Mixed-gender prayer section controversy undercuts pro-Israel advocacy

Mixed-gender prayer section controversy undercuts pro-Israel advocacy
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U.S.-Israel relations took a hit after the Israeli government scrapped plans for a gender-mixed prayer section at Jerusalem's Western Wall, also known as the Kotel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government had committed last year to go ahead with the measure, which would allow men and women to pray together in a special section of Judaism's holiest site.

But the halt of those plans could have widespread impact.

"It causes a strain on America’s support [for Israel], especially among young people," said Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress. 

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At the center of Netanyahu's decision -- technically a choice of Orthodox-style prayer over the practices of Conservative or Reform Judaism -- is his Likud party's alliance with ultra-Orthodox parties.

Likud holds only 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, but it controls a 66-seat majority government through those alliances.

In Israel, 22 percent of Jews are Orthodox and tend to vote in bloc, but in the United States, only 10 percent are Orthodox, according to the Pew Research Center.

And politically, American Jews tend to be much more liberal than Netanyahu's governing alliance.

That's made Netanyahu's decision a difficult pill to swallow for U.S. advocates.

"The politics in Washington on Israel are getting much more difficult," Rosen said. 

Pro-Israel advocacy groups have long operated on the notion that American support for the country, deeply rooted in direct support from the U.S. Jewish community, is essential for the security of the Jewish State.

"I believe that the reason that you have a majority of Americans supporting Israel is because what Americans know of Israel is it’s a country of shared values, democracy in a region where it stands out amongst all others, and it makes a great deal of sense to support that country," he added.

But with the Jewish Diaspora growing more secular and liberal, Israel is finding more resistance to its civil- and human-rights records among global Jews.

"You could hardly find a better way to drive a wedge between Israel and the world’s Jewish community," wrote Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist, in a Washington Post op-ed.

Yet Netanyahu's calculation seems to have more to do with local politics than with Israel's place in the world. While all Jews have the right to become Israeli citizens, neither Jews in the Diaspora nor Israelis have the right to vote while abroad.

For Rosen and many other pro-Israel advocates, that amounts to a miscalculation, given the importance of American support for Israel.

"How many people can differentiate between the decisions on the Kotel and the [ultra-Orthodox]?

"[Few] of us understand why this is more of a political act than an act of going with the majority of Israelis or diaspora Jews, no one’s going to understand that," he said.

The American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) dispatched President Lillian Pinkus and CEO Howard Kohr to meet with Netanyahu to protest the move last week.

“The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” American Jewish Committee (AJC) Executive Director David Harris told The Jerusalem Post.

“This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”

U.S. Ambassador David Freidman stopped short of criticizing the measure, but called for all parties to "resolve this matter consensually."

U.S. support for Israel extends far beyond the Jewish community and has traditionally been a bipartisan issue, but Rosen said decisions like Netanyahu's reversal on mixed prayer make it increasingly difficult to engage progressives.

"Especially in the Democratic Party we see a group of progressives whose support for Israel we’re losing," he said.

Rosen said advocates must teach Americans and political leaders where a most Israelis stand on the issue. 

"This is not the decision of a majority of Israelis, it’s a political maneuver," he said.