Israeli Leaders Bend to Religious Conservatives at Their Peril

Praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Credit Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Almost seven decades after its birth, Israel is still having ferocious growing pains.

The country aspires to be a Jewish and democratic state — a homeland for the Jewish people where all citizens are afforded democratic freedoms. But the government’s decisions this week to suspend a deal on mixed-gender prayer arrangements at the Western Wall and to advance restrictive legislation on religious conversions endanger Israel’s path to full maturity.

The government’s actions have ignited a virtual civil war between officials in Jerusalem and groups in the broader Jewish world, raising questions about the country’s role as the keeper of Jewish traditions.

America’s foremost Jewish organizations, which generally support more liberal interpretations of Jewish customs, took the rare step of issuing condemnations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for caving to political pressure from the conservative religious flank of his governing coalition. Visiting Jewish leaders went so far as to cancel a gala dinner with Mr. Netanyahu that had been scheduled to take place in the Knesset on Monday evening.

The ultra-Orthodox parties in the government are being tarred as the villains. But it’s too easy to blame them.

Walking the streets of Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox men in dark fedoras and women dressed in long sleeves in the sweltering summer sun are often derided as living outside the mainstream. They are scorned for dodging the military draft. But, in fact, as this latest kerfuffle shows, they’re just adept at playing politics. Their politicians are doing precisely what the system allows and what their voters expect of them.
And despite charges that they are cynically jeopardizing national unity, the ultra-Orthodox believe genuinely that their conduct is what actually guarantees the security of Israel and the Jewish people.
Responsibility for the breakdown of the deal on the Western Wall, in fact, lies with Israel’s secular establishment, which has long neglected to resolve its disagreements with the religious conservatives.

Certain that the vestiges of religious observance would disappear from Judaism once the modern state of Israel was born, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, made a deal: In June 1947, he signed off on what became known as the status quo, deferring to ultra-Orthodox demands regarding the Jewish character of the yet unborn Israel. In return, Ben-Gurion got the support of the conservative faction for his state-building project.

Similar compromises have been made repeatedly since then. Political parties of Israel’s secular left have regularly courted ultra-Orthodox candidates, whose religious attitudes are anathema to them, in the hopes of winning their backing on matters pertaining to war and peace.

Mr. Netanyahu conceded to ultra-Orthodox pressure to preserve his governing coalition. To the chagrin of Reform, Conservative and more moderate Orthodox Jews, neither the Western Wall nor the issue of conversion to Judaism has the same importance in Israeli public life as it does among the Jewish Diaspora, where both are more closely connected to matters of personal identity.

The same secular Israelis who are nonplused when bus service or store hours are curtailed on the Sabbath — policies that directly affect their daily lives — are largely indifferent to other strictures that affect their routines much less. And so, for purely selfish reasons, once again, Israel’s leaders are now complicit in undermining global Jewish solidarity, an essential component to the country’s national security.

Israeli leaders are perfectly within their right to determine the country’s priorities, but that doesn’t mean they will be spared any consequences.

The benefits of shared values between Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora are enormous: The moral, political and financial support of Diaspora Jewry for Israel is of paramount value to the Zionist enterprise. If the insult to Jews outside Israel is so great that they, or even later generations, turn their back on the Jewish homeland, Israelis will certainly come to mourn having shown a lack of respect for the Diaspora’s more liberal values.

Hopefully, it will not come to this. Jews in the United States and elsewhere, ever supportive of Israel, have been leveling criticism this week at Israel’s government, but they cautiously exempted the Israeli people and the state itself. The board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a group of Jewish organizational and communal leaders from around the world, expressed its unanimous contempt for the government’s decisions, but committed to “mobilizing our constituencies for their continued support of the people and state of Israel.”

Everyone would lose if the Diaspora were to permanently distance itself from Israel. Proponents of peace between Israel and the Palestinians have learned that the best way to achieve their objectives is not to disengage, but to redouble their efforts. Opponents of the government’s approach to issues of religion and state should consider doing likewise, arguing their case in the court of Israeli public opinion and working to help the country through its adolescence. Their reward will be a tolerant society that Israel and all of its friends can be proud of.

Shalom Lipner, a former adviser to several Israeli prime ministers, is a nonresident senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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