There is an old Jewish saying that goes, “Ask two Jews, you’ll get three opinions.” Joking aside, it represents the value of embracing debate, pluralism and, at times, even indecisiveness. And it is a reflection of changes taking place from within the religion and outside it.
Nevertheless, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support of recently proposed policies regarding the Conversion Law, and of halting a previous decision to dedicate an egalitarian prayer area along the southern part of the Western Wall for the use of the non-Orthodox, has infuriated world Jewry.
It is obvious to everyone concerned that this has nothing to do with any sudden doctrinal revelation, and has been done only to appease his religious coalition partners in government. In pursuing these policies he risks not only alienating non-Orthodox Israelis, but also many Jewish communities around the world on whom Israel has relied for support since its inception.
From its earliest days, relations between the nascent state of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora were complex. Both sides had declared their eternal support while trying to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. There has always been an expectation on the Israeli side that the diaspora would support Israeli policies come rain or shine. In the early days of the country, it also provided the financial support that ensured the country’s survival.
For Jews living outside Israel, the self-proclaimed Jewish state gave them a new sense of identity and also a potential safe haven from anti-Semitism. While Israel was absorbed in nation and state building, especially in the face of adversity, differences of opinion between the diaspora and the state were kept to a minimum.
But this has changed, gradually, since 1967, when a military victory turned into an occupation of other people’s land. At the same time, and for reasons not unrelated to this event, the country shifted to a more orthodox and messianic strand of Judaism, one to which most Jews living around the world do not subscribe.
This has been exacerbated further following the weakening of the more progressive, secular-minded Labor party and the strengthening of the Likud and other religious parties. Moreover, the fragmentation of the Israeli political system has given disproportionate power to small parties, especially the ultra-orthodox ones, which have extracted concessions that altered the character of the State of Israel very rapidly. This trend is almost irreversible, considering the demographic changes in Israeli society in favor of the orthodox communities.
The US Israeli lobby AIPAC, on which Israel relies heavily, sent a senior delegation to warn Netanyahu of a severe rift between US Jewry and Israel.
Between concerns about the long occupation of Palestinian land and religious legislation changing the face of Israel, many Diaspora Jews began to question whether they are obliged to blindly support Israel, or if they should take a more independent stance on Israeli policies. And, if so, whether to air their differences in public.
This presents a challenging situation. Israel counts on the support and lobbying power — especially in the US and main European countries — of international Jewish communities to promote its interests to governments and to the public. However, it pays only lip service to understanding what is important to these communities. Furthermore, both parties either refuse to acknowledge, or are in denial, that as time goes by there is a distinct and growing difference between Jews living in Israel and those outside it.
The most recent controversies over who has the final say in recognizing conversion to Judaism and of creating a new area for worship at the Western Wall for men and women to pray together, divide the Jewish orthodoxy in Israel from the more progressive communities in the diaspora. The latter were so infuriated by the proposed changes that they lambasted the Israeli prime minister and his ultra-orthodox coalition parties privately and in public. The Jewish Agency has canceled a gala dinner with Netanyahu. The US Israeli lobby AIPAC, on which Israel relies heavily, sent a senior delegation to warn Netanyahu of a severe rift between US Jewry and Israel if both measures were to go ahead, because they see it as a deliberate attempt to delegitimize their strand of Judaism. Accordingly, they are ready to stage a robust fight, with the threat that they could considerably reduce their support for Israel.
In public, Netanyahu consistently stresses the importance of good relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, and the mutual benefits of these close relations. So it is astonishing that he seems ready to jeopardize these relations for the sake of keeping his coalition together. It would, at least, be understandable if one could believe that his decisions are based on deep convictions, but in the case of Netanyahu, opportunism rules supreme.
After close to seven decades of Israeli independence, it may be time to reassess the relations between Israel, which is home to around 40 percent of the world’s Jewry, and those Jews who live outside Israel. It might be the case — especially considering the current small-minded, right-wing coalition government in Israel — that Jews around the world should develop a more independent approach, one which serves their views on their religion, heritage and culture, rather than the one that has evolved inside Israel.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.