A Political Problem in Jerusalem Poses a Tough Choice for American Nonprofits

June 27, 2017; Haaretz and Forward

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s difficulty managing his governing coalition has placed American Jewish organizations in a very difficult position. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister allowed his government to make two decisions that directly conflict with the diverse values and practices of the American Jewish community. In doing so, he kept his coalition together but left nonprofits representing American Jews with a need to balance their commitment to their own constituencies with their desire to support Israel.

One action addresses access to and control of religious activities at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Since 1967, when Israel took control of the Temple Mount, the Wall has grown in religious significance and meaning to Jews worldwide. Control of the site was granted to the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, which insisted on having separate male and female areas and limiting which rituals women could perform in their area. In other words, they set the standards to meet the requirements of Orthodox Jews. For American Jews, a large majority of whom are not Orthodox and whose practice is more open and egalitarian, these conditions are increasingly problematic.

After years of growing tensions over prayer at the Wall, an agreement was reached in early 2016 to accommodate the various ways Jews wish to pray. At the time, NPR reported that the Worldwide Conservative Movement, a group whose website describes it as dedicated to promoting a kind of Judaism that’s “at home in both tradition and modernity,” described the agreement as a sign of “official government legitimacy on religious streams other than Orthodox and recognizing the diversity and pluralistic nature of Jewish people.” (Conservative Judaism falls mainly in the middle on a spectrum between Reform and Orthodox Judaism.)

Earlier this week, bowing to pressure from Orthodox members of his coalition, Netanyahu announced he was suspending that agreement and planned to take more time to develop a different approach, one that would keep everyone happy. Even some of his supporters recognized how this action would affect the American Jewish community. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, “Today’s cancellation…is a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish People.”

Also this week, the Israeli government pushed forward a new law that will, according to a report in the Israeli publication Haaretz, “deny citizenship under the Law of Return to Jews converted in Israel by Conservative, Reform, or privately-run Orthodox rabbinical courts.” With the vast majority of American Jews identifying with these branches of Judaism, this change is quite confrontational. In a statement, Alan Solow, past chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, described the dilemma.

Jewish leadership in the U.S. has traditionally taken an approach that supports decisions of the elected government of Israel out of respect for the democratic process.…After all, we don’t live in Israel[, but] decisions regarding particular forms of Jewish observance cannot be imposed by one fragment upon any other. The notion that the overwhelming majority of American Jews, as well as non-orthodox Israeli Jews, do not have religious rights as Jews that are recognized by the State is a fundamental challenge to the notion of Jewish Peoplehood.

Balancing these two interests may not be easy. Protest too strongly, and organizations risk weakening support for Israel and the notion of a Jewish people. Protest too weakly, and risk losing the support of those members of their constituency who see Israel’s actions as offensive. And, there’s a high level of concern in the U.S. The Forward reports that Rep. Jerrold Nadler, “a New York Democrat who represents the most heavily Jewish district in the nation, has been bombarded by angry calls over the Israeli government’s decision not to create an egalitarian prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.”

“People are outraged,” Nadler said. “This is a direct declaration by the government of Israel that non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and in the United States are irrelevant. It’s a total insult to the entire community. The message is basically, ‘We don’t care about you.’”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman chided those protesting the government’s actions on Wednesday, saying in a speech, “I understand the source of the frustration and the source of the anger. But I heard a major Jewish organization say that they needed to rethink their support for the State of Israel. That’s something unthinkable in my lifetime, up until yesterday. We have to do better. We must do better.”

The influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which will be meeting with the Prime Minister on Thursday, is trying to keep any disagreements under wraps and stay out of the public controversy. It issued a simple statement, with no opinions to be found: “The debate is ongoing and the democratic process in Israel which provides for input from many voices is the best hope for a productive outcome.”

Others have chosen to a much stronger response. U.S. News and World Report reported that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America, “accused Netanyahu of ‘turning a cold shoulder’ to the majority of world Jewry,” saying, “the decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal.” Dr. Steven Nasatir, president of the powerful Chicago Jewish Federation, said in a statement reported in the Times of Israel that “The federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill. None. They will not be welcome in our community…We’re past the time when we’re standing and applauding and being nice because they’re members of Knesset or because they hold this position or that position. They’re not welcome in our community, period.”

With no sign that the Israeli government will reverse its course, how forcefully will American Jewish nonprofits become in pushing the interests of their constituents? Will their worry about weakening Israel’s image and political support cause them to tone their protests down?—Martin Levine