Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This week, Alpher discusses Israeli government decisions regarding conversion and egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, boycotts, withholding funds and cancelling visits - What factors are at work here; What is the role of the rise to power in Washington of a president who is not beholden to liberal American Jews and their values; what he means by "ignorance of America and US Jewry at the strategic level;" Netanyahu's supposed understanding of the United States and the American Jewish community better than almost anyone in Israel; how this connects to Israeli politics; where this will all lead; what Israel will look like if it really loses a significant portion of the support of the American Jewish community; and what's the bottom line?
Q. Israeli government decisions regarding conversion and egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall have triggered a crisis with the Jewish mainstream in the United States. Boycotts are in the air: withholding funds and cancelling visits. Did this happen because of Israeli politics? Israeli narrow-mindedness? What factors are at work here?
A. It’s definitely Israeli politics and narrow-mindedness. It’s also the prime minister’s surprising ignorance of America and US Jewry at both the tactical and the strategic levels. And it’s American politics, i.e., the rise to power in Washington of a president who is not beholden to liberal American Jews and their values.
Q. Let’s start with the last point, which has not echoed strongly in Israeli and American Jewish commentary on the crisis.
A. PM Netanyahu persuaded his coalition to create the Western Wall egalitarian prayer
space during the Obama administration. Last week, under Trump, Netanyahu revoked it--then, in view of the American
Jewish protest, froze it for six months (A six-month freeze on a volatile issue is hardly encouraging; it means
Netanyahu hopes the problem will just “go away” or be obliterated by the next election cycle). It stands to reason
that one of Netanyahu’s calculations in both cases involved American politics.
Back in Obama’s day, Netanyahu needed the liberal US Jewish majority on his side in case he wanted to apply pressure to an administration he did not get along with--regarding the peace process, Iran, or a critical Security Council resolution. Hence the concession regarding an egalitarian prayer section at the Wall. This was cynical Israel-US politics, which the ultra-Orthodox understood they had to accommodate.
Today, Netanyahu presumably calculates that liberal Jewish opinion in the US is not an important factor in Trump’s decision-making. On the contrary, Netanyahu needs the influence of Orthodox Jewry in America. Trump’s entire Israeli-Palestinian peace team is orthodox (Kushner, Greenblatt, Friedman). Accordingly, Netanyahu can cave to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition members without fear that this will somehow, via US Jewry, influence the Trump administration negatively.
Q. What are you referring to when you mention ignorance of America and US Jewry at the strategic level?
A. About 20 years ago I coined the term “strategic triangle” to describe the
relationship between the United States, US Jewry and Israel. It is not a symmetrical relationship: the United
States can manage without either Israel or the American Jewish community, but Israel needs both of its partners and
arguably so do American Jews.
Moreover, from Israel’s standpoint both of its partners in the triangle are linked. Israel’s ties to American Jewry are deeply dependent on its ties with America itself; its ties with the administration and Congress in Washington are deeply intertwined with its ties with the US Jewish community. This is why, from a strategic and even existential Israeli standpoint, Netanyahu is hurting Israel’s most critical interests: not just relations with American Jews, but the overall strategic link to America.
Q. But Netanyahu is supposed to understand the United States and the American Jewish community better than almost anyone in Israel. . .
A. Indeed, he spent his teenage years in the US, and later served in the US and at the
United Nations as an Israeli diplomat. Yet lately we have witnessed repeated gaffes by Netanyahu that appear to
reflect plain ignorance. He completely underestimated the capacity of the Obama administration to enact the Iran
nuclear deal, and added insult to injury by insisting on addressing the US Congress behind Obama’s back. He then
bragged publicly that he had woven a web of powerful international relations that would soon enable Israel to
neutralize international sanctions. That blew up in his face with the December 2016 Security Council resolution
condemning the West Bank settlements. Again Netanyahu was wrong, this time not only about the United States.
Now he has grossly misjudged the American Jewish community. Did he really think he could nullify thousands of conversions and prevent a large majority of US Jewry from praying at the Wall--insults heaped on top of decades of slights and unequal treatment of the American Jewish mainstream and its religious institutions--and get away with this behavior forever?
Q. Yet this is Israeli politics at work, too, right?
A. Of course. Having willingly opted to get into bed politically with the ultra-Orthodox
Knesset parties, Netanyahu had to deliver, particularly when he could no longer explain to them that he needed the
American Jewish mainstream in order to constrain Obama. This is an old political story in Israel. Those parties
that ostensibly are sympathetic to liberal US Jewry are not in the coalition. Nor are American Jewish issues
particularly high even on the political agendas of Labor and Meretz.
Interestingly, there are three parties in the coalition that have a political interest in rectifying matters. None are particularly enamored of liberal American Jewry--particularly its views on the peace process--but that is immaterial when it comes to political infighting.
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party represents a major portion of over one million Russian immigrants in Israel and their children and grandchildren. Roughly a third of them are not Jewish under Orthodox, or halachic, law. Many wish to convert but not to live afterwards as observant Jews. Yet that is what the ultra-Orthodox demand when they seek to place heavy restrictions regarding even which Orthodox rabbis are allowed to carry out conversions. If the ultra-Orthodox have their way, even Ivanka Trump’s conversion will be suspect. So Yisrael Beitenu, a right-wing hawkish pro-settler party, opposes what Netanyahu did.
Surprisingly, perhaps, so does Naftali Bennet’s HaBait HaYehudi party, which is Orthodox and made up largely of settlers. Bennet grew up Conservative in America. And while he is busy introducing ultra-nationalistic and Orthodox themes into the Israeli education curriculum, as a Zionist he opposes the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox and as an Orthodox politician he resents their influence. So while he is not loudly protesting the latest anti-liberal measures, he has taken his distance.
Finally, Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu party promotes an agenda that focuses on fiscal reform. It is relatively moderate on most other issues. But one of its members of Knesset, Michael Oren, has signed on as a deputy minister in the PM’s Office, promoting Netanyahu’s agenda. As an American Jew by origin, Oren is now stuck with the task of trying to work out compromise solutions on the conversion and Western Wall issues. Good luck.
Q. Where will this lead?
A. Where this particular issue will end up is difficult to say. Two of the factors
motivating all the political parties are elections and Netanyahu. The coalition is more than two years old and
after two years the clock begins to tick on any Israeli coalition’s lifespan. Then too, nearly everyone smells an
indictment of the prime minister on corruption charges sometime in the months ahead that could trigger elections.
Thus the ultra-Orthodox want to score points now with their electorate by getting their way regarding conversion
and the Western Wall. Kachlon has already begun a billboard campaign promoting his agenda. And Netanyahu will do
anything, then reverse himself and do the opposite, if he thinks this will prolong the life of his coalition.
Yet beyond the immediate issues of religion and politics, Israel is clearly becoming more religiously observant. All the polls indicate an increase in religiosity and in “traditional” practices and a decrease in the percentage among the population of atheists and the non-observant. Besides, there is no political party representing American liberal Jewish values nor is there likely to be, despite the modest aggrandizement in recent decades of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.
So unless Israel’s political leadership begins to display greater wisdom regarding the strategic triangle, the current crisis in Israeli-US Jewish relations is a harbinger of worse to come.
Q. Let’s assume that is the case. What will Israel look like if it really loses a significant portion of the support of the American Jewish community?
A. A major portion of the $1.8 billion contributed to Israeli causes by the American
Jewish community will cease to arrive. But that’s the least of it; Israel is today a prosperous country and it will
Of far greater importance is the damage to Israel-US relations. The pro-Israel lobby will lose its clout. Presidents and members of Congress won’t have to factor in the views of their influential Jewish constituents on issues relating to Israel. The most vulnerable issue would be American security support for Israel: this is existential from Israel’s standpoint.
Israel’s aspiration to speak for world Jewry would be severely damaged if it could not speak for the interests of the American Jewish mainstream. Equally troubling, a host of countries that cultivate ties with Israel because of its presumed influence in Washington would begin to recalibrate. (That this assertion bears a whiff of anti-Semitism is no coincidence; not a few foreign leaders in Israel’s neighborhood still seem to believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.) Then there are the services quietly provided to Israel internationally over the decades by influential American Jews and American Jewish organizations, e.g., investing in Morocco to facilitate Israeli-Moroccan ties and helping with the immigration of Ethiopian Jews.
The Birthright program would presumably collapse. This in turn would negatively affect Jewish identity among American Jewish youth, thereby weakening yet further their identification with Israel in a vicious cycle effect.
Who would speak up for Israel in the United States? Presumably, the Orthodox and the evangelicals. This in turn would push Israeli policies, particularly regarding the Palestinian issue, further toward right-religious positions.
Q. Your bottom line?
A. The Western Wall, like the eastern, southern and northern walls of the Temple Mount,
is merely a buttress that supports a plateau on top of which are two mosques holy to Muslims and inside of which
are the ruins of two Temples holy to Jews. Secular Israeli Jews have difficulty comprehending why their American
Jewish counterparts are making such a fuss about a religious ritual held facing the stones of the Wall when they
can freely go up on the Mount and stand where the Temple once was--something the ultra-Orthodox will never do.
Secular Israelis tend to be much more concerned regarding the conversion issue, which affects far more Israelis who
feel Jewish and who, perversely, need an official stamp of approval to actually “be” Jewish and intermarry with the
rest of us according to Jewish law.
This explains at least in part why the Reform and Conservative movements are unable to whip up any sort of broad grassroots protest in Israel. When secular Israelis do address the issue of the Wall, they resent the fact that, having been liberated in 1967 by primarily secular IDF paratroopers, it has been usurped by the ultra-Orthodox and turned into a place we are not comfortable visiting.
Most bothersome of all is the fact that our governments in Israel, always majority secular, have allowed all this to happen. Why have our prime ministers, going all the way back to Ben Gurion, yielded all this public space, given all these resources and made all these concessions to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox? Where are the alternatives? This is an issue to which both the Israeli majority (still, just barely!) and the American Jewish mainstream must devote some serious thought.