This week’s Israeli cabinet decisions to scrap an agreement to establish a separate space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and to perpetuate the Haredi monopoly over conversions in Israel are disappointing and damaging, and will adversely affect relations between Israel and Diaspora Jews. I don’t know that I have anything to write about the tangible consequences of the Israel-Diaspora rift that has not already been written – it goes without saying that I think this is a disastrous move on the part of the Israeli government, both from a practical and moral perspective – but I do think it is worth thinking about what this decision says about how Israel and Diaspora Jews should relate to one another.
I’ve noted in the not-too-distant past the gap between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim to represent all Jews around the world and his actions that belie seizing such a mantle. This week’s actions once again demonstrate that Netanyahu is unwilling to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to assuming a wider role beyond being prime minister of Israel. The harsh truth is that most Israelis do not care about the prayer arrangement at the Western Wall, do not visit the Western Wall, and do not feel inclined to stand up for the small number of their fellow citizens who desperately want to pray at the Western Wall in a manner that makes them feel comfortable within their own religious traditions. From a purely domestic political position, what the cabinet did on Netanyahu’s watch makes sense. There is little political cost to the prime minister, and he gets to maintain his coalition and keep his favorite partners – the Haredi parties, who give him free rein on everything outside the narrow band of issues that they care about – in the fold.
In some ways, this is not even about the current coalition, but about the next one. Yair Lapid has been doing all he can to convince Shas that he is kosher enough to partner with in the next government, since he will need to get Shas to join any coalition that he forms in order to block Netanyahu from doing so. In capitulating completely to Shas and UTJ and going back on the Western Wall compromise that he so proudly touted a year and a half ago, Netanyahu is signaling to Shas that he is and always will be their most reliable ally, and that under no circumstances should Shas ever band with Lapid to form a government. Netanyahu made a simple calculation: the larger harm that Israel will suffer from what is shaping up to be the most serious rift with Diaspora Jewry in recent memory is less important than his remaining ensconced in the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street. As Ecclesiastes so pithily put it, what has been done will be done again and there is nothing new under the sun.
But leaving the political calculations aside, there is a bigger question of precisely what obligations Israel should have to Jews who are not citizens of Israel. This is a dilemma that is baked into Israel’s very existence and identity, since Israel has always held itself out to be more than just a state for its citizens. This identity creates both opportunities and difficulties for Israel. Israel benefits from political support from Diaspora Jews, tourism from Diaspora Jews, direct investment from Diaspora Jews, and a sense of belonging and connection that Diaspora Jews have for Israel. This support only happens because Jews around the world see themselves as stakeholders in Israel’s past, present, and future, and is a relationship whose depth is unique among states and ethnic diasporas around the world. For Israelis, though, Diaspora Jews’ connections to Israel bring immense frustrations; they see Jews who do not vote in Israel, pay taxes in Israel, or serve in the IDF to defend Israel dictating to them what they should be doing. This frustration manifests itself primarily in Israeli resentment toward more liberal-minded Jews overseas who criticize Israeli policy toward the Palestinians but do not have to live with the consequences of any risks that Israel takes toward peace. There is a constant level of aggression bubbling beneath the surface from Israelis toward Diaspora Jews that was encapsulated by UTJ MK Moshe Gafni saying this week about American Jews, “They live in the U.S. and meddle in what is happening here, although they don’t have enough votes for even one seat here.” Should Israel have any obligation to take the views of Diaspora Jews into account when they aren’t citizens, and if so, what does that mean for the definition and identity of Israeli citizenship?
These are complicated questions that have been at the heart of Israel for decades, and they won’t be resolved quickly or neatly. But there should be a very simple test for when and how Israel should take Diaspora concerns into account. There is a clear distinction between things that are solely Israeli, and things that are not Israeli but simply Jewish. How Israel regulates marriage – and even conversions – within its own borders upsets many Jews around the world, but it is an Israeli issue since it ultimately pertains only to Israeli citizens (present and future). How Israel regulates Jewish holy sites like the Western Wall is not an Israeli issue but a larger Jewish issue, and there must be a higher obligation to all Jews when considering how to proceed. Nobody would ever claim that the Western Wall is an Israeli holy site, or that what takes place there only directly affects Israelis.
It is simply unconscionable to suggest that Jews, no matter who or where they are, should not have a voice when it comes to the rules surrounding one of Judaism’s most sacred spaces. The Western Wall is not a private Israeli entity. It is a Jewish public good. If any Israeli prime minister decides to treat it otherwise, Israel will wake up one day very soon to find that it has become nothing more and nothing less than a state for its citizens. It will be a Jewish state, but not a state for all Jews. I can think of few things that would harm Israel more.