Diaspora Jews Won’t Force Netanyahu to Pay Any Price

The idea that the non-Orthodox segments of American Jewry—however incensed it is—will force Israel to pay a price for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of the Western Wall compromise is unfounded. Rather, a convergence of factors makes the bulk of the American Jewish community unwilling to put material pressure on Netanyahu. And since Netanyahu responds only to actual threats to his position, this means he can continue to thumb his nose at diaspora Jewry and focus on his own priorities: remaining in power and maintaining the status quo—with some increases in settlements—in the West Bank.

First, most American Jews do not donate funds or direct their political activity to Israel, but to specific ideological, cultural, religious, or policy causes in Israel close to their hearts. As Theodore Sasson, a prominent researcher of American Jewry, has noted, 78% of Jewish Federations’ campaign fundraising was allocated directly to Israel in 1967; that percentage fell to 23% in 2004. Funds have increasingly been oriented toward local Jewish communities. Filling the gap, today there are several “friends of” groups that direct their activities to, for example, universities, liberal causes, or the Israeli military. Orthodox and conservative Jews focus their donations on West Bank settlements or their religious kin.

Second, the Western Wall controversy is not a crisis in diaspora-Israel relations. To see what a real crisis looks like, one needs to go back to the “who is a Jew”? disputes of the 1980s and early 1990s. While Israel’s understanding of Jew uses both a religious (Orthodox rabbinical authorities control personal status issues in Israel) and a non-religious (the Law of Return allows for any Jew to become an Israeli citizen but there is no reference to religious determination) foundation, it also recognizes conversations to Judaism performed abroad. Jewish Orthodox parties have tried for decades to enshrine the religious definition—born to a Jewish mother or converted under Orthodox standards—in Israeli law.

In 1988 the Orthodox parties pushed for an amendment in the Law of Return that would stipulate Orthodox-approved conversions. What made such change more likely (it did not ultimately pass) was that in the aftermath of an election, Likud and Labor were jostling for support of the Orthodox parties and so trying to entice them with promises to pass (Likud) or review (Labor) such legislation. For American Jewry there was a real chance the status quo would change, which would directly affect American Jews who wanted to move to Israel. The scrapping of the Western Wall compromise means a return to the status quo, and does not materially affect diaspora Jews.

Yet as tense as those moments were, American Jews quickly rallied around Israeli governments and put aside their misgivings. They did so because events quickly became more important than intra-Jewish disputes: the First Intifada in 1987, the Oslo process in the mid to late 1990s, and the Second Intifada in 2000.

Third, American Jews are increasingly fractured in their attitudes toward Israel. But while criticisms of Israel by prominent Jewish leaders and headlines by an assertive grassroots movement against both the occupation of Palestine and the policies of the Netanyahu governments make it seem as though American Jewry is on the verge of breaking with Israel, the majority of American Jews want no such thing.

According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 66% of American Jews think security is Israel’s biggest long-term problem. In practice this has meant American Jews rally around Israel when its safety is under threat. This is what happened in 1967, 1990, 2000, and during the Gaza wars of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. In such moments diaspora criticism of Israel was muted or shouted down within the community.

None of the national Jewish organizations that consider themselves Zionist and are usually labeled “pro-Israel” want such a break, either. While they might disagree with and even publicly critique Israel on specific issues, advocacy that supports the existence of a Jewish state is part of their mandates—even the essence of their existence.

These reasons indicate that Israel under Netanyahu is unlikely to consider warm relations with American Jewry as a priority. The Islamic State, the Syrian war, the continuing Iranian threat, among other security concerns, are of much more immediate concern. In addition, Netanyahu and his rightwing government are keenly interested in either precluding the establishment of a Palestinian state or continuing to avoid negotiations that could lead substantively toward such an end—both policies that the non-Orthodox American Jewish population generally opposes.

Finally, political trends in Israel suggest that the left is not likely to win power in the near future. The right and the center, which leans right, are too strong.

The spate of illiberal bills and laws that Netanyahu has promoted, facilitated, or let pass combined with the breaking of the Wall compromise are proof that American Jews have less power over Israeli policy even on issues of great importance to them. Without an alternative to Netanyahu or his government, they have little leverage over either.

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