Out Loud

Netanyahu and the Kotel

13 July 2017

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s retreat from his commitment to allow a space for egalitarian prayer as part of the Western Wall plaza has alarmed many around the world. His retreat was a setback for religious freedom in Israel, especially as it was coupled with a decision to support legislation to further consolidate power over conversions in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox. His retreat also showed a brazen disregard to the values that he had personally endorsed when speaking to American Jewish audiences in recent years.

Those of us who have been paying attention to Israel in recent years have seen this type of thing happen before. We’ve seen Netanyahu boast of Israel’s status as the only democracy in the Middle East — only to see his government pass legislation that diminishes free speech, punishes dissent, and weakens the media.

We’ve seen Netanyahu speak passionately about his desire for peace — only to watch as he doubled down on settlement construction, both by massive expansion within existing settlements and by creating new official settlements for the first time since Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister.

Make no mistake. There is a link between these issues. Israel’s founders spoke of establishing a democracy that would treat all of its citizens as equals and that would make peace with its neighbors. And they immortalized these values in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Netanyahu and his political allies are betting that they can stay in power by appealing to a political camp that holds a different set of values: conformity over pluralism, nationalism over equality, and land over peace. And the policies that they endorse — from the Kotel, to the West Bank, to the Knesset — all reflect these priorities. None of us are surprised to read that Netanyahu’s cabinet, having frozen the compromise on the Kotel, is now putting the finishing touches on a “nation-state bill” that would set the stage for discrimination against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

It is the job of NIF, and our legion of partners, to resist these efforts and work to put Israel back on track to being a democratic society marked by equality, social justice, and religious freedom. And the truth is that we are up to the task.

Just as Netanyahu miscalculated the blowback from Israel’s friends around the world to his rollback of his Kotel compromise, he is misreading the Israeli public when he bets that they will continue to support his efforts to refashion Israel from a democracy into an ethnocracy.

And today, in the wake of the emotion that his Kotel stunt provoked, I believe that more and more supporters of Israel from around the world will look carefully at their philanthropy to make sure that the investments they make are clearly promoting a democratic, pluralistic Israel — an Israel that reflects their values. When they do so, our camp is sure to grow.