Bibi has done it again – alienating Diaspora Jews and turning his back on religious pluralism to stay in power.
But, by backtracking on hard-won agreements to accommodate an area for men and women to pray together at the Western Wall and to loosen the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on conversions to Judaism, has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gone too far this time?
And has he underestimated the degree to which his actions would outrage many of his staunchest supporters?
Whatever the fallout from this particular act of hubris, it’s clear that the time has come to reform Israel’s electoral system so that single-issue parties – whatever their views – no longer wield disproportionate power in the country’s dysfunctional coalition governments.
For most of his time in power, Netanyahu has relied on ultra-Orthodox parties to make up the numbers in his ruling coalition. This has prohibited religious reform of any kind and cemented the power of a relatively small group of ultra-Orthodox religious leaders with an increasingly narrow view of who is a Jew.
There was hope for change after the 2013 elections, when Netanyahu had enough mainstream coalition partners to exclude ultra-Orthodox parties, and the government even introduced legislation to require ultra-Orthodox Jews to perform national service or enlist in the armed forces.
But that coalition lasted only a couple of years. After the 2015 election, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition included more right-wing parties as well as the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Plans for compulsory service by ultra-Orthodox citizens have been pushed back to 2020 or beyond.
And now the unholy alliance has pressured Netanyahu to renege on a January 2016 agreement – carefully crafted with input from Israeli and North American leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements – to create an area at the Western Wall where men and women could pray together.
Netanyahu has also refused to block legislation that would grant all authority for religious conversions to the Chief Rabbinate, which has ridiculously restrictive criteria and has recently “blacklisted” 160 Diaspora rabbis, including ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox leaders, whose conversions are no longer recognized.
I am not anti-Orthodox. But my Judaism includes all forms of Jewish worship. And I believe that Israel, which prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, is damaging its credibility and its future by subscribing to the ridiculous and clearly anti-democratic belief that some Jews are better than others.
The Israeli government has no problem sending secular, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox youth to the army to risk their lives every day in the service of their country.
The Jews who perished in the Holocaust reflected all denominations. Indeed, the smallest hint of Jewish heritage was often a death sentence.
We rightly mourn and venerate those who perished only because they were Jewish. But many of them would be second-class Jews in today’s Israel.
Israel doesn’t check Jewish credentials before it accepts the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by Jewish individuals and organizations in North America and the rest of the Diaspora.
But the government clearly has no room for their opinions.
The backlash was immediate and harsh.
The powerful Jewish Agency for Israel cancelled a gala with the PM.
Isaac Fisher, a board member of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has asked for the return of $1 million in Israel Bonds and says he will no longer raise money for Israel because of Netanyahu’s “serious act of contempt.”
Canadian billionaire and committed Israel supporter Charles Bronfman wrote Netanyahu that he did not know any other country that “denies Jews based on denomination.”
Author, scholar and columnist Daniel Gordis is calling on Diaspora Jews to use financial pressure to “create a coalition crisis.”
In his June 29 column in the Jerusalem Post, Gordis said Diaspora Jews should support Israeli rabbis who understand religious pluralism.
He says we should consider Netanyahu and his coalition partners “toxic,” and exclude them from events with Jewish groups.
He even suggests we should boycott El Al, and stop raising money for Israeli hospitals to protest Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman’s role in the coalition.
“When their hospitals begin to falter… when their airline faces bankruptcy, when their prime minister is a publicly humiliated pariah, Israelis will begin to notice and will start to care.”
Would Diaspora Jews go this far? Probably not.
But maybe it will take something equally drastic for Netanyahu to realize that he truly needs the support of Diaspora Jews – and for ordinary Israelis to respect our values, not just our donations.