On Sunday, thousands of people will convene in Los Angeles for the annual General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America. While the program deals with all the important issues Jews are facing, the talk of the conference undoubtedly will be the absence of one Jew: the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The fact that Netanyahu decided not to come to the GA is extraordinary. Every Israeli prime minister has addressed this gathering — and been greeted with standing ovations. Even attendees who didn’t necessarily subscribe to the policies of a particular prime minister were proud to be in the presence of the leader of the Jewish state.
So why won’t Netanyahu attend? Because he wants to avoid an unprecedented embarrassment, where, instead of cheered, he would be booed. Why? Because he has let them down, preferring his own political survival over fulfilling his promises to them.
The issue at stake is a long struggle of Reform and Conservative American Jews to be able to pray at the Wailing Wall, the sacred remnant of the Second Temple. While in America they constitute the majority of Jews, in Israel their numbers are small and, therefore, lacking any political power. They are kept at arm’s length by the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox hegemony in Israel, which doesn’t recognize them as “real” Jews.
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Most secular Israelis, still the majority in Israel, couldn’t care less. In a recent survey of pluralism in Israel by the Jewish People Planning Institute, 60 percent of them said they approved of mixed prayers in synagogues, something almost all Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews oppose. However, we have a saying among secular Israelis, attributed to Hebrew University Professor Shlomo Avineri: “We don’t go to the synagogue, but the synagogue we don’t go to is an Orthodox one.” In other words, the silent, indifferent, secular majority in Israel allows the Orthodox and ultra Orthodox minority to use its political position as key to every coalition government, in order to prohibit most American Jews from praying at the Wall.
Until recently, there seemed to be a solution, brokered by none other than Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, himself an Orthodox Jew. Reform and Conservative Jews would be able to pray at the wall, after all. In his live video message from Jerusalem to the General Assembly in Washington DC, on Dec. 21, 2016, Netanyahu boasted with that, saying that “I tried to make the [Wall] receptive to Jews from all around the world.” However, giving in to the pressure of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, he reneged, causing the recent feud with American Jews.
This is not the only issue troubling the relations between the two biggest Jewish communities in the world. In his speech in the Congress on March 2015, defying President Obama on the Iran deal, Netanyahu broke an old consensus among American Jews, two out of every three of them consistently voting for Democrats, that their support of Israel should be nonpartisan.
All this occurs in light of a broader picture, where many American Jews, who are more liberal than average Americans, find themselves at odds with the current Israeli policies. As a Jewish-American friend told me: “I love Israel with passion, but when I go there, I’m asked to leave my liberal values at the doorstep.” And he still carries the memory of the Holocaust and the days of the other Israel, that of pioneers and the Six-Day War.
More and more young American Jews, however, are just washing their hands of Israel. Netanyahu, who considers himself as a great maven in all things American, should have known better before adding another difficulty to the already shaky relationship between Israel and its American Jewish allies.
Netanyahu has already been leading Israel — by action and inaction — toward a bi-national state, where Israel will eventually have to choose between being Jewish or democratic. That is bad enough. To add to it a rift with American Jews, whose solid support has been one Israel’s most important strategic assets is really disastrous. I hope that in the General Assembly on Sunday, there will be enough Israelis who will tell their American Jewish comrades not to lose hope in Israel, and who will promise to work together with them for a change.
Uri Dromi is the director general of the Jerusalem Press Club.