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Bnei Brak and Washington

During the course of a single cabinet meeting last summer – at which it decided to back out of the Western Wall arrangement and to entrench the ultra-Orthodox-dominated rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion – the government dealt a lethal blow in no fewer than seven weighty strategic matters.

We have known about six of them for some time: the government turned the Western Wall – the heart of the pan-Jewish consensus – into a scene of a continuing dispute; it undermined the religious freedom of Conservative and Reform Jews; it made clear, once again, that it is helpless when it comes to setting limits to the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) sector’s unreasonable demands with regard to the Israeli public space, leaving itself open, along with the rest of us, to further surrender to them in other matters as well; it poured even more fuel on the raging dispute of the tense relations between religion and state in Israel; it severely disrupted the delicate system of balances between Jewish and democratic values, which are a fundamental element of Israel’s very existence; and finally, and of no less importance, it hurt in a truly unforgivable way the feelings of our sisters and brothers, the Jews of the Diaspora, for whom an important thread in their relations with the nation-state of the Jewish people snapped in wake of the decision.

Were all this not enough, it now turns out that the government’s one senseless and close-minded blow has a seventh serious consequence. A new report issued by the Trump administration, which is as friendly as Israel has ever known, criticizes Israel on the grounds of its infringement of the freedom of religion. Prominent in the report is its criticism of the assault on religious pluralism in Israel, manifested in the reneging on the Western Wall arrangement and in the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversion. It turns out that Washington is deeply worried by Bnei Brak’s overwhelming influence on Jerusalem.

It is fascinating and painful to discover the extent to which we Israelis accept as a matter of routine what an outside observer sees as a pathological attack on human rights. Our ears hear the wakeup calls or even blaring sirens announcing the vast damage that is being wrought by our knuckling under to the Haredim in matters of religious freedom, but we yawn and roll over. The heads of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora refused to meet with Netanyahu and a significant segment of the institutional leadership of Diaspora Jewry is reconsidering their relations with Israel – but Israelis are apathetic. The government of Israel ignores the feelings and beliefs of millions of our brethren overseas, insults and humiliates them – and we are busy dealing with whether grocery stores can be open for business on Shabbat.

The government’s conduct and the public’s indifference have far-reaching implications – and not only from a utilitarian perspective. Diaspora Jewry’s economic, political and cultural contributions to the State of Israel are no longer guaranteed, but above all, the unity of the Jewish people around the globe as one nation is under threat.

Consider the following contradiction: On the one hand, the coalition in the Knesset is engaged in feverish debates to advance the passage of the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People, which would entrench the Jewish character of the state and includes clauses that refer to the country’s responsibility for and commitment to all members of the Jewish nation, even those who are not Israeli citizens. But that very same coalition is taking vigorous actions that rip away major segments of the nation, the Jews of the Diaspora, from their continued partnership with the nation fstate.

The corrosion in the relations between the two parts of the Jewish family in our generation, at the instigation of the Israeli government, is unpardonable. Perhaps the polished mirror that the Trump administration has held up to our face will make us aware just how ugly the picture is.

On second thought, the comparison between the Israeli government and the brave tailor who swatted flies does not really work. Courage is the last thing that the government is demonstrating in matters of religion and state.

The article was first published in the Jerusalem Report