Analysis from Israel

I supported the compromise, though as an Orthodox Jew, my reasons were different from those of most American Jews. Nevertheless, I feel the government’s decision to scrap the deal was defensible, but not for any reason involving American Jewish attitudes toward Israel.

One crucial fact underlies both halves of my position. Many of the American Jews who care most about the Kotel compromise and were most hurt by its cancelation are among the most genuinely pro-Israel members of America’s non-Orthodox community. These are people who tirelessly work to bolster support for Israel worldwide and donate generously to Israeli hospitals, schools, ambulance services, and more from which Israelis benefit.

Most anti-Israel American Jews (and that includes some who like to call themselves “pro-Israel”) don’t care much about the Kotel compromise. See, for example, Simone Zimmerman of IfNotNow, who termed it “obscene” that American Jews are upset about the Kotel when, in her view, they should be focusing on “the occupation.” The growing ranks of the indifferent also don’t care; they’ll probably never visit Israel anyway.

So who does care? People like David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, who issued a statement last week “decrying” the decision to freeze the compromise. This week, nine UN ambassadors toured Israel on a trip organized by the AJC. Among other things, they visited the City of David to gain an understanding of the Jews’ deep roots in Jerusalem—an obviously timely effort given the recurring Palestinian efforts to pass UN resolutions denying these roots.

Or take Lynn Schusterman, one of 65 American Jewish philanthropists who signed a newspaper ad last week protesting the cancellation of the compromise. This week, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is hosting a group of university professors in Israel for a training program to help them combat anti-Israel agitation on campus. The foundation also supports numerous Israeli charitable endeavors, like the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which has brought new life to the capital.

Granted, backers of the compromise also include a nontrivial number of people who show their “love” for Israel mainly by badmouthing it and supporting anti-Israel organizations. But many of the people most deeply hurt by the decision are people like Harris and Schusterman, who work indefatigably both to promote Israel’s cause abroad and to make life better for Israelis at home.

That brings us to my specifically Orthodox reason for supporting the compromise—the importance of hakarat hatov, or gratitude. I think American Jews should help Israel, because Israel is vital to the Jewish world and because all Jews are family. But familial relations are a two-way street, and even within a family, it’s important to show gratitude for assistance rendered when possible.

Often, it isn’t possible, because American Jews want many things Israel can’t afford to give. Israel can’t make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians just to please American Jews, nor can it magically fight wars with no civilian casualties. Concessions on conversion—another hot-button issue for non-Orthodox Jews—are also difficult. As long as converting to Judaism confers an automatic right of Israeli citizenship, the state must retain some control over the conversion process to retain control over immigration.

But since the Kotel was a rare issue on which Israel could afford to give American Jews something they wanted, it should have seized the opportunity. Even if you believe, as I do, that Orthodoxy has a much better track record than Conservative and Reform Judaism at preserving the Jewish people over time, the compromise sacrificed no vital interests.

The Kotel isn’t and never was a synagogue—in Jewish tradition, worship belongs on the Wall’s other side, aka the Temple Mount—so there’s no compelling religious argument for insisting that the entire plaza be under Orthodox supervision. Indeed, that’s why both the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties and the Kotel’s rabbi initially approved the compromise before backtracking under pressure from Haredi zealots.

Nevertheless, I feel that canceling the compromise was defensible, due to another value I hold dear: democracy. By definition, democracy involves messy compromises among groups with very different interests, and often, these compromises are made through political horse-trading. Each group concedes on issues it cares less about to obtain support for those it cares more about.

That’s exactly what happened in this case. The Haredi parties have little interest in nonreligious issues, but they cared greatly about killing the Kotel compromise. So they threatened to quit the government—thereby depriving it of the majority it needed to continue its foreign, economic, and defense policies—unless the government scrapped the Kotel compromise. Since the non-Haredi parties all care more about foreign affairs, defense, and economics, they made the deal the Haredim demanded. The Kotel isn’t most Israelis’ top policy priority.

American Jews talk a lot about the importance of democracy, but, if you value democracy, then you have to accept democratic decisions even when you don’t like them. And you have to accept the fundamental democratic principle that numbers matter. People who live and vote in Israel in large numbers, as the Haredim do, will always have more clout in Israel’s democratic process than people who don’t, like Reform and Conservative Jews.

But whatever clout American Jews do have is diminished when Israelis perceive them as turning away from Israel, because if their support seems to be slipping away in any case for reasons beyond Israel’s control, then any government has less incentive to accede to their demands. And that’s not my personal opinion; it’s simply a fact.

Originally published in Commentary on July 5, 2017

2 Responses to Gratitude, Democracy, and the Western Wall

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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