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Women praying at the wall
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A sledge-hammer blow to American Jewry
Op-ed: Israeli government's decision to renege on commitments made to construct an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall comes at the expense of its strategic alliance with US Jewry.

The cancellation by the Israeli government of the 2016 decision to create an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall has caused significant harm to the image of a strong alliance between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel.

 

 

The decision is a retreat by the Israeli government from an agreement between it and the American Conservative and Reform movements, which would have allowed them a section at the Western Wall, and cleared the way to preparing the holy site accordingly.

 

The move constitutes a painful slap in the face of American Jewry, regarding a matter that is vital to it: Its own Jewish identity.

 

NATIONAL SECURITY IMPLICATIONS

 

The strategic alliance with the US is a central pillar in the very foundation of the national security of Israel, and its international standing. The bond between the Jewish State and American Jewry has been a central component in nourishing and forging this unique alliance. This bond has been a major contributor to the overall strength of Israel over the last seven decades.

 

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

 

American Jews, famous for their activism and commitment, have been promoting the cause of Israel in local, federal, and international politics, philanthropy, and through social activism. It is this image of an unshakable, ever-committed bond that is now under threat, with possible, serious implications.

 

The majority of the American Jewish community, justifiably viewed as powerful and influential, has remained unwavering in its support of Israel over the years, exercising its influence on behalf of the state, in every field.

 

Liberal leaders have, in recent days, warned that the government’s decision to dismiss the Western Wall agreement will have lasting consequences.

 

Large sections of American Jewry, who feel that their identity has been rejected, could lose motivation to act for Israel, resulting in a weakening of proactive support. Some might even seek ways to vent their anger towards the government of Israel and its coalition partners.

 

The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are willing to harm Israel’s long-term national security for political, short-term survival shows that the cancellation is a rushed, short-sighted decision.

 

BIPARTISANSHIP OR BIFURCATION?

 

The principle of bipartisan support means that Democrats and Republicans, Left and Right, Liberals and Conservatives – all have a place in the pro-Israel tent in America.

 

The liberal American Jewish communities have traditionally, for historical reasons, been in the Democratic party camp, while the Orthodox minority mainly supports President Donald Trump and his Republican party.

 

We are now reaching a stage in which decisions by the Israeli government win support by American Jews who support Trump, and at the same time, they tangibly harm the position of liberal American Jews, who – it so happens – are Democratic supporters.

 

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

 

The near absolute correlation in the American Jewish community, split between the Liberal – Democratic affiliation and the Orthodox – Republican affiliation, means that decisions like the latest one by the government have partisan reverberations in the US.

 

In the long run, these decisions undermine the traditional Israeli interest of securing bipartisan support of Israel.

 

CAMPUS REVERBERATIONS

 

The influence of such decisions will no doubt be felt on university campuses, where Reform and Conservative students are often instrumental in blocking attempts by the BDS movement in America.

 

The moral power of the liberal, US Jewish community, and its ability to connect with other liberal organizations on a range of political issues, means it is well-placed to tackle BDS. But this fight against BDS may too have been weakened by the government’s decision.

 

PAST…MIGHT BE…PROLOGUE

 

We have sadly seen this movie before. In 1988, when I was Israel’s Consul in Atlanta, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud party won a tight election race against Labor. As he proceeded to build a coalition, the Agudat Yisrael Haredi party demanded that the Law of Return be changed, to recognize only Orthodox converts as eligible for Israeli citizenship, and Shamir acquiesced, surrendering to their demand.

 

The Jewish world at that time was up in arms, led by American Jews. I well recall the shocked responses of the Jewish community in Atlanta. Elderly American Jews, whose main life purpose was to act for Israel in local and international politics, were left in tears. Many saw the move as a permanent divorce from the State of Israel.

 

It is difficult to find a family in the US that does not, in its close circle, include a convert of one manner or another, many of whom are not recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate.

 

Shamir understood the crisis, and made a swift, wise, U-turn, dropping the proposal, and adopting a unity government with the Labor party instead.

 

His initial decision to give in to the Haredi proposal resulted from pure ignorance of the American Jewish community, unaware of the severe ramifications that would have ensued had he gone ahead with it.

 

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP
 

 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Netanyahu, who lived in the US, and has a deep understanding of the composition, as well as key issues and values, of American Jewry.

 

The fact that Netanyahu is profoundly familiar with the American Jewish world leads to the inescapable conclusion that he is willing to sacrifice Israeli long-term interests and Jewish unity for short- term political survival.

 

If not remedied, this episode may become the most significant crisis between American Jews and the Israeli government to date.

 

Arthur Koll is a former Israeli ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, former Consul in Atlanta Georgia and immediate past Deputy Director General of The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel.

 

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