmoil, you will play for time, urge “patience,” and avoid the tough decisions that will be required to make good on your promises to Reform and Conservative Jews.
In short, we are looking for some real toughness that you have rarely shown on these issues. And remember that what we need is not more committees. We need rights, recognition, and support.
We know something about committees, Mr. Prime Minister. Committees can be tools of action or instruments of delay. Up until now, when it comes to religious freedom, they have mostly been the latter.
During your first term as prime minister, decisions of the Orthodox establishment on conversion generated a crisis in the Jewish world on the “who is a Jew” question. In 1997, you summoned Reform and Conservative leaders to Jerusalem, expressed your understanding of their concerns, and established a committee chaired by your Minister of Justice, Yaakov Neeman.
We all know what happened next. The committee did some good work, the non-Orthodox representatives and some of the Orthodox ones offered interesting ideas, and then the ultra-Orthodox parties vetoed the far-reaching proposals that emerged from the deliberations. By then, of course, the public uproar had faded. With the attention of the Jewish world focused elsewhere, you refused to override ultra-Orthodox objections. Uttering some platitudes about your hopes for the future, you let the stalemate stand. The result: Years of wasted effort and frustration. And nearly two decades later, the issue of conversion is no closer to resolution than it was when the Neeman committee was created.
We wonder if the same process will now be repeated.
Once again, there is a crisis in the Jewish world. Reform and Conservative Jews cannot understand why, when they wish to pray at the Western Wall, they are removed so far from the Wall that they can barely see it. Jews who have fought for a united Jerusalem wonder why the holy sites of Israel’s eternal capital are open to others but not to them. Non-Orthodox Jews ask why their souls—souls that have longed for Zion and Jerusalem for 2000 years—should be denied the right to see Israel’s holy places as their own.
The Women of the Wall have been raising this issue for a quarter of a century, but in the last few years, the brutality of the extremists, zealots, and misogynists who have attacked them has ignited a furor throughout the Diaspora. And you have responded. Once again, you have created a committee, this time headed by Natan Scharansky. Once again, you have summoned Diaspora leaders to join in this effort. And those leaders have done so, hoping, in your phrase, to make the Wall a source of unity and not division for the Jewish people.
And you have taken all of this a step farther. You have created a roundtable, headed by the Cabinet Secretary, to address the concerns of the different streams of Judaism. And you have now explicitly promised, as we heard in Washington, to invest in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel.
But will any of this actually happen? After all, the pushback has already begun. The ultra-Orthodox parties have expressed outrage and claim that everything you offered is contrary to the coalition agreement. When they sit with you in Jerusalem, they will make the same threats that they always make.
And you will be severely tempted to bow to their demands—without actually saying so.
And so, will access to the Wall really be granted to all and will allocations be made to Reform and Conservative institutions? The smart money is betting “no.” Instead, it is assumed that the committee deliberations will be dragged out, the roundtable will meet but not decide, the claim of “extenuating circumstances” will be heard, and a few purely symbolic concessions will be offered. After all, this is the long-established pattern, and this is what the ultra-Orthodox parties will demand of you.
But, Mr. Prime Minister, my plea and my advice are: Don’t fall into this trap. The games and the tricks of 1997 will not work in 2015.
In the Diaspora, commitment to Israel is very strong, but the depth of anger and despair on matters of religious freedom is far greater than it ever has been. You know this, and that is why you said what you said in your Washington speech. When Israel sends the message that she is the spiritual possession of only one segment of the Jewish people, it sends Diaspora Jewry into an absolute frenzy.
You have made extraordinary, far-reaching promises to the Jews of North America. You told them that Israel will be a place where all Jews feel at home and that your government will help the Reform and Conservative streams in Israel. This time around, words will not be enough. North Americans Jews were listening carefully to what you said. Fed-up and impatient, they expect each and every one of these promises to be kept.