The Pluralism Conundrum


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was treated with kid gloves when he spoke last week via satellite to the General Assembly of Jewish federations. But nobody should be fooled by his vain promises of “progress” on pluralism.

With growing numbers of American Jews already losing a sense of Jewish peoplehood, the snubs to the movements that represent close to 90 percent of affiliated Jews is making an already serious problem worse. Netanyahu’s broken promise about change at the Western Wall and the lack of movement toward pluralism in Israel have exacerbated a growing divide between U.S. Jews and the Jewish state. But Jews here should understand that there is little chance Netanyahu or any of his potential replacements will do anything about it. That means that for all of their justified frustration, it’s time for those complaining to own up to the intractable nature of the standoff and to concentrate their efforts on influencing Israeli society rather than spouting off in a way that makes things worse.

As if to emphasize the scope of the problem, only two days after Netanyahu spoke, security guards at the Western Wall roughed up Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, along other rabbis from his movement when they entered the Kotel Plaza with Torah scrolls. The group was celebrating the ordination of the 100th Reform rabbi in Israel but the guards, likely acting on the orders of the charedi rabbis who run the Western Wall site, attacked them for having the temerity to treat a place sacred to the entire Jewish people as something other than an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.

While the Israeli courts have made it clear the Reform rabbis had every right to act as they did, the religious authorities have regularly defied the courts with impunity and groups of Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as the Women of the Wall organization, have been subjected to intimidation and even violence as they sought to assert their rights at the Kotel.

Yet, like Netanyahu’s decision made earlier this year to back away from the historic compromise plan for the Kotel originally proposed by Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky, there’s little that North American Jews can do about it except to make futile threats.

What most American Jews don’t understand is that in a country where there is no formal separation between religion and state, the government pays the salaries of rabbis. And where the government pays salaries, the question of who is a rabbi and related pluralism issues are inherently political. That means the Orthodox political parties that usually hold the balance of power in the Knesset can impose their will on any government.

That’s why Netanyahu’s decision to postpone implementation of Sharansky’s Kotel plan, which was first proposed during a rare two-year period from 2013 to 2015 when the charedi parties were not in the government, was simply a matter of coalition math and political survival, not ill will toward non-Orthodox Jews. Expecting Netanyahu or any of his rivals to lose office in order to please groups with no votes in the Knesset is unrealistic. While there is widespread dissatisfaction with a corrupt rabbinate that gives Judaism a bad name, most Israelis are still not interested in pluralism. What many want is civil marriage, not equal rights for denominations viewed as foreign imports.

This does not absolve Netanyahu of responsibility for trying to find a way to get around the rabbinate. He knows the alienation of North American Jewry hurts the Jewish state. And it’s especially wrong for the Orthodox to speak, as many do, of simply writing off the non-Orthodox with contempt as a lost cause because of assimilation or differences over the peace process.

But just as Israelis need to own their role in making this problem worse, American Jews must also realize that merely venting anger and making demands from afar will never work. The Reform and Conservative movements need to redouble their efforts to sell Israelis on both pluralism and the virtues of their brands of Judaism. Like it or not, until they build a bigger constituency there, expecting any prime minister to resolve this conundrum is the sort of magical thinking that will only further undermine what’s left of Jewish unity.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributing writer to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.