‘But do Israelis even care?” asked my friend, a leader of an international Jewish organization, on Monday.
It was the day after Diaspora Jews had learned that, once again, the prime minister had slapped them in the face and had broken his word. In response to haredi pressure, he refused to block legislation that would grant all authority regarding conversions to the Chief Rabbinate (which detests non-Orthodox Judaism) and was freezing plans to dedicate a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, where Reform and Conservative men and women could pray together. Both of these moves were cowardly steps by a prime minister who was, as always, loyal to the one principle that always animates him – that principle being his own political survival. They were moves that people like Natan Sharansky had begged the prime minister not to take. Sharansky understood the rupture this would cause in the Jewish world. But the prime minister doesn’t care about the Jewish people nearly as much as he cares about himself.
Employing his now characteristic obfuscation, Bibi will insist that this is just a delay and that construction on the promised space will continue. His health minister (whom he appointed), however, was more honest. Ya’acov Litzman minced no words, saying that the cabinet’s decision “sends a clear message to the entire world that Reform Judaism does not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”
Do Israelis care? Not one little bit.
The vast majority have no idea what Reform Judaism is. They know little about any non-Orthodox form of Judaism. Most also have little regard for religious pluralism, a value that most American Jews see as fundamental to a decent, democratic society. Whatever Bibi has done, they say, is a problem for American Jews. They are wrong. It is a problem for the Jewish people.
So, if American Jews want to win (and preserve Israel as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people at the same time), they have to make this Israelis’ problem. They have to create a coalition crisis larger than anything Litzman can precipitate.
How? Here, with apologies to Jonathan Swift, is a modest proposal.
First, it is time to educate the Israeli public about the values of pluralism and Jewish peoplehood. One person needs to pick up the phone and in 45 minutes raise $10 million (it would take less than 45 minutes) to give to leaders like Rabbi Benny Lau and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Orthodox rabbis who understand pluralism and value Jewish peoplehood.
They should be told that the money is theirs to use to promote their vision of Judaism. Billboards. Signs on buses. Educational materials distributed everywhere.
Television appearances. Radio.
Support for their own students who can join the chorus. And, they should be told, when that money is used up, there will be more forthcoming.
Then, Netanyahu, his party and anyone in his coalition must become toxic.
No meetings with American Jews, not in Israel and not in the US. Delegations that would normally meet with him should stop. Israel’s consuls-general in the US should be shunned and disinvited. Birthright mega-events? Netanyahu (and Naftali Bennett, who cleverly managed not to be present for the vote) should be disinvited. Can’t be done? Then cancel the event.
Ultimately, though, if American Jews cannot use financial pressure, they cannot create a coalition crisis, and they will lose. There has to be a price to having appointed Litzman to the Health Ministry. Israeli hospitals survive in part thanks to American Jewish philanthropy. The flow of money should stop. Meetings with hospitals’ fund-raisers should be canceled.
The hospitals did nothing wrong, but when they start running out of money, Israelis will start to care. That is the kind of coalition crisis the prime minister does not want. You don’t feel comfortable doing that? That’s fine and decent. So prepare to lose.
Don’t forget El Al.
The last thing that American Jews should do is to sever their relationship with Israel. To make it clear that they are committed to the Jewish state and that it is this prime minister and his government that they detest, they should come to Israel now more than ever before. En masse. But not on El Al.
They should cancel every El Al ticket they have already purchased and fly United or Delta.
Why? Isn’t El Al a private airline? Yes, but it is critical to Israel’s security, and Israel cannot afford to let it fail. El Al survives on a thin margin; American Jews shunning it for half a year could break it. There will be layoffs, terror in the industry. Netanyahu will have a massive problem.
Then, Israelis will care. When their hospitals (which are also my hospitals, I hasten to note) 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. Only then will American Jews and the religious pluralism they represent have a chance of winning. Only then, actually, will a decent (non-haredi) Judaism in Israel have a chance of winning.
Are American Jews sufficiently united to pull this off? It’s hard to know. Do they have the stomach to play hardball? I doubt it. But this is the Middle East, and that’s how things work here.
American Jews have to decide whether they want to complain, or they want to win – and in so doing remind Israel that it is the state of all the world’s Jews. Those are two entirely different enterprises.
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 Book of the Year.