Paul Pillar

Why Religious Policies in Israel Matter to U.S. Gentiles

In recent weeks, the Israeli government has taken measures that have exacerbated tensions within world Jewry.  Each measure has reflected the political power of ultra-Orthodox parties within the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  One of the government’s moves was to suspend a plan to provide space for non-Orthodox men and women to pray together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Currently the main prayer plaza at this holy site is run in accordance with Orthodox practice and has separate men’s and women’s sections.  The other development was Netanyahu’s endorsement of a bill that gives the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment a monopoly in determining what conversions to Judaism should be recognized in Israel.

Most critical commentary in the United States about these developments has focused on them as an affront to Jews in the United States.  American Jews, a large proportion of whom belong to Reform or Conservative branches of the faith, constitute one of the two largest concentrations, along with the population of Israel, of Jews worldwide.  A theme of the commentary has been that the Israeli government’s moves might weaken support for Israel among American Jews, and that such weakening could lead in turn to a lessening of the large, automatic, material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel.  A further theme is an assumption that such lessening would be bad.

Non-Jews who do not live in Israel have no direct stake in the religious dimension of such controversies, and have little or nothing useful to say about that dimension.  To try to say something about it would make as little sense as non-Muslims lecturing Muslims about whether violence and extremism conform with Islam—although such lecturing often is attempted.  But the moves in question do involve important dimensions for anyone concerned about U.S. foreign policy.

Set aside for the moment how commentary that speaks of the political clout of American Jews in determining U.S. policy strays into especially sensitive territory—where, if a non-Jew enters that territory, one is apt to hear accusations of anti-Semitism.  There are, indeed, genuinely anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews supposedly controlling all sorts of U.S. policies.  In any event, the politics of U.S. backing for Israel is not just a function of American Jews, even insofar as religious motivations are involved.  Evangelical Christians can be at least as conspicuous in offering zealous and unqualified support for Israel.

That still leaves two other dimensions of foreign policy concern.  One involves the Israeli government’s persistent efforts to conflate its own objectives with the interests of Jews worldwide.  Netanyahu’s presumption to speak and act on behalf of Jews everywhere serves at least a couple of politically useful purposes.  It encourages the kind of support from the Jewish Diaspora that, although not the whole picture as far as support from the United States or other countries is concerned, is indeed a major part of such backing.  The presumption also enables Netanyahu or others to play the anti-Semitism card in response to criticism of Israeli government policies.

The conflation is false.  Israeli policies are the policies of a government, not the expression of a religious faith or an ethnic group or a global community with an identity forged by history.  To categorize any criticism of those policies as a manifestation of anti-Jewish prejudice is to say that such policies should never be subject to criticism; that would be neither good for Israel nor good for the policies of other countries toward Israel.  To find fault with policies of Iran or Saudi Arabia—states that also define themselves in terms of a specific religion—is not necessarily anti-Islamic.  To find fault with policies of Israel is not necessarily anti-Jewish.

The controversies about conversions and about prayer at the Western Wall place in stark relief the separation between the Israeli government’s policies and the interests of Jews worldwide.  Not only are the two not equivalent; the specific policies of the Israeli government have made the two contradictory in some respects.  And this is true not only about the ability of non-Israeli Jews to pray at a holy site in accordance with their own customs or to be recognized as a Jew when in Israel.  Netanyahu's posture toward attacks by the right-wing government of Hungary against the Jewish, Hungarian-born, American financier George Soros provides another illustration of Netanyahu’s priorities.  Netanyahu overturned an earlier Israeli foreign ministry statement that had condemned the attacks as contributing to anti-Semitism in Hungary, preferring instead to reaffirm his own government’s attacks on Soros because of the financier’s support for organizations critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and of its government’s discrimination against non-Jewish citizens.

The implications of this divide include not only the one for Jews that their interests are not to be equated with the policies of Israel, but also the one for non-Jews that respect for Jews and Judaism does not require deference to those policies.

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