Israeli Officials Let Down Guard On Trump, Kotel


Israeli leaders are tired of hearing the litany of complaints American Jewish leaders have about the growing rift in the diaspora-Israel relationship, with much of the blame directed at the Netanyahu government.

And yet, in a kind of candidness you hear only away from the glare of the cameras, they also understand how queasy the Trump-Bibi bromance makes many American Jews feel, and the policy implications that are at stake regarding the relationship.

Those are two of the takeaways I have from spending the last two weeks in Israel and talking to officials there, in mostly off-the-record conversations.

Yes, these officials will admit in private, we understand that many Conservative and Reform Jews feel like second-class citizens in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate, and that American Jews have a hard time seeing how our coalition politics — namely the clout of the charedi parties — upended the compromise agreements with diaspora leaders over easing conversion requirements and making the Western Wall area more open to egalitarian prayer.

Further, some officials say they understand that religiously and politically liberal Jews, who make up the great majority of American Jewry, are troubled when members of the Jerusalem government praise President Trump for his full-throated support of Israel while overlooking or dismissing his coarse behavior and divisive political style on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues.

“We get it, believe me, that many American Jews are upset when they see Trump and Netanyahu all smiles together, but in a real relationship [between diaspora and Israeli Jews], you have to listen to and understand our side, too,” an Israel friend in government told me last week in Jerusalem. He preferred to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize his job.

The great majority of Israelis are extremely grateful that Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he explained, and welcome the administration making good on an old but never-before-acted-on presidential pledge to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They can’t understand why so many American Jews don’t seem to appreciate the importance of those moves, as if anything Trump does must be bad. And we may not realize how hurt Israelis were when the majority of American Jews supported President Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which to many Israelis was a delayed death threat — a concession to a nuclear Iran in the not-too-distant future that could result in the destruction of Israel. No wonder many Israelis applauded Trump’s decision to tear up the agreement and take a tougher stand with the Iranian regime.

But I got the sense that a number of Israeli officials are more wary of Trump than they let on in public, recognizing that he is transactional — and can be mercurial — in his approach to complex foreign policy issues. Several officials emphasized Israel’s concern over the president’s unpredictability in foreign policy. What demands will be made in return for the U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Is Trump prepared to go to war with Iran — or encourage an Israeli attack — as tensions escalate?

There is worry that bipartisanship, a key to U.S. support for Israel, is endangered today in Washington in light of the warm Trump-Bibi relationship. And there is concern over how far out front of most of the international community the Israeli public is in its enthusiasm for Trump.

(A Pew Institute poll last month in 25 countries, including all of America’s key allies, found that Israel was second only to the Philippines in support for Trump. Sixty-five percent of Israelis expressed confidence in the president, compared to 30 percent in Japan, 28 percent in Britain and less than 10 percent in France and Germany.)

One specific criticism I heard is that some of the leaders of the liberal denominations in the U.S. have been too strident on the Kotel issue, insisting on an all-or-nothing approach rather than opting for incremental accommodations and building on them. Such an approach, I was reminded, worked for the Yishuv (the Jews living in pre-state Palestine) in creating the state as well as the settler movement in the West Bank after the Six-Day War. In this case, it can be argued, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements should take advantage of the egalitarian space at Robinson’s Arch, the southern area of the Kotel, and make a concerted effort to bring large numbers of liberal Jews from the diaspora to visit there regularly, not just for bar and bat mitzvahs. That could prove to Israeli legislators the growing need for more representation at the Western Wall.

Israelis are puzzled over why the Western Wall seems to be such an important issue to an American Jewry whose intermarriage rate is so high, particularly among young people who are less interested in synagogue and communal affiliation than their parents. Most Israelis see the Kotel as a place of worship for the fervently religious; for American Jews, the issue is more about equality than prayer — the belief that every Jewish should have a right to the same holy space.

Bibi’s No. 1 Concern

Prime Minister Netanyahu glossed over the Kotel controversy in an interview with Richard Sandler, the outgoing president of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), at the closing session of the group’s recent General Assembly in Tel Aviv. The most memorable moment came at the very end of their discussion when Netanyahu said his main concern for the future is the “loss of identity” among diaspora Jewry. He cited the need to develop ways to ensure the continuity of communities, promote Jewish education and the study of Hebrew, and continue to bring young Jews to Israel for programs like Birthright (for 10 days) and Masa (for extended stays). He quoted with approval a line from a recent JTA opinion piece that Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (Reform) of Manhattan wrote: “Those who are not concerned with Jewish survival will not survive as Jews.”

But there is frustration with Netanyahu among some who work in Israeli ministries and deal with diaspora dissatisfaction. They want to see the kind of strategic planning from the prime minister on issues of Jewish identity and unity that he has displayed on the security and diplomatic fronts with impressive results.

Does Netanyahu’s commitment to his No. 1 concern about the Jewish future outweigh his allegiance to the charedi parties in the coalition that keep him in office? The answer could come in seeing whether Netanyahu will support a move proposed this week by six Knesset members — including Michael Oren and Rachel Azaria of his Kulanu Party — to grant official government recognition to the non-Orthodox movements in the wake of the Pittsburgh shootings.

“Anti-Semitism won’t define us,” stated the six Knesset members in a statement. “It is time for a pact of brotherhood, rather than a pact of blood, among all the communities of the Jewish people.”

It is more than a shame that it takes a tragedy like the Pittsburgh killings to initiate a powerful call for Jewish unity. But it is never too late to do the right thing.