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Diaspora fury over Kotel ‘betrayal’ is futile: its influence on Israel is waning

Jews around the world are important to Netanyahu - but they cannot vote in the Knesset

    (Photo - MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

    On the morning after the Israeli cabinet’s decision to “freeze” the prayer-space agreement at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, little has actually changed.

    There is still a tidy wooden platform at the south-eastern end of the Herodian wall of the Second Temple compound, where “egalitarian”, “mixed” or progressive Jewish prayers can be held.

    The platform was erected four years ago as part of a compromise promoted by Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.

    Many diaspora Jewry leaders are, however, enraged by the “freeze” because it means that the agreement brokered in January 2016, whereby the “southern Kotel” would officially be administered in partnership with the progressive streams of Judaism and share a common entrance with the main Western Wall plaza, will not be going ahead.

    The outrage of the Woman of the Wall, and the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, is understandable. Under the agreement, the strictly-Orthodox rabbis were to retain religious hegemony of the main plaza, where only prayers conducted according to Charedi custom would be allowed, but the progressive groups’ presence at the wall, albeit a small section of it, would for the first time be officially recognised.

    The government and the Jewish Agency, which helped broker the agreement, then committed to spending millions on upgrading the Kotel.

    Now, after a year and a half of relentless pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu by the Charedi parties in his coalition, the agreement has been suspended indefinitely, and with it the recognition of the progressive streams.

    But short of expressing their outrage and cancelling a Jewish Agency board of governors’ dinner with the prime minister, is there anything they can do about it?

    The board of governors announced it was “re-evaluating” its relationship with the government. But this was an empty and ridiculous protest. The Jewish Agency’s historic role since Israel’s foundation - serving as a bridge with the diaspora, encouraging and facilitating Jewish emigration and supporting Jewish and Zionist education - has always been undertaken on behalf of the Israeli government. Severing its ties to the government would in effect mean dissolving itself.

    Likewise, it is hard to see how large Jewish organisations in the diaspora can “threaten” Israel. Of course, this development will likely dampen the enthusiasm of many individual Jews in the US and other countries to donate to Israeli causes and lobby on its behalf. But the prime minister has taken this into account.

    Mr Netanyahu’s political calculations are clear. The diaspora is important but it does not have any votes. This is why the influential US Reform and Conservative movements have failed to make inroads on any of the major issues of state and religion in Israel for decades.

    The strictly-Orthodox community may be small but its influence is concentrated in the Knesset parties of United Torah Judaism and Shas, integral parts of most Israeli coalitions for over three decades. If anything, the power of the diaspora has diminished in recent years.

    Once deemed as essential to Israel’s diplomatic and financial viability, the Jews of the diaspora - while retaining some of their value to Israel - have become less influential the more the Israeli economy has prospered.

    The same goes for their importance as lobbyists on behalf of Israel. As the United States has become less involved in the Middle East under former president Barack Obama and Israel has put more store on a range of alliances with Russia, India and even the “moderate” Arab states, it is less reliant on the nations where local Jewish communities have traditionally fought its corner.

    This is even more the case under President Donald Trump, who received the votes of less than a quarter of US Jews. Mr Trump’s Jewish supporters tend to be more right-wing and religious anyway, not those who care that much about progressive prayer rights at the Western Wall.

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