Israel Pulse

Netanyahu unfaithful to Zionism vision

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Article Summary
By turning its back on Israeli Arabs and distancing Reform and Conservative Jewish communities, the Netanyahu government denies the fundamentals of Zionism.

Several days before the centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration that recognized the Jewish people’s right to a national home, a ruckus erupted over the absence of the word “Zionism” from the platform of the leftist Meretz Party. Leaders of this small party twisted themselves into knots trying to grab the stick at both ends: to assuage the concerns of its Jewish voters who define themselves as members of the “Zionist left” and to appease its Arab minority members who cannot bring themselves to sing the lyrics of an anthem that describes “a Jewish soul yearning.” The intense focus on the alleged “denial of Zionism” by the tiny opposition party swept under the carpet the government’s persistent denial of the foundations of Zionism.

Needless to say, an abyss lies between the outrageous warning by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on election day in 2015 against the “Arabs flocking in droves to the ballot boxes" and the Declaration of Independence. That 1948 founding Zionist document clearly states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Netanyahu’s refusal to include the word “equality” in the text of the Nationality law (emphasizing Israel’s Jewish character) that he is trying so hard to promote proves beyond a doubt that his apology to a group of Arab “dignitaries” — Israeli-Arab leaders hand-picked by Netanyahu’s associates for the occasion — over his despicable election-day ploy was in itself a reprehensible exercise in public relations.

Its attitude toward the country’s Arab minority is not the only way the Israeli government tramples the principle of religious equality. The Declaration of Independence states that the Holocaust “was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew.” However, the Israeli establishment at all levels widely opens the gates only to those considered Jewish according to the principles of Orthodox Judaism. Israel does not recognize the marriage of a Jewish man to a woman converted to Judaism by a Conservative rather than an Orthodox rabbi, or, heaven forbid, by a female Reform rabbi. Even at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the remnants of the ancient Jewish Temple sacred to Jews throughout the world, women are banned from donning a prayer shawl and saying the Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer).

It’s been almost two years since the government approved the establishment of an egalitarian prayer section for men and women at the southern end of the Western Wall for use by Jews of the Conservative and Reform persuasions. However, strong pressure by the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition convinced the government to go back on the commitment it made to a coalition of liberal Jewish groups in Israel and the United States, where they constitute a clear majority in the Jewish communities. The CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick, slammed the government’s reneging on its decision as “a betrayal of US Jewry.” During a Nov. 1 debate in the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, Rabbi Noa Sattath, one of the heads of the Reform movement in Israel, announced that the movement would not meet with the prime minister until it is convinced of his intention to fulfill the commitment he made.

On Nov. 14, Netanyahu is scheduled to appear via satellite at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly convening in Los Angeles. Prior to the announcement of his planned appearance, some media outlets reported that the prime minister would not address the assembly, possibly due to the deteriorating relationship with US Jewry. The president of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, briefed the Knesset committee about the sense of rage and insult among Jewish communities in the United States generated by Netanyahu’s conduct over the Western Wall. He warned that the discrimination against the central streams of American Judaism could alienate young Jews from Israel.

The contempt displayed by successive Israeli governments toward the liberal Diaspora communities is by way of shooting itself in an already injured leg. The comprehensive 2013 Pew Research Center study among American Jews showed that the American Jewish community — a stronghold of Israel’s support — is shrinking. Almost six out of 10 American Jews who were wed since 2000 married non-Jews (only 2% of those were Orthodox Jews). The survey also found that the level of support for Israel was significantly lower among those who described themselves as devoid of Jewish affiliation compared with those who defined themselves as “Jewish by religion.” Only 23% of those without Jewish affiliation had ever visited Israel (compared with 49% among the other group). It seems that the ongoing crisis between Israeli governments and Jews affiliated with the Reform and Conservative streams erodes their linkage with Israel.

Also indicative of the erosion of US Jewry’s affiliation with Israel is the persistent decline in the funds channeled by Jewish communities to Israel compared with the donations used for community needs. According to a recent Haaretz investigative report by Uri Blau, the percentage of funds donated by the federations to Israel is not more than 10% of the money raised.

The Birthright Israel Foundation funded by Jewish tycoons, chief among them Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, brings thousands of American students to visit Israel each year in order to strengthen their affinity for the Jewish state and mobilize their support for pro-Israel public diplomacy on US campuses. Last week, the organization reportedly decided to cut out of the program’s itinerary meetings between the Jewish students and Israeli Arabs. If these students don’t meet Palestinians, they won’t have to deal with questions of their liberal Jewish identity vis-a-vis the occupation policies of the Jewish state. If they only meet attractive Israeli soldiers, they won’t know that the state they are being asked to defend against activists of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is considered throughout the world as "a pariah state."

The main thrust of the Zionist vision was — and is to this day — to turn the State of Israel into the physical and spiritual center of all hues of world Jewry. The prime minister went to 10 Downing Street on Nov. 2-5 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration that recognized the land of Israel as the home of the Jewish people. Someone should have reminded him that the letter sent by then-Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour said His Majesty’s government looks favorably upon the establishment of a national home for all the Jewish people, not just for the Orthodox stream of Judaism — nor for only the nationalist one. A Jewish home not built on the foundations of democracy and equality is not a Zionist home.

Found in: reform judaism, arab israelis, zionism, benjamin netanyahu, balfour declaration, ultra-orthodox, us jews, conservative judaism

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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