The Lost Liberalism of Netanyahu’s Israel

Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel continues to become more and more intolerant both in its treatment of Palestinians and its attitude toward more liberal tendencies in Judaism, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

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.

President Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on May 22, 2017. (Screenshot from

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…

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