In a sign of the growing rift between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be appearing this year at the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Only once since being reelected prime minister in 2009 did Netanyahu not address this influential forum. Unforeseen developments forced him to cancel his participation in the 2011 conference at the last minute, after he had notified the organizers that he would attend.
Every other year, he has addressed the General Assembly of the JFNA either in person, via direct satellite or in a video message. The annual gathering, which takes place in November, is considered the most important event of the year for the North American Jewish establishment. This year’s three-day gathering will be held from November 12 to November 14 in Los Angeles.
Many American Jewish leaders were livid with Netanyahu when in June, under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, he decided to back out of his commitment to create a special area at the Western Wall where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed-gender prayer services. The overwhelming majority of affiliated Jews in North America identify either as Conservative or Reform. The decision to create the egalitarian prayer space had been approved by his government in January 2016 but was never implemented. …
“Netanyahu clearly understood that if he had addressed the GA this year, he risked putting himself in the position of being the first Israeli prime minister ever booed or shouted at in this forum,” said a senior representative of one of the non-Orthodox movements who asked not to be identified.
The “rift” is not a natural geologic phenomenon. It is a product of human endeavor, and the earthmoving equipment is being operated by the American Reform Movement, the URJ, under the leadership of Rabbi Rick Jacobs. The goal is to help PM Netanyahu’s opponents remove him from office and replace him with someone compliant with their vision of a more progressive, North American Israel, and – needless to say – one that does not include Judea and Samaria.
The Jewish Federations were always pro-Israel. They strove to be apolitical, although the exigencies of fundraising required some degree of compromise. It was decided years ago that none of their money went to projects on the “wrong” side of the Green Line. They didn’t make a big thing about it, but if you asked they would assure you that your donations were not supporting the settlements.
Still, the people that called the shots until recently would never, ever, make a statement like that attributed to Michael Siegal, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors and former head of the Jewish Federations of North America: “Support for Israel doesn’t necessarily mean support for the Israeli government.”
But the original Federation machers got old and tired, and their places were filled with younger people, more hip politically, some of whom are members of groups like J Street or supporters of the New Israel Fund. People who get their news about Israel from the Forward, the NY Times and the Ha’aretz English Edition website. People who were too young to participate in the 1960s, but who feel nostalgic about them anyway. People who believe that there would be peace between Israel and the Palestinians if it weren’t for that pesky Netanyahu and his settlements.
At the same time, Rick Jacobs took over the URJ. He had a problem, which was that his movement was hemorrhaging membership. There were many reasons: fewer young people in America were joining any organized religious group, families were stretched thin by too many activities, and Reform Judaism was bland and boring. His strategy was to focus on “social action,” or in other words, progressive politics. As American politics have become more and more polarized, this is where the emotional energy is, and this is how to get the folks in the door.
The Reform Movement has been going in this direction for years, but Jacobs – who was active in J Street and the New Israel Fund, and who personally participated in demonstrations against Jews living in eastern Jerusalem – introduced the motif of a 1960’s American style “civil rights movement” for Israel, including promoting a 2-state deal with the Palestinians and fighting “discrimination” against Arabs, women, Mizrachim, Ethiopians, illegal immigrants, and non-Orthodox Judaism.
The controversy over a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall was provoked by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), a local group funded by the Reform Movement, and its Executive Director, Anat Hoffman. It has since been exploited to the hilt in the US by the URJ and its journalistic echo chamber, who wring their hands over the terrible “rift” which they blame on Netanyahu and the smelly, theocratic black hats that supposedly dictate to him.
Israelis couldn’t possibly care less about mixed gender prayer. I’ve been to the Wall several times since the controversy began, and I have yet to see one person praying at the Robinson’s Arch area set aside for it. But for liberal American Jews, it plays the same role as “al-Aqsa is in danger” does for Arabs, inciting fury against Israel and its leadership.
The Jewish Federations, in addition to having a new, more “progressive” leadership, can smell the coffee. Most of their donations come from Reform and Conservative sources – Orthodox Jews have their own charitable organizations. More and more, they are competing with the left-leaning New Israel Fund for donations. It would be suicidal to go against the trend, so they too find themselves “livid with Netanyahu” over the Western Wall issue.
Possibly this was all inevitable. Many Americans and Canadians who see themselves as liberal or progressive align themselves with more extreme anti-Zionist positions, favoring BDS or even supporting Hezbollah or Hamas. Progressive Jews are not far behind. Many formerly staunchly pro-Israel organizations have been taken over by people whose support is conditional and equivocal. The ADL, campus Hillels, some Jewish Community Centers, the Center for Jewish History, and the Jewish Federations, among others, are not what they were in the 1990s.
The Western Wall issue has acted as a catalyst to bring about a profound shift in the attitudes of the American Jewish establishment toward Israel, perhaps as Jacobs intended. There are other contributing factors. There was the strong support for Barack Obama by the liberal Jewish community, a president whose objectives and policies brought him into direct conflict with Israel, and whose administration personally denigrated PM Netanyahu (“chickenshit”) as a tactic, and lent covert support to his political enemies in the 2015 election. Liberal Jews today are deeply enmeshed in the polarized politics of opposition to Donald Trump, whom they are encouraged by their leadership to link to PM Netanyahu and the Israeli Right. Jewish college students, the establishment leaders of tomorrow, are far less pro-Israel than their parents.
The Western Wall issue could perhaps be solved by a compromise (although that seems unlikely today), but there are countless other ways the liberal North American Jewish community can be brought into conflict with the conservative establishment in Israel. The conversion issue is one, and of course there is always the biggie: “who is a Jew?” In its boundless ignorance, arrogance, and in some cases political cynicism, the Reform leadership will continue to push its constituency away from Israel.
Whatever the reasons, Israeli policy-makers must understand that they cannot depend on the non-Orthodox Jewish community in North America the way they could in the past; not for donations and not for political support.
Al-Aqsa is not actually in danger despite the incitement from Arab leaders, and mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall is an artificial problem. But the relationship between Israel and the North American Diaspora is broken, and the breakage was deliberate.